I graduated from the MSt in 2014, and took another eighteen months to finish my first fiction manuscript. It involved a few dramatic decisions (saving hard for a year so as to afford a six month break from work; leaving the country; writing full-time) but in January 2016 I found myself submitting query letters and partial manuscripts to agents in the UK. Six weeks later, I was signing an Agency Agreement with Sue Armstrong at Conville&Walsh. It’s been a fantastic process, but a real learning curve, particularly in some of the following areas:
- The Polished Part vs. the Scruffy Whole – a common mistake in debut writers who think we are at the manuscript submission stage when we’re not, quite. Your opening chapters are likely to be awesome. They’re polished and primed to within an inch of their lives for tutorials, competitions and work-shopping. But what I learned after the first two agents passed on my full manuscript was that I hadn’t held the rest of my novel to the same sort of account. Agent Jo Unwin says, ‘Use it or lose it,’ and if something isn’t actively serving a purpose in pushing the story forward, then do the latter. It may involve killing an angel, and cutting your dreamiest passage of prose in the interests of upping the ante with pace and narrative traction, but steel yourself to be brutal.
- Synopsis – about as exciting in some respects as Maths homework, but ironically the most important part of your submission as it will be the first bit to be seen. Each agent is different, and agents themselves are different to competitions (Lucy Cavendish Prize, etc) but on balance, aim for a page and do include the big plot spoilers, whilst trying to maintain the hook of a book-jacket blurb. You will probably end up doing this part ten or twenty times. It’s worth leaving in a drawer to brew and then looking at again in a few days. Really. Sit on your hands. Disable your wi-fi. Euan Thorneycroft at AM Heath suggests getting someone else (a beta reader) to write it for you. Whatever you do, do not submit until it’s perfect!
- First batch of queries – compile this carefully. If I were going to do it again, I would draw up two equal lists of ten-to-twelve agents I was really excited by, but trying to keep my Dream Team Ten equally spread through the two lists. I would then submit partial manuscripts to one list at a time.
- Once you start to get requests for full manuscripts, notify everyone to whom you initially sent a partial. This is important: it is a courtesy but also a heads-up, and will probably bring your submission to the top of most agents’ lists. You should do the same once you get your first offer of representation. Keep everyone in the loop.
- The Waiting. This is the worst part of the whole process. You may get an agent ping back to you in twenty-four hours asking for a full ms, and then hear nothing for a fortnight or more. For the record: the agent I signed with read the partial over a weekend, asked me for the full on Monday and called me in on the same Friday. Things can move quickly if someone is genuinely in love with your book, but don’t assume slowness is lack of interest. Remember, agents have to prioritise their existing clients’ manuscripts and edits over unsolicited submissions.
- The Second Date Brush Off – inevitably, some agents who request your partial will pass on your full. Agent Jo Unwin reassures writers that in the same way that you yourself wouldn’t read everything in any given bookshop, agents are the same. ‘There are plenty of amazing books out there that I’m ever going to get around to reading,’ she says
- Offers of representation – getting that email or phone call will, if you’re like me, make you feel like a teenager again. But as Clare Morgan advised me, ‘They (agents) are courting YOU,’ and you want to make sure this really is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Your book is your baby, and your agent is going to be a weird combination of teacher, sitter and nanny. Some questions to ask:i) What is their vision of the book and its place in the market? Can they think of ‘comps’ for editors (eg comparable books to yours)?
ii) Which editors do they have in mind for it? (I was impressed with one agent being able to think for about ten seconds and then name three or four particular editors whom she thought might like the book.)
iii) Do their suggested edits (if any) ‘feel’ right?
iv) Are you comfortable with them? Is the ‘chemistry’ right? One agent I met with just made me feel anxious. I felt I wouldn’t be able to hold my own in a discussion and might end up getting pushed in a direction which didn’t feel right.
- Choosing. Once an agent has made you an offer, you don’t have to accept or reject it straight away. One agent I spoke to said he had an offer still under consideration with an author six months later, although, understandably, he didn’t seem overwhelmingly thrilled about this! When I asked him what was normal, he suggested a response within two weeks is about right, but everyone will be different.
- Moving forwards. Once you have read through the agency agreement, checked or clarified anything you’re not sure about, and signed, you should let everyone else in your submission list know of your decision. Be courteous, thank agents who have taken the time to read and given feedback. Don’t bad-mouth anyone, ever. It’s a very small world out there….
- Crack open the champagne and get very excited. The real work starts here…!
Alex Coulton graduated from the MSt in Creative Writing in September 2014. In July 2015 she gave up teaching to focus on her writing. ‘Worse Things Happen At Sea’ is her first fiction manuscript, and she is now represented by Susan Armstrong at Conville&Walsh.