So this time around I signed with an agent. It was interesting to look back at previous submissions and think about what I did differently. Apart from one thing, it wasn’t that easy to see exactly what that was.
My first novel was short listed by Virgin Publishing’s Virgin Worlds imprint (Remember that? If so, you must be the other guy.) For a brief while I thought I’d made it, and in the months that followed their letter I started writing another novel. Then Virgin wrote to me again: the imprint was closing. From being up, I was more than down. I looked at that first novel again – a fantasy of clashing empires, peaceful explorers, a dying tyrant, dark and dirty evil magics, and a balloon. Even though it had been accepted by a publisher, my confidence in it was gone, I was dissatisfied. I thought it needed more work, a lot of work. I’d seen the first signs of other writers I knew getting locked into re-writing one novel forever. I didn’t want to fall into that trap so I put it aside and carried on with the second one, a contemporary fantasy of mermaids and private detectives, undersea monsters, witches and cats, and saving the world.
When that was sent out it gathered a few encouraging rejections. I reworked it and got a few more. I felt I was getting nowhere. I had to try harder. So I put that one aside too, and threw myself into what, in my hubris, I told myself would be the one they could not ignore: near-future SF, a talking car with a boot full of drug-contaminated money, gangsters, mad presidents, runaway consumerism and nuclear war.
I believed in this one, I’d pushed myself harder than I ever had before. The book was demanding to write in its intricacy and invention (well, it was for my little brain). When it was done I worked as hard as I could to find it a home. I did my research, I checked the agencies and agents, their reputations, what genres they liked, how they liked to be queried. I put together my submission packages and emailed or posted them. And they all came back, or were simply ignored. Novel number three gained 136 rejections over two years and taught me some hard lessons about expectations. This was the closest I ever came to giving up.
A chance meeting with Colin Tate at EdgeLit led to this novel being published by Clarion Publishing as Shopocalypse. I had some fantastic blurbs form some seriously good writers, we gave the book a great launch party, it collected a some good reviews, and the inevitable 1-stars on Amazon (OK, so the USA were the bad guys, but it had a talking car!) I was told it had some fans in the Clarke Awards.
Still no agent. Meanwhile I’d been writing another book .
At this point I should probably explain why I wanted an agent. When I first started submitting novels, self-publishing was but a twinkle in the internet’s pre-pubescent eye. These days it has morphed into a great option for some projects. And the small press is fantastic, there are many talented and hard-working people working there. Over the past few years there has been a real renaissance in quality online magazines, and print and e-book anthologies, collections, and novels too. Nevertheless, an agent can still help in many important ways. Many major imprints are closed to unagented work (or respond hopelessly slowly), there are foreign and other rights, contract negotiations, career advice, and more. Victoria Strauss at the SFWA puts it very well here.
Writing those first three books taught me a lot. In particular, writing Shopocalypse taught me about working hard, then harder. Their 385,000 words taught me about writing novels, and I’d learned more about the world of publishing. One thing I came to understand was that what you wanted to write, which may be a perfectly good book, may not be what mainstream publishers want to see. Therefore, it’s unlikely that an agent will be interested either. Another was that writing a synopsis is a very different skill to writing fiction, and you need to master it. One thing you can do is to write the synopsis in the style of the book – give it some energy.
I’d also been to cons, I’d met people. Sometimes just to say ‘Hi’, others I got to lean on the bar with, chat, and swap pints. I went to the Milford critique group, which is where I met Jaine Fenn , who later introduced me to Colin at EdgeLit more or less by breezing past and waving. (She really didn’t like the work I took to Milford, by the way). My writing group asked agents, writers, and editors to come talk to us. Just about everyone agreed to, and nobody asked for expenses. That’s another thing I found out – genre fiction is full of nice people, from fans to authors, agents, and editors. I think the reason for this is that almost everyone starts out as a fan.
I sent my fourth novel out to the five agencies that I knew something about. I knew I would be very happy to work with any of them. Some I’d met, some I’d exchanged emails with, others I knew by reputation. At least one had seen all my previous work and turned it down. I had no expectations things would be different from previous submissions. After two days I had a request for the full MS. Two weeks later I had an offer of representation, which I accepted, and I could not have been happier.
There was no great plan. I just wrote the books I wanted to write using the ideas that excited me, then I sent them out. What did I do differently this time? All the books had been through a similar writing process, a similar critique and review process at the writing group. Before writing this I looked back at those old query letters and synopses. They looked OK. The later ones were better than the first, but the earlier ones were OK – after all, the first one I ever wrote got me that almost-deal with Virgin Worlds. This really made me think.
It was in the books where the difference lay. Those first two really did need some work. In the end it seemed it all came down to one thing: I wrote a better book.
Is there anything you can do wrong during submission? Beyond not providing what you’re asked for, and not behaving courteously, I don’t think there’s much. A poor query letter can probably blow your chances with those US agents who insist your letter and nothing else must be your first contact. Personally, I think that’s a crazy way to run a railroad, but US agents are very successful. There is plenty of good advice on how to write these letters, so track it down and follow it. Apart from that, here are my own suggestions:
- Keep your submission letter to one page, your synopsis to two.
- Mention relevant achievements such as awards and publications.
- Don’t squeeze the font size in your synopsis too hard, people notice!
- Use standard formatting.
- Pay attention to specific format/style requests from individual agents.
- Publishers like series, so think about this and sketch out ideas for sequels. Mention them in your submission. I appended mine to the end of the synopsis.
- Don’t write your query and send it off straight away. Put it aside at least overnight, then look at it again.
Apart from that? I don’t believe you need a writers group – some people manage perfectly well without them, or test readers. I think my group helped me. I constantly tweaked and tuned my submissions for the first three books, but I’ve no evidence it made the slightest difference. There are few short-cuts and no magic buttons – and why would you want there to be? There’s no sure-fire guaranteed way to wangle an agent without doing the one thing they need you to do. Some people connect with their first book, others write a dozen. All I can say is this: write a book, write the absolute best one you can. And if that doesn’t work, write a better one.
Article previously published in Focus #64 (Summer 2015), the British Science Fiction Association’s Magazine for Writers.