As mentioned in Part 1, this is a history of how I found an agent and later a publisher. One of the reasons for writing this is to try and dispel the myth that continues to circulate that in order to succeed in getting published you need to have connections and friends in the business. This is not true and I am proof of that. There are many other examples out there as well. I was picked out of a slush pile.
This post will focus more on my specific approach to contacting an agent, detailing our initial messages back and forth, my initial submission email, and what happened after.
Part 1 details my long history of the many years I spent trying to get an agent and the many rejections I received from agents. What I didn’t mention or highlight, but if you are a writer who has been rejected then you know it already, is the agony. The pain of rejection, the fear, the constant questioning of self and your ability, the depression, the misery, the ups and downs and the tears. You’ve poured countless hours into something only for someone to say no. It hurts. It hurts a lot. If it doesn’t hurt then I would be worried because it suggests you don’t care about it.
Also if you are a friend, family member or partner of a writer then you’ve gone through all of this with them, usually for years. I sympathise and I thank you all for your patience and understanding, as it is not easy. Being rejected a lot takes a toll, sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, but it always hurts and it is incredibly difficult to get back up, dust yourself off and try again. But I did it because the alternative was to stop writing and stop trying, and that was never really an option for me.
So, all of that brought me to a point in my life when on 28th April 2013 I sent out an email to an agent with the first three chapters of my epic fantasy novel.
Writing a synopsis is painful. I hate it with a passion. Trying to sum up 130 thousand words in a page or two is difficult. I still don’t like it. Now I had to take that and cut it down even further and try to explain what the novel was about in a short email. I didn’t tell her what happens in the novel and list the events, e.g. Jim goes on a quest to find a magic sword, going from Blahdeblah-land to Zibbleland, because that doesn’t tell her what the story is actually about, only what happens. Is it a coming of age story? Is it a revenge story? Is it a romance? Sometimes you may not even know what the novel is about until you’ve written it. You may have an idea, somewhere in the subconscious part of your mind, or you may not. That may come out during the writing process.
In my email I described some of the world, gave very brief info on the points of view, highlighted that I’m deeply embedded in the fantasy genre, so if there is something that looks like a trope, it’s probably there on purpose because I want to take it and do something new with it. Tropes can be twisted, remade, repurposed. For example, if I said the novel included a grumpy and powerful wizard, a dangerous warrior and a noble, all tropes in themselves, am I talking about Lord of the Rings, or Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy?
Below is a copy of my original email to Juliet Mushens of The Agency Group. I’ve taken out a couple of bits, to avoid spoilers and because the title has changed several times since.
Dear Ms Mushens,
Please find attached for your consideration the first three chapters of my epic fantasy novel, [title].
It is a story about power and the death of magic. I wanted to explore how different people react to power, be it sovereign or magical, and look at how they cope; from people who inherit it against their will, to those who covet it and will do anything to keep it.
Set against the backdrop of what is in essence a first world war, the story is told from three main viewpoints, the leaders of the defending nation, which allowed me to explore the politics and strategy, the front line squaddies and their daily challenges, and the Battlemages, powerful magical outsiders who are both feared and respected. A fourth minor viewpoint focuses on espionage and attempts by undercover agents to unravel the war away from the battlefield.
The title of the novel references several strong themes in the story, including [removed to avoid spoilers].
I’ve been a fantasy reader all my life, and have knowingly used several fantasy tropes, but have hopefully given them an interesting and often tragic twist. The story contains strong women, black humour and it subtly looks at several issues.
[title] is 130 thousand words long, the first in a planned series of three, but each novel is a standalone story, with some threads that carry over into the next.
Below is a short blurb, and if you require any more information please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for considering my work.
[Below are Juliet’s comments]
Stephen’s covering letter was succinct, punchy and interesting. He summed his book up in a brief way, he nodded to some things I like – realistic portrayals of women and black humour – and his blurb really made me want to read the book. Battlemages! Spies! A psychotic and powerful magician!
People often think they have to make their cover letter whacky and show their personality, but often those can come across badly. Stephen’s letter was professional and told me everything I needed to know.
I was hopeful when I turned to the first three chapters and he had me from the get go. He had drawn his world well – it felt familiar yet fresh – and his characters were intriguing and well-rounded. Often I feel that novels start before they should: you get pages of the character on a journey, or waking up, or starting their morning routine. But the novel threw us right into the action, meeting a battle-scarred man named Vargus and managing to convey a lot about the backdrop to the novel through action and dialogue. It was polished and compelling.
On 16th May 2013 I received the following response from Juliet.
Hi can you email me the full ms please?
I was excited and nervous and scared. But this wasn’t a yes. This was a request for a bit more. I’d read countless stories from people who have sent in full manuscripts and still been rejected. I’d read there are lots of reasons for this, including the first three chapters are sometimes the best and most polished and the rest of the book isn’t ready. Another reason for rejection is that sometimes people send in a submission and have only written the first few chapters in full and none of the rest of the book. This is a horrible and stupid thing to do.
I can sort of understand the logic, the fear of time wasted writing a whole book only for it to be rejected. So why bother? Therefore, only writing the first few chapters saves time, right? Because if they like the first three chapters, then you can write the rest once you get a thumbs up and that will be fine, right? Wrong. Totally wrong. Finish the book. Doing it this way will piss people off, and it may burn bridges in the future. The industry is small, the odds of being picked up are smaller and there isn’t an endless supply of agents, so don’t piss them off and reduce your odds even further by doing something stupid.
I kept my email back to Juliet short, professional and to the point. She wasn’t my friend because of one email and this is still business, so I treated it like any other email for my day job with a new correspondent. If she needed anything else I asked her to let me know.
Below is a copy of the email that I sent on 16th May 2013. I sent it off, knowing it could be months before I received another reply, so I tried not to check my email every ten seconds and get on with my life.
Dear Ms Mushens,
As requested, please find attached a copy of the full manuscript for [title].
If you require any more information, please let me know.
When I get to read manuscripts depends a lot on my schedule. Some days I get absolutely no reading done, sometimes I have lots of plans in evenings and weekends which also puts me behind. But luckily for Stephen, I fell ill with a nasty cold and couldn’t go to work. I didn’t feel well enough for daytime TV, so I thought I’d have a quick flick through the full manuscripts I’d been sent, and Stephen’s caught my attention.
Something unfortunate happened which turned out to be lucky for me. A few days after I sent in my full manuscript Juliet became ill which meant she had to stay at home. As it happens it meant that she read my novel in one day. On 20th May, just four days later I received a reply from Juliet, posted below. Again a few bits have been removed to avoid spoilers.
Thanks so much for sending me this. I really, really enjoyed it. You have created a richly imagined fantasy world, which pays homage to many of the greats yet still feels fresh and original. I loved a lot of the characters too (Vargus is my favourite) and the idea of [spoilers].
I think it needs work – the pacing lags in places, your women need depth and more prominence, and Balfruss needs to be fully realised – but I’d be keen to represent you and work with you to sell this. You show a gift for storytelling that I see only rarely, and this kept me occupied on a day of being in bed ill which is no mean feat!
Are you able to come to London at all this week or next? I’d like to chat in person about my editorial thoughts for shaping the book and answer any questions you have.
I don’t call in many full manuscripts a year, but those I do call in are often passed on for similar reasons – a lack of pace, a story that plateaus, characters I stop caring about, or just feeling very rushed compared to the first three polished chapters. But Stephen showed a real gift for storytelling. Through a 130,000 word manuscript he sustained my interest, he made me care about the characters and he made me invest in the stakes of the novel. I found myself noting down my thoughts as I read, where it needed depth, where I thought he needed to slow down, or cut, or expand. I only ever do this if I am very engaged with a book. By the end of the novel I felt very excited about the book. I could already visualise who to submit the novel to, and was confident in placing it with a publisher.
I always like to meet an author before we start working together. If I had sat down with Stephen and said, ‘I think it needs x, y and z’ and he had said ‘no way!’ then we would not have been the right partnership. I wanted to make sure that we would get on well together and have a shared vision for the book. Luckily, we were very much on the same page – Stephen was receptive to my comments and we came up with a plan of action to start work on them. I also liked Stephen, which helps! I felt we’d get on well. Working with an agent has hard times as well as good, and it’s important to feel like you are a team.
I took a day off work and went down to London to meet Juliet. We met at her office and talked through her comments. We went back and forth on the ideas, I made notes and came away feeling energised and keen to make the novel better.
In January 2014, Juliet and her assistant Sarah felt the novel was ready to go out on submission. By this point I had revised it several times.
Stephen worked really hard on the novel, and in the meantime I’d been pitching it to a couple of publishers. One in particular, Jenni Hill at Orbit, was very excited to see it, and she ended up buying the trilogy. But that’s a story for another day…
Battlemage, the first in a trilogy, will be published next year by Orbit. It will have been fifteen years since I started trying to get an agent and I will be 38 years old.