1: Attracting a literary agent

In three blog posts, CSJ Hannon blogs about how he got an offer from an agent, deciding to sign & what has happened since.

Post one: Attracting a literary agentIanDodds_Final_Perry_Web_Cover

Once I had a finished draft of my first novel Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, I knew the time had come to research agents, send off proposals and query letters…except I didn’t do this at all. When trying to distil my novel down to a one-sentence hook and trying to write a compelling synopsis, I realised that the book just wasn’t good enough to be a commercial success. For years I’d written this thing and only now do I realise that it’s not a compelling proposition? Hard though this was to choke down, I didn’t waste time, energy or effort trying to find a publisher or agent for it. I self-published it so at least i could show family and friends what i’d been up to over the last five years of ‘writing’. I then used all I’d learned through the experience to write another. Within two months, I’d finished Orca Rising – the first novel in a potential trilogy about a clever British teen who gets seduced into the world of international assassinhood.

I felt differently about this one, it had pace, flow and was funny in places and I decided that yes, this one was worth pursuing. I got a list of all the Young Adult (YA) agencies, ignored their pleas to be approached one at a time and not carpet bombed – as far as I was concerned I wanted to give my book the best chance and send it to as many agencies as possible, to multiply my options. I would recommend doing this but in a staggered way: send to five agencies, wait six weeks, another five and so on – write something else in the meantime. Reason being, if one agency says no but gives you some helpful feedback (e.g. the start is too slow) you get the chance to change it and amend your proposal to the next set of agencies. It’s a slower process but the waiting can actually help in other ways: you lose your attachment to that one book and get some creative distance; your cover letters will get better; you get to write something new and fresh. If you send it all of in one go then you forfeit the chance to do that.

I think I wrote twenty different cover letters until I felt I had it right, I rewrote my synopsis three times. I tweaked the first three chapter samples too, hoping there was some magic combination that would work. Writers often complain about the dreaded query letter and synopsis. Yes, it is a different style of writing but getting it right bodes well for your versatility and professionalism as a writer. Below I have included one incarnation of my query letter, I did tend to tailor it each time to the recipient. By no means am I saying this is a paradigm of a good letter, but in the interest of encouraging and helping other writers who are looking for an agent, the example might be helpful.

Dear xxxxx,

I understand you are accepting submissions for representation consideration and I prefer the idea of an agency that specialises in YA. I’m pleased to introduce my new novel Orca Rising, the first in a planned trilogy. Ocean Daley is a 16-year old British teenager who gets seduced into the dark world of international assassinhood and when faced with the reality of taking life, has to choose between his own morality and loyalty to his family ties.

Orca Rising is a teen-crossover, running to 48,000 words and I think it would appeal to fans of  Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series. In a lot of YA fiction I read, the protagonist rarely joins the dark side, and when they do they don’t stay there for long and only do so for some perceived greater good (e.g Scorpia Rising, Divergent). I feel that’s what inspired me to write Orca Rising and what makes it distinctive; it doesn’t pull its punches, letting the protagonist go through with the heinous act of taking life and allowing the redemption and moral maturation to occur over a series of three books. Clearly this type of character development has worked well in new-style TV series formats and I think there would be an appetite for it in the YA market.

I’m 32, have been writing for eight years and ran a creative writing group in Brighton for the last five years. I gained a Masters degree in Creative Writing in 2013 and independently published my first novel (a historical YA/crossover book) Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage in September 2015. I have had a number of short stories published on the Ether Books mobile platform.

Best Regards

CSJ Hannon

Then what happened? Well, I had about eight rejections before anything of interest came in. It was an email from the director of an agency. A long email in fact, the crux of which was: you’re a great writer but your book’s too dark for YA gatekeepers, I’ll pass but send me anything you do in the future.

This was the moment that I kicked myself for sending out so many queries out at once. There were things I could have changed… was it too late? I decided that if she were keen enough she would have still taken me on and helped me to iron out those kinks. It was disappointing, but I think it was the first time I truly thought I might have something. I had honestly expected (but not hoped for!) 100% blank rejections even though I believed in my work. Then, a week later, a couple more rejections came in and then a one liner from another agent: ‘Really like it so far. Send me the rest. Are any other agents interested?’

I sent him the rest, told him about the nibble from the other agent but that I hadn’t had any firm offers. A week later I got a full response. It was a yes, the word ‘terrific’ appeared and then there were bullets of feedback; make it more high-tech, change it from assassins to spies, it’s too dark – make the protagonist more likable.

This was golden advice; two different agents had effectively told me the same thing, but one wanted to take it on (implicitly on the condition that the amends would be made). I wouldn’t ignore the advice. But I didn’t sign with him right then, and I didn’t crack out the champers.

Check out next week’s post for why.