How I got my literary agent
Welcome to my website, and also my first blog post! This is also likely to be my longest blog post.
I recently unlocked an achievement: I got a literary agent!
This wasn't an easily won achievement. I was in the querying trenches for six years. But all that time, through the rejection and endless endless waiting, I kept telling myself--at least this will make one hell of a story one day.
So, here is that story.
Book 1. Book of my heart.
I've always wanted to be a writer. I had been a voracious reader from an early age, and when I wrote my first story, aged eight, I knew it's what I wanted to do. I never really had anything else as an ambition (bar a brief time when I was determined to become a Pokémon professor). I had never really desired human kids, or anything like that. I wanted book babies, and I pretty much based my life plans around that.
I started writing my first (completed) novel, at university, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I finished it. It was a historical fiction based around three siblings during the Crimean war. It probably had way more of myself in than I’d like to admit. Even now, when I think about this book my heart *pangs*. Most writers have a unique relationship with their first book, whether that's for better or worse. It’s like my beloved child that I acknowledge is malformed and could do with many surgeries to fix it, but I still love it in all it’s flawed, hideous beauty.
Here’s the shocking truth about this book…I wasn’t bothered about it getting published. It was a book that I wrote to prove to myself that I could write and finish a book, something I dreamed of doing all my life. When it was finished and edited, I was satisfied. I wrote a book!
It was the pressure from others that made me query it. Lots of writers will share my pain when you excitedly tell non-writer folk that ‘I finished a book!’ and instead of ‘Well done!’ you get ‘Is it published?’ Because of that, and enthusiasm from a few readers, I set about querying it with literary agents. Because I felt I ‘had’ to.
I didn’t have a bloody clue what I was doing. No idea how to write a blurb, no clue what a synopsis even was, and not the foggiest that 250k words for a historical fiction would mean an automatic no for almost every agent before they read either of those things.
My heart was in that book, but my heart wasn’t in querying that book. It was my little ‘told you so’ to the doubting voice in my head. I queried around 20 agents, and amazingly got one piece of personalised feedback with no idea how valuable and rare that was. All the rest were form rejections.
The thing is, I knew where my heart was, and the genre that I wanted to publish in—Fantasy.
Book 2. THE book.
Now THIS was my book. THE book that I was going to sign with, publish with, get the movie deals with. I was convinced. A 113k epic fantasy that I spent over five years planning--intricate character backstories and worldbuilding...which never saw the page. The reason I didn’t care about my historical getting published was because this was the one. It had to happen because failure was unthinkable. I had no backup.
I took this book way more seriously. I had multiple beta readers, and several rounds of self-edits. I swotted up on the industry, joined my local writers circle, attended industry events and panels, bought the Artists and Writers Year Book, assembled a list of agents to query. I even had an agent look at the first chapter (Apparently, I wrote well ‘for a fantasy author’), and I attended a four week course on how to snag an agent. This was all super essential, it helped build my skills in writing queries, synopsis, and general query etiquette.
Doing your research pays off. I sent off a batch of queries, and the requests started coming in. When I got that first request I was blissfully, naively happy. Then I got another. Twenty minutes after querying. This was it. I’d hear back in a week and be signed. I was already planning what i'd wear to the premiere of my first movie.
Except I didn’t hear back in a week. Or four weeks. Or six months.
I got more requests. 5 in total, 3 fulls and 2 partials. The 2 partials swiftly rejected, and of the 3 fulls, one ghosted me, one took a year to reject, another, over a year later, simply said: ‘sorry, no.’
The agony of waiting is the hardest thing about querying. Every single day you wake up and think ‘IS TODAY THE DAY?’ and it’s not. Then the cycle goes on and on and on. The only thing I could think to do to help me cope with the endless waiting was to work on something else. I started a sequel to THE novel but it didn't help. The sequel just put pressure on the first one getting picked up. So, instead, I wrote something totally new and fell head over heels in love with it.
Enough, it seems, to ditch this book. THE book, 36 queries in with a 13% request rate. I had no idea that was high. I would learn that sobering fact very soon…
Book 3. The book that querying wrote.
When I started this book, it just POURED out of me. It was a 110k epic fantasy based on Irish Mythology. By this point, I knew a lot more about the querying/publishing world and got a feel for what was working. I saw nothing but flaws in my last book. God. I was embarrassed anyone had read it. It was my belief in this third book that made me give up on my second novel way too early.
Although I acknowledge that I loved this book, I’m also very aware now how much of it I was writing to try and ‘win’ querying. Everything that went into it did so because I thought that it was what agents wanted. I was so deep in the trenches I couldn’t help but be influenced by all the success I was seeing from pitch contests. I wanted that so I’d write something like that. I'm a very competitive person, which is great and terrible in equal measure, but all I knew was I was done with failure.
I was more convinced than ever that this book would be the one. Everything I had learned and experienced so far while querying went into this novel and it was a sure-fire hit. I was so convinced in it’s strength, that I sent it to my top agents in the first round, then sat back and waited for the requests to pour in.
Except they didn’t. What poured in were rejections. Of 70 queries I got two partial requests. They both rejected. Nobody requested the full. I’d gone from 3 full requests from 36 queries, to 0 from 70. Panic mode—engage. Mental breakdown—imminent.
This was my toughest querying experience. Around this time, I started to experience symptoms (chest pains, dizziness) that puzzled my doctor ‘Are you stressed at the moment?’ ‘No. No. I’m fine.’ Spoiler: I wasn’t.
In all the successful querying stories i'd read, the writers got BETTER results as they went along. They steadily increased their request rates until they achieved impressive numbers. But I’d gone backwards. I felt completely lost. Readers loved this book! What was going on? I regretted giving up on my second book so soon.
I had to write another. That would fix it. Except when I tried, I couldn’t. I planned and started multiple different epic fantasy books and gave up around 20k in. My confidence was shot. All I saw were the inevitable rejections. What could I write that they would like? I tried making it less magical, more magical, more YA, more adult, ANYTHING that I thought would be a sure hit. I needed a sure hit. I couldn’t fail again. I read books in my genre but they just depressed me. Books I loved, I’d never write that well. Books I didn’t like, wow even that’s better than me.
And this spiral led me to one point…
Book 4. The fuck it book.
The lack of being able to write was terrifying. Writing had always been my crutch. My constant. And now it wasn’t just about not being able to get an agent, and that first foot up the ladder, it was about not being able to write full stop. What was I going to do with my life if I couldn't write?
Desperate times called for desperate measures. I wasn’t going to even think about querying. I was going back to my roots, and writing a book for me. Fuck it all.
To give myself the best chance of actually enjoying and feeling excited about writing again, I threw everything I loved at this book. Sibling feels? Check. Queer? Check. Academies? Check. French history inspired? Check. Because even if nobody else loved this book, it was essential that I did.
I would love to say that writing it was a joy. That I started typing and my love rekindled. But no. Writing the first draft was a TRUDGE. It was really. fucking. hard. I had lost my confidence, and building myself up to write it every day took immense discipline. I thought the book was ‘fine’, but I didn’t feel the connection I did with other books. How could I? Then I wrote the finale, and I remember thinking 'shit', in the best possible way. Because damn that finale was good, and now i'd have to actually make the rest of the book match up to it. I decided to edit and give this 'fuck it book' a shot.
This was the edit of my LIFE. My book was essentially in rough note form after my first draft. I read craft books (Save the Cat Writes a Novel saved not only a cat but my novel!), and because of my distance from the MS, was able to be WAY more critical than my previous books. I wasn’t blurred by love anymore. I saw it for what it was and saw what needed work, then fixed it.
It went through all the stages--beta reads, edits, I even paid for an agent critique of my first pages (worth every single penny). People seemed to actually like it? Readers told me it was the best thing I’d written. Slowly my confidence returned, drip by hesitant drip. I could write something decent…maybe? I applied for Pitchwars (an infamously difficult to get into mentorship that I’d entered with my last two books and failed to get any requests) and actually got a request. That was when I seriously thought I might have something here. My goal with this book was to get one full request. Prove to myself I could do it. So I decided to venture back into the trenches once more...
I was still very cautious. I’d been burned by book 3 and didn’t want a repeat. I went through my querying list at AGONISINGLY slow speed. I sent to 10 agents and waited to hear back before sending to anyone else, if I didn’t get requests, then it was time to change my letter/pages. I changed both multiple times until I was sick of the sight of them. This process took months and months. Requests trickled in. So did the rejections. I edited more. It wasn’t until my online writers group read the opening and screamed at me to stop changing and charge ahead that I finally did.
I’d kept most of my dream/top agents back. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t sign with the agents I queried early, but it was comforting to have that blanket of dream agents to snuggle up in when rejections came. I wanted to send it to them when I knew it was as good as I could get it. And it was. So I pressed 'send'.
Three hours later I had a full request. That was fast. And the tone of the email instilled me with something I hadn’t felt in a long time…hope. I just had a FEELING about this one. I can’t really explain it. I just felt it. I sent the manuscript off and settled in for the inevitable long wait.
A week later I was doing my daily check of my junk mail (essential when querying!) and discovered a response to the full request. CUE MY HEART LEAPING OUT OF MY CHEST. The preview literally said ‘Hope all is well today. I have finished BLOOD OF THE GARGOUILLE and I…’ Every single possible ending of that sentence ran thought my head in a millisecond. Then I clicked the email:
‘Hope all is well today. I have finished BLOOD OF THE GARGOUILLE and I loved it! I’m really keen to jump on a Zoom call to discuss with you if you’re able to? I don’t suppose you’re able to today at all?’
To say I was surprised would be underselling it. I’d had so many actual legit dreams where this had happened that I thought I was dreaming. It took one of my writing buddies to call me for me to be 100% convinced it was real. I wasn’t even crying or running around like I expected. I was just shellshocked.
I had work that day. Reader, I did not work that day. I prepared some questions for the call, then spent the rest of the time pacing erratically around the room. I am just very thankful the call was THAT DAY else I may have combusted. Of course my mind tried to minimise it with such helpful, realistic suggestions as: 'this is an elaborate joke and he's calling to tell you how bad it is.'
The call happened, and I was offered rep.
My ability to keep my shit together on that call is the greatest acting achievement of my life and should go down in history as one of the greats. I got to discuss my work with an actual agent who loved it as much as I did. It was thrilling, fulfilling, and just damn exciting. Those dreams that i'd smothered after my previous books failed started to emerge again, not ever really gone, just tucked away for safe keeping. Not movie premieres anymore, but that maybe, just maybe, a book of mine may end up on a bookshelf after all.
My situation was a little unusual in that I had full manuscripts out with other agents, and although I was pretty sure the offering agent was the one I wanted, it was only fair to make all the other agents aware and give them a chance. I sent off a LOT of emails and gave them a week to make an offer if interested.
I got a couple more full requests, and ended up with multiple offers. I chose to sign with the offering agent, Harry Illingsworth, for multiple reasons.
1) There’s something to be said for the person who plucks you and your little book out of the masses, without someone else having to wave a flag that says ‘LOOK! THIS IS WORTHY OF TIME!'
2) Harry was one of my dream agents from the start, I massively respect his agency and the authors he reps are some fantastic names in SFF and beyond. I'm honestly *heart eyes* over my agency siblings. I knew that he had the expertise to give my book the best fighting chance.
3) Harry just got my book. During the call, he went over edits, as well as discussing where my book fits in the market, and it aligned exactly with what I wanted. None of his edits horrified me, in fact, they excited me and I couldn’t wait to dive in and make the book even better. That to me was a great sign. I was always worried an agent would ask me to change things that didn't fit right with me...make it less queer/the MC skinnier/give her a sword. Harry didn't ask me to do any of those things, and I felt my book was safe in his hands.
A week later, I accepted the offer. It actually happened on Harry’s birthday, but it felt like 100 birthdays for me!
Everyone’s querying journey is different, and I know multiple people who have signed with their first books, or within weeks of querying. I, for one, massively believe I am the better for not doing that. It was a gruelling experience but my resilience in the face of tough odds or failure is IRON CLAD now, and I’m a far stronger writer than I was to begin with. I look back at my previous books and although I am *fond* of them, I'm now quite grateful they were not the books I signed with. Although I didn't know it at the time, the book of my heart did win in the end. And best of all, I wrote it for me.
My stats for my successful querying book:
Partial requests: 2
Full requests: 8
In total I sent 200 queries over four books and six years.
It’s been one hell of a journey. But now I can finally say…I. Am. Repped! (If you made it this far, perhaps you too have the patience to query a book!)
Thanks for reading. I hope my story inspires at least one person out there!