Tips on finding an agent

The Writing Bit
Ok, so you’ve finished your novel, written ‘THE END’ in big letters and poured yourself a  large drink. Now you just need to find an agent…
First, don’t even think about trying to get an agent with a first draft.  I’ve heard writers say they know their novel isn’t really ready, but ‘the agent can tell me what else I need to do’. NO!! True, most agents will give you editorial advice , but you are the author, and it’s your job to make the novel as  near-perfect as you possibly can before approaching an agent.  If you’ve just completed a first draft, put it away for a few months and get on with something else, then  go back to it with fresh eyes (see earlier blog – What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’) and you’ll be amazed at how the flaws will leap out at you. You’ll almost certainly need to  do some significant editing and redrafting before it’s actually ready. When it’s as polished as can be, it’s the time to start looking for an agent.
First, identify agents who represent authors writing  for a similar market. Check out novels that would sit happily alongside yours and look at the acknowledgements page where authors usually thank their agents by name.  You can then look up those agents and send them a query letter (more about query letters in next week’s blog) saying, ‘I see that you represent Jane Bloggs, whose work I admire. I feel my novel will appeal to a similar readership.’ It’s better to send to a named agent if you can, otherwise, your   work may end up languishing for months in the ‘submissions department’.
When I was seeking representation, a successful writer friend advised me to send a query letter before sending the submission; the agent will hopefully write back saying, ‘yes, please do send me your three chapters’, and hey presto, your submission is no longer ‘unsolicited’!
So, here are a few more tips:
  • Make sure you’re sending to agents who are likely to be interested – no point in sending sci-fi to an agent who only represents romantic fiction, or a children’s novel to one who represents adult fiction.
  • Send to five at a time, and make clear that you’re approaching other agents. As each ‘no’ comes in – and there will be some ‘no’s – send out another query. Keep things moving.
  • Send only what they ask for, i.e. First three chapters, first 50 pages etc. (although if there’s a sensible break on p53, it’s probably ok to send 53 pages.)
  • Check whether it’s ok to send by email, or whether they want hard copy.
  • Make sure you include a synopsis, and again, send what they ask for. Check guidelines on the agency website. Some want one page; some want three.
  • Don’t pester! Give them at least a couple of weeks before you follow up a query letter, and at least four weeks before you follow up a submission.  Do so by email and be brief and polite. If you still get no response, it’s probably best to move on.
  • Be grateful for any feedback and consider carefully what they say.
  • Don’t be disheartened – lots of successful novelists were rejected many times before finding an agent!
See next week’s blog: how to write a query letter

The Reading Bit
I found The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge immediately engaging for three main reasons: the subject matter (I’m a sucker for a tragedy that blows a family apart)  the coastal setting, which is strikingly evoked  in all its weather-beaten savagery, and the language, which is consistently assured and  precise. 
Andy’s story is narrated in the first person, both as a child and as an adult, and his mother’s story is told in the less common second person. I’ve only come across straight second person narration a few times before, and it hasn’t always worked, but here the  mother’s second person voice is haunting and incredibly affecting. I remember once hearing a woman being interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse. I was struck by the fact that she referred to herself constantly in the second person, and I wondered if it was because  she couldn’t bear to inhabit the ‘self’ that had experienced such trauma; I wondered the same about this character, who has also had her share of trauma. Whether it was the author’s intention to suggest this distancing from the traumatised self, I don’t know, but it worked for me! 
The story centres around Andy, who, following his father’s death, returns to the family’s seaside holiday home to prepare it for sale.  Andy has been living in Crete, working in a taverna and trying to erase the sad life he left behind in England. When he returns to the very beach where, as a young child, he’d been left in charge of his baby sister Elaine, he is forced to face the memories that he’s been trying to escape: memories of Elaine, labelled ‘Mentally Deficient’ soon after her birth, of his abusive father, Michael, and of his depressed and grief-stricken mother who abandoned him and his other sister Susie when they were children. There are happier memories of his rope-maker grandfather, who taught the young Andy how to make rope and tie knots, an activity in which Andy still finds comfort, as well as a means of artistic expression. As the story moves towards its climax, there’s a truly surprising revelation, followed by a postscript in which we learn more about Andy’s mother, this time from a third person viewpoint. I found the ending both satisfying and moving.
Jane Rusbridge’s writing is vivid and controlled, and her attention to detail is meticulous, particularly the period detail, which was so subtly done that it felt effortless.  I enjoyed this book immensely!
The Food Bit
This week, it’s a non-vegan suggestion (back to vegan/veggie next week). Recently, Woman’s Hour ran a feature on ‘the perfect fish pie’. Well, I’m sorry Woman’s Hour, no disrespect,  but this is the perfect fish pie!
Smoked haddock pie (serves two)
Place half a small onion, one clove, and a bay leaf into a pan with 150ml milk. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and add about 350g undyed smoked haddock. Poach for about 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, strain the hot milk and use it to make a white sauce: melt about 15g of butter and stir in enough flour to make a roux. Cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring all time. Simmer for about 10 mins, stirring often. Add 50ml single cream and a splash or two of white wine, then taste and season. While the sauce is cooking, boil about 350g floury potatoes for the topping. Flake the fish into a pie dish, chop one hard-boiled egg and add to the fish along with a handful of peas. Pour the white sauce over the fish mixture. When the potatoes are cooked, mash with 50g strong cheddar cheese and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Season to taste. Spread topping over the fish base and make a nice pattern with a fork. Brush with melted butter and cook at gas mark 6 (440F/200C) for about 30-40 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and some grilled or roasted tomatoes.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

No man (or woman) is an island

The Writing Bit
This week, I taught my first creative writing class of the new term.  Twelve lovely writers turned up, some I’ve taught before, some were new faces, but all were  fizzing with enthusiasm. They are writers at different levels of experience, from those just starting to experiment with their creative talents to those who’ve been writing for years and/or are working on novels.
What often strikes me with a newly-formed group is how, when reading back an exercise, the writer will often preface the reading with ‘it’s not very good’, or ‘I don’t think I’ve done it right’. They then usually go on to read something with a particularly vivid image, or a beautifully lyrical sentence, or a striking and memorable character, and they’re often genuinely surprised at the positive response they get from the  rest of the class.
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Gradually, over the weeks and months, confidence starts to improve and the apologies stop. Ok, it may be partly to do with the fact that the writer starts to notice the improvements in his or her own work, but it may have more to do with the positive reinforcement provided by the other writers. This is why I believe that one of the most important aspects of the writer’s life is to have contact with people who are doing the same thing you’re doing, whether it’s face-to-face, or by telephone, email or social networking.
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When my new group took a break for tea, there was an immediate buzz of conversation as existing members caught up with what they’d been writing (or not writing!) over the summer and new members joined in with their own experiences and quickly became part of the group. 
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Of course, it’s always going to happen that lasting friendships develop when a group of like-minded people  get together, but I’d love to know whether creative writing classes have a higher friendship rate than, say, art classes, or French cookery. Because it seems to me that writers face a unique set of challenges that only other writers can truly understand, and for that reason, we have the inclination and ability to ‘bond’  quite easily. Once we’ve bonded, we support one another to aid survival in the world of non-writers, where  people tend not to have their heads full of fictional  characters constantly  demanding  attention.
As well as simply ‘understanding’, writing chums are invaluable for helping you to solve plot and character problems. I have one friend in particular who is great at this. When either of us hits a tricky phase in our work, we meet up or chat on the phone. Sometimes, one of us makes a helpful suggestion about the other’s work, but often, it’s the very act of discussion that stimulates ideas and raises possible solutions.  ‘Talking it out’ seems to be the answer.
What do you think? Do you find contact with writing friends essential to your writing life? Or do you prefer to solve problems alone?
By the way, I met my friend on a writing course ten years ago!

 
The Reading Bit
This week, I am sad to report that I have given up on a book. I hate to do that, but let’s face it, life’s too short to stick with a novel that’s not gripping you when there are so many others to be read. I’ll always give a book fifty pages, and if I’m still unsure, I’ll go to a hundred. But by p50 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’d had enough. The story is told in two voices, one of which I quite liked, but not enough to really hold my attention, and one of which I found annoyingly pretentious (I know she was supposed to pretentious, but even so).  After making the decision to leave it, I read some Amazon reviews; some readers loved it some hated it, and quite a few said they didn’t like it at first but it was worth persevering with and they warmed to it over time. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but to be honest, I felt quite relieved to be able to start a new book. What do you think? If a book  hasn’t drawn you in after 50 pages, do you persevere?
 
The Food Bit
This cassoulet is great in chilly weather, but I’m happy to report that it goes equally well when eaten outside on a balmy Indian-Summer evening. I’m a cassoulet convert – I used to think beans were boring (well, on their own, they are) but this seems to hit the spot. I make enough for six portions and freeze what I don’t use. Heat some olive oil in a large pan, then add a large onion, sliced; one each of red, green and yellow peppers, diced; one sliced courgette and a few quartered mushrooms. Fry for a few minutes, then add 3-4 fat cloves of chopped, crushed garlic. Then tip in: two tins chopped tomatoes and one tin each (drained) of cannelini, haricot, borlotti and black eye beans (you can use other types of beans if you prefer). Add about half a pint of strong vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine, a rounded teaspoon of dried mixed herbs (or a good handful of fresh herbs) and a dollop of tomato puree. Let this simmer away for about 30-40 minutes, then add seasoning to taste. Serve with a green vegetable, crusty bread and a full-bodied red wine. Note: oddly, this tastes better if it’s just hot rather than piping hot. Suitable for vegans, though check the wine.

For more about me and my work, check out my website: http://www.susanelliotwright.co.uk

What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’

 If you know your book’s good, if you’ve come pretty damn close to selling it but the deal is still elusive, you have four choices:  
  1. Keep trying — there are lots of small presses as well as mainstream publishers. Maybe the next editor it goes to will be the one who falls in love with it.
  2. Self-publish — a respectable option these days. Many authors self-publish very successfully. Not to be confused with vanity publishing.
  3. Put it aside and start a new book — good option if you’ve another idea that excites you. Many authors have actually published earlier novels after their debut.
  4. Put it aside for a substantial amount of time so you can really get some distance — at least six months is good, 9-12 months is better.

The fourth option is the one I chose a year ago. Most writers put work away for a couple of weeks as a matter of course, and even this little bit of distance helps show up things like typos, repeated words, clumsy sentences, unnecessary words/phrases, and tense slips  etc. I’ve just hauled my novel out of its virtual drawer after a year. I’ve read it again with fresh eyes, which sounds a bit like something you’d buy at a cheap butcher’s but you know what I mean, and I asked myself the following questions:

·         Does the narrative drag in places?

·         Are there areas where the pace is a little hectic?

·         Have I been telling when I should be showing?

·         Have I over-explained?  

·         Will my reader care about my characters as much as I do?

These are the questions I feel are appropriate to my novel – you may have others, e.g. does the story start in the right place? Whose story is it? Is there enough tension? Is the ending satisfying?  I’m not saying every writer needs to put every book away for a year – with a bit of luck, you’ll get that publishing deal on the first round of submissions! But if you’ve come very near to a deal but not quite made it and you know that you, your writer friends and even your agent are way too close to see the problems, putting the novel away for a big chunk of time might be the answer.

So, this week, I’ve been going through my manuscript with highlighter pens in various colours, marking out areas that need attention. I’m happy to say that overall, I enjoyed my novel, and there are bits that still make me cry. But there are areas that need improving, and I plan to tackle these over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

The food bit

This week, I’m only going to introduce the food bit, because the writing bit is slightly longer than I’d planned and I don’t want anyone dozing off.  I am passionate about food, and still occasionally work as a chef. My cooking life has become more interesting of late because of my husband’s interest in veganism.  Now, vegetarianism is easy-peasy; you can even do fine dining for veggies. But I’m finding veganism a little more challenging. I’m on a quest, people. I won’t be cooking vegan every day, I won’t even be cooking vegetarian every day – I still eat fish, and very occasionally, chicken – but I’m massively reducing my consumption of these and of dairy produce. So, I’m on a mission to produce delicious vegan meals, as well as the odd non-vegan meal. Again, watch this space!