Getting an agent – Part 2

by M.J. Hearle

For those of you who haven’t twigged that this is the second part of a two part blog (the headline’s a pretty big giveaway), please click here to read the first instalment. Or you can just read the below paragraph, which summarises it nicely.

Three quarters of the way through writing Winter’s Shadow I decided to contact some literary agents to see if there was any interest in my book. Two reacted positively, asking me to send the first fifty pages for review. I happily did this, figuring I wouldn’t hear back from the agents for at least a couple of months. This would give me ample time to finish the book and polish it into shape.

I was wrong.

Four days (yes, four days!) after posting my manuscript, I received a phone call from Sue, the first agent I’d called.

‘Hi Michael, Sue here.’

(Astonished pause) ‘Hi Sue…how’s it going?’

‘Fine thank you. Look, my partner and I have both read the pages and we’re interested in reading the rest. Can you send us the manuscript ASAP?’

I can only attribute what I said next to the concussion I sustained after jumping for joy and hitting the ceiling.

‘Sure, not a problem. I’ll post it on Monday.’

‘See that you do. Can’t wait to read the whole thing.’

I stood staring blankly at the phone in my hand for a good ten minutes, trying to comprehend what had just happened. An agent wanted to read my book. The book I’d started to think was a big old waste of time. I needed to call someone – anyone to give them the good news – my book didn’t suck! Well, at least the first fifty pages didn’t. Just as a goofy grin began to spread across my face I felt the initial pangs of anxiety. These pangs multiplied, and my grin vanished. Had I just told Sue I’d post my novel to her on Monday? The book wasn’t even finished yet! I had at least a month’s worth of work left on it. It was Thursday – how was I supposed to finish it in such a short amount of time?

It was the week leading up to the Easter Long Weekend. I’d made plans with my girlfriend to go away for this period but clearly that wasn’t on the cards anymore. Luckily she agreed that this was an amazing opportunity I had to take advantage of. She was still going to go away though if that was okay with me? Okay, with me? It was brilliant. I was only going to have to kick her out of the house anyway. I needed absolutely no distractions if I stood any chance of making the crazy deadline.

The next four days went by in a blur as I furiously typed the rest of my story, breaking only to sleep and drink coffee. The ending of the book was (semi) outlined but there were large chunks of the narrative I still hadn’t figured out. Too bad for me. There was no time to wait for inspiration to strike so I just wrote through these tricky patches, trying not to lose my story threads and hoping it would all make sense in the end.

As pages were completed I’d email them to my parents in Port Macquarie for proof reading. I couldn’t worry about such inconsequential things as spelling, punctuation and grammar – I had a book to write dammit!

Against all odds, I made my deadline, finished my manuscript and sent it off. Roughly thirty-thousand words in four days. Quite the achievement, if I do say so myself. The only problem was I didn’t know if those thirty-thousand words were any good? I spent the next few weeks jumping nervously every time my phone rang, half-dreading, half-hoping Sue would call. Eventually she did, inviting me to come and see her to discuss the book.

Now you can imagine, what sort of reaction such an invitation provoked. I couldn’t believe my luck – an agent wanted to meet with me. An actual literary agent! I’d done some research to make sure Sue was legit, and discovered that not only was she legit, Sue was one of the most respected figures in the industry.

On the drive to her office I tried not to get too carried away. Sue hadn’t said she would sign me, only that she wanted to meet. Even if she did sign me there was no guarantee I’d get published. Despite these misgivings, I couldn’t shake the feeling my life was about to change. To think all this had come about from a sunset jog through a cemetery.

I met Sue, (who was lovely, not at all like the agent caricatures I’d seen on television) and after some polite pleasantries we sat down and she brought out my manuscript. There were hundreds of little blue post-it notes sticking out of the pages. This confused me as I certainly couldn’t remember attaching them before I sent it off.

‘Well, I read your book and it was good,’ Sue began, and I smiled hesitantly, sensing a ‘but’ coming, ‘but, it’s not quite there yet.’

My soaring spirits took a nosedive. It turned out that each of blue post-its signalled a grammatical mistake or a narrative problem. Sue had also prepared a detailed reader’s report which went further to crush my ego. It dissected my story with cruel efficiency, chopping it down into little bits and holding each of these little bits beneath a critical magnifying glass. Needless to say some of the bits didn’t look too pretty separated from the whole. There were vast sections of my manuscript that were problematic – inconsistent characterisation, dodgy motivations, bizarre digressions.

Sue then began to quiz me on the supernatural element of my novel. She asked me to tell her more about the mysterious Dead Lands glimpsed by my lead character. Her questions were intelligent and considered, unfortunately my answers were not. I had written Winter’s Shadow, especially the last third, from a largely instinctual place. The creatures, the magic, everything felt right and worked narratively, but I couldn’t explain why. I hadn’t done my homework.

Unsurprisingly, Sue did not sign me that day, though all was not lost. She did tell me she would like to read the next draft once I’d addressed her notes. I was a little crestfallen, not to mention exhausted at the prospect of having to rewrite so much of my book , but I thanked her graciously, took my manuscript home and set to typing. A few weeks later I finished a draft I thought satisfied the questions she’d posed and sent it off.

Again I was called into her office and again she told me it wasn’t quite there yet. I took her notes with a smile and went back to work. Why, you might ask? Why do all this work for someone who didn’t represent me, and might never do? One very good reason – the notes were making Winter’s Shadow better. Infinitely, so. Having my parents and my girlfriend read the drafts was great, but they weren’t able to offer the kind of constructive criticism a professional agent could. Every question, every challenge Sue made forced me to think about the story in a different way.

This process lasted nearly four months, until one day she called me back into her office, sat me down and put my manuscript on the table between us. For once, I noticed there were no blue post-its.

‘I think we’ve got it,’ She said with a twinkle in her eye, ‘I’d like to send this out to publishers.’

Nervously, I asked, ‘Does that mean you’re going to sign me?’

Sue appeared surprised by my question. Maybe, she even entertained some second thoughts about signing someone who was clearly a little slow on the uptake.

‘Of course. I’ll have my secretary post you the contract. Now, as your agent…’ She went on to explain a whole bunch of legal gobbledy gook about percentages, royalties etc. but I’d stopped listening. I’d slipped into a kind of dazed stupor, trying to comprehend what had happened. After all those months of re-writes, panic attacks, sleepless nights and long dark tea times of the soul, the impossible had happened.

I had an agent.