Writing a novel. That's the hard part, right? Tens of thousands of words, created worlds, imagined characters...endless months of work, chained to a laptop, with just the cat for company.
Ironically, that's rarely the case for debut novelists. The really hard part is getting your novel picked up. Forget getting published. Without an agent most major publishers won't look at your manuscript. An agent is the person who can open those doors.
It took me years to get an agent. Hours queuing in post offices, uploading over-sized email attachments, thumbing through the Artists and Writers Yearbook. I filled up folders with rejection letters, had meetings with agents that came to nothing, and put my novel away in a drawer more times than I care to remember.
And then, finally, it happened. Sheer bloody joy.
But in the intervening time, I learnt quite a bit about what can help - and hinder - on the seemingly endless journey to Agent World. Here is what I gleaned.
1. Read it. Lots.
The average novel comes in at somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words. This means there are literally tens of thousands of opportunities for typos, grammatical slip-ups, calling a character by the wrong name and all kinds of continuity errors. Although no agent will expect a manuscript to be perfect when it is submitted, the more polished the better. Read it until your eyes bleed. Well, sting, at least.
If your novel is coming in at 150,000 words it needs trimming. However much you believe every syllable to be perfectly honed, integral to the plot and intricately necessary, there will be considerable swathes that can be hacked, trimmed and otherwise removed. As a rule of thumb, if you're mind starts to wander while you're reading, the passage needs a trim. If you actually fall asleep, cut the chapter.
3. Learn to love criticism
Getting friends and family to read your novel, only for them all to chorus ' it's wonderful!' might feel great, but it won't last long if that's not a response mirrored by an agent. What you really need is constructive criticism. To make it easier for readers, make a list of questions; do you believe in the characters? Do you think they would actually do...whatever you're asking them to do? Was there any point where they started to lost interest? (see point 1)
4. Write a blinding letter
A cover letter can make the difference between languishing in the slush pile and actually being read. Make it informative, vibrant and interesting; have you won any writing prizes or done any writing courses? What made you choose them as an agent to approach - show that you are aware of the authors they already represent and make clear why you feel you would be a good fit. Covering letters should never be more than one page.
5. Make it easy...
...for them. Agents get hundreds of submissions a week; your book needs to stand out. Establish what genre your book is - literary fiction? Young adult? Sci-fi? Enclose a synopsis of your book with the cover letter that is crisp, concise and engaging.
6. Target Practice
Don't just target one agent at a time; you may still be sending out submissions when you're ninety. It's quite acceptable to send out a manuscript to three or four agents at the same time, just make sure you make clear in your covering letter that your novel is under consideration with others.
Agents are swamped with manuscripts and it can take a while for them to respond. Six weeks is usually the minimum time it will take to get a response, it may be up to three months. If you haven't had a reply at that point, it's perfectly acceptable to send a follow-up email, checking they received your original manuscript. Some still won't respond; consider it their loss.
8. Toughen Up
Agents can be brutal. Most agents are passionate about finding new authors and genuinely regretful they can't take more authors on. Some will come back with helpful reasons why they aren't picking your book up. Some will just send standardised rejection formats. Some may be a bit less constructive. Try and take it on the chin. It's just one person's opinion. It doesn't mean it's right.
9. Know your Novel
One of the trickiest stages in getting a novel picked up is when an agent says they're interested, but wants you to do more work before they make a decision. Make sure that you are happy with the changes they're suggesting, otherwise you may end up with a book that doesn't feel like yours. If you're not comfortable, say that and get on with submitting the book elsewhere.
10. Don't Give Up
Getting an agent is one of the longest, hardest processes in the world. There are times when it just feels relentless, futile and utterly unforgiving. Involve friends and family in the process; at times when you feel like giving up hope, their faith will carry you forward. And one day, when you least expect it, the phone will actually ring.
The People We Were Before is published by Quercus on April 21st