When an Agent Calls

Canopied Penny Farthing from The Prisoner
Image courtesy of David Stimpson

I don’t tend to post much about the novel I’m writing as I’m always scared that telling the world will jinx it and it won’t happen.

But it’s too late for that now… because I’m delighted to say that I have been signed up by a literary agent:

Phil Patterson of Marjacq.

As I can no longer hide, I thought I’d share a bit about how recent events have brought me to this point.

After several failed novel attempts – failed as in, not completed – over the last six years, I finally worked out what I wanted to write and how I was going to write it. The novel is called BLACK WOOD, and it falls under the genre of  ‘psychological suspense’, but that’s all I’m saying about it for now.

What finally got me to where I am today, was learning from my failures. My start-stop technique of writing did not help, but then everyone has ‘real life’ to deal with, so I couldn’t blame that forever… My main failing was having a big idea, then running out of steam. No, actually, that’s not true. My main failing was thinking that I couldn’t write.

I’ve had some success with short stories and flash, but the novel is a different beast entirely, and not everyone can do it. I admire anyone and everyone who has ever written a novel, even more if they’ve written more than one; and that’s irrespective of whether I’ve read or enjoyed their book(s). Writing a novel is a huge achievement for anyone.

My technique varied a little, but always ended the same way. I used to start with a brief outline, a snippet of an idea, some notes on the way. A few character ideas. The basic plot was always clear. How I was going to fill in the thousands of words to get there, less so.

Then in January 2013, a couple of things happened.

(1) I had a very strong idea. The most obvious one (as it was sparked by true events) but one I hadn’t considered before. So, I wrote a detailed outline, synopsis, and started writing full steam ahead

(2) I hooked up a critique partner – RJ Barker – and we started to chapter swap

This went ok for a while. Really well, actually. RJ was very encouraging, and I enjoyed reading and commenting on his work.  But sometimes the ideas that were tossed around led me to think too much, and while RJ finished his first draft, I floundered and eventually stopped again. Note: RJ has since signed with Rob Dinsdale of Dinsdale Imber and is working hard on his masterpiece as we speak…

I thought about giving it all up. Decided I could never write a full length novel. I enjoy writing short stories. Maybe I should stick with that? But then by putting the novel aside for a bit, it cleared my mind. I had a few plot epiphanies. The suggestions from RJ had shaped it into something else in my mind. Something better. Thank you, RJ (this will be one of the first thank yous of many… he just came up with a great blurb for me, too.)

But I digress… how did I end up with an agent, you may ask….

(1) I entered the CWA Debut Dagger and as an indirect result of that, got some feedback on early chapters (thank you Keith B Walters, Luca Veste and Keshini Naidoo) which boosted my confidence that the story wasn’t shit and that I wasn’t the worst writer in the world

(2) An author friend of mine, (again, that Luca Veste – who has his first novel DEAD GONE coming out in Jan 2014 and it looks bloody brilliant), someone who prophesied ‘You’ll have an agent by Harrogate’, spoke to his agent about me… his agent was Phil… and I was invited to ‘submit the full manuscript when complete’ – I was very excited about this, but doubted I was going to be ready for my (and Luca’s) deadline of Harrogate which is in two weeks time (but I was in no rush… I was biding my time, plugging away… dreaming…)

(3) I entered my prologue in the MR Hall crime writing comp; and got a runner up place, which I was thrilled about

(4) I attended Winchester Writers’ Conference on Friday 21st June, and realised (after doing a little course) that I didn’t really need any more ‘how to write’ advice (as my primary failing was losing faith in myself), but enjoyed the networking aspect, which included three one-to-one sessions with an editor, an agent and an author (Eileen Robertson, who wrote me a lovely note) – all three were extremely positive (in fact, all three said ‘this book will be published’) and this boosted my confidence further (note that at this point, I’d been writing like a demon and written over 10k in a week, which is a lot when you work full-time!)

(5) On Monday 24th June – I was contacted by Phil, who, after seeing my tweet about the MR Hall comp, asked if I was ready to send him something… The novel is not finished, but I had a well edited 10k and I had just tweaked the first chapter after the advice from the one-to-ones, so I decided to bite the bullet and send him what I had ready. I hoped he would like what he saw, and hoped he’d repeat his request to send me the full thing when it was finished.

I wasn’t really prepared for what happened next.

A bit of background – I’ve met Phil before, at Harrogate (Theakstons Crime). He seemed like a top bloke. He has an excellent reputation and an interesting and varied mix of clients. I always planned to submit to him (partly because of his agency being co-founded by George Markstein of The Prisoner fame… ), mainly because of the attention he clearly gives to his clients. I wanted an agent who could identify with me, see me as ‘me’, be flexible, supportive, excited about my work and, most of all, be honest (I am not a number… etc).

Anyway, he called me less than 24h later. I was in the toilets at work. ‘Is this a good time,’ he said. I didn’t realise until I got into the car after work that my zip had been undone all day…

(6) On Friday we met at the Marjacq offices in London. We talked books – other peoples, and my own. We discussed my plans. We talked about ghosts… and we sealed the deal.

So I have an agent.

Surreal. Exciting. Unbelievable.

This is only STEP ONE in the ‘Getting Published’ saga. But it has happened a lot quicker than I expected. Don’t worry though, I am under no illusions. Having an agent does not guarantee success. But it’s definitely a nudge in the right direction… And it certainly gave me a bit of credibility when talking to dozens of authors at last night’s Crime in The Court party!

I have a lot of work to do now to get my manuscript ready for Phil’s red pen, but I am completely and utterly ready for the challenge.

I’ll keep you posted on the journey 🙂

Have you *really* got what it takes to impress an agent?

Keshini Naidoo

This week’s guest post comes from Keshini Naidoo, a reader for Darley Anderson Literary Agency (who represent crime and thriller heavyweights such as Lee Child, John Connolly and Martina Cole). If you want to stand a chance of getting your baby read, you need to follow this invaluable advice from a lovely lady who really knows what she’s talking about…

Over to you, Keshini!

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In my role as Crime/Thriller reader for the Darley Anderson Literary Agency I get to read a lot of submissions. Which is the best part of my job! There’s nothing like discovering new talent in my in-box every morning. But, like most agencies, we receive hundreds of enquiries from debut writers every single week. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of tips, from covering letter to sample chapters, that will help your submission stand out from the crowd.

  • Do your research on the Agency/Agent – there’s no point sending us hard sci-fi or meta literary fiction that pays homage to Gravity’s Rainbow when our biggest sellers come from crime and commercial fiction. If you tell me that you’re proposing your commercial thriller novel because our agency represents Lee Child, then I know you have a good awareness of the market niche we fit into.

The majority of agencies have a website with detailed breakdowns of the staff, the writers they represent and what they are looking for. If you can address it directly to the person at the agency who will more than likely be looking at your submission, so much the better. I’ll definitely take notice if you address the covering letter to me – and if you use the generic Dear Sirs, I’m going to guess you haven’t looked at our Agency staff list, which is 99% female …

  • Keep your covering letter succinct, but do try and show some personality. I don’t need a full CV, but a little about why you write and what your influences are can really aid my reading of your chapters, particularly if you have a career that you utilise in your writing, such as working in the police force or social services. And please don’t say that you write fiction because you’re not impressed by the books you see in the bestseller charts!
  • While it can be helpful if you include any feedback about your novel from a writing tutor, or a professional editorial critique service, please do refrain from mentioning that your friends/second cousins twice removed/neighbour’s dog thinks that yours is the best book they’ve ever read and that it should be published.  My friends are very complimentary about my karaoke skills, but there’s no chance that Simon Cowell is going to give me a recording contract… If you belong to a writers’ group, have done a creative writing course/degree or have won/placed in a writing competition, do include that information as it demonstrates the seriousness of your writing ambitions.
  • It sounds obvious, but please read the guidelines of the Agency to see how large a sample of your novel you should send – we deliberately don’t ask for the entire novel but I still receive a large number of full manuscripts. And please don’t send me chapters 8, 22 and 67 as ‘these are the best representation of your writing style’ (read, the chapters you think are the best). It seems obvious, but I, like other agents and editors, start at the first chapter

While a good covering letter is crucial, once that’s perfected, how do you ensure that your chapters and synopsis sustain the readers’ engagement?

  • While there can often be a temptation to immediately include everything that makes your characters and setting unique, don’t introduce your main protagonist and then spend the next three pages on a potted history of their life up until that moment. I think of it like being introduced to someone at a party. If your character said ‘hello’, shook your hand then reeled off their life story – including how their parents met, how they got into their profession, the population and socio/economic breakdown of the town in which they live, a full physical description, marital status, and any vices – rather than trying to get to know them better, you’d be inclined to back away slowly, wearing a fixed grin. Think of your characters as being real. Not every main protagonist has to be a benign hero, but they do have to be engaging enough for the reader to want to invest time in their company. Tease out the information slowly whilst still engaging the reader – we have the whole book to get to know and invest ourselves in the world you have created.
  • Having said that, what I do want is for you to punch me in the face with your opening chapter (metaphorically speaking). A high concept, an innovative crime scene, a well-defined sense of place that transports me into the scene, a character that arrests the reader’s attention from the very first line – these are the things that will cause me to take notice. What I love is an opener that makes me gasp, immediately engages my attention and compels me to read further. I want to be forced to drop everything so that I can read your novel.

One aspect which many people find to be the hardest part of the submission is the one-page synopsis. How do you get all those delicious plot twists and original characterisation into a few hundred words? Please do adhere to agency guidelines on this, however. Your concept should be clean and punchy enough to get across successfully in one page, particularly in the crime/thriller genre. One page outlining the key plot points in clear language is helpful; a seventeen-page chapter-by-chapter breakdown is not.

  • A synopsis isn’t cover copy. You may think you’ll pique our interest by enigmatically describing what happens in your book with rhetorical questions and ellipses, but we need to know what happens and to whom, in clear English. If the landscape of your seemingly ‘normal’ police procedural suddenly happens to be attacked by an alien invasion, it would be advantageous to know that before I start to read…

And my last word on the subject of submissions has to be – don’t give up hope, and keep working on your writing skills. What doesn’t work for one agent may be exactly the right fit for another.

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About Keshini

Keshini Naidoo is a former commissioning editor at Avon/HarperCollins, now working as a freelance editor/proof reader as well as Crime/Thriller reader at the Darley Anderson Literary Agency.

She can be reached on keshininaidoo@hotmail.com or @KeshiniNaidoo on Twitter and welcomes crime/thriller fiction submissions at crimethrillersmysteries@darleyanderson.com