In 2015, I typed the final words on my dystopian YA story, The Burn Radius. My immediate thought was that it was time to start querying for an agent. I’d done my research and knew what the process would involve (the sending of a query letter, summary and the first three chapters of my novel to agents) and I naively believed my manuscript was in a good enough shape. Thirty rejections and multiple revisions later, I soon realised how wrong I was.
Last year I secured representation from a literary agent for a completely different novel. While unpublished, that first manuscript was later shortlisted and runner up for the Commonword Diversity YA Fiction Prize 2018. Here are five things I wish I knew before sending that first query.
Make sure your novel is ready
I cringe to think about the state my manuscript was in when I sent out those first queries to agents in 2015. I’d read through and edited my first draft and shared it with beta readers, but I know now that my novel wasn’t ready to be queried. This is something I would quickly learn after receiving feedback from agents who passed on the manuscript. They had questions about the story’s structure and plot, which could have been fixed with more edits and redrafting.
Take time perfecting your query
People say the first novel you write will probably not be the first you publish. I haven’t given up on that first novel, and even though it’s the second one that secured me representation, the first was still key in helping me learn about the query process and what agents are looking for.
I’d highly recommend reading up about how to write a good query letter and summary of your novel before making any submissions. One of my favourite resources is Query Shark. Not only does Janet Reid, the literary agent who runs Query Shark, answer questions from writers about the query process but the website also boasts an extensive archive of critiqued queries.
"My advice is to persevere no matter how many rejections you receive. Take the advice and feedback when offered and be willing to adapt and adjust accordingly."
Do your research
It’s important to make sure you’re querying the right agent for your novel. Agents often share what they’re interested in on their website, or you can check out the hashtag #MSWL on Twitter to see what requests agents are sharing online. Requests may vary and sometimes agents close submissions so it’s important to make sure the agent you’re looking for is open to reading your query.
Agents may also have specific requests about how they want you to format your submission or how many chapters and pages they want to see of your novel. Each query should be personalised accordingly to the agent that you’re sending your submission to.
When I first started looking for representation, agents often pointed out that my YA speculative fiction novel fit into an incredibly flooded market and books need to stand out to be accepted by publishers. It might help to also research the state of your market and to include a line in your query about where your book fills a gap in that market. Including comparable titles or “comps” in your query is one way of doing this. A sentence like my novel is “Book X meets Book Y” or “If you liked Book X, then you’ll like Book Y” shows who your potential readers are.
"It might help to research the state of your market and to include a line in your query about where your book fills a gap in that market."
Consider other avenues
After stressing the importance of perfecting your manuscript and query, the irony isn’t lost on me that I found my agent after sharing a first draft of my new novel. A real, raw first draft. It wasn’t intentional of course. I secured a spot at an open day at the David Higham Associates (DHA) agency. I’d applied using an excerpt from my first novel but during a one-to-one chat with one of their agents I mentioned that I was working on another project that I was really excited about.
They expressed some interest and so I sent them the manuscript. An offer wasn’t immediately made as my novel unsurprisingly needed lots of work. But they were keen to keep in touch. And so when it came to the querying stage, that agent was top of my list.
In addition to open days at publishing houses there are countless mentorship schemes and competitions which involve one-to-ones with agents. Writers also share shorter pitches on Twitter with events like #PitMad. How I secured representation is just one of those examples of how alternative avenues can help you get your work in front of an agent.
"The Lit Platform’s mentorship scheme was vital in helping me work my way out of a rut on my second novel."
Be flexible and persevere
I started work on a second novel to keep flexing my writing muscle and maintain motivation for other projects. While querying, I sent out other short stories to magazines to build up my writing resumé and applied to mentorship schemes. The Lit Platform’s mentorship scheme was vital in helping me work my way out of a rut on my second novel.
To summarise, I queried 30 agents for The Burn Radius and received two full manuscript requests. For my current work in progress, I queried five agents. Two of whom wanted to read the full manuscript but passed because of time constraints, another two didn’t respond and one agent offered representation. There was a significant difference in the quality of my query packages for both manuscripts and the results reflect that.
If you’re still in the query trenches, my advice is to persevere no matter how many rejections you receive. Take the advice and feedback when offered and be willing to adapt and adjust accordingly. Both novels I’ve written have changed considerably from the first drafts. While I haven’t made every change suggested to me, the ability to accept feedback and continuously reimagine my story and characters is what keeps me going.