Hooking an agent part II – Agent Rory Scarfe shares his top tips for perfecting that submission letter

 

Last week I shared my submission letter for The Sister (originally titled Buried Memories) in the hope it might help those putting together submission packages. If you missed it you can read it here. Today I’m joined by agent Rory Scarfe, of Furniss Lawton, with his three top tips to give your submission letter a head-start.

1) Attention to detail 

As boring as this might sound, you would be amazed at how many letters fall at the first hurdle. This doesn’t just mean spelling the agent’s name correctly (though please don’t address me as Ms Scarfe), but also showing an understanding of what the agent/agency is looking for and why you have selected them particularly. That way you come across as focussed and thoughtful, rather than scattergun in your approach.

2) Show knowledge of the market

More than ever, it is the role of the author (as well as their publisher and agent) to have a commercial instinct and a long-term publishing plan. If you can demonstrate an understanding of publishing trends and give examples of recent comparable successes that you hope to emulate then you prove yourself a potentially winning proposition. And remember, agents want to publish authors, not just books, in the longer term.

3) Have a point of difference and originality 

The great irony of publishing (and frustration) is that publishers are constantly on the look-out for something that is exactly like a recent success but also completely original and totally different. But that is not as impossible as it sounds. If you have a killer concept that can be pitched to an editor while they have a million other things to do and get their attention, even though the lunch hour beckons, then you are on to a good thing. Never let your ideas be ordinary.

The best of luck to everyone subbing.

In the next instalment agent Rowan Lawton will be giving her top tips on tightening that synopsis. 

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I never thought I’d see my book in print in English and now…

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I am so excited to share the Hungarian covers for my first two novels, ‘The Sister’ and the forthcoming ‘The Gift’.

Ten months ago, being published seemed such an unachievable dream and yet not one I was quite ready to let go of, picking myself up after each rejection and trying again. Having my debut published earlier this year was phenomenal, but even then it never occurred to me that my story might one day be translated into different languages.

The rights to my first two novels have now been sold to several territories and I can’t wait to see the different covers. Hungary have chosen to use the same artwork as the UK versions.

I am so glad I never gave up. As C.S. Lewis said ‘You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream a new dream.’

Novel Writing – The Mentor and the Mentee

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In May 2015 I was lucky enough to be offered a place on The WoMentoring Project and receive a few weeks of mentoring from the lovely Louise Walters, author of the fabulous Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, and the forthcoming ‘A Life Between Us.’ (Due to be published February 2017). The support I received was invaluable and really helped shape me as a writer.

It was thrilling to recently get together with Louise to celebrate my book deal, and amongst the coffee, cake and talk about books, it was great to compare our experience of the project.

 

LJ: How did you hear about the WoMentoring project?  

LW: Twitter! I hear most of my bookish news through Twitter.

LJ: Me too – I’m using it more and more. Why did you want to be a mentor?

LW: I wanted to help other women to write. As soon as I heard about the project I knew I wanted to be involved. I know how hard it can be to find the time to write, to find the money for a critique, and perhaps most importantly, to find the self-belief. I also thought it would be beneficial to my own writing, and it has been. When I spot something that isn’t working, I often react with “OMG, I do that!” So critiquing others’ work is I hope mutually beneficial.  Why did you apply to the Womentoring project?

LJ:  I’d gone to a local writing group with the view to writing a non-fiction book. At the beginning of the meeting we were given a couple of words and ten minutes to write something. The bare bones of what is now Chapter One of The Sister was born. I spent the next few days thinking about Grace, my main character, and when someone from the group sent me a link to The WoMentoring Project and suggested I should apply and develop my writing I checked it out, and then discounted it straight away. I thought it was aimed at ‘proper’ writers. Not someone with no experience or qualifications, who had only scribbled down a few lines on a torn out sheet of a notebook. I bookmarked the page though. I’d noticed you on the list of mentors and having just finished, and fallen in love with Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, I felt really drawn to apply. It took days and days and a few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to email, and I never dreamed I’d be accepted. Why did you pick me as your mentee? 

LW: I liked your writing and it was easy to spot your talent. I also spotted areas for improvement and I thought we might be a good match. The fact you live not a million miles from me helped too, as I thought it would be lovely to meet up. Also in your application you stuck to the word limits and applied as per the Womentoring Project instructions. I turned down other applicants because they didn’t do this.  How did the mentoring help?

LJ: Firstly, it gave me the confidence to try. When we first talked and I said I wanted to write a short story you asked ‘why not write a novel?’ as if I could, and I felt a real spark of ‘could I?’ That spark grew and grew until I scrubbed out the title of my story and wrote ‘Chapter One’ instead. Your offer to critique my first 10,000 words drove me forwards but I never quite believed I could write so much – having never written more than 200 words before, but I wrote and wrote until I had the first few chapters. I was euphoric! I sent them over to you half-expecting you to call and tell me they were so brilliant you’d sent them to your publisher! Of course, they weren’t good, as first drafts often aren’t.  You told me, so kindly, they’d be great as individual short stories but they didn’t flow like a novel should and I didn’t hesitate in deleting them.

LW: I had no idea you’d deleted all those words! I hope I wasn’t too blunt… it’s so important for writers who want to publish their work to grasp that a novel is more than a series of events… it’s the tale you weave around those events that makes a story, and makes a novel.

LJ: I went back to basics. I’ve always been an avid reader but I started to read like a writer instead, noticing the flow, the sub-plot, those subtle undercurrents and then I tried again, frantically trying to write another 10,000 before our mentoring period ended. The relief when you liked my second attempt was immense and I think that’s where mentoring was so beneficial. Getting that flow, that balance, is so critical. I feel so lucky I got the advice I did, 10,000 words in and didn’t spend the next 18 months writing a book that no-one would want to read. Did it take long to read and critique my work? 

LW: Longer than I thought it would, to be honest! I had to concentrate really hard!

LJ: You were very thorough. Were you comfortable with criticising?

LW: Yes, I think so. I know only too well how painful it can be to receive criticism, so I tried to remain constructive and positive, while at the same time be honest enough to be of decent help. I didn’t want to demoralise you. I was relieved to find that you were sure enough in your own aims and abilities to not necessarily agree with everything I suggested… Mittens, anyone??!!

LJ: Yes! You really didn’t like the cat in Chapter One and although I took most of your advice on board, the cat you didn’t like, stayed. I think building enough confidence to develop my own voice, trust my own instincts and not take things that aren’t working personally, has stood me in good stead to cope well with the inevitable rejections, and now the publisher’s edits. Writing in present tense is something I wouldn’t have dared try at the beginning as so many people don’t like it but by the time I’d finished the first draft in past tense, I knew I hadn’t written a book I’d love to read. That meant going back to the beginning and changing the tense, and then losing the last 40,000 words completely to change the genre. I feel like I’ve written more than one book during this process but I’ve honestly loved every second of it.

LW: Would you recommend the WoMentoring Project to other writing women?

LJ: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe that 18 months ago I’d never written any fiction except a couple of 100 word stories and now I’ve signed a three-book deal with Bookouture. My first novel, The Sister, will be out in July 2016 and I feel so grateful to Kerry Hudson for founding the WoMentoring Project and all the women who volunteer their time to help fledging writers find their voice.  I’m indebted to you for helping make my dream come true and I’m fully intent on paying it forward.

 

You can read my previous posts tracking my experience of the project here,  here and here.

 

The WoMentoring Project is still open for applications and offers free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

Their mission is simple: to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support.

The hope is that new, talented and diverse female voices emerge as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

 

 

The moment you see your first lot of edits…

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It was with great excitement I received my first lot of edits back from my publisher. My fingertips drummed impatiently on my desk as I waited for the document to load, and when it did – Oh. My. God.

Nothing could have prepared me for seeing the slash of red lines that crisscrossed over my beautifully crafted prose. The comment bubbles that spewed over page after page of a manuscript I’d thought was in pretty good shape.

My laptop lid slammed as I forced it closed and with my heart thumping I did what any self-respecting author would do. I crept downstairs to the kitchen and opened the hobnobs, chomping down three before I felt able to go and face the horror that was once my novel.

Back at my desk I opened my laptop, millimetre by millimetre. The screen illuminated. The document flashed open. The red lines were still there.

It was time to put my big girl pants on and read through the comments and, dusting biscuit crumbs from my shirt, I did just that.

I’d never used the track changes feature of Microsoft Word before but once I’d got past the anxiety of learning something new I trawled through the file accepting the basic changes, formatting, font, that sort of thing and it didn’t look quite so scary any more. Not quite so red.

On the second read it struck me there’s not much to do at all and I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but I’m keeping the biscuits next to me. Just in case.

How I REALLY felt when I got a book deal

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I’d envisaged the moment so many times. Receiving THE call. Someone believes in me and wants to represent this novel, along with the million other books I’m bound to write.

I thought I’d float around the garden in a giant bubble of happiness while birds tweeted their congratulations in my ear and rabbits frolicked at my feet.

Instead what happened was after a fraught few days exchanging emails with Bookouture, a proposal dropped into my inbox offering me a three-book deal. No fanfare. No dancing unicorns or rainbows stretching across the sky, as the sun smiled down on me. And what I felt, instead of the euphoria I’d expected, was sheer dread.

They want two more books? Are they crazy? I’m not a writer. I’m a mum who bashes out a few words on a laptop between the school run, work and cooking dinner. What if I never, ever have another idea again? This. Can’t. Be. Happening.

I seesawed between intense gratitude and a churning panic. Lydia, my editor, called to discuss the deal and she was patient and kind, but my mind was fuzzy and I couldn’t makes sense of the words she was saying. Couldn’t think of anything sensible to ask. Numb with shock I found myself agreeing and a contract was quickly emailed over. Pages of terms I’d never heard before and didn’t really understand. I waited for the excitement to kick in. And I waited. And waited.

Fear gripped me and for the rest of that week my word count stood at zero. My ideas dried up and the second book I’d started screeched to a halt. By Friday I was crippled with self-doubt and still hadn’t told my family or friends, or signed the contract. Stricken at the thought of letting Lydia and Bookouture down I poured all my concerns out in an email, trying to explain that although I was incredibly grateful, it was what I’d always wanted, but the process of writing another book, in a specific genre, with a looming deadline, was terrifying. Believing I’d blown my chance I went to bed for the rest of the day with the covers pulled over my head.

On Saturday I left the house for the first time in days. It was freezing, but as I sat by a local lake, my fingers blue with cold, idea upon idea juggernauted towards me. What if I put this twist in my new book? What if the main character did this? I scrambled in my bag for my ever-present note-book and scrawled page upon page of bullet points. Sunday was spent typing up my notes. My novel was back on track.

Lydia rang me Monday morning and alleviated every single fear I’d had, and even some I wasn’t even aware of.

And that’s when I felt it. That frisson of excitement.

That I can.

I will.

I am.

 

It took a while to fully sink in but I can now genuinely say I’m utterly thrilled with the opportunity and so, so thankful to be signed to such an innovative and dynamic publisher. I can’t stop smiling.

So if you look out of your window and happen to see a woman cartwheeling down the street while simultaneously screaming with happiness and necking champagne, well, that would be me.

The thing you should NEVER say when you’ve finished writing your novel

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Last year, I’d edited, revised and rewritten like crazy until my manuscript was so polished it gleamed. It was finished. My beta readers heaped glowing praise upon me while I put my feet up, ate a chocolate hobnob and contemplated my next step. I’d written a novel!

That evening, I went to dinner with a friend.

‘You’ve finished your first book, how exciting,’ she said. ‘Is it any good?’

‘Yes,’ I topped up my wine, ‘but my next one will be better.’ What? Where did that come from? I smiled and nodded my way through the rest of the meal, while the inner me covered her face with her palms and shook her head. What was wrong with my book?

At home, I sat and thought. What wasn’t I happy with? Nothing too major, just……..the plot. Oh dear. It was time to pull it apart, ditch 50,000 words, and have another go.

Fast forward a few months and I was finished. I’d written a novel!

I met my sister for coffee.

‘Is it any good?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’ I bit into a chocolate muffin. ‘There are a couple of chapters that are a bit slow, but the rest is great.’ Arrgghhh! The inner me wrung her hands and cried.

By November I’d weaved in a new plot line and ramped up the suspense. I was finished. I’d written a novel!

Christmas Eve I had an idea. I tried to ignore it, I was finished after all, but I was itching to rewrite, and Boxing Day found me sitting at my desk, not moving for days, until. I’d written a novel! Only this time I felt something I hadn’t felt before. Pride, satisfaction and the urge to open a bottle and celebrate, and so I did.

It finally feels complete.

Curtis Brown Discovery Day

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Curtis Brown Literary Agency hosted a fabulous Discovery Day on Twitter last Friday. This was a great online event and they will be scheduling another one in the New Year so it’s well worth keeping an eye on @cbcreative to find out when.

In the morning there was an opportunity to pitch your book idea directly to the Curtis Brown team using the hashtag #PitchCB. If an agent liked the tweet that was an invitation to then submit directly to that agent.

In the afternoon there were opportunities to ask Antonia Honeywell (The Ship) and Kate Hamer (Girl in the Red Coat) about their writing process and get some writing tips. Some of the fabulous tips tweeted included: –

 

  • Make sure your first page asks a question which the reader wants answered. Every novel is a mystery story

 

  • Write your synopsis as though you’re recommending a book you’ve loved to a friend you think should read it – forget you wrote it

 

  • Scenes in novels rarely need to be longer than 1000-1500 words. If yours goes on pages & pages, do some cutting

 

  • To beat procrastination, glue self to desk with a promise you can stop after 20 mins. When the time is up, you won’t be able to

 

  • The stuff that you write that makes you go ‘uh oh, this is a bit unusual/strange/where did that come from?’ Go with that

 

  • Don’t be too SHOUTY. Less can be more. Lots of us write dramatic scenes in shouty ways – go back and calm them down in the edit

 

  • Don’t write to rules or what you think you *should* do, write what you want.

 

  • Keeping faith is important. Not always easy, but important

 

The last scheduled event was ‘ask the agent’ – some of the questions and answers were: –

 

I’m thrilled to have interest from several literary agents. How do I know which agent is right for me? Is there a key factor?



Check them out – twitter, online client lists, acknowledgements in books.

Meet up with them! It’s a long-term relationship & need to feel unambiguous trust, empathy, meeting-of-minds, inspiration…

 

If agents complement your MS, you’re targeting the right people, but you’ve yet to secure rep, what wld you look to resolve first?



Keep going – and make sure your pitch for the book is razor-sharp.

 

If an agent asks for the full ms, how long does it normally take to make a decision? Thank you

It really varies, but most agents aim for within a month. There are definitely busier periods though…

 

Does it help or hinder if an author has self-published before approaching an agent with a different novel

It does no harm (it used to be looked down on) and now can be very positive. However, publishers buy on the strength of book.

If you’ve proactively promoted it and used the process to develop your author ‘brand’ then it can definitely help

 

How does an author’s book become available to libraries?

The library has to buy them. Works well if borrowers ask for them!