LIZ DE JAGER ON HOW TO FIND AN AGENT (WITH AGENT COMMENTARY)

25 February 2014

By

Banished by Liz de Jager
I'd like to talk about how to find an agent and hope my story is useful
... On the 27th of July 2012 (during the Olympics in London) I submitted my query letter to literary agent Juliet Mushens (now at The Agency Group), along with the first three chapters of what was then called Grimm Tales: The Blackhart Legacy. 

THE QUERY LETTER
Here’s the original query I sent her (click here).

What followed next was pure terror. I got an out of office reply to say that Juliet was out of the office and I basically thought: that was it, no going back now. 

MY WRITING HISTORY AND SCBWI MEMBERSHIP
I’ve been writing, in a serious and focused capacity since around 2007.  Previously I dabbled at writing and never actually finished anything apart from short stories.  I got to around 30k or 40k words and then I’d get led astray by a new shiny idea and drop the other thing and get busy on that.  In 2008, I was made redundant from my day job and for two weeks, whilst looking for a new job, I panicked. I realized that I needed a plan, I wasn't getting any younger and I needed to take stock of my life. I found a new job and within a month of this I emailed SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and was invited to one of their socials. I made friends with a handful of people, I signed on as a member and before I knew it, I was writing in a serious and focused way on my first book (for kids, aged 9-12). I completed and utterly loved this. I sent it off after some edits to a handful of agents – after which I received a few requests for both partial and full manuscript. Also, two editors (whom I met through the Children’s Book Circle) asked to read it too. I received a lot of love for that book but it wasn’t quite there yet, and no one was prepared to take me on with so much work yet to be done. 

banished-wordle
In the meantime, I’d become the Agents’ Party organizer person for SCBWI BI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - British Isles).  By researching agents for them, I became far more aware of what agents wanted. I set up the parties, ran raffles for our members and had some great successes on that front as the 'instigator’, helping other members land an agent.

FIRST DRAFT OF GRIMM TALES AND SCBWI LONGLISTING
In the meantime I wrote GRIMM TALES and sent it off to beta readers to read – they liked it a lot. So I entered the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition and had GT long-listed – which was superbly flattering but also scary.  On the back of the long-listing I attracted interest from agents who wanted to read GT, so I sent it off to two agents. One declined it, saying they weren't looking for urban fantasy at that moment. The other read it, really liked it, but said that too much work still needed to be done and also she felt the voice wasn’t right.

When I didn’t get shortlisted for the Undiscovered Voices anthology, and this coming on the back of these two agents’ rejections, I was devastated.  I swore off writing. I told myself I was utterly rubbish and wasting my time. I went into full-on diva mode and wallowed.  It was fantastic, actually. I didn’t write for three months. And I relished my misery until my two beta-readers decided to stage an intervention.  It basically went like this: shut up with the moaning already, write more, write better, pick yourself up, we’re sick of your moaning, prove them wrong.

I re-read Grimm and realized so maybe the agent was right about the voice. Maybe it wasn’t quite there yet.  I therefore dumped the seventy thousand words completely and started again from scratch.  I paced the book differently.  It was faster, and although I still hung the story on the bare bones of the original, it was a completely different animal. This was because I was writing it in first person present, not something I tried in the past.

I edited it, sent it off to betas to read and from their responses I thought that okay, maybe I had something here. 


SENDING THE MANUSCRIPT TO AGENTS
manuscript-pile
I was busy working on the 2012 agents’ party for SCBWI and started chatting to Juliet via twitter. I'd thought it would be a great idea to have her come along, either as a guest in the audience or to participate in our panel event, and was keen to set that up. She was so sweet and chatty and we got along really well. Juliet cautiously asked me what I was working on so, stupidly and without thinking, I responded with something like: Buffy meets the Brothers Grimm but with more fighting and fae rather than vampires.  Juliet (bless her heart) responded asking me to please bear her in mind, when I was ready, as she was building her YA list and would love to give it a read.

GETTING AN AGENT!
writing-banished-target-1When it came to me actually sending the manuscript out, I was such a huge nervous wreck and procrastinated for days.  I sent it on the Friday and on Saturday morning I was tidying bookshelves (see: procrastination tips) when I got a direct message on twitter from Juliet saying: CHECK YOUR EMAILS and I kinda died of nerves.  The email was incredible – I read it maybe six times. She liked the main character! She liked my words wot I wrote! She wanted to meet me in person. When would be good?

Due to work constraints, we met a week and a half later. And although she was complimentary about the manuscript, she also had a lot of valid points to make about fixing and tidying it up. The biggest thing I had to do though was consider getting rid of a character entirely. He was too big and too noisy for the book and the story veered from Kit’s story to his – so an editorial decision was made to cut him completely. It scared me, but I trusted her gut instinct; she wouldn’t be doing her job so well if her instincts were wrong.

After an extensive rewrite and hard grafting, we went to the market in 2013 and sold The Blackhart Legacy (three books) to Tor UK, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. You can see their press release here. Now Book One, Banished, is finally about to be published - on Thursday 27th February! 

COMMENTARY FROM MY AGENT, JULIET MUSHENS, ON THE PROCESS

juliet-mushens

From Juliet Mushens:

'I was excited about Liz’s pitch as soon as she mentioned the book to me. I was intrigued by the idea of a Buffy-esque heroine, with fairytale elements. When I meet authors I always ask what they are working on and Liz nailed her pitch, which meant I remembered it when it pinged in my inbox.

Liz’s query letter was great. It was focused, and gave me all the information I needed to know: genre, wordcount, comparative titles and some background information on her. Her pitch for the book was fantastic and made me really excited to read it. Often cover letters try and give away far too much of the plot, and get bogged down in minutiae. Liz’s pitch, by comparison, was punchy and whet my appetite for the book. It set up the main heroine, the world, and the key plot points in just a few sentences, which is no mean feat!

blackhart-braceletWhen Liz came in to meet me I was nervous, as I had fairly extensive editorial notes. I always try to be honest with a prospective author about the level of work I think that they need to put in. 99% of the time I lay out my editorial vision and the writer sits there nodding and saying things like ‘yeah… I knew that was a problem but hoped I’d got away with it!’ If the writer doesn’t agree with my editorial points that’s absolutely fine, but is a key indicator that we shouldn’t work together as we’d see their books in very different ways.

One of my key points for Liz was that she needed to remove one of her main characters. My reasoning was sound: he was brilliantly written and very dynamic, but he stole far too much attention from the main plot and it stopped being Kit’s story and started to become his. I remember sitting there running through my other notes, and avoiding that one, until Liz said, ‘I re-read the book for this meeting and realized that one of my characters isn’t working …’ I started laughing and shared with her my thoughts on the topic. It was an indicator for me that we would work very well together, but also reinforced my belief that authors know their books inside and out, and with a bit of objectivity can see the manuscript’s flaws as well as its strengths.

I always like to meet an author before taking them on – or we chat on the phone if that isn’t plausible. It’s key to establish a shared strategy and editorial vision for the book, but I also want to make sure that we get on. I could see quickly that Liz was warm, enthusiastic, funny and hard-working as well as a hugely talented writer. And that really is the ideal package from my perspective.

She went away and began the first round of edits, and with hard-work and her natural talent, Banished became a book that several publishers bid on, before Tor won it last year.' 

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You might also be interested in reading:
Juliet Mushen's on how to approach an agent: dos and don'ts 

A series of posts on our publishing day jobs:
TOR TOUR: NOT JUST EDITING by Tor UK Editorial Director Julie Crisp 
TOR TOUR: A PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT EXPOSÉ by Publicity Manager Sophie Portas 
TOR TOUR: COMMISSIONING & SOCIAL MEDIA by Senior Commissioning Editor Bella Pagan
TOR TOUR: THE MARKETOR by Senior Marketing Manager Rob Cox
TOR TOUR: THE EDITORIAL ASSISTANT by Editorial Assistant Louise Buckley