23 June 2021

Guest Post: Writing a Novel, by Kate Ferguson ~ Part Two: Getting an agent


When I wrote the final words of my novel last September, I published a post reflecting on what I had learned in the five long years it took to complete my manuscript. Nine months on, having just signed with an agent, I’m ready to share the next part of my journey.

After taking a little time off, I began the process of redrafting. Some of this was fun, but most of it was tedious. Re-reading your own work can feel a bit like biting into a rotting apple. You do it because you cannot afford to let good food go to waste. But the lack of freshness makes it almost unpalatable. Also, the risk of encountering an existential crisis in the form of an enormous worm looms large.

Some wonderful friends, acquaintances and family members offered to read the manuscript. I collected their feedback greedily, compiling their comments in a Microsoft Word document. I was fascinated by the diversity of approach. While some honed in on small logistical details or individual moments, others took a far more sweeping perspective. How you read is how you see the world.

I also shared it with my writing group. The three of us have been meeting virtually throughout the pandemic and are already well-versed in each other’s works. We know about the joy and torment of writing a novel and they know my strengths and weaknesses better than anyone else.

Finally, I sought professional guidance in the form of a manuscript assessment. I was lucky enough to know someone who offers this service. The person in question is a novelist herself and has previously offered me invaluable advice on structure and character development. If you can afford this, it is worth the investment. Just make sure that you check the individual or company out first. They’re not all worth the money.

Her comments left me nodding in recognition. It is wonderful to agree on what’s wrong with your work because it means you are looking at it through the same prism. She had wonderfully encouraging things to say, too. She believed it would be published but the crux of her advice was: don’t send it off just yet.

I took her advice and made a plan. I knew I couldn’t solve every problem, but I picked out the main areas of weakness and approached them systematically. This was not particularly enjoyable but it was necessary. With the support of my writing group, I looked afresh at my subplot and at one particular character whose interior I had not sufficiently inhabited. I worked and I improved, but it still wasn’t perfect. It was, I decided, 80 percent there.

It was an annoying, arbitrary metric. So near and yet so very far. My enthusiasm began to wane and there came a point where I could no longer bare to open the document. I abandoned it for a while, and tried my hand at some short stories. It felt good to delve into other worlds for a bit.

But still, it niggled at me. I didn’t want to have spent five years laboring on something that wasn’t going to see the light of day. What plagued me most of all was my opening chapter. I had agonized over it, for years. One night, in a fit of literary mania, the product I expect of weeks of low-key restlessness, I scrapped it.

It was, probably, the best thing I could have done because the ruthlessness of my decision buoyed me forward: yes, this novel wasn’t perfect but what work ever was? It was time to send it out. Years could go by before it was at 90%. A lifetime would pass without it reaching perfection. I picked up the 2019 Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook my sister had gifted me for Christmas two years ago and opened the agents listing section. I would work alphabetically.

The Internet is full of advice about how to find a literary agent and I devoured it all. I familiarized myself with people’s lists, took careful note of submission guidelines, and wrote a cracking synopsis. I wrote a personal but professional cover letter which I tailored to each individual agent.

I have been a while out of the dating scene, but for me, the process of finding an agent has been analogous. One of the most bemusing and prevailing features of a standard agency’s website is something along the lines of ‘Please don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear from us. We get thousands of submissions every week! Just because your work isn’t right for us, doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it.’ Then, a few lines down you get something like: ‘However, please let us know IMMMEDIATELY if you are offered representation elsewhere!’ The translation of this is: we’re probably not interested. Unless someone else is, in which case we’ll assume you’re the hottest thing since Sally Rooney.

In April, I sent about half a dozen submissions out. Most agencies tell you to assume it’s a no if you don’t get a reply within six to eight weeks. Having not yet heard anything, a month later, I sent out another bunch.

The next day, something extraordinary happened. An agent, wildly enthusiastic about the first three chapters, requested the full manuscript. Then, a few hours later, another I had written to the month before did the same.

The next two weeks were a whirlwind. The first agent who had replied offered me representation. Since I had researched agency etiquette, I knew that at this point, the polite thing to do was to write to all the other agencies to which I had submitted.

Almost overnight, I became a literary hotcake. A number of other agents requested the full manuscript. I gave them a week to get back to me. The audacity. Me – giving an agent a deadline! After five years of lonely labor, the whole thing was wonderfully preposterous. Some rejected it, but nicely. Others said they were interested. I talked to two other agents on the phone. In the end, in the most ridiculous turn of events imaginable, I had more than one offer to choose from.

I went for the first agent who had responded to me. Her enthusiasm was unbridled, so much so that at first I couldn’t quite believe it. But a literary marriage is nothing without passion. Two weeks on from signing, I am still in the best kind of writerly shock.

Right now, we are working together on a line edit – the first of many. Of course, there are no guarantees. Douglas Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain was rejected by 44 publishers. But for now, none of that matters because what a privilege, what a treat to have someone by my side as I once again, begin afresh.

Kate Ferguson

# # #

About the Author

Kate Ferguson is an Irish writer and journalist living in Berlin. Her short fiction has appeared in The Wild Word and WWBL, a literary journal focused on women's writing. In 2019, her story "Emil Anonymous" was shortlisted for the New Irish Writing in Germany award. Kate blogs regularly about life in Berlin and her writing journey at www.katekatharina.com. Find her on Twitter @katekatharina

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting