here is the second part of my entry on negotiating the first successful agent/publishing experience. view this as 'my diary' - it's my personal experience, sure, but hopefully these reflections benefit other writers. i've broken the thought process down.
1) need: you need to ask: do you even need an agent? not everyone does. it depends on your personality, contacts and networking abilities in addition to, or as much as, your manuscript.
having come from a screenwriting background, i knew that some of the successful screenwriters i'd worked with preferred to represent themselves. however, these people had worked in the industry for many years, had many contacts, many credits and just enough ongoing work to make a decent living without too-complicated a billing process.
an agentless work life worked for them.
it didn't for me.
in truth, i believe i made a mistake in not seeking to acquire a television writing agent at a time when i was in prime position to acquire one. my story is that i took some time out from that industry for my first child. then – despite a CV of four years' mostly full-time script department work, two television drama screenplays, a series-worth of script editing credits and 7+ years of full-time professional writing prior – i found it hard to get a foot back.
why? multiple reasons: my industry contact situation (i had a few great contacts but not a large spread, then); my failure to seize the day and acquire an agent at the perfect time; and the fact that i'd become a mum and a primary carer and could no longer accept the uncompromising full-time script editor roles that did come my way. i came close to tears on at least 3 occasions when i was told (by long-established production companies): 'sorry, we'd hire you but part time or three-quarter time doesn't work for us. we've tried it and it doesn't work.'
i wasn't prepared to cave on my personal, family goals and needs and, in the end, i chose different writing jobs, in other industries, that let me see my kids. less pay but more real.
yes, i feel my life and needs as a primary carer got in the way of my professional life at that time. but also, i think part of the problem was that i was working as my own agent. and this is not my skill. an industry agent may have helped me find the work i wanted. writing is tough, no matter your industry. assess all this when you think about need.
2) belief: despite the above 'troubles' i still believed. also, i knew i had a weapon: story. television writing taught me many things and one of the most important was the ability to plot. my time at sea patrol, underbelly and rescue special ops exposed me to the minds and writing of some of the most respected and generous storytellers in australian tv. these included the great marcia gardner and the late and loved jeff truman, both mentors and friends. i owe a lot to these writers, and many others, for teaching me about story and turning points and raising the tension and commercial breaks and character traits and URST. screenwriting is a different skill to prose but all of these story techniques can be translated across mediums.
i decided to use all this experience to make my own story. one that i could plot at my own pace, via a novel. it was hard but i did it and, once completed, i knew better than to go it alone. i knew that this time i needed a literary agent.
3) research in terms of finding a literary agent in australia, the first port of call is the Australian Literary Agents' Association.
keeping it simple, this is what i did: i scrolled through the list and applied to the first agent that caught my attention (not the first agency on the list, but the first that appealed after research).
the research thing is important. you need to look carefully at the agencies that you're applying to. find out the kinds of authors and books they represent, whether they are accepting submissions in your genre and what kind of submission processes they have. there's no point sending your science-fiction manuscript to an agency that specifically states it is not looking at fantasy or sci-fi.
similarly, an agency will be unimpressed if it asks to see three chapters of your manuscript and instead you send them nine.
4) patience: it takes time. in the end i was unsuccessful in obtaining the services of that first agent. however, the whole process from original query to rejection took close to seven months! 7 months is too long. you do need to be patient but you also need to own your work. 5 months is a long time, but it's possible that in certain circumstances it can take this long. so, patience, work on something else. 3 months is a long time but reasonable. patience. again, keep working.
7 months is too long.
in the end i was successful with my second query/submission and i am happily represented by Sheila Drummond of The Drummond Agency.
5) ownership: my commissioning editor at Echo Publishing said something valuable to me last week: 'own your work'. this is pertinent, whether you are at the beginning of the writing process, at the submission process or, like me, facing the weeks prior to first publication. such good advice and it comes back again to belief. i knew my manuscript was worth a look-in and worthy of potential representation. why didn’t i back myself more from the outset and put my cards on the table? the answer is first time naivety and insecurity. therefore, my advice now for aspiring novelists looking for an agent (knowing that, in the end, my manuscript connected with both an agent and a publisher), is to back yourself just that little bit more.
sure, there are people who write terrible, unpublishable manuscripts and will seek to be published at any cost. i've heard also of people who still write 'dear sirs' in their query letter. (wink, my friend). there are also people who choose the self-publishing route and whose work is of enormous quality and therefore very successful. of course, there are readers for all kinds of books (because readers are as varied shells on the shore), so if you are a true storyteller and wordsmith, then I think you know when your output has value. I think you know it has worth before you get that industry acknowledgement – otherwise you probably wouldn’t put it forward. so, back yourself. own your work.
I know, from 15 years' experience, that writers are often the most bewildered of workers. however, we are also some of the most diligent.
and this: at the end of the day, our craft is what makes the stories happen. as writers, we need to own that.
i hope this is useful!
i'll post part 3, re the specifics of what an agent can do for you, soon.