How I got my agent

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I was asked to write this blog for a US-based website a little while ago, but as far as I can tell, it has never appeared. So waste not, want not. I get quite a few queries on this very subject so here’s my attempt to answer the question, 'How did you get your agent?'

In 2005/06, I was working on a collection of short stories, with the help of a SIAP award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I had also been offered a place on a mentoring scheme run by the Creative Writers’ Network (sadly, no longer in existence) and was working with writer Damian Gorman as my mentor. I’d read an historical article in a local parish magazine about the story of Annie Montagu - how she tied up her three-year-old child in a wardrobe room at Cromore House in Portstewart in 1892 and returned to find the child strangled. Cromore House is about a mile from where I live. My idea was to start with this story, the keystone of the collection, and to work my way through ten or so connected stories, in decades to the present day. As it happens, I never got away from the first.

After a few meetings, Damian asked if I was sure I wasn’t writing a novel? The thought terrified me. I’d had some short stories published in individual magazines and anthologies, a collection seemed manageable, but I had no idea how to set about structuring a longer piece. He encouraged me to set out the sequence of events as I knew them and, gradually, bit by bit, a longer story began to weave its way. I reached the end of the mentoring programme, and of the Arts Council award period. I had satisfied all the funding terms and conditions. I had written about 30,000 words. I resumed work as an arts fundraiser and writing facilitator. I was working on a theatre piece for production by Cahoots NI and life was busy. At that stage, my children were around six and nine years old. I realised with a bit of a shock that no one was going to come after me if I never finished this thing I’d started. I needed an incentive to keep going. So I developed a strategy. I’d keep writing, and start looking for an agent, and if I got through all the relevant listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and still didn’t have one, I’d work my way through all the publishers that would accept unsolicited submissions. And if I got to the end of that list, I told myself, I’d consider self-publishing. I was really hoping that wouldn’t be necessary. At that stage, digital publishing was a twinkle in the eye of Amazon and I’d never even heard of print-on-demand. I had no desire to deal with distribution and marketing, but I knew that the prospect of non-publication wasn’t going to get me to finish writing it, so I agreed that if all else failed, self-publishing it would be. I needed a glimmer of light.

I’d heard that agents would want to see a completed manuscript, but I reckoned that by the time I got to speak to one, I’d be near enough finished. Early in 2007, I chose five agents for the first round of submissions, all representing writers I admired, from a mix of London and Ireland-based agencies. I tailored every submission to their individual criteria. I wrote a letter based on the advice contained in articles in the Yearbook itself. I received a few muted responses: one agency wasn’t accepting submissions; one said they weren’t unanimous about liking it. Then one day, I got a call on my mobile. A few days before this, a motorist had driven into the back of my car at a roundabout. The company dealing with the incident was arranging a courtesy car while mine was in the garage. They’d been dragging their heels a bit. I’d been getting impatient. The name of the woman from the insurance company was Clare. When my mobile rang, I was in the back of my sister’s car, she and my Mum in front, and I was directing them around the one-way system in Coleraine. (If you’ve ever been in Coleraine, you will know that you can lose a day of your life in the one-way system. Missing your turn-off is not an option.) I was urging my sister to take a left, across two lanes of traffic. I answered the phone, heard the name Clare, assumed it was more mind-numbing insurance information, and distracted, carried on waving at my sister. It took me a few seconds to realise it wasn’t Clare from the insurance company, but Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates. Their client list includes Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks, Germaine Greer. She was saying she’d liked what she’d read, that she’d like to read more. When did I think I’d have a final manuscript? This was around March. ‘By the end of the summer,’ I said. She’d look forward to reading it.

I didn’t have it finished by the end of that summer, or indeed, by the end of the summer after. I came up with what I considered to be a passable draft in February 2009. I had just won first prize for a short story in the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Contest in the US, a magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola. Included in the prize was a direct-route submission to ten leading New York literary agents. Three of them got in touch. Did I have a longer piece of work they could look at? I did, but I thought of Clare. At no point over the previous months of writing did I consider not finishing the book, and that was because she had said she liked it. Her words had kept me going. I sent her an email explaining the US development.

‘We’re looking at opening an office in New York,’ she said. ‘Will you send me the manuscript?’

‘It’s not finished,’ I said.

‘Send it anyway.’

So I did, and she still liked it, and we signed a contract and a couple of months later, Mary-Anne Harrington from Headline Review said she liked it as well. Headline Review publish two of my favourite writers: Maggie O’Farrell and Andrea Levy. I was thrilled to bits. There was still plenty of work to be done and with the help of Mary-Anne, I was delighted to do it. The Butterfly Cabinet came out in hardback in August 2010, and was released the following year in paperback in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and as an ebook. It has been published in translation in Italy and the Netherlands, and is now published in hardback and paperback in the US and Canada by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I realise now how incredibly lucky I was that the book caught Clare’s eye.

Publishing has moved on a long way in the last few years. The rise in digital publishing has made self-publishing a much more attractive option. But if you’re interested in going down the traditional route, this would be my advice. Think about what kind of writer you are and what kind of reader your work will appeal to. What writers do you like to read? Who are their agents? Who publishes them? In what section of a bookshop would your book appear? Who is your profile reader? No one likes to be pigeon-holed; we all baulk a little at the idea of being categorised as a particular kind of writer; we like to think we have wide appeal. But in order to help agents and publishers to place our writing we have to consider who our potential readership may be. Years ago at a reading I attended the writer confessed, under pressure, to regarding his target reader as a slightly younger, somewhat sexier, marginally more intelligent version of himself. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think that, secretly, we may all consider our readers to be idealised versions of ourselves. Those readers are out there, waiting. We just need to know where to find them. And finding an agent is, potentially, one of the first links in the chain.


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