I’m now an agented author!
This week I became an agented author, signing with Harry Illingworth at DHH Literary. This is a major milestone for me, although it’s also just the first step of the traditional publishing journey.
It’s been a wild couple of weeks. As I said in my post about the short story I sold to Clarkesworld, I thought when I got the email from them that I had just had my absolute peak for the year in writing terms. It’s still absolutely amazing, but I found out I was about to fulfil another ambition barely two days later.
Putting work out in the world
I have been writing since my teens and I wrote my first novel-length manuscript in 2005. That was a (really not very good) NaNoWriMo novel, but it was the first milestone in proving to myself that I could sustain a story over tens of thousands of words, dozens of characters and a complex, multi-layered story world.
Unfortunately, I then spent about ten years only producing first drafts.
I’ve never had a problem finishing projects, if we narrowly define finishing as getting a rough draft. I’m lucky (in a way) in that my first drafts are reasonably clean and readable. They look okay from a distance. But get up close and they are riddled with structural issues, continuity errors, silly coincidences, clunky exposition and occasionally indulgent worldbuilding.
In March of 2020, I finished the first draft of my seventh completed novel length work, just as the shutters were slamming down on the world. This was a real doozy of a first draft, clocking in at a frankly silly 165,000 words. It was a mess, structurally, thematically and in probably hundreds or even thousands of small errors. It was more of a compost heap of words in a vaguely book-shaped pile.
Having just finished this book, I didn’t feel quite ready to tackle it, but after doing a little soul-searching I decided that I really needed to teach myself to properly edit. I had ‘edited’ a couple of my books before, but honestly I had been a bit overwhelmed with the scale of the problems present in those drafts, so my so-called editing mostly consisted of skim-reading, fixing typos and find-replacing character names I didn’t like.
There was a book in my pile of manuscripts I really liked and that I kept coming back to. It was a near-future spy thriller, with a huge, world-spanning backstory, a pair of protagonists that I really liked and some really exciting action sequences. It had many, many flaws, but it kept floating to the top of the list. So, I decided to try and learn to properly edit with this project. In the worst case, I would learn how to edit and have a trunk book I liked a bit more. Best case I might actually end up with something that I could actually do something with, like querying agents.
I’m going to discuss my editing process in a future ‘How I Write’ post, but suffice to say - I did manage to edit this novel (then titled Stringers) into the book that is now The Burning Line.
How I queried
I’m a huge over-researcher. Whether it’s a bit of tech, books, holidays or a new hobby, you can guarantee that I will have spent significant time looking at reviews, comparing things, making lists and generally systematising and planning everything that can be reasonably planned. I love a todo list and a kanban board and a spreadsheet.
So, naturally, querying was a good fit for my… systematic personality.
First I assembled a Notion database full of prospective agents. This was over-designed and a bit much (it’s a great tool, but I made a bit of a rod for my own back in maintaining a big list of agents). I quickly realised that there was already a pretty comprehensive tool out there - QueryTracker. Once I got my head around the user interface (it has some fairly idiosyncratic design choices) and figured out how to create different folders for query batches and so on, I made myself a huge list of over 250 agents, then narrowed that down to around 80 for the project I wanted to query.
Then there was the vexed question of the query letter. As I learned by spending a lot of time reading QueryShark and the critiques posted at the (invaluable and amazing) PubTips subreddit, there’s a bit of an art to pithily and compellingly describing your book in such a way that the agents you’re querying get a good feel for what it’s actually like. Your writing absolutely needs to be good enough, but it’s the combination of the query letter giving the whole vibe of your book and the sample pages being compelling that will prompt an agent to request a full, which is asking for the whole thing.
I wrote a first draft, then a second and third. Eventually, I thought it was pretty good and I posted my first attempt over at PubTips. It really wasn’t very good or clear and the comments from the users there helped me to sharpen my description, find better ‘comps’ (comparative titles that allow agents to get a sense for where the book may fit in the market) and refine the language of the query itself. My second attempt went a little better and gave me lots of food for thought.
I was also lucky enough around this time to join Edinburgh SFF, an amazing community of writers that has been one of the best things to happen to me this year. That group has several agented and published writers in it and I ran my query past them, gaining even more amazing feedback. Finally, after (I think) ten or eleven drafts, I had my baseline query. I tested it out with the veteran agent John Jarrold who I was paired with in an agent one-to-one session at Cymera. He gave me more encouraging feedback and I decided I was ready to start sending it out.
In total, I sent 56 queries over about three months. This is a pretty short amount of time by querying standards, but at the time it felt interminable. Querying is a very odd exciting-but-dull process. It is essentially high stakes but quite repetitive data entry. I customised most of my queries fairly heavily, adding personalised portions that related the novel to the agent’s MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) or their current client list. So for each query, I needed to assemble the email or form entry, check I’d followed the guidelines (which are always slightly different for each agency), make sure I had all the right attachments and finally hold my breath and hit send. It’s easy to make minor mistakes when you’re doing this kind of thing day after day, so I’d advise working in batches and taking your time.
It also turned my normal quite dull email inbox into a very exciting place. Eventually I had to turn off notifications because I couldn’t handle the adrenaline spikes every time I saw an email come in. It’s weird to put things out into the world like this, because it means that there’s a chance every time something comes back that this is the moment when something will change in a drastic way.
I spent far too much time using the Timeline feature in QueryTracker to see which agents had skipped over my query, meaning they were reading and rejecting queries after mine in their queue. A lot of this is an exercise in pattern projection, trying to read the tea leaves about what it might mean. There’s a good chance if an agent skips your query that you are in some kind of ‘maybe’ folder, but there’s no real way to tell.
As time went on, I started to have real doubts about whether I’d chosen the right manuscript to query. I got about twenty rejections, but I also had about the same number of agents who had skipped, plus another ten or so with a QueryTracker record indicating they didn’t reply to most queries. So there was enough hope to keep me going.
Then I got a full request! Hooray! It came in while I was in the chilled meat aisle at Lidl, truly a place of great fortune. There among the sausages, I quickly attached and sent back my full manuscript, then got a stuffed crust pizza to celebrate.
Two days later, I got a (very nicely worded) form rejection. That was a bit of a low point. It was the first real feedback I had gotten, indicating that perhaps my query wasn’t working to effectively describe my novel - perhaps the agent had rejected it because the expectations raised by the query and the (very) short extract they had read hadn’t been met in the book itself.
Querying can feel a little like standing on a floodlit football field, just punting things out into the surrounding darkness. Occasionally one or two will roll back, but they rarely come with any feedback - which is completely understandable given the sheer volume of queries agents need to deal with. But this means that you often have no idea what might be working and what you should change. Every agent is different too, so there’s no magical formula which will appeal to everyone you send a query to. In the absence of feedback, you’re left operating mostly on instinct. I gradually added and edited, took bits away, changed wording, tightened things up. When I queried British agents, I expanded my query a little and added some context about why I’d written the book.
But mostly, I just kept plugging away, streamlining my process, breaking down my query letter into its constituent parts so I could easily assemble new emails or form entries, making myself checklists so I didn’t forget a critical part or send the wrong thing. I took heart in a post I saw on PubTips that said every query got you closer to a yes. Even if it wasn’t this book or this agent, there was an unknowable number of queries to go until you found a match, if your book is good enough. I thought it was good enough, so I just hoped that unknowable number was in double figures, rather than triple.
Then, I got another full request, on my 40th birthday of all days. This time, it was from a UK agent and one who had been in my Dream Agent batch, especially because his wish list seemed very close to what I’d written. I remembered having put a lot of time into the query letter for this agent, carefully describing how I felt the book might be a good fit for him. And it seemed like it might be. He’d read the three chapters I had sent in and he was ‘intrigued’. I sent off my full manuscript, then tried not to stalk the agent in question too much on Twitter.
Two days after I sold my story to Clarkesworld, I was still riding on a high. I had just finished work for the day, when I saw a new email on my iPad. Because I’d turned notifications off, I couldn’t see what the email was, so I tapped it. I saw the word QUERY in the subject line.
Then I saw the immortal words ‘Hi David, how’s things?’ in the message preview.
Rejections don’t start with ‘How’s things?’, as a rule.
I read the email, then read it again. Then I swore under my breath for a solid thirty seconds before sprinting downstairs to do a little jig in the kitchen and screech to my wife. Harry Illingworth, a director at DHH Literary, had read my whole book in under a fortnight, and ‘loved it’. He wanted to have a zoom call at my ‘earliest convenience’.
We scheduled the call for Thursday, then I waited two agonising days, hardly daring to dream.
The initial call I had with Harry was phenomenal - we clicked instantly and had a nearly hour and a half discussion. After forty five minutes of editorial notes I couldn’t take the suspense any more (all the suggestions made me think that it was going to be what’s called a ‘revise and resubmit’, which is good, but not an offer) and I blurted out ‘Are you offering rep?’ halfway through a sentence. Thankfully, he was.
I then nudged a couple of other agents I had been interested in, although if I’m honest I did this because I felt it was sensible rather than because I really wanted to. After a week without response from those other two agents, I cracked, emailed them both to withdraw and signed on the dotted line.
The next day was truly surreal. After sending in my new client form to DHH, complete with an author photo shot up against the door of my garden shed, I had the humbling experience of having Harry welcome me to the community of DHH authors, as well as making my book sound fucking cool in the process:
New Signing Alert: The Burning Line by @WordsByGoodman, a BRILLIANT, gritty, near future spy thriller set in the aftermath of climate collapse. Amidst the backdrop of Istanbul, on the brink of destruction from a nihilistic cult sweeping the globe, we follow Mackay and Forbes...— Harry Illingworth (@harryillers) November 25, 2021
A lot of people over the years (friends, colleagues, uni mates) have known in an abstract kind of way that I did some writing. A few had even read what I’ve written. Indeed, it was positive feedback from my wife, my brother, my sister, my mum, dad, stepmother and a couple of other close friends that made me feel like this book might be ready to go out. But it was really strange, exciting and wonderful to share that I had achieved this milestone with everyone, to see the dozens of comments and supportive posts roll in from from friends and family.
Now comes the big challenge - submitting this novel to publishers. Working with Harry, I will edit based on his feedback and we’ll eventually ‘go on submission’ as it is called, approaching editors to try and secure a deal for the book. Just like querying, nothing is guaranteed and it could take days, weeks or months. Not every book sells on sub either, so, once I have prepped the current manuscript to the best of my ability, I will do the only thing I really can do while I wait to see what will happen with the first book - write the next one. This has been one of the most strange and wonderful months of my life and I’m so thankful for the support I’ve had from my family, from other writers and most of all from my wife, Valerie.
I won’t lie - it is also incredibly validating to have an industry professional like Harry tell me that my book is actually good. It’s amazing how much it has rekindled my excitement for the book. Right now I’m writing some new material and making edits and I’m so excited to see just how good I can make it. Best of all, I know I’ve got a phenomenal agent in my corner now.
It is an incredible feeling to get to this stage. I can’t wait to see what happens next.