Friday, April 6, 2012

How I got My Agent

Thought it was about time I wrote up my How I Got My Agent story. As all writers know, getting an agent is an enormous milestone. It means someone believes in you and your book and your writing enough that they are willing to work for you to get your book out there. It validates you as a writer, plus you get to say things like, "My agent has my manuscript at the moment' or perhaps, 'My agent called today'. It doesn't really matter what you say so long as those two keywords are in the sentence. Even 'my agent thinks my new haircut makes me look like a pervert' has a certain ring to it. It can also brighten up otherwise dull information, i.e. 'My agent shops predominantly at the Co-op.'

This is not my agent.

But, I digress.

I remember before I had an agent how badly I wanted one. I hoped that doing an MA at UEA (the University of East Anglia) would be a good step towards getting one, and fortunately enough for me, it was. I remember being thoroughly prepared not to get one, as our tutor Andrew Cowan, frequently talked cheerfully about our terrible odds. When the agents turned up for the series of meetings UEA arranged, I sat at the back mostly, hating myself for not being able to remember that agents and publishers are only the same species as me and talk to them as such. I ate a lot of sandwiches on these occasions, and drank a lot of wine.

Actual photo of me back then.

The problem was, I still couldn't sum up my book in a single sentence. I could only ramble incoherently about Irish Travellers and mothers who leave their children and cornfields. After a couple of embarrassing attempts to be a normally functioning social animal I stopped interactions and merely ate sandwiches, drank wine and escaped for frequent cigarettes.

It was different when Catherine Clarke and Caroline Wood from Felicity Bryan Associates came to talk to us though. Light shone through the windows and I heard this high pitched, almost choral AAAAAAAH sound ringing magnificent in my ears. Not really. It was different though. They were joined by agents from Aitken Alexander Associates, and the whole presentation was less intimidating somehow. The different agents knew each other and seemed to get on.

When Catherine talked about How I Live Now, one of my favourite books of all time, I made up my mind to speak to her. The sandwiches would wait! And so they did. I introduced myself and told her that I loved her client's writing, especially that book, and we had a conversation. I talked a bit about my main character, Iris, and why I enjoyed writing characters of that age, and it was all quite nice and normal.

I remember that I didn't know how to end the conversation politely, and so I kept asking questions like some kind of infinitely curious monster, and finally Catherine politely excused herself, and I thought Nooooo, I trapped her! I made her answer questions about the male to female ratio of her list that even I myself, the unstoppable asker, was not especially interested in!

But she gave me her card before she left, and invited me to send my work when it was ready. And afterwards Giles Foden said that she had mentioned me to him. I was so excited. She represented Meg Rosoff and David Almond! She had mentioned me! I had a business card in my sweaty little hands!

Me, then.
It was a stressful time in general, the last few months of the course. My work wasn't going well and there were all these opportunities that I didn't feel ready for. The Creative Writing anthologies were sent around to literary agencies, and people started getting emails from interested parties. Some students signed with agents before we'd even handed in our dissertations. Our meet ups for drinks became ever more tense as news got around who was being contacted by who, and who wasn't. I felt sick every time somebody else got an agent. Happy for them, but sick. I wasn't going to be one of the lucky ones. I knew it.

And then something really exciting happened. After the anthology launch in London, at which I saw Caroline Wood from Felicity Bryan, I got an email from Catherine saying that Caroline had loved my work and called it the stand out piece of the night, and that she would love to see what I had, whether it was finished or not. I was dizzy with excitement! But now I couldn't send anything because I was going into the UEA agent mentoring scheme.

At the end of the MA, those without representation were assigned agent mentors for six months. This was a fantastic opportunity, and I was assigned an excellent agent who really got my work and what I was trying to do. When the scheme finished and it was ok to send work to other agents I was worried. What if Catherine didn't remember asking to see it? What if my story couldn't hold her interest after those opening chapters? Or, my most common and unfounded fear, what if she had just signed somebody else with a book exactly like mine?

Within a day of sending it she got back to me. Lovely prompt person! She'd loved it and invited me to London. I wish I'd taped our conversation as I was so nervous and excited I don't remember much of it. I know I drank Earl Grey, and we talked about Berlin and some kind of dancing, maybe Tango? It was a bit like one of those job interviews where you think you've got the job but it hasn't been said explicitly and so you're still on your best, most hopeful behaviour.

And then, Catherine said she would be delighted to represent me, and I remember saying I'd think about it for some reason, even though really it was a dream, and I left all giddy and fizzing. It still makes my stomach ripple when I think about it. I emailed her as soon as I got home and said yes, and it was the first thing I thought of before going to sleep and after I woke up for days and days and days.

It really is the greatest and strangest thing that I have an agent (and a book deal! But I'll write that story later)... For so many years, I felt I was hardly getting anywhere with my writing, and it seemed that suddenly my luck had changed. Perhaps not so surprising as my work improved a lot over the year at UEA since I had so much more time to put into it.

Anyway, it has given me a very hopeful outlook for aspiring writers. I published my first story when I was twenty-one. Eight years ago. And kept toiling away at it over the years. The thing is not to give up. Keep working and writing, even when you feel like you're barely treading water. Keep trying to improve and looking for opportunities and it shall be yours.

Or if it shall not, you will, at least, not hate yourself for not trying. Which is just as important in the end.