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Surviving the Query Trenches, & Finding a New Agent

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Hello, Dear Readers - welcome back, and my apologies for the long, long, loooong blog hiatus this summer. Things have been happening, changes have been afoot, and I have a lot of news to share.

At the beginning of summer this year I finished my first draft of A SUDDEN LIGHT, the novel which makes up the creative artefact of my PhD thesis. This is my first adult novel, a novel which I've wanted to write for ten years, and a novel which is far more personal to me and my own experiences than anything I've written before. It was a big, emotional experience; when I reached the last words of the last chapter (which I had actually written over a year ago) I burst into tears. It meant and means so much to me.

I also felt a bit emotional because now - well, not right away, but soon - I was going to have to start querying agents.

I was with my former agent, Nancy, for thirteen years. I adore her. But earlier this year she broke the news that she was going to retire, and while I was very happy to wave her off on new adventures, the idea of heading into the query trenches for the first time since I got my first book contract - which was so long ago that we used to query by sending people actual stacks of paper in the post, accompanied by a stamped addressed envelope for the reply - was not fun. I didn't even have to query when I parted ways with my first agent and signed with Nancy in 2010; my publisher referred me. Lots, and lots (and lots) has changed in publishing since 2005.

What was more, I wasn't querying as an established YA author - but as a debut adult author. With effectively no track record. Starting right from scratch. So I knew this was going to be rough. And it absolutely was.

But I also learned a lot and did eventually sign with a new and utterly wonderful agent. So I'm going to share the story of that process here.

After following the basic steps - putting my manuscript aside for a month, reading and revising, asking writer friends to read the book and give me feedback, revising again, then polishing one last time - I was ready to send out a batch of ten queries at the end of June. I'd tried to pick agents who represented books that I felt would fit comfortably next to mine on a shelf - timeslip, historical, women's fiction - and I'd decided to target a selection of different sized agencies (big, medium, boutique) because that felt like good strategy and because, honestly, I had no idea which option would be best for me.

I pressed 'send' and received a slew of automated email receipts and then... I waited. I did get three full manuscript requests over the following five or six weeks. I also got a few rejections. I decided to send out two new queries for each rejection as a way to retain my sense of optimism, and so as the weeks went on, a couple more full requests and a few more rejections rolled in. But most of my queries went unanswered, I didn't get any offers and by mid-August I was starting to drive both myself and all my writer friends absolutely up the wall.

I eventually got some very kind rejections for my full manuscript that - although really devastating to read - usefully pointed to the fact that I may have made a slight (ha ha) mistake. The problem with picking agents who had lots of clients working in the area of historical women's fiction and timeslip was, logically enough, that many of them felt they couldn't take on new writers who would compete with all their existing ones. One of these agents told me that they truly loved my manuscript and said they felt 'gutted' to have to turn it down. So for my next few queries I tried to look for agents who had a more diverse client list, but I other than that (and relentlessly tweaking my covering letter) I couldn't think of anything else to do except... keep waiting.

Then the end of August rolled around and something happened. I'm not sure what - maybe people coming back into the office after their summer holidays and diving into their query piles - but over the space of a week I got three new full manuscript requests, one of which turned very quickly into a request for a meeting the following week. A meeting! We set up a zoom call. I made a list of questions to ask while simultaneously trying not to get my hopes up too high (what if this really was just a friendly chat, or maybe it would be a revise and resubmit, or they would ask me to work on something else...?).

They offered to represent me. I thanked them, told them I was thrilled - I was! - and asked for the traditional two weeks to make up my mind before coming back with my answer.

After I got off the call I did some deep-breathing exercises, and took some time to try and make sense of everything they'd said about the book, their plans, the way they worked. I rushed off to my writer's group and told them: I HAVE AN OFFER! After a round of congratulations and a nice, intense natter about the call, it was time to get back to business. Before I could do anything else, I knew I had an obligation to let the other agents who had my query or the full manuscript know, and give them the deadline for my decision too, so that they had a chance to respond. I started down the list in alphabetical order, so I was emailing a mixture of agents with the full and ones who just had the query.

Then something began to happen that I hadn't really prepared myself for. Within ten or fifteen minutes of sending out the first emails, I started to get responses. People who had the full manuscript were saying that they would put it right to the top of the pile and get back to me ASAP. People who had the query - some of whom were among the first batch I'd queried, at the end of June - were saying that they'd now read my opening chapters, loved them, and they wanted the full.

I started to feel a bit overwhelmed and took a break, but the full manuscript requests kept coming in for the rest of the day. When I went back and informed the second half of the list of agents the next morning, it started again. By the time I went to bed that Friday, I had fourteen full manuscripts out. That is a mind-boggling percentage of the total queries I sent out.

And then - even more unbelievable - on Sunday evening, an agent emailed to ask for a Zoom call the next morning.

By the end of the Monday, I had calls lined up throughout the next week. I even ended up having a last minute Zoom meeting on the morning of the day when I had set my deadline. My friends said that this was known as 'making a splash'. I started to feel that I was trapped in a malfunctioning holodeck and it was all just too good to be real. All these agents were SO AMAZING. All of them had such wonderful things to say about my book: validating, insightful, kind, comments that filled me with a dangerous amount of optimism.

Now, here's something I think it's quite important for me to say: this is supposedly the dream scenario, and yet I didn't enjoy it very much. I tried, believe me. But mainly I felt intensely anxious, sure it was all a mistake, or that I would make a mistake - make the wrong decision - or make people feel that they had wasted their time (because as a working class woman, there's a very strong training from a young age that you should take what you get given and say thank you, and not imagine that you're special). At a couple of points I started to feel almost afraid. Surely this sort of attention couldn't be allowed? It was - I'll use the term again - completely overwhelming.

And yes, I know that anyone who is querying right now, or soon expects to be, is probably reading this with an increasing desire to see my head explode. I'm telling you because you have to be prepared for the fact that querying messes with your mental state. I know I've been incredibly lucky, and of course I'm not complaining! I just want everyone who is in or is about to head into the query trenches to be prepared for how the whole process programmes you to expect constant rejection and disappointment. Even before any offers come in, you may well start to feel and act a bit weird, and you might struggle to understand it if/when your luck turns. I'm not saying everyone would react quite this way, more that you will probably end up with big confusing feelings at some point. Querying is HARD.

My advice is to get your support system in place. Bribe your writing friends with chocolate and gifts if you must! You're going to be a really odd little gremlin by the time you're finished and you will need help to find perspective and keep your grip on reality. I thank the Writing Gods every day for my writing group.

So back to the Big Decision. After my last minute call on the deadline day, I had - realistically speaking - about four hours to make my choice before close-of-business. I tried very, very hard not to freak out. I walked my dog, made myself some lunch, went back to my poor beleaguered writer friends to talk over my thoughts, and slowly but surely realised that the final call hadn't changed my feelings.

Although two agents had stood out to me throughout the whole process and I had gone back and forward between them constantly in my mind, one in particular had basically captured my heart from her first email. Our Zoom call had ended up going on for a bit over two hours because we found it so easy to talk to each other. Her passion for the book was deeply humbling; she had so clearly understood and responded to what I was trying to do, and one of her editorial notes made the hairs go up on the back of my neck, it was so completely right.

So I let that choice sink in, then I emailed my chosen agent to very gratefully accept her offer of representation, and once she had responded (with another lovely email) I contacted all the others to let them know my decision.

The responses from the agents whom I had turned down were so kind that it underscored to me how lucky I was, and what a privilege it had been to be able to actively choose between them. And it was really at this point that I finally felt able to relax and take in the fact that I was agented again, and just bask in my sense of relief and joy.

I'm delighted to announce that my new agent is Kate Shaw, of The Shaw Agency. She has over twenty years of experience as an agent, and her clients include such luminaries as Holly Smale, Isabel Ashdown, Joanna Courtney, S.J. Willis, Andy Seed, Lucy Adlington and Fleur Hitchcock. Every writer is always excited about and in love with their new agent, but words can't even express how happy I am that I queried her, and that she fell in love with my book, and swept me off my feet with her expertise and enthusiasm. She is absolutely amazing.

Obviously no one can really be 100% sure what will happen when their book goes out into the big, wide publishing world, but I know without a doubt that Kate is a truly safe pair of hands when it comes to my books and career. I'm so excited to see what happens next.

Toss me your thoughts and responses on Twitter, Dear Readers! (Don't worry, you won't have to sign in to comment here - I've finally figured out to how to fix that).

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Sep 29, 2023

Kai-congrats Zoe. I'm really excited to read your new adult novel when it comes out (I'm sure it will find a publisher!). Best of luck!


Sep 27, 2023

Congratulations on your new agent. Considering you had an agent for over a decade and published several novels, I don’t think any of us who have never left the query trenches would characterize that as “starting right from scratch” just because you were writing in a different age category. That kind of track record is a huge boost for a query letter.

Sep 28, 2023
Replying to

Thank you. And although I appreciate your point of view, of course, having to go back to querying agents with a new ms at this stage certainly felt like starting from scratch for me. I've even been told that having midlist publishing credits, as opposed to being a shiny debut, can actually be more of a hindrance than a help in many cases...


Sep 27, 2023

I felt a little teary reading this so I can't imagine the emotional rollercoaster you truly felt. Congratulations!

Sep 27, 2023
Replying to

Aw! Thank you! Honestly, I could STILL get quite teary if I let myself...

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