Publishing Journey, Writing

My publishing journey: Querying agents

In the last episode, I wrote two books and chucked them because they sucked, and then I produced a very rough first draft of a Regency romance/fantasy crossover. This, unfortunately, sucked as well. But I could see within it the bones of something that could maybe not suck, so I thought I’d see what I could do to draw that out.

I put the draft novel aside for a month to rest in its juices, and in that month I researched. When writing the first draft I’d based my conception of the world on all the Regency and Regency-set books I’d read: Austen, Heyer, O’Brian. Now I read actual history books: books on Britain and its inhabitants in that interesting time, but also books about the transatlantic slave trade, Chinese emperors and Mughal India. I also read fiction and nonfiction from the actual period (thank you, Gutenberg!) — one of the best parts of writing historical fiction, IMO.

My head brimming with Regency-appropriate slang, I then re-outlined the book and wrote a second draft, cannibalising a fair amount of the first. By mid-2013 I had a complete redrafted manuscript that was as good as I could make it by myself. I wrote a query and synopsis, made a list of agents, and queried the first eight or so on the list.

(There is an additional step I could’ve taken between completing the second draft and querying agents. I should really, if I’d been properly conscientious, have asked a couple of my smart, generous writing friends to beta-read my manuscript, and done another revision pass based on their comments. I didn’t lor. I was too impatient! Anyway, you cannot escape the work that has to be done, as you’ll see later.)

On how I chose agents to query: I looked in the acknowledgments pages of books by authors I liked, who had careers I would like to have, and whose books were similar in some way to mine. I picked out their agents’ names and googled them to see if they were taking new clients, and if they were I added them to my list. Also, kind of randomly, I looked at QueryTracker’s Top 10 Most Queried Agents list and picked a couple to query, on the assumption that all those other queriers must have done their research and known what they were doing.

There are a couple of things I should mention for context, that happened around this time.

In March 2013 I was told that I’d made the final ballot of nominees for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. You may ask why I got nominated if I felt my career was in such a shambles, or conversely why I felt my career was in such a shambles if I got nominated. But the weird thing about writing/publishing is that all the stuff that people know about is late and external, and all the important stuff is internal and nobody knows about it unless they happen to be sitting next to you or on Gchat when you want to have a moan. So it was very nice to be probably-the-first-Malaysian to be nominated for the Campbell Award based on my short fiction (I haven’t actually checked the nationality of all previous nominees, so I’m guessing), but mostly I was worrying about how to tie together the subplots in Sorcerer and wondering whether “fazed” was a thing in Regency England. (It was not a thing. It’s an American word.)

It was good work. Actually I was a lot happier after I got stuck into Sorcerer. The external stuff will come and go, but you can always trust the work.

The second thing is that before I started querying agents, two novelist friends offered to recommend me to their agents/agents they knew. I’d actually already heard from one of these agents by the time I started rolling out the queries, expressing interest in seeing a novel from me if I had one. But listen first ya, don’t start yelling, “How lah like that, I don’t have published novelist friends to recommend me left and right!” (You can start yelling after I’ve explained!)

I was very lucky. The timing worked well: it’s nice to start querying a fantasy novel with a major SFF award nomination in hand. And agents will read recommendations from their clients a bit faster than their other submissions. (They will read all their submissions in the end and judge based on the writing, so it’s really just being fast-tracked through the queue, rather than getting any extra consideration.)

But if you want to know how to (a) get published novelist friends and (b) persuade them to recommend you, this is how it happened for me. I met one of the novelists in fandom and read a lot of her fanfic, and she read some of mine. And I submitted a story to the other when she was the editor of an online zine — before, I think, she’d even sold her book — and she accepted it. Years later, when I was writing Sorcerer, I talked about the fact that I was writing a novel and planned to query agents on my blog/Twitter account/etc.

That’s it. The rest was their own generosity. I didn’t proactively ask my published friends for recommendations to agents, because I figured that if the book was good enough the agents would be interested, and if it wasn’t good enough, all the recommendations in the world were not going to help. And in fact, the agent I ended up with plucked my manuscript out of slush; there was no previous connection or recommendation.

But I am getting ahead of myself! I’ll talk about that in the next post, but for now let’s end on a cliffhanger (!!!) with my queries out there in the world. I find the next part of this story kind of exciting!


Previous Publishing Journey posts

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them


4 thoughts on “My publishing journey: Querying agents

  1. Pingback: My publishing journey: Signing with a literary agent | Zen Cho

  2. Pingback: My publishing journey: My query letter for SORCERER TO THE CROWN | Zen Cho

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