Finding an Agent.

Jun 28, 2020
finding a literary agent

Finding an Agent.

Many of you may be putting the final tweaks on the third or fourth draft of your novel (or later!) and considering the right time to query an agent. There are a few things to bear in mind when doing so, and in the Big Edit course at The Novelry we demystify the submission package: the query letter, the synopsis, and your opening chapters.

Most agents find writers through their slush pile. It’s a terrible name given to something so vital to the publishing business – the ‘pile’ (nowadays likely an email inbox) of unsolicited manuscripts sent in by hopeful writers. There is no shame in your novel sitting in slush; there is a long, pervasive misbelief that publishing works on ‘who you know’. It’s simply not true.

In 2015, I sent my unsolicited novel to eight agents I had never met. Each of them replied to me. Six offered to represent me. I didn’t know anyone! The only thing I knew was my own novel – and you’ll find my query letter below, which I hope is a little bit helpful, and hopefully a little bit reassuring. Hilary Mantel, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith… all of their very successful novels – and subsequent careers – came through the slushpile. If you can learn to describe your own story well, you can absolutely unlock an agent’s attention.

The hardest thing about the slushpile is standing out. This is where we can help at The Novelry.

We partner with literary agents to share your work.

(See our list of respected literary agency 'partners' to whom we submit our writers work here.)

If you’re a member of The Novelry, you have a choice. You can polish up your work as much as you can using our online writing courses, get feedback on your opening chapters, synopsis and query letter, research which agents represent your genre and who you wish to send your novel, and we will support you all the way as you send your book baby out into the world.

But we also have a growing stable of literary agents we work with directly to share our members’ work. We know the ins and outs of their tastes; we chat with our agents to understand what they’re looking for, and what they’re struggling to find. If the writing of one of our novel course graduates, fits the bill, and that member wants us to submit on their behalf directly, we will.

This doesn’t mean representation is guaranteed. We simply put your well-polished writing into the hands of an agent looking for something similar, and more often than not, we find a match made in literary heaven.

Introducing Juliet Mushens.

We’re delighted that Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment is joining our esteemed roster of literary agents.

Juliet started her publishing career in 2008 at HarperCollins and became an agent in 2011. She has been shortlisted for Literary Agent of the Year four times. She represents a bestselling and critically acclaimed list, including million-copy no. 1 bestseller Jessie Burton, multi-million-copy NY Times bestseller Taran Matharu, Pointless presenter Richard Osman, and Sunday Times bestsellers Ali Land, Claire Douglas, Debbie Howells, Stacey Halls and James Oswald – as well as me. (Hello!) On the non-fiction side, she represents books such as Very British Problems (@soverybritish).

Juliet is looking for adult fiction and YA only – crime, thriller, YA, reading group fiction, ghost stories, historical fiction, SFF, romcoms, high concept novels, and books which fall a little bit in between. A list of Juliet’s favourite novels includes The Book of Night Women, Americanah, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Hate U Give, Uprooted, To All the Boys I Loved Before, Room, Disclaimer, The Immortalists, The Rosie Project and Homegoing. She is particularly keen to see #ownvoices narratives.

Researching agents.

The best advice I can give you is to research the agents to the best of your ability. If they represent literary authors but no science-fiction and fantasy (SFF) novels, don’t presume your alien invasion story will turn their head. Agents are readers, too, with their own personal taste; respect that. Literary agents who represent authors writing in your genre will have fantastic relationships with editors who publish your genre – that’s not to be sniffed at. That’s the goal!

The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start, as well as the many online resources. Check the backs of your favourite books to see who the author thanks in the acknowledgements – most authors, if we’re not monsters, will thank our agent. You can also get pretty far Googling a writer’s name plus ‘literary agent’, and landing on that agency website. Research thoroughly. Look at their Twitter. Look for interview articles where they discuss what they’re looking for. Often their clients will have blogged about how they found their agent, which makes interesting first-hand reading. Don’t query any agent who says they’re closed to submissions.

My second-best advice (and I’m veering towards stating the obvious): send them exactly what they ask for. Pay attention if their submission guidelines request the first three chapters, the first 50 pages, or in rare cases the first 10 pages (eek!) – or no chapters at this time, until requested when they’ve read your query letter. The ability to follow their guidelines indicates you are a writer they will want to work with. Don’t fail yourself there. Customise your submission package for each and every agent.

The query letter.

Your query letter is the first thing an agent will see when you send them your novel. Think of it like a cover letter that accompanies your CV when you apply for a job: it should strike a professional tone, represent you and your work to the best of your ability, and entice the agent just enough to open the attachment – ie your opening chapters.

At The Novelry, this is what we encourage writers to include in a query letter:

  • A one-line pitch based on the hook of the novel
  • A longer paragraph or two about the story (inc. your hero characters)
  • A line or two about yourself, with any writing experience, e.g. courses or awards – don’t worry if you don’t have any, the agent cares about the novel much more here
  • The completed manuscript wordcount
  • Why you're approaching that particular agent – e.g. because they rep authors in your genre
  • And, if you can find a good comparison, the novels yours would sit alongside on the shelf ('for fans of').

An example query letter

I queried my now-agent Juliet Mushens in 2015 with my novel Hold Back the Stars. It had a tricky pitch – half a love story, half a science-fiction novel set in space. I thought it might be a good match for Juliet’s taste because she represented science-fiction and fantasy writers and literary/upmarket authors, and in my mind my novel combined both. Looking at it now, could I have made the story simpler? Probably. Definitely. Yes. But I can say that with hindsight because the novel has been published for three years. Just do your best: showcase the question your novel is asking, and hint at the answer the story will provide.

Here’s mine.

Dear Juliet,
I wanted to send you my manuscript, Hold Back the Stars, based around your work in SFF with Taran Matharu and Francesca Haig, as well as your success with Jessie Burton’s literary fiction. My novel blends two such genres, and I've attached the first three chapters for your consideration. 

Hold Back the Stars is the story of Carys and Max, a couple falling in space with only ninety minutes of air remaining. Like Gravity crossed with One Day, their entire relationship is told in real-time as they tumble through space. A love story suspended above an earthly utopia, Hold Back the Stars is part sci-fi, part romance; half set in space, and half on a perfect Earth.

After the inevitable self-destruction of the Middle East and USA, Europe has become a utopia and, every three years, the European population rotates into different multicultural communities (Voivodes), living as individuals responsible for their own actions. After answering a query on the MindShare – the Twitter of the future – Max meets Carys, a newcomer to the Voivode. They spark and a date seems likely; though Max, staunchly pro-utopian and therefore individual, realises with some trepidation that Carys is someone he might want to stay with long-term, which is impossible.

As their relationship plays out, the connections between their time on Earth and their present dilemma in space become clear. When their air ticks dangerously low, one is offered the chance of salvation – but which? Here the timeline fractures to explore whether we ever really move on from our first love, and if it’s just human nature to be unhappy and rebel against the rules, even in a perfect world.
Hold Back the Stars is complete at 76k words, and I'm currently working on a second novel based around time travel. I live in London and during the day I head up interactive and digital marketing at a film studio (Paramount). I have had some early interest in Hold Back the Stars from an editor at Penguin Random House. I let her know I was looking for an agent.
I've attached the first three chapters, as well as a one-page synopsis, and would love to hear your thoughts.

All the very best,

In the Big Edit, and our stand-alone editing course, we look at synopsis writing – the bane of many writers’ lives, though it’s a great discipline to develop – and how to polish up your opening chapters until they gleam. Remember to apply the same elbow grease to the rest of your novel, too.

Happy writing,


From the desk of Katie Khan

Top Tip from The Novelry.

Don't take the Editing Course before you have written a good story!

We find people take the editing course before they've properly understood how stories work and it's a deal of trouble to work backwards. If your novel is taking you many, many years to write, you've got story problems. Writing a novel over years often means you lose sight of the story you might originally have had as it falls victim to annexed stories, new events and changes in you the author. (Unless you're world-building, writing historical, fantasy or the first in a series in which case you're exempt!)

1. PLAN your novel's story with our Classic course.

2. PRODUCE your story to the highest standard, ideally within a season, with our Ninety Day Novel course ®.

3. POLISH your story with our Editing course.

(We won't submit work which hasn't been produced through our novel course - at step 2 - because the quality of the story is likely not there. Do the work, in the right order, and you'll have a good book in a year.)

You can do this! Get yourself a routine that removes the requirement to be 'in the mood' and work in spite of how you feel and remember, the first draft is just you getting the story down. All the art of the novel happens after that, for all of us.


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