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My route into writing was an unusual one. In my twenties, I worked as an investment banker – that was back in those sepia-tinted days when you could say that sort of thing and not be spat at in the street. The professional was financially lucrative but culturally impoverished, a trade most of us can live with, at least for a while.
Then my wife got ill. Not a smidge ill, a cough here, a sniffle there. But a huge, complex, life-threatening illness. So I quit work to look after her. (She’s a lot better now, thank you for asking.) Looking after her wasn’t quite a full time job so I started to write a book. I’d always wanted to, but now was the opportunity.
I wrote away for about twelve months and had a monster manuscript on my hands: 180,000 words, or a roughly 650 page book. So what to do with it?
I did some things right and some things wrong. The main bit I did right was to pick a decent idea. (You can read about it here.) I also edited that book relentlessly. When I thought the first 60,000 words wasn’t quite up to scratch, I deleted them and rewrote them. When a friend told me that I over-used commas, I went through the entire text and sorted them out. I was obsessive about getting it right – and, with writers, obsession isn’t a character flaw, it’s an essential part of the toolkit.
The main bit I did wrong was to submit my stuff to literary agents using what may well have been the World’s Worst Covering Letter. Because I was an investment banker, I thought I needed to pitch my stuff HARD, instead of just letting the manuscript do the talking. I sent my stuff out to 6 agents, got 6 rejections. Then sent the book out to another 6, this time and got 2 or 3 offers of representation. Finally I was in business. My agent auctioned the book, got a few offers, and we ended up selling the thing to HarperCollins, a wonderful publisher.
That book was my first. I wrote another four novels for HarperCollins. Then switched tack and wrote four works of non-fiction (including a book all about Getting Published.) But fiction was never too far from my thoughts and the first in a series of detective stories is coming out next year with Orion.
And after all that, how would I sum up my advice? Well, the first bit, the main bit, and the only bit that really and truly matters is simple: write a good book. Do that, and you can be a complete idiot about approaching literary agents and you’ll still get there in the end. If you don’t do that, then no matter how persistently you search for agents, you’ll never get anywhere. Writing a good book is by far the most important – and by far the hardest – part of the whole literary game.
After that, well, there’s no particular point in copying me and writing the World’s Worst Covering Letter. You could just write a short, simple attractive query letter. You could write a simple, well-presented synopsis. You could make sure that your manuscript presentation is half decent. (That first manuscript I sent to literary agents was printed in a 10 point font size – probably the most embarrassingly stupid mistake I made, even worse than my covering letter.) Getting these things right means that agents will have to take your work seriously. They’ll have to turn attentively to your book itself, which is all that you can ever really ask.
Additionally, you can be a wee bit sensible about how you choose which agents – and how many – to approach. More info on how to find a literary agent here.
And that truly is it. If you do those things and your book is good enough, you’ll get an agent. If not, that’s not because there’s been anything wrong with your submissions procedure, it’s because your manuscript still isn’t strong enough to sell. After all, agents aren’t looking to take you on because they love you or love your concept: they need to have something they can sell to publishers.
And if your book does get turned down but you still believe in it (as you jolly well ought to!), the next step is probably to get tough professional feedback on your writing. Now let me be clear here: I do have a vested interest. My editorial company, The Writers’ Workshop, makes money from offering editorial feedback to new writers. We’re jolly good at it and plenty of our clients end up with agents and publishers – but there are no guarantees. I’d never say that ALL writers should pay for feedback. Life just isn’t like that. There are some people for whom pro feedback will make all the difference; others who should stay well away. I can’t say, without knowing more about you and your project, which camp you’ll fall into. But still. You probably want to know the service is there, should you want it. More info about it here, if you’re interested.
That’s it. I’ve been in this game for twelve years and ten books. All the advice that really matters is contained in this blog. And if you only remember four words, remember these: write a good book. And if your memory holds room for two more, then try and squeeze these in as well: Good luck!
Harry Bingham is a bestselling author who runs an editorial consultancy, The Writers’ Workshop.