Welcome to my new monthly blog series. This year I’m all about getting a literary agent, so I’ve been doing plenty of research and preparations for the pitches I will do later in the year. The ‘How I Got An Agent’ blog series is really just an excuse to get some insider information from authors who have successfully pitched to an agent and had their book published!
I’m thrilled to have Western Australian author Louise Allan to kick off the series. Her debut novel, The Sister’s Song was released in January 2018 and has gone gangbusters! She’s also a very generous and kind person who offers a lot of encouragement and support to aspiring and emerging writers. I posed a few questions to Louise and she has taken the time to answer with detailed, informative and honest answers that i’m sure every writer will appreciate.
Q. Firstly, congratulations on the release of your debut novel! Can you tell us about the book that landed you an agent?
A. ‘The Sisters’ Song’ is the tale of two sisters, one of whom yearns for a family of her own, while the other dreams of a life on the opera stage. Neither sister gets what she wants, and the rest of the story is about how the sisters cope with their grief and the cards life has dealt them. One sister is able to find joy in life, while the other can’t get over her loss.
Q. What steps did you take to refine the manuscript once you completed your first draft?
A. This is a very long story indeed! There were more than three years and many steps between the first draft of The Sisters’ Song and the version that secured me an agent.
My first draft took me a year to write, but because I didn’t know what I was doing, it was full of holes and was a very rickety read. Some scenes were just bare bones, while others were fat with inane and superfluous detail. That draft probably didn’t even qualify to be labelled a story; it was more a conglomeration of events that sort of died out and so came to an end.
My second draft fleshed out the bones, and I wrote a proper ending (which has miraculously survived, albeit with a different character and in a different setting). It still contained redundant scenes and characters, and a few dead-end tangents.
When I applied for a Varuna residential fellowship, they wanted the first 50 pages, so I asked the writer-in-residence at the local fellowship to look over those pages before I sent them off. She told me I had too much telling, too many (boring) tangents, and a pile of superfluous characters. (She said all of that very kindly, not like I have here!) It was really useful feedback that I later extrapolated through the rest of the manuscript as I was editing.
Before I went to Varuna, two members of my writing group read the whole story, and I edited it again based on their feedback. While at Varuna, I paid for a manuscript assessment from Carol Major. It wasn’t cheap but it was worth it, as she spent two hours with me discussing my book, as well as annotating my manuscript with her thoughts. The main thrust of our discussion was that I needed to work out the theme and to bring that out more, not only by adding scenes to explain things better, but also by culling scenes that distracted from the main story. Based on that feedback, I undertook a major rewrite: I ditched chapters and characters (some of whom I loved—sob!), and pared the story right back so the central theme could show.
That version was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award. While I waited the nine months to see if I’d won, I could only tinker with it. As soon as I knew the outcome, and that I hadn’t won, I gave it to two friends who have since become my second writing group. Based on their feedback, I redrafted my manuscript (again), then sent it to an agent, Lyn Tranter. I nearly keeled over when she rang me three weeks’ later to say she’d read it. I must add, she didn’t have anything positive to say about my book, other than ‘something made me keep turning the page’, but she wasn’t sure what! Her advice was brilliant, though, and because Lyn was an industry insider, I’d have been a fool to pass it up. So I set to work and rewrote my novel for the second time. I put more effort into this rewrite than I’d ever put into anything in my life before, and nine months later I returned it to Lyn. She signed me up, and the first publisher she sent it to, Annette Barlow at Allen and Unwin, accepted it.
Even from that quick summary, you can see how many times I edited and rewrote my manuscript based on feedback. My biggest advice to new writers is to listen to feedback, especially if it’s from someone inside the publishing industry. It’s the only way to get your manuscript to a publishable standard.
Q. That really shows just how committed we have to be as writers to get our manuscripts to a publishable standard. It’s reassuring actually, because sometimes I feel like writing should come more ‘naturally’ than it does for me.
So once your manuscript was done, how did you approach writing the synopsis and blurb?
A. Not known for being concise, I was dreading writing a synopsis, so I cheated! As I wrote my novel in Scrivener, I had summaries of each chapter on digital index cards. My first synopsis was a compilation of these and sixteen pages long. I just kept paring it back until it was two pages long.
I then condensed it to one page, omitting all the subplots and everyone bar the main characters. I used adjectives and adverbs, which you’re allowed to do in a synopsis, and tried to make the story sound alluring. ( I’m not sure it was because it didn’t catch the eye of the manuscript development programme I sent it to!)
My publisher wrote my blurb for me, and I just had to check it. I was relieved I didn’t have to write one, and it was also nice to read someone else’s take on my story.
Q. What is your elevator pitch?
A. Two sisters, one who yearns for a family of her own and the other who dreams of a life on the opera stage, but neither gets what she wants.
Q. How did you get an offer of representation?
A. Firstly, because I knew nothing about agents or publishers or how to approach them, I asked my friend and fellow West Australian author, Natasha Lester, for help. Natasha runs a course on Pitching to Agents and Publishers through the Australian Writers’ Centre, so I knew her advice was solid. She recommended trying to get an agent first, rather than a publisher. There are a number of reasons for this, mainly that if you’ve tried all the publishers with no luck, it’s difficult to get an agent because they have nowhere left to send your manuscript.
I looked up the website of the Association of Literary Agents of Australia and found the names of agents who represented my genre. I visited their websites, and if I liked what I saw, and they were open for submissions, I added them to my list. I ended up with about a dozen names, and because they were alphabetically listed, Lyn Tranter’s agency, Australian Literary Management, was at the top.
I noted that Lyn liked to be contacted via telephone, but before I rang, I had my ‘hook’, genre, word count, and a quick elevator pitch written down, which I’d rehearsed aloud a few times. When Lyn answered the phone, I launched into it and kept talking until she stopped me. She asked a few questions, then told me to send in the first chapter.
After I’d hung up, I couldn’t believe I’d done it—I don’t think I’ve ever felt prouder of myself than at that moment! I’m not very good at talking under pressure, so to have cold-called an agent, and to have had a successful outcome was a real confidence boost.
Within a week of sending Lyn my first chapter, she replied with some feedback. I rejigged that chapter, but I actually went further than what she’d told me to do, so I sent the two versions back to her to see which she liked best. Lyn emailed me straight away to say she doesn’t have time to read the same chapter twice, but in the next sentence she asked for the rest of my manuscript. I’m a bit embarrassed by my naïvety now, but at least I showed I was keen!
Lyn eventually accepted my manuscript, so I didn’t have to approach anyone else.
Q. That’s a great tip, which is precisely why I plan to pitch to agents first. I’ve learnt from past mistakes where a manuscript has gone stale because i ran out of options.
Even after a rocky start, you had an offer of representation. What did you do right?
- I did my homework—I researched the agents first, checked who was open to submissions, how to contact them, whether they like simultaneous submissions and so forth.
- I took feedback on board. In doing that, I showed I was open to it, and that I was prepared to work on my manuscript, even if it meant another massive rewrite. I can’t stress how important this is, because no one wants to work with an author who’s not prepared to listen to feedback and not prepared to work hard to make their book the best it can be.
Q. What would you have liked to have done differently?
A. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I’d do differently, but nothing comes to mind, except perhaps not sending Lyn two versions of my first chapter! I’m still embarrassed about that.
Q. Yes, but she quite clearly saw beyond your faux pas and felt very passionate about your story.
Phew. Agents are human after all!
What has been surprising about the negotiation or publishing process?
A. The biggest surprise was how much work there was to do after signing a publishing contract! I thought getting my manuscript over the line was the hard part—how wrong I was!
My novel required more rewriting and on a tight deadline, but this time it’s been with the guidance of an experienced publisher. In the past year, I’ve learnt more about writing a novel than I’d done in all the years beforehand. It was hard work, grindingly so, but rewarding because the product at the end is so much better.
Q. As writers we are encouraged to build an author platform. You have done an amazing job at building yours, what did you consider when you were starting out?
A. When I first started, I was pretty frightened by the whole social media thing. I actually had a blog for a year before I told anyone about it, just to practise. When I ‘came out’, I felt weirdly embarrassed because I’d hardly told anyone I was even writing.
When I began blogging, I did a social media workshop with Amanda Kendle through the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve done a few more of Amanda’s courses over the years, covering all of the social media platforms. There are a couple I haven’t taken to, like Pinterest, so I’ve kept to the ones I like—blogging, Facebook, Twitter and a bit of Instagram.
Just over a year ago, I joined one of Amanda’s ‘Mastermind’ groups. Each month, five of us meet to discuss how to promote ourselves and our products online. Amanda helps guide us, as well as overcome our innate resistance to putting ourselves ‘out there’. For example, if we want to blog more often but can’t, we discuss the reasons behind it. Amanda will then set writing a blog post as a homework task. Having that accountability works—my most recent newsletter went out on the morning of our Mastermind session just so I could say I’d sent my newsletter!
When I first started online, I didn’t really have my own ‘voice’. I tried a few different styles, disastrously, before I fell into the one that comes most naturally to me. It can be difficult to find, and trust, your own voice, but you have to be yourself online or people will see through it. Plus, it’s hard to maintain a voice that’s not authentic.
Building an online platform takes time. It takes years to grow a following, and it also takes time out of your day to write and share posts. Everyone tells you to start building your community early, and since my book’s been out, I’m really feeling the full benefit of having an online community around me. As a first-time author, it’s hard for your book to get noticed in amongst the big names, and your publisher won’t have a big budget for advertising your début, if they have any budget at all. So, you have to do it yourself. People I’ve come to know through blogging and social media, like Lauren, have invited me onto their websites for Q&As and guest posts, and have helped spread the word about my book far beyond my own reach, something for which I’m truly grateful.
Q. So there’s no avoiding this ‘author platform’ thing? I’ve been blogging for seven years… and there are times i still feel like i don’t know what i’m doing!
What is your advice for writers who seek an agent?
- Get your manuscript in the best possible shape before you send it out! Seek feedback and take it on board, because you really can’t see the flaws in your own book, especially if it’s your first.
- Do your homework—make sure the agent you’re approaching represents your genre, check they’re open to submissions and how they want your pitch.
- Show your written pitch to others and get feedback on that, too. Also, if you’re pitching verbally, practise saying it aloud.
- Don’t send an agent two versions of your first chapter to see which one they prefer!
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I can’t wait to get stuck into novel #2. My husband is taking long service leave in the middle of the year, which means I can immerse myself in my fictional world again, my favourite place to be!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story, Louise. You’ve shown just how much hard work and determination is required to produce a manuscript to a publishable standard. Flexibility and openness are the key to working with industry professionals. That leaves me feeling hopeful 🙂
To find out more about Louise and her book, check out her website.