An interview with Tess Woods on how to get a literary agent in Australia
Yes, my blog has been a little quiet of late, but I do have another wonderful interview to share this month! I’m chatting with Tess Woods who has kindly taken some time out of her VERY busy schedule to share her tips on getting an agent.
Tess Woods is a physiotherapist who lives in Perth, Australia, with one husband, two children, one dog and one cat who rules over them all. Her debut novel, Love at First Flight, received acclaim from readers around the world and won Book of the Year in the AusRom Today Reader’s Choice Award. Her second novel, Beautiful Messy Love, made the best books of 2017 lists for Readings, Booktopia, and Better Reading.
Q. Tell us about the book that landed you a literary agent.
It was the first book I wrote back in 2009, Love at First Flight. It’s a contemporary love story about a married doctor who lives in Perth. She catches a domestic flight where she finds herself sitting next to a young male physiotherapist. Sparks fly during the four-hour trip and they embark on an affair with huge consequences for both of them and their families.
Q. What steps did you take to refine the manuscript once you completed your first draft?
My first draft was a whole heap of crap. So I wrote a second draft over a couple of months, which was also a whole heap of crap! I knew I couldn’t do it on my own so I sought the help of a manuscript assessor online.
The manuscript assessor I found asked me to send her my MS and payment by cheque. Six weeks later both the MS and the cheque were returned to me with a note that said it wasn’t worth her time to help me because the story was so bad it was beyond help! I kid you not, she actually used the words, ‘Don’t give up your day job.’
Anyway, I soldiered on because even though I knew my MS was crap, I also knew there was a good story in there somewhere and I just needed help to bring it out. Luckily the second manuscript assessor I sent it to helped me enormously and showed me where I had gone wrong. I worked with her for eighteen months, writing two more drafts.
After draft four, I still didn’t feel it was up to scratch so I sought out yet another manuscript assessor and we worked on two more drafts together over another six months.
Six drafts and two years later, I felt ready to submit the MS to literary agents.
When I landed my AMAZING agent, Jacinta di Mase, she asked me to rewrite it again with more suggested changes, so by the time the MS got to HarperCollins, it was at draft seven and that was before the real editing even began!
Q. What an awful experience you had with that first assessor, but amazing that you persevered and believed in your story! How did you approach writing the synopsis and blurb?
I wrote my synopsis for Love at First Flight like I wrote my MS, completely blind and going only on instinct. I wrote from the heart what I thought an agent would need to know about the story before they’d decide whether to request the MS or not. I didn’t hold back any spoilers and, from memory, it was just under a page long. I haven’t written synopses since; I’ve pitched my books to my publisher over the phone.
As far as blurbs go, ugh, I’d rather write an extra fifty-thousand words of MS rather than write a one-hundred word blurb, they are awfully tricky to get right and apart from the front cover, the blurb is make or break for any book on a bookstore shelf. My blurbs have been written in conjunction with lots of feedback and going back and forth with my brilliant (and patient) publisher, Mary Rennie.
Q. How did you get an offer of representation from a literary agent?
It was kind of unconventional! It started out normally enough, there was no such thing as pitching face to face back then, so I sent out twenty-three submission letters via email to literary agents everywhere who accepted contemporary commercial fiction. Over the course of the next year I was roundly rejected twenty-three times! (I’ve kept all my rejection letters, they’re such good fun to read when you land a major book deal.)
But even though I sent letters to everyone, I was fully obsessed with one agent in particular, Jacinta di Mase. I hounded her for six months, countless emails telling her she was meant to be my agent, that it was destiny that her and I would work together. I even put her up on a vision board in my bathroom! I wrote on a blue poster, ‘Jacinta di Mase will love my story and become my agent.’ My young kids had a poster in their bathroom that read, ‘Jacinta di Mase will love Mummy’s story and become her agent.’ I made them say it out loud every time they washed they hands. I’m not joking.
The reason I desperately wanted Jacinta wasn’t because of her incredible abilities and unmatched pulling power as an agent, I actually didn’t find out about that until years later! No, the reason I was obsessed with her was because when I stalked her online, I found a photo of her and saw that we had the same hair style. We were identical hair twins! No other agents had long straight dark hair and a thick fringe just like me. I mean, come on, as if that wasn’t a sign that her and I were meant to be, right?
After my six months of begging in emails and praying to the bathroom walls, Jacinta rejected the MS. I was devastated, so devastated that I didn’t persist with trying to sell it anymore. I put the MS away and got on with my life.
Two years later, out of the blue, came an email from one Jacinta di Mase. In it she wrote that even though my MS had significant issues and needed a lot of work, for the previous two years, every time she got on a flight she thought of my book and looked around to see who was sitting next to who on the plane. She decided to give my story another go and this time we made it work!
Jacinta didn’t find out about all the creepy bathroom wall poster praying that I did in 2011 until 2016 when she attended an author talk I did and I told the story – her expression that night was priceless.
Q. Haha I just love that story. And also, very happy to hear I’m not the only one who stalks agents 🙂
So, what did you do right?
I put posters on the bathroom wall.
I made my kids repeat what was on the posters every time they washed their hands.
Apart from that, I was honest. I said straight out in my submission letters that I had no previous writing experience, I didn’t try and pretend to be better than I was. But what I lacked in experience I made up for by showing passion about my story and my future career. I researched and listed comparable titles, I put together a marketing plan, I showed agents that I was prepared to work really hard to do what it took to get published.
And most importantly, I worked hard on my MS for years making sure it was as strong as I could possibly make it before I wasted any agent’s time asking them to read it. What I should add is that twelve of the twenty-three agents who rejected my story actually read the entire MS and provided detailed feedback which was wonderfully helpful.
Q. What would you have liked to have done differently?
Perhaps twenty or so rejection letters less would have been nice! Looking back now though I don’t wish for a different, less complicated, quicker path because I’m one of those people that other people roll their eyes at who truly believes that things happen the way they are supposed to happen. So no regrets, no wishing I’d done things differently.
Q. What has been surprising about the negotiation or publishing process?
Publishing contracts are incredibly complicated pieces of writing. I was so grateful to be able to handball all the negotiating over to Jacinta. I strongly recommend to any writer that if you don’t have an agent, at least pay an agent to read and advise you before you sign any publishing contracts.
I think the thing that surprised and delighted me the most about the publication process was how in depth it is and how many people are involved when a book is sent out into the world. From the intense research and planning process that goes into the cover, to the sales managers putting advance copies of the books in book-sellers’ hands all around the country, to publicists trying to land magazine interviews up to six months in advance of publication, to the amount of work that goes into wording the metadata just right so books are successful on digital sales platforms – it really does take a village.
The editing process was a huge surprise too. I expected an edit and a proof read, but instead first my publisher edited it, then it went off for a structural edit, then a copy-edit, then a proofread – at each of those stages the MS would come back to me to work on. So by the time the book went to print, I swear I had the whole 100k words memorised from the amount of times I’d read and re-read them!
Q. Writers are encouraged to build an author platform. You’re quite active on Facebook, you have a website full of great resources and a wonderful monthly newsletter (with awesome giveaways!). How do you manage all of these and what did you consider when you were starting out?
I manage badly, very VERY badly! I work as a physiotherapist in my own clinic with staff, I volunteer work with teens and as an ambassador for homeless women in Perth and I have two teenage kids. When you throw in writing and then managing social media and a website, there’s no way I can keep all those balls in the air and not be a mess. But I do the best I can and not everything is done to perfection which is hard when I’m a born perfectionist. But I’ve had to accept that some things have to slide.
I used to do a lot more with my online presence than what I do now but I simply burnt out, something had to give. I used to post on social media a few times a week, now it’s around once a week. My website gets updated every couple of months instead of every couple of weeks and my newsletter now goes out three times a year instead of once a month. In the beginning it was really important to have that strong social media presence but now that I’ve done loads of in-person events and I’ve built a bit more of a name for myself that way, I’ve dropped my standards a bit with my online presence just so that I stay sane. I still think an online presence is absolutely vital to any author though.
When I first started out promoting myself online, my number one priority was building the brand ‘Tess Woods’, it wasn’t about my book, it was about me. I wanted people to see who I was, what I stood for and then hopefully gravitate towards my writing. So I put a lot of myself into my social media posts and onto my website rather than bombarding people with book propaganda. I’ve run several workshops now about social media presence and branding and the thing I try and drum into people who attend my workshops is to be authentic, be prepared to put in the time and effort it needs to get yourself out there and share what you learn with others. Doing those things will help you sell ten times the amount of books than nagging followers to buy your book or review or your book or whatever else it is that will annoy people!
Q. As a reader and a writer, I completely agree with that point. I have discovered so many amazing books because I’ve been drawn to the author via social media. If I see an author as nice and generous then I’m more likely to buy their book- regardless of whether I’d usually read that kind of book.
What is your advice for writers who seek a literary agent?
These days, with real life pitching opportunities, I think you’d be mad not to try and meet and make an impression on an agent in person. It’s so much more of a lasting impact if an agent sees how passionate you are about your story as you tell them about it and they can ask you questions face to face rather than if you’re just one of thousands of email submissions they receive every year. So my advice is go and find literary agents in person. Do what you have to do to be at events where they’ll be like the annual RWA conferences for romance writers for example or other literary festivals and conferences where you can buy allotted time slots with agents. It’s so worth it!
Q. What’s next for you?
My third novel with HarperCollins is out in July next year. It’s called Love and Other Battles and it’s a three-generation Australian story beginning with the Vietnam war and spanning through to the present day. I adored Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook and that’s what inspired my story.
But before then, the book I edited that was written by twelve teen girls I mentored this year is due out next month. It’s called Generation Girls and it’s an anthology of their short stories, letters, poems and advice written to inspire other teenage girls. It’s easily my proudest career achievement to have worked with these twelve inspirational resilient girls who have faced huge challenges in their lives so far. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the sale of Generation Girls is going to the charity, Books in Homes, which makes it an even more amazing project to have been involved in.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Tess!
I’m beginning to see a theme in these interviews and that’s to work on your manuscript until it’s near perfect and to pitch to an agent in person. Great advice!
If you missed the other interviews in this series you can catch up on my chats with:
To read more articles like this, follow my blog or sign up for my monthly newsletter.