“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Jackie Copleton, author of A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at email@example.com and we’ll talk specifics.
Column by Jackie Copleton, debut author of A DICTIONARY OF
MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING (Dec. 2015, Penguin Books). Jackie
Copleton’s novel is inspired by her time living in the beautiful city of
Nagasaki in the 1990s. It is a Richard and Judy book club pick for
summer 2016, was long-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for
Fiction 2016 and was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick in 2015.
Follow Jackie on Twitter.
A long hard road
Boil a packet of desperation. Dollop on some panic. Add a sprinkle of shame. That’s how I landed my agent.
In 2010, I’d given up a journalism job in London to do a writing course in Scotland. By the time I’d finished I had 25,000 words of what I thought I could turn into a novel. I then moved from Glasgow to the Middle East, where the heat left me trapped indoors for most of my time. You can get a lot of writing done when you can’t walk in the sun.
Those 25,000 words grew to 200,000. I thought I had the beginnings of three novels when in reality I had none – and no off button. My inner editor was snoozing by the pool.
In 2012 I was back in the UK, working from home as a subeditor for a press agency, which left me with free time to write in the mornings. The words were still flowing but I knew they weren’t right.
Onwards I typed, slowly, keenly, sadly, and with each passing month fewer people asked me, ‘How’s the writing going?’
My job took me down to London to do contract work with my old employer in 2012. Have you ever returned to a working environment where you are miles lower down the food chain than when you left? Tends to focus the mind. The inner critic had a rare old time.
I had to act! I printed off three chapters of the book in the business centre at my hotel. The sun bounced off the glass skyscrapers and canals of Canary Wharf as I stuffed envelopes and licked stamps during my lunch break, my hands shaking. This decisiveness felt like a big deal. More a confession than a statement of intent.
When I finished my shift, I went to one of the pubs where the journalists drank – and left the envelopes. I had to retrieve them the following day with the horror that maybe a former colleague had looked inside and discovered my secret: I wanted to be a published writer.
I chose two agents, both of whom had done talks during my course. The first was a well-respected former Penguin editor based in Edinburgh.
For some reason I decided to include an experimental piece of writing to ‘show my range’, with an opening paragraph that included as many slang terms for vagina as my imagination could summon. I have no idea why. It will not surprise you to read she sent me a rejection letter, where she had changed the title of this piece from ‘Pud’ as in pudendum to ‘Mud’.
I had been named the joint winner of a now defunct prize during my writing course at Glasgow University and sent my second submission to the agency who had sponsored the award. One of their agents wrote back saying my style was too formal for her but she saw I could write. She advised me to get back in touch when I had something new to show her.
I had a choice: throw out the book and start again or ignore the only professional feedback I had received about the novel. I couldn’t dump the work. I knew there was a tale somewhere hiding within those reams of words. I just had to figure out who the narrator was.
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Rewrite, revise, retry
I then spent about a year rewriting what would become A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING. I decided to tell the story from the perspectives of four women, before figuring out I only needed to focus on the relationship between the mother and daughter. Still I stumbled around, killing off the wrong character before a moment of clarity made me realise Amaterasu, the mother, was my narrator. The plot crystallised from that point on and late in 2013 I decided to send the book out again.
I chose three agents, which I suspect is not best practice, but I was in a hurry once more. I felt the same urgency I’d experienced down in London. I sent one submission to an agent who was also a guest speaker at my writing course; another agent in London based on her warm bio on her agency’s website; and Mark Stanton, of Jenny Brown Associates.
Mark, or Stan as he is known, had worked with a friend of mine on a short story collection that sadly didn’t make it into print. His name popped out while searching through the literary agencies listed in the Writers’ Handbook. He had been shortlisted as agent of the year in the 2011 Bookseller awards, which impressed and intimidated me.
The London agent emailed a couple of days later and asked to read the full novel. Within a week she had sent a no, saying she had to really a love a book to take it on. I never heard from the other agent. Stan had also emailed me, wanting to read the full manuscript, and within a week or so he suggested we meet up for a chat.
Slow and steady wins the race
I was living in Newcastle in the north-east of England at the time, and he was based twenty miles away. We met in a pub a couple of hours before I had to start work. Many of his clients are sports writers, which happens to be my husband’s job, so the conversation flowed. We were around the same age, he was dressed casually, it all felt nice and relaxed. I didn’t mention my friend. I didn’t want to put him on the spot.
We ended up talking about my main character and Stan gently confirmed what I had feared: she just wasn’t sympathetic enough. Rather than curl into a ball of embarrassment at this critique, I found myself thinking, ‘Yippee, he’s not some stuffy school master fellow who’s going to terrify me with his opinions.’ At the end of the 90-minute meeting, he said these lovely words: “I’d like to represent you.”
That was just before Christmas in December 2013. During the summer of 2014, after Stan had helped me work on a couple more drafts, he sold the novel to Hutchinson. On July 16, 2015 the book came out in the UK, two days after GO SET A WATCHMAN. I couldn’t begrudge the timing or Harper Lee. The years of panic and desperation had paid off.
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Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Agent Spotlight: Nikki Terpilowski (Holloway Literary Agency) seeks Fiction, Nonfiction and Children’s.
- Got Rejection Dejection?
- Why Dogs Make Fun Writing Partners.
- 5 Things To Consider Before Writing A Memoir.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and writing a query letter.