In the first of her blog series for W&A, author Nicola Garrard shares her journey of getting an agent...

If you had asked me, just two weeks ago, how my submissions to literary agents were going, I would have said, ‘Fingers still crossed… should hear in three months.’ I had been sending off my submissions in batches of six and hoping for the best. It looked doubtful; I hadn’t paid for a Creative Writing MA, hired an editor or attended a writers’ retreat. My total spend on my writing career to date had comprised £17 on a copy of the Writers' & Artists’ Yearbook, £20 on a bargain Writers & Artists’ ‘How to Submit your Manuscript’ event in London.

The next week, everything changed.

Two emails appeared in my inbox from agents asking to see the full manuscript and two offering representation. 

A day later, an agent telephoned me. 

I had gone from what felt like months of encouraging rejections, to the kind of interest (and delicious lunches) I had only dreamt of in my wildest fantasy future. 

By Friday I had four offers of representation.

So what exactly happened? I’ll start at the beginning. 

In June 2017, one of my former students, a beautiful, kind and sparkly boy I had known since he was ten years old, was murdered in a knife attack. He was just eighteen, one of seventy-nine fatal stabbings that year in London. When his murder didn’t even make the evening news or any national newspapers, I decided I would try to write something that people might read, something that might touch their hearts and show what was happening to many young people in London.

My youngest was about to start primary school so I took a local part-time job and gave myself a year to try to write a novel. I wrote when my young children were at school and when they were in bed. My characters were inspired by the teenagers I had taught on the fringes of gangs and at daily risk of violent crime. The plot I owe to David Lammy’s Guardian article*, in which the brilliant MP for Tottenham suggests that we should stop arresting boys in tracksuits and start arresting men in suits. I read the Writers & Artists blogs and as much YA fiction as I could, to understand what a YA novel was and how it was structured.

I wrote with urgency and passion. I wrote in anger and tears of grief. I completed a first draft in about three months. Nearly eighty teenagers had been murdered in London in the time it took to write.

I was proud of my achievement, wrote a covering letter and synopsis and sent it to five agents. A couple of days later, two agents responded, asking to see the full manuscript. They liked the concept and my writing, but it was a long way from ready. Crucially, they gave me hints and suggested how it might be improved, cautioning me to take my time, find my voice and ‘read, read, read.’

I set the story aside for a few months before tackling a second draft, in first person, present tense, following the feedback from agents. But it still wasn’t ready; one of the problems of trying to write without attending courses, joining a writing group or hiring an editor is that there is little feedback. So after more manuscript requests that resulted in polite, encouraging rejections, I decided to ask my teaching colleagues to read the story. With their feedback, I was able to turn the manuscript into something that readers wanted to read.

I attended the Writers' & Artists' ‘How to Submit your Manuscript’ evening in London, changed my submission strategy and submitted to six further agents. This time it was ready and last week I chose an agent who will soon begin the process of submitting my novel to publishers.

This has been the most amazing fortnight and I have celebrated my good fortune, but I cannot forget that, in the eighteen months between beginning my story and accepting an offer of representation, over two hundred more young people have been murdered by knife crime in London.

Nicola Garrard spent fifteen years teaching in challenging schools in London where she often worked with young people affected by gangs and has taught both the victims and perpetrators of knife crime. She writes poetry, YA and adult fiction. Her poetry was awarded a runners-up prize in the 2018 PBS/Mslexia Poetry Competition, judged by Carol Ann Duffy.  Her novel Twenty-Nine Locks has been long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize.

Twitter: @nmgarrard

*www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/01/arresting-kids-not-stop-knife-crime-stabbings-london