Sign up to the newsletter

The Benefits of NOT Winning a Writing Competition (or How I Got an Agent)

Kate Wiseman

OK. You’ve written your book. You’ve revised it and triple-checked it. Your prose is fluent. Your plot is fast-paced. Your characters develop as naturally as mayflies. Your themes couldn’t BE any more interesting. Or relevant.  

It’s ready. You’re ready. Ready to send your first three chapters to your first choice of agent, who will drop everything in order to reply the same day, begging you with tearful eyes to send the full manuscript to them and them only. Within a few months your book will be published to massive acclaim. It will change people’s lives. Film studio representatives will camp outside your house, desperate to persuade you to grant them the movie rights.

It’s a lovely dream, isn’t it? And who knows? Maybe you’ll be the lucky one for whom it’s more than a dream. For most of us, however, the reality is a bit different. This is my reality. So far.

Last year I entered my novel Milly Delane Plots to Destroy the Moon into the very first Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing. And then I forgot about it. A few months later I nearly had a heart attack when I received an email from the competition organisers, asking me to forward the full MS as they were considering it for the shortlist. When I’d finished squealing and dancing round the house, I did so.  

I made the shortlist, and for the next few months it was difficult to think about anything else. I hoped I would win, but I prepared not to.

While I waited I went on a couple of writing courses, including Writers’ & Artists’ ‘How to Hook an Agent’ which was very, very useful. I learnt all I could and got as much feedback as possible. One thing that came up again and again was that my story was flawed. I’d created a unique world with huge potential and then taken my characters away from it. I realised that I was unlikely to win the competition, but I could still capitalize on reaching the shortlist.

I’d been advised to set up a website and I managed to do so via a free and fairly user-friendly hosting site, and with an awful lot of help. I was told that it was important to establish a presence on Twitter, so I joined and even remembered to tweet occasionally.  

Then I started to research agents. I looked for those who seemed to share my interests and who enjoyed the same kinds of books as me. One name that was familiar to me was Shelley Instone. She was a new agent, but with many years of editing and talent-spotting experience within an agency environment. I knew that she was perceptive and blunt – someone I could trust. I pondered the pros and cons of a new agent – she would be eager to prove herself and would work extra hard to do so. That could only be good for her clients, I concluded.

I sent Shelley my opening chapters, together with a letter telling her about the Montegrappa shortlist. I didn’t want to put all my eggs into Shelley’s basket, so I sent the MS to some other carefully-researched agents too.

Shelley got back got me just before the result of the competition was due to be announced. She was interested! I’d timed things right, and made the most of my moment of success. I remember that I spent the afternoon of result day at the cinema watching ‘Gone Girl’ and drowning in salty popcorn – it certainly took my mind off everything else! I returned to find that the winner of the Montegrappa prize was the mega-talented Laura Wood (remember her name), but I felt that I was a winner too. I’d made it to the final five out of a thousand entries, and I’d gained the interest of an agent. We met up a few days later. We got on well and I signed with her.  

And then the real work began. My manuscript’s peregrinations could fill an article by themselves, but I’ve nearly hit my word limit so I’ll simply say that there have been numerous edits, rewrites, changes of heart and moments of despair. But my writing has improved beyond measure, and we’re getting there. My book is now called Blackguards: Future Notoriety Assured (cool name – thanks, Shelley) and it will be submitted to publishers this autumn.

I’ve told you about how I landed my agent, but equally important is how she chose me. I’m pretty sure that Shelley would say that on top of an arresting story/characters/writing style, what she looks for is someone with perseverance who is able to acknowledge that yes, their MS has potential, but it still needs work. Maybe a lot of work. And who will roll up their sleeves and get on with it.  

To find out more about Kate and 'Blackguard’s School for Tomorrow’s Tyrants', visit her website, or follow her on Twitter