My Query Journey

Hi guys!

This blog is to accompany one of the videos on my new writing & publishing #booktube channel. I interviewed my agent Juliet Mushens of The Agency Group and we ended up talking about how I ended up as her client. Part of this story is, of course, the first step for most writers… the dreaded query letter! I’m sharing mine here, from over three years ago now, as an accompaniment to the video, with a little bit of added commentary in italics.

I’d been querying agents on and off for The Oathbreaker’s Shadow since I finished university in 2007. My final push came a few years later, after I’d returned from travelling, set up in the UK and found a new job, and realised it was now or never for this book – otherwise, it was time to move on to something else. I was a bit more savvy about agents, so I targeted around 10 from across the UK & US to query. PFD – where Juliet worked – was not on the list at that time, but they had very little YA epic fantasy on their books. My query success rate was pretty high – I ended up with five out of ten full manuscript requests but equally a few form rejections, so I turned to Twitter (as you do) to have a little moan. The result was that Juliet saw the tweet and suggested that I query her boss at the time. I held out little-to-no hope, as you can see below! I was very self-conscious as Juliet was the only person I queried who knew it was me – I was going out under a pseudonym at the time, so that was nerve-wracking. As a result, a long and rambling query letter followed that is a good example of what NOT to do! Thankfully, the manuscript pages spoke to themselves and Juliet asked for a full.

My query:

Hey Juliet, (AA:This is a pretty casual opening but Juliet & I crossed over briefly at HarperCollins, so I knew her and was querying her boss after her suggestion via Twitter).

I got your message on Twitter but thought I’d e-mail you instead. How are things at PFD?

As you know, I’m on the query roll! I’m querying agents for my novel The Oathbreaker’s Shadow under my pseudonym, but obviously as you know it’s me there’s not really sense in hiding it. I did think about you and PFD but I’m worried that this particular project is too fantasy for Rowan? (AA:Starting off apologising for my book – never a good opening!) But I could be wrong! I’m actually working on a much more properly YA fantasy-romance book at the moment which I’m hoping to have finished for the new year, which I will definitely show to you. (AA:Oh dear! Queries should really focus on the book you want to publish. It’s good to show that you have other ideas but this makes me sound like I’m querying a book I won’t end up writing for another three years!) That book is called Philtre, (AA:which is now The Potion Diaries!) and it’s about a Princess who is poisoned by a poorly mixed love potion and the rivalry between two young potion makers – a young girl from a traditional alchemist family and a boy whose family owns a corporation that produces synthetic elixirs [like a magical GlaxoSmithKline] – as they both try to find the cure to save her.

If you want to get an idea of my writing, I’d be really happy to show you the Oathbreaker manuscript as I know you love fantasy!! I’ve copied my query synopsis below. Then, if you think it might work for her, you can pass on to Rowan – though I totally understand if it’s not really her speciality! (AA:Still so very very apologetic – but I did think that Juliet might like it based on the books she worked on at HarperCollins)

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow synopsis: (AA:What follows below is the more ‘typical’ part of a query, which I sent to other agents when I didn’t have a prior connection)
For fifteen years Raim has worn a single blue string tied in an intricate knot around his wrist. Raim barely thinks about it at all; not since becoming the most promising young archer ever to train for the elite Yun guard and not since his best friend (and the future Khan) Khareh asked him to become his sole Protector. But on the most important day of his life, when he binds his life to Khareh’s, suddenly that string on his wrist is all he can think about – it bursts into flames and sears a dark mark into his skin. The knot contained a promise of its own – and now that promise is broken.

Scarred now as an oath-breaker, Raim has two options: run, or be killed.

Raim flees deep into the vast desert to live in Lazar: the colony of exiled oath-breakers. It is there he hopes to learn how to clear his name and return home to keep his promise to Khareh. Except in Lazar, he discovers that his scar from the burnt thread marks the first step on the path to becoming a sage, with the ability to perform feats of magic straight out of legend. The trade-off: he will remain tarnished as an oath-breaker for the rest of his life. Can he forgo his honour for immense power? And even if he did want to clear his name, how can he keep a promise he never even knew he made in the first place? (AA: Apart from a couple of lines, which are a bit spoilery, this ends up being pretty close to the actual blurb for the book, so I consider this a pretty successful query summary!)

Set in a world based heavily on the fascinating, cutthroat and deeply honor-bound culture of medieval, Genghis Khan-era Mongolia, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow will appeal to readers of Peter Ward’s Dragon Horse and younger readers of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series. (AA: A little positioning doesn’t hurt! and shows that you know your market.)

All the best,


I hope that seeing this helps some people out there, even though I know that my query experience wasn’t exactly typical! And of course – I did have the benefit of having known Juliet from her previous position. But I could never have imagined that that very apologetic query would lead to Juliet offering representation. Once she did, I remember being very excited at the prospect of our careers growing together. Juliet really impressed me by being as hungry as I was and I wanted someone with that ambition and passion and drive on my team. I told the other agents who had fulls that I was signing with her, and the rest is history…


Interview with my agent: Juliet Mushens of PFD

I’m lucky to be blessed with the smartest, most tenacious and definitely best-dressed agent in the biz… the wonderful Juliet Mushens. She is the newest agent at PFD, one of the oldest literary agencies in London, and she reps a really eclectic and fun list (head over to the PFD website to find out more). Juliet has done a few interviews lately about being an agent, so I thought I’d ask a few different questions for my interview. Hope you enjoy!

One thing I’m always curious about is how you match a shiny new manuscript to the right editor at a publishing house. What’s your process? How do you get to know an editor’s taste?

Everyone knows roughly what editors are looking for: be it crime, women’s fiction, reading group fiction or YA. But above and beyond that there are so many permutations so I think it’s key to meet as many editors as possible. It’s just like with agents – everyone knows the rough genres I’m looking for but above and beyond that I have a passion for books with unreliable narrators, UST, and more than a smattering of black humour. It’s when you meet an editor and find out their favourite books, books they’ve commissioned recently, books they wish they had commissioned, that you get the best sense of where it should go. I knew when Lauren Buckland at RHCB said she had a passion for epic fantasy that she would be a good bet for The Oathbreaker’s Shadow.

What are some of the recent trends in YA literature/submissions you’ve seen?

I get sent a lot of dystopian fiction, and a lot of urban fantasy. It comes in waves: I used to get lots and lots of vampire novels, but that seems to have died down now.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of Juliet Mushens: Literary Agent? 

Each day is totally different! I normally check my emails as soon as I wake up and deal with any urgent ones on my blackberry on my way into work. Once I’m in (and have a coffee) I spend a fair amount of time going through my emails and dealing with authors and editors. These can be things as simple as ‘when will my money come through?’ or as complex as ‘the legal read has flagged up ninety-seven problems with the manuscript and the book needs to go to print next week’. Sometimes my authors are stuck with a tricky plot point and want to talk it through; sometimes my ghost-writers just want to talk to an actual person. I normally have at least one manuscript open in the background of my computer and I try and dip in and out of edits as well, sometimes for a prospective client I’m meeting, or for one of my contracted authors. Some books can go through several drafts before they go out to a publisher, or a publisher can request changes before considering the manuscript again, or an author has delivered and I need to go through it and make my comments too. During the day my phone rings a lot. I hate getting phone-calls from people who have submitted: it puts me on the spot and it’s a real no-no for me. But I spend sometimes long periods of the day on the phone to authors, or editors, discussing various queries. I will normally also be working on at least one contract which requires complete quiet, so it can be difficult to get those done in the office! And then there’s the hours I set aside to make calls to publishers before submitting, chasing up foreign rights submissions, chasing up publicity or marketing queries. Oh, and trying to actually read new manuscripts! (Edited to add: Check out Laura Lam’s interview with Juliet for an even more in-depth ‘Day in the Life’)

One for all those aspiring authors out there… what makes a query letter stand out for you? 

I think it’s my marketing background that makes me a sucker for a good or clever blurb. Cover letters should be like going into a bookshop and turning the book over – why would I read it? Make it simple and intriguing. Don’t tell me ‘and then… and then… and then…’ tell me that it’s shot through with black humour, rogues with hearts of gold, and a terrifying villain who’ll give me nightmares. That’ll make me read it quicker.

Another one for the newbies – what are a few different ways to meet an agent other than just cold-querying, and when is it definitely NOT okay to pitch an agent? 

Workshops and conferences are great ways to meet agents and I’ll have my ‘agent-brain’ on so be much more approachable. I also don’t mind the occasional twitter-pitch if it’s smart and savvy. Things I hate: trapping me in a corner at a room, cold-calling me, trying to pitch at me at London Book Fair… etc. Just be nice, and normal, and friendly and I’m sure we’ll get on.

Any last words of wisdom or advice? 

Agents are people too – sometimes we seem like terrifying gate-keepers to a publishing deal but all we’re looking for is that new book which makes us stay up all night. That’s what keeps us working hard!

Finding my Agent: It’s All About Timing! (or Path to Publication, Part 2)

At the end of part one, life was getting in the way of my publication dream, and it was a good thing!

2010 was a big year for me: I changed jobs from working in non-fiction to SF/F (basically my dream publishing role), and I published my first non-fiction book for teens. But making all these big changes was throwing another fact into sharp relief: I still wanted to be an author, and that dream could still be realized alongside my full-time job (luckily I have a great role model in the inimitable Jane Johnson).

I’d revised and rewritten Oathbreaker until it was almost an entirely different book from the one that was first finished in 2007. Even the central idea (of the promise knots) had changed completely. That’s when I decided that it was OK to give querying it another go, before I would devote time over to a new idea that I had brewing. The work seemed to pay off, and the first two people I queried, I got full requests from – no partials this time.

I sent off the manuscripts with baited breath, and then I did what most writers in the modern age do now… I turned to Twitter for solace:

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Getting an Agent: a Learning Experience… (or Path to Publication, Part 1)

Originally this was supposed to be one post about my agent journey, from first query to “the call”. But when I finished writing it out in full, it turned out to be more than enough to cover at least two blog posts! I think mine is a story that proves that perseverance is the key…

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours trawling through the archives of my old e-mail addresses.  In amongst the gushy teenage love letters, last minute uni assignments and tragically cheesy job applications, I found the very first time I attempted to query a literary agent with a piece of my writing.

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