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,
Amy

**

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…

A new book, a new name, a new deal… it’s all change around here

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Any regular readers to the blog might notice that a few things have changed around here! For one, I got married (whoop! – and bigger post to come on that, I promise!) and I decided to take my husband’s name. I’m now Amy Alward, in most things – the big exception being for THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW, which of course is coming out in the USA in February 2015 from Flux books! So there will be plenty of McCulloch-ing still to come.

But that’s not the ONLY change. I’m so unbelievably pleased and excited to say that I have a new book deal for three books, starting with THE POTION DIARIES, which will be coming out from Simon & Schuster Children’s in Summer 2015. Rights have sold in the UK & Commonwealth, USA, Canada, Germany and Brazil – all of which is incredibly surreal.

These books represent a bit of a departure for me. Not only will they be published under ‘Amy Alward’, but they are very different in style and tone to The Oathbreaker’s Shadow and The Shadow’s Curse. Just another reason why I felt a name change might be appropriate. In fact, I might still write under Amy McCulloch again, especially if I return to pure epic fantasy.

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Everything about this book deal feels different. I’m no longer a debut novelist – if anything, I felt the pressure even more this time around. When you are debut, you have never tested the waters – every step in the process is new and exciting. This time around, I came into the process with a more experienced head on my shoulders, but if I thought that would lessen the nerves, I was sorely disappointed.

Some writers at this stage in their career sell on a synopsis or a partial – it’s hard to find the time to write a whole new book, especially when you’re under contract for existing ones. But for me, I always knew I was going to finish this book before showing it to Juliet or anyone else. Part of the reason is because the idea has been kicking around for so long that I wanted to make sure it stood on its own feet. The idea for The Potion Diaries actually came from a tweet, proving that sometimes good things do come from being distracted on social media! And I mention The Potion Diaries (which at that time was called Philtre – the old English word for ‘love potion’) in my initial query to Juliet way back in 2010.  Juliet and I are going to do a ‘dissecting the query’ post sometime in the near future, so look out for that!

But the other reason is because this was something so completely different to what I was already writing. I wanted to challenge myself as a writer; to stretch my skills and experiment with a different voice. Writing in the first person was difficult, and I struggled with finding the right tone for my protagonist. But once I did, it ended up being the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. The words flowed, and I think it shows on the page.

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All this is to say that when I finally finished The Potion Diaries, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I loved it, but it was so very different. Would it be considered ‘off brand’? But a very wise author once told me never to let yourself be typecast, and so I sent it off to Juliet anyway, who read the initial draft with a huge amount of enthusiasm. I think she was surprised by how different it was but – because she is a superstar – she took it in her stride and immediately saw the potential. She gave me very detailed edit notes and I set to work. When I sent back the revised draft, Juliet had her assistant, the wonderful Sarah, read alongside her. The verdict was more than I could hope for – they both absolutely loved the revision, and it was time to send it out into the world.

Like I said, if I thought the experience of being out on submission would be any easier the second time around, I was wrong. It was as agonising and nerve-wracking as being a debut. But I got lucky, and the book found a home with a team who love it even more than I could have hoped for. They completely understand the book and my characters, their passion and creativity just blew me away, and I am so excited to work with them on this publication.

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So what’s The Potion Diaries about? The pictures I’ve been sharing are from a mini potions shop that my parents bought me as a publication present, and it is oh so appropriate! It’s about a Princess (more Kate Middleton than Rapunzel) who gets poisoned by a faulty love potion. It’s about an apprentice alchemist who dreams of researching and mixing new cures for a big corporate potions company (think a magical GlaxoSmithKline) but instead is tied down by loyalty to her family’s apothecary. It’s about mermaids and unicorns and abominable snowmen. But mostly it’s about a girl struggling to forge her own path in a world that seems to have it already laid out for her.

Also – and I think this is important – although this is part of a planned three-book series featuring the same characters and world, The Potion Diaries stands on its own. And I can’t wait for you all to read it.

Here’s the official press release!

Amy Alward moves to S&S with ‘Happy Hunger Games’ series

 18th September 2014, London – Simon and Schuster Children’s Books today announced the acquisition of The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward, who also writes under her maiden name, Amy McCulloch.

Elv Moody, Fiction Editorial Director and Jane Griffiths, Commissioning Editor at S&S Children’s UK, acquired World English rights from Juliet Mushens at The Agency Group in a six figure pre-emptive deal. Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers will be publishing The Potion Diaries in the US and Canada. Rights have also sold in Germany and Brazil so far, with interest around the world.

The Potion Diaries follows the adventures of Samantha Kemi who harbours a secret dream of going to university to study potions, and then becoming a mixer for a major alchemy corporation. She’s ordinary – she has absolutely no magical talent – but her instinct for putting together a potion is second to none.

When the city’s princess is poisoned by a faulty love potion, representatives from prominent alchemists, including Sam, are tasked with finding a cure. There’s one main condition: the potion must be made entirely without synthetic material. This is the chance of a lifetime, and Sam is sent across the globe in the hunt for the freshest ingredients, including pearl from a mermaid, hair from an abominable and a unicorn tail. But it seems that someone is determined to make sure the Kemi family don’t complete the hunt, and soon Sam discovers that the stakes are higher than she ever thought possible.

Moody says, ‘It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything that feels as fresh as this. With pulse-pounding thrills, a contest to save a princess (who is much more Kate Middleton than Rapunzel) takes place in a whirlwind of paparazzi and social media – with just a touch of perfect romantic chemistry.’

Alward adds, ‘The Potion Diaries has possessed its own special alchemy right from the start: the spark of the idea came from a chance tweet, which was then blended with many months spent writing in the darkest hours of the night, and now, with the discovery of the perfect publishing partner in Simon & Schuster, it is ready to be bottled and served. From the moment we received their stunning pitch, I knew they would be the right home for The Potion Diaries, and I couldn’t be happier to be working with S&S.’

The Potion Diaries will be published by Simon and Schuster in Summer 2015 as a paperback original.

Amy Alward is a 28-year-old Canadian author living in London where she now fits writing around her work as Editorial Director at Puffin. In 2013, she was listed as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars. Her debut fantasy adventure novel, The Oathbreaker’s Shadow, was published in 2013 under the name Amy McCulloch and was longlisted for the Branford Boase Award for best UK debut children’s book in 2014. Amy is passionate about reaching out to her loyal fanbase and is keen to recruit new fans through The Potion Diaries.

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Earth Girl and other links from around the blogosphere

I’m deep in the revisions cave at the moment (I’m aiming to have my edit back to my editor by the end of the month, but the end of the month is approaching far too rapidly for my liking!), so blogging has fallen a little bit off the radar. Yet I wanted to take to the blog to congratulate Liz de Jager, who has just become Juliet Mushens’ latest client! She’s done a great in-depth interview with Juliet on her blog, which offers some good insight into agenting life. Check out her blog here: http://www.lizdejager.co.uk/2012/08/interview-with-juliet-mushens/

Also, I forgot to mention that I was on The Lucky 13s blog the other day, chatting about publishing misconceptions.

And finally, yesterday was the publication date for Janet Edwards’ Earth Girl, which is a fantastic YA science fiction debut from a British author. I vividly remember the day when Earth Girl came in on submission, and I knew it was something special when I finished the manuscript (later on that same day) with a huge smile on my face. In fact, I loved it so much I even tweeted about it on the HarperVoyager twitter, which I was running at the time.

 

I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to read YA fiction that is smart, funny and refreshingly original. Don’t look to Earth Girl to find a heroine pining wistfully after a crush, but do pick it up if you want to see a flawed, feisty heroine overcoming huge obstacles to achieve her dreams – oh yes, and maybe finding some romance along the way! Although for once it is with an actually swoon-worthy guy who stands side-by-side with our heroine, not up on a pedestal.

On that note, I’m interviewing Janet Edwards on The Lucky 13s blog, so head over there to find out a bit more about the book and the author!

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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