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How I Got My Literary Agent – Part One

Before I got an agent I used to consume posts like these, so I think it’s only fair that I document my own experience for other persons, especially writers like myself who are based outside of the USA.

WARNING: This is going to be a long post. It’s been a while since I blogged and my rambling has gotten even worse since then. 🙂

Let’s go back to 2010 (what? told you it was going to be long lol). I was mainly a short story writer. My stories rarely went past 3,000 words. I never thought I would be able to write a whole novel. In fact, I didn’t want to! The idea of writing 60,000+ words seemed like a monumental, daunting task.

That same year I did a workshop with a well-known Caribbean author, who introduced me to the term “literary agent”. I was amazed at the idea of a whole person whose job was to sell our stories to publishers. The author taught us how to write a ‘query letter’ but to be honest I paid more attention to the short fiction exercise. Remember, back then, I had no interest in writing a full-length novel.

Then I heard about Nanowrimo. A challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I like challenges, so I gave it a go. I didn’t even get beyond 5,000 words before losing interest in the story.

I don’t like to lose.

The next year, 2011, I did it again. This year I actually won the challenge. I wrote 50,000 horrible words of a book that I’m afraid to look back at. The story wasn’t even finished. As soon as I saw that I had reached 50,000 words I paused mid-sentence, and then went boasting about my victory. I had no desire to finish that story either but this experience was so important because for the first time, I knew that I had the ability to write that many words in a short time.

In January 2013, I was recounting a traumatic childhood memory to a friend, and he commented, “this sounds like the opening chapter of a novel”. I thought about it, and decided to give it a go. This time, I decided to break down each of the ten chapters like short stories, just to make the task more manageable. I was serious about it. I even gave myself deadlines for completing each chapter. This was the beginning of my journey to writing Getting Back at Jack Taylor.

I started strong! I met my deadlines for the first four chapters in one month, but then in the middle of Chapter Five, the midpoint, I felt like I was losing the plot. NOTE I have to do a separate blog post about the challenges of writing a fictional story based on a real event. *Hold me accountable please*. I stopped writing and got feedback from some amazing beta readers (thank you Alake, Christine and Liesl!) that would change the complete structure of the novel.

Two months later, I traveled to BocasLitFest in Trinidad, and happened to attend a workshop hosted by a literary agent with Caribbean roots based in the UK. She was so informative and really gave us a complete understanding of her role. I couldn’t wait to complete my book to submit to her. I made sure I didn’t leave without her business card.

Then, movies happened. It wasn’t planned, but I had been introduced to some amazing people and we teamed up and made a few Caribbean movies, and before I knew it, 3 years would pass before I opened the Getting Back at Jack Taylor document again.

This time I was motivated by the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean YA Literature. This award consisted of a cash prize and a book deal, specifically for Caribbean writers. I had never considered writing for younger audiences, though several persons had suggested it over the years because of my penchant for writing short stories from a child’s perspective. But this was too good an opportunity to ignore.

I bought and read some of the BURT award-winning titles and decided that with some revision, Getting Back at Jack Taylor would be a good fit. Three months later, I completed a draft of my first novel, just in time to submit to the competition.

And it wasn’t shortlisted.

I was in China when I got the email about the BURT Finalists, and I remember staring at the computer, and then experiencing a rising feeling of sadness. Then my brain screamed at me, “Shakirah! You won a free trip to China! There’s no way you can feel sorry for yourself right now.” I pressed pause on my disappointment and continued to enjoy my trip.

Weeks later, I wondered what I could do with the manuscript and then I remembered about that magical literary agent person. I dug up the workshop notes on how to write a query, and in May 2017, I submitted my first query and manuscript to a literary agent.

I stared at my inbox, waiting on her to reply in the next few minutes. Oh the sweet naiveté…

To date, I still haven’t gotten a reply.

At the time, it didn’t even occur to me to query other literary agents, especially those in the US. In my head, the only people who would be interested in this Barbadian story, especially one rich with dialect, would be people from the Caribbean and the diaspora. A quick google search would have revealed the truth, but alas. It wasn’t meant to be. I put the manuscript aside. Its journey didn’t end though…but that’s another blog post.

Five months later, on October 7th 2017, Antiguan author, Joanne Hillhouse shared the invitation to submit to the 2018 CODE Burt Award on Facebook. Initially I dismissed it. The deadline was October 31st, 24 days later. But Joanne is an amazing blogger and so I checked out her post ‘The BURT Blog – Memories to Keep and a Trophy’ and was amazed to read that she wrote her award-winning book Musical Youth in less than two weeks!

As per guidelines, the manuscript only needed to be at least 20,000 words – not even half of what I wrote for Nanowrimo. Joanne wrote a whole book in less than two weeks, and I had more than three weeks before the deadline! A writing project had just been cancelled, and I did have a chunk of unexpected free time. What was there to lose?

I brainstormed several story ideas with my friend, Roger Alexis, and he even came up with a title for one of my story suggestions – My Fishy Stepmom. Normally when writing fiction, I am more of a pantser, starting with a character or a scene and then figuring out the story as I went along, but I had no time for that. I spent two days plotting out the book like I would a feature screenplay, and that really turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Yes, once again, another blog post for another time.

I finished the first draft of My Fishy Stepmom on the 26th October, 19 days later. It was just under 30,000 words. I put it aside for a day and then spent 3 days doing a revision. I sent it off to my friend (Liesl!) to check for spelling errors, typos etc, did a final polish the next day, and submitted the manuscript on the day of the deadline.

Now I really, really liked this story. *Confession* I’m my toughest critic and it’s rare that I write something that I immediately love.

I had learnt my lesson from last year though. This time, I was not going to wait around for months to see if the manuscript would actually be chosen as a Burt finalist.

I googled “How to get a literary agent” and four days later, on November 3rd 2017, I sent out my first query for My Fishy Stepmom.

To be continued…

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