Dear Juliet, Please Read My Book

Or, how I found my literary agent


My debut novel, The Miniaturist, was published this summer in the UK and the US. To my astonishment, I have found myself (or, really, the book) on the Sunday Times and NY Times Bestseller lists. I’m not being disingenuous — I genuinely didn’t think much further beyond it being published. Anyway, that is all simply context. This post is actually about what happened before all that.

Given the mystification seeming to surround submission and query letters and what to write in them — my agent, Juliet Mushens, and I thought it would be a good idea to publish my letter to her, followed by our subsequent email exchanges that lead to a face to face meeting.

Big gulp.

This is quite a private admission right here, but I’m happy to do it because I hope, if anything, that it shows there are no draconian laws in place keeping you from these mythical agents. The only thing you can do is write your novel, redraft it (for me it was 6 times), then invite those agents to read. They won’t all accept your request, but that’s part of the process, too. This isn’t a post about how to write a novel that will get the notice of agents and publishers. I don’t know the secret to that — but if anyone *does* know, could they tell me? I’m cooking up book 2 right now and could do with the magic formula. Thank you please.

Back to submissions. Perhaps the demon at play apart from your own neuroses (mine often weigh me down, but their engines keep me going) is an agent’s availability. Time is the most precious of commodities. Juliet works hard, all day and often evenings. She has her current client list to deal with. If she’s Juliet, she gets up to 50 submissions a week. If she’s Juliet, she will be working tirelessly on all fronts for the varying needs of her authors. But if she’s Juliet, she will make time, and if she likes your work she will get in touch.

I like very much the fact that my agent doesn’t believe in asking for exclusives. So many writers are flattered by this request when asked by an agent to stop showing other people their work and leave it solely with them.

I’m special! I’m precious! They LOVE it! Well, maybe.

But hold on a second and look beyond this request — yes, agents are busy, but they are asking you for your time as much as theirs, and you don’t even know them. You’re keeping all eggs tight in one basket which may end tipping up over your head.

Yes, agents need to protect themselves from wasting time on manuscripts that they then discover another agent has signed — but here’s the thing — if you use transparency and tell them the truth from the beginning, you could end up being the one to interview agents and not the other way round. You don’t need to be secretive about it. Just because you’ve sent to more than one agent doesn’t mean you don’t care who represents you, or that you’re wasting their time. Think of it as putting yourself out on tender. Who is best for the job of You? I told Juliet I had other offers. She asked me why I hadn’t accepted them, and how much time she had to read my work. I explained myself and we both were happy.

It’s tempting, but don’t jump at the first offer, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Tell the others you submitted to that you’ve been offered representation, and see what happens. You don’t need to look arrogant about it.

Your career shouldn’t start in a partnership riddled with one-sided gratefulness and scraping bows that leave you with a crooked spine.

Here’s a little bit of background of my own experience.

I had a spreadsheet (I know, I know — but I’ve been a PA in the City for years, chaps — old habits die HARD) detailing to whom I’d written at which agency, whether I’d had a response, etc. I picked these agents for different reasons. You don’t need to send your manuscript to a billion agents — maybe start with just six or so who you like the look of. Read their agent biographies, check their current list. I thought — if I were to be able to have a choice, what do I want from an agent? Someone who I trusted, who I could be comfortable with, who was ambitious, unusual, brave. Of course, I understand a website and a photograph cannot be a proof of any of this. But lots of agents are starting to do Q & As which you can find online; these can shed some light. You can go to talks, or attend writing conferences. I didn’t actually have time to go to any last year, but if you do, whilst it’s no guarantee of anything, it can put things into context for you and give you a sense of the person behind the name.

Too much of my first creative career — acting — had not been particularly laugh a minute, with feelings of isolation and powerlessness. I know full well these feelings are as recognisable in publishing as they are in acting, but quite frankly, I was desperate for a bit more humanity. I wanted someone who would make the process enjoyable, even fun. Being someone with a sense of humour does not mean you’re no good at your job.

A few of the agents were established; most were not. I’ve seen some acting agents sit out the revenues of their big stars and lose interest in their newbies trying to stretch their wings — this time, I didn’t want to be frightened picking up the phone. I wanted someone as enthusiastic as me.

I wrote to certain agents because they allowed me to save money by only requiring email submissions. Yeah, I know. But back in 2008, when I submitted an unfinished piece of work (what was I thinking?!), it cost me the size of a small car in printing costs. A small car which probably went in the bin. Well! I hear you cry, If you’re dedicated, you should be prepared to send paper submissions, all 500 pages to those various agents! 1. The environment. 2. My wallet. 3. The environment.

Most, the first time round, were dead ends when it came to The Miniaturist last summer. The one who responded, ‘I don’t really see where this book is going?’ The one who ignored it, even though their slushpile reader loved what I’d sent and had put it on their desk with urgency. Those who liked my first three chapters then found the rest less appetising, and sent their polite rejection. Those who said nothing at all, and those who replied, ‘Not this time, but if you write something else, please send.’

I wrote back to all of them, thanking them for their time, spending a few minutes with my face pressed to the wall. But along with these rejections, I did get advice from some — and although they didn’t offer representation any stage along the way, they were extremely generous with their observations. The book needed work. I knew that, and I took these observations, along with those of a couple of friends whose opinions I instinctively trusted — amalgamated them, digested them, and made a better book. I’m a first-time novelist, so maybe it’s the actress in me, but I believe constructive criticism from the right people — sensitive and thoughtful people — will always make for better work. I was learning and I will always be. You are the ultimate creator, but art does not exist in a vacuum.

For four months more, I wrestled my novel to the floor; the sixth full time I’d done that since early 2010.

I submitted The Miniaturist for the second round of the rollercoaster in December 2012, and by February 2013 I had five offers of representation and the oddest situation I’d ever had in my life. Choice. I didn’t even choose my university, thanks to an overly-varied UCAS form that frightened most of them off — and as a jobbing actress I never got to choose my roles — heck, I didn’t even get paid for a lot of them!

But here was a big choice to make. For once in my adult life, a bargaining chip, an opportunity to pick! — to match these names with personalities, with plans for the future. A chance to discover with which one I clicked most. Big, monolith agent, or small untried? Few deals under the belt, or old hand? Great agency, or great agent?

Trust me, you need a great agent. Someone who will listen, who will fight for you, who will be your champion. Someone who’s in it for the long haul.

I kept everyone who was interested in representing me informed of the others’ decisions. As I said earlier, there is nothing wrong with transparency on both sides. In fact, in the long run, it’s a lot more helpful. One agent even said to me, ‘We like nothing better than a chase’ — and I certainly found with The Miniaturist that if you told them there were others offering representation, it made them sit up.

I learned quickly when I met them after work to have a cup of tea instead of wine. Thanks to just one glass, I would go home and forget the feel of our conversation — the giddiness was a social oil but it didn’t help.

All of the agents approached the manuscript differently — from saying more mystery was required to a need for greater realism. Some were curious about who else was offering me representation. Others showed no desire to know. Some, apropos of nothing, said they wanted to take it to the London Book Fair. When I posited this to other agents, they replied it might get lost among all the titles, and that there was no need. It showed me how subjective the industry is, how authors aren’t the only ones who take a gamble. No one knows anything for sure! As it is, I think the London Book Fair 2013 will remain one of the changing moments of my life. I didn’t rush my edits — in the end, the book was just ready.

Please, forget those awful people who will charge you a fee to ‘put you in contact with agents’, thereby perpetuating the myth of some magic formula whose steps, once taken, will get you a publishing deal.

I have a friend who did this, and it made me so angry that hope could so badly mutate and be exploited. What on earth can these people do that you can’t? You’ve written a novel, for crying out loud! I actually found emailing the submissions email address ridiculously, fiendishly exciting — not because I thought I was onto a winner, but because from the bottom to the top, this was all my own doing. Two friends, who had publishing contacts, asked me if I wanted to put them in touch, but I said no, thank you. I was doing this alone. Forget that it’s ‘who you know’. Believe that, and you’re on the path to bitterness. Yes, if your friend’s mum is owner of Random Penguin, maybe she will get you some introductions, but if your book’s not for them, do you really think they’re going to put their necks on the line to please your ego?

If an agent requests the first three chapters, send them the first three chapters. If it’s the first 50 pages, then send them the nearest approximation to where there’s a natural break. Mine came to 56 pages, because it was clear where the natural pause was. Maybe 60 is pushing it. Don’t tell them your book will make a great movie. Don’t tell them they’d be mad not to sign you. Don’t tell them anything except what your book is about, and why you are writing to them. And don’t liken yourself to Hilary Mantel. I say this not from experience, but from a place in my heart where I suspect this might even be happening right now, and a little bit of me dies. You are you, and that should be enough.

It’s boring, the truth. People are busy, taste is subjective, things slip through the net.

I was rejected, I slipped through — until somebody else caught me. But I guess this is why you’ve got to turn up. You’ve got to keep submitting, because one day maybe it will be your inbox that pings, or your phone that has a missed call from a central London number, a voicemail message that says, ‘I loved your book, and I’d love to chat,’ or, ‘Let me tell you why I should represent you.’

Someone once said to me, and we argued it — ‘It should be enough for you to write the novel and put it in a drawer.’ They were trying to encourage me to find a true dignity amid the most likely outcome of rejection. Write, because of writing. I knew that if The Miniaturist didn’t go anywhere I’d write another, and another. Sounds easy to say, but writing was an oasis for me in the cultural drought of my other creative life. An oasis where I’ll admit the water sometimes tasted sour.

The decision to write has to be the most important element of this whole shebang. Writing will sometimes shatter you, but no one made you do it. Getting a decent page out will be like wringing blood from a particularly prehistoric stone, muter and stonier and impassable as death. Writing will then paradoxically inject you with self-respect, flashes of pleasure and pride in what you’ve achieved, when a reader beams and says she didn’t see it coming, that she sat up till 3am with your pages on her knees. Writing will enrage you, but it’s supposed to. It’s not an escape — it’s turning up to face myself. I drive myself crazy just by being conscious — writing is the exploration of this fury; an extension of existence, probing that metaphysical boundary beyond my skin.

We all need a little illusion. But sometimes the illusion fades, and we are left with ourselves, naked in the mirror. Never hate that reflection if someone pings you a ‘no.’ It’s no one’s fault, except maybe statistics. When I went to acting auditions, I saw clones of myself and every one of us could do the job. I’ve just seen a TV commercial that I went up for — the girl who got it had been lovely, as I chatted with her in the casting waiting room. Her path isn’t mine — but who knows, she’s probably writing a novel too. I wasn’t always this sanguine — at 23 I was furious most of the time. Entitlement’s a bugger. When life doesn’t meet your desires, and those desires are screwed tightly inflexible, then that way madness lies.

In acting, in writing, perhaps there are too many of us. So much is down to luck and timing, and there isn’t a merit board, there’s no gold star system. There are things about your writing you can develop, but you cannot read an agent’s mind, or look into the future. Just keep writing and reading; two acts of autonomy and agency, two channels of air to breathe in deep. By the third act — the one of submitting your work — hopefully your lungs will be full. You’re ready to speak — and who knows? — this could be the moment they will listen.

Dear Juliet,

I was hoping that you would read the first three chapters of my novel, The Miniaturist.

JB: Short and sweet…

It tells the story of a wealthy, dysfunctional family living in Amsterdam in 1686 during the decline of the Dutch Golden Age. Set against the backdrop of the Calvinist church, the gossip of guilds and the overblown trading of the Dutch East India Company, it explores the tyranny and safety of home and the need for secrets and imagination, all linked by a mysterious miniaturist existing on the edge of their lives.

JB: Seriously, these two paragraphs took ages. It’s the dreaded synopsis. Tyranny, safety, home, secrets… and then in the NEXT paragraph I crammed in the other bits — lost love, old wounds, hidden hopes. I think I wanted to make sure you ‘got’ what I was aiming for — my themes, if you like. I was trying to avoid ‘Hollywood trailer speak’. ‘HE was a merchant on the edge. SHE was an innocent among wolves blah blah blah’.

JM: I studied history at University and knew the period, and love historical fiction yet rarely get sent any, so this sounded great to me.

When the merchant Johannes Brandt commissions a miniature version of his wife’s new marital home to be built, its construction under the influence of the elusive miniaturist unleashes long-suppressed secrets, lost love, old wounds and hidden hopes. Each of the inhabitants are forced to look into their souls and one another’s hearts and decide whether they have the strength to carry on in a society which might end up condemning them all.

I submitted a section of The Miniaturist in raw form to the inaugural Curtis Brown Creative Writing course in summer 2011, and was one of 15 out of about 150 writers to be offered a place. I think my book most likely falls in the category of literary historical fiction, but with a supernatural twist.

JB: I think I read somewhere that it was worth saying what sort of book you thought you’d written, so I did. But I didn’t want to sound presumptuous.

JM: I am a big fan of lost love and suppressed secrets, and I love genre bending fiction eg James Oswald’s supernatural thrillers. This definitely piqued my interest as it sounded exactly my kind of book.

I have been offered representation by two agencies on the back of them reading the full MS. I follow you on Twitter and like your style, and think in all your interviews with your clients that you seem so sharp and enthusiastic and warm. The opportunity to meet you would be marvellous, if you saw potential in the book, that is!

JB: If I’m honest, I would never have been so presumptuous as to even hint at a meeting had I not had two offers already. My letters to earlier agents did not have this bit! I just by now suspected that people might be more inclined to meet if I had offers, and I really wanted to meet Juliet. Never a guarantee, of course. But I thought it foolish NOT to mention it. I was also a bit worried about coming across as a stalker?! I FOLLOW YOU ON TWITTER AND I KNOW YOUR FAVOURITE SANDWICH.

JM: It made me laugh when she said she ‘liked my style’. Never underestimate the power of making me laugh. A witty or warm covering letter goes a long way in capturing my attention. Remember that I get around 50 submissions a week so an enjoyable cover letter is a real treat.

I saw in one interview dated August last year, that you were reading Schama’s An Embarrassment of Riches, which is the lodestone for my historical research.

The novel sprang from a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where I first saw Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house — here’s a link if you are interested. It cost the same as a full-blown town-house to build and furnish, and is full of Chinese porcelain, Dutch oak, Italian marble, glass, furniture, oil paintings, food, tapestries…it is literally a miniature world and was famous in its day. For me, the house became an important symbol in the novel — of the wealth and power of Amsterdam, of women’s interior lives, their lack of control, the power of imagination to gain agency, and the conflict between domesticity and adventure. In the 1680s Amsterdam was one of the most powerful cities in the world, but only its menfolk owned the waves. Petronella became my heroine, Nella, and from her miniature house my story was born.

JB: Um, is this getting a bit long?! I guess I wanted to show Juliet the house, and thought it was nice to have an interactive link to see it. I basically come across as a feminist obsessive history dweeb. It’s a look that works for me.

JM: The letter didn’t feel long to me. I loved the fact that Jessie knew I knew the period and I found the idea of the dollshouse being real absolutely wonderful, plus I love gender history – it was my specialism at University — and I found the idea of looking at the interior lives of women a very compelling proposition.

About me: I’m 30 and originally from Wimbledon. I went to a girls’ comprehensive in Fulham, [JB: Ah, a nice bit of class warfare] then studied English and Spanish at Brasenose College, Oxford, then an MA in Classical Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Since 2005, I’ve been working as an actress, with roles at the National Theatre and the Donmar. Most recently, I was in a production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion at the Salisbury Playhouse, and a comic play at the Trafalgar Studios, called Cafe Red. When not acting or writing, I work as a PA in the City. [JB: This used to be a real bone of contention with me, that I couldn’t live off my acting. But I came to be v protective of the life experience this other work gave me, and was more than happy to mention it. Ah, maturity.]. I live in East Dulwich — a locale none of my millionaire bosses have heard of [JB: Ah, snidiness] — with my boyfriend Pip.

JM: I always like to know a little bit about the author who is sending to me. Whether it’s ‘I’m 52 and have a passion for Persian cats’ or ‘I’m a keen amateur beekeeper’ a splash of personality is always nice! I also sniggered at the snide joke about East Dulwich.

I hope you enjoy these chapters,

With best wishes,

Jessie

JB: 3 minutes after emailing Juliet, she replied:

How exciting! Will read ASAP.

JB: Then 14 minutes after that:

Right, full manuscript please!

JB: Which honestly made me glow and laugh out loud. It was like magic.

JM: I always read my submissions at odd times and I was on a train to Peckham. I say ‘on a train to Peckham’ but what I mean is ‘actually on a train going the wrong way because my housemate got us on the wrong train.’ I’d been sat for ages, getting increasingly hangry (hungry and angry) and decided to productively use my time by reading submissions. I typically read everything in order but this was an exciting cover letter, a genre I love, and an intriguing premise, which meant that it skipped the queue. The first chapter gave me goosebumps and I knew very quickly that this was an exciting writer.

JB: Two weeks later…

Hello, just to say am halfway through and LOVING it, will aim to finish in next few days and be in touch. Bloody love this period of history and your tone is superb…

JM: I think it’s a common misconception that agents ALWAYS read manuscripts overnight if we want it. It is totally time dependent! Sometimes I read a full overnight, or on a weekend, but if I’m incredibly swamped at work, and have lots of plans during evenings, I often can’t get to things right away. It was a couple of weeks later when I was having a zen day at work and catching up on reading that I finally had a chance to turn to the full. By the time I sent this email I was excited about it, but I wanted space to finish it before I made a decision. I think it’s very risky to offer representation based on just the beginning or first half of a book, as sometimes things can collapse halfway through, or the ending can be really dissatisfying.

JB: Then later that evening…

Hi Jessie,

Just left you a VM because I finished it and I love it and I should 100% be your agent… so call me back, or email me back, and let’s set up a time to meet and have a chat about my editorial thoughts, and representation.

All best,
Juliet

JM: I ended up so entranced by the story that I spent the entire day reading it, ignoring my phone and emails. I’d scribbled notes all over my pad which ranged from ‘more sugar!’ to ‘such a gorgeous line’ to ‘Marin you COW’, and was utterly engrossed by the storytelling. It was impeccably researched but didn’t feel cumbersome or heavy. It was about characters, and predestination, and women, and sex, and love, and secrets, and parakeets… I wanted it very badly indeed. I remember leaving Jessie a ridiculous voicemail to arrange a meeting and when she came in to see me we spent two hours talking about everything from school, the fact I kept choking on the popcorn I’d bought for the meeting (why popcorn? WHY?), and obviously my strategy for the book and my editorial thoughts on the work it needed. In a meeting like this it is quite easy in some ways to sell yourself as you just need to be honest: I was passionate about the book and confident in the work it needed and how I would sell it. I also liked Jessie very much, which helps! She needed time to think about my offer, but I couldn’t get the book out of my head, and when she called me (no one calls with bad news) I knew that she had decided to sign with me. I was absolutely thrilled. I even called my parents to tell them, THAT is how excited I was.

JB: I would have picked up immediately, but the phone was on silent in my loo of all places. Juliet definitely had the most confident, determined approach in terms of offering rep. Others wanted me to sort of ‘confirm’ that I adhered to a mutual editing vision before taking the risk of signing, but she believed in me, or maybe she was drunk? Best decision I ever made though, taking her up on her offer. This is gonna sound schmaltzy, but I also remember when I called back a few days after our meeting, her breath caught in her throat when I announced myself. I already knew I wanted Juliet to represent me, but that caught breath was the icing on the cake. It spoke volumes. I just hope it wasn’t a fly in her throat, or she was choking on a Percy Pig.

Juliet sent me her structural comments and observations on characters and plot. I took a couple of weeks working on it, followed by a line edit which we bounced back and forth to one another with ‘track changes’. Then, about a week before the London Book Fair, the manuscript went out on submission to a varied list of publishers Juliet thought would love the book.

But that’s another post. And if you got this far, you deserve a medal.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is on sale now.

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