What lies beyond querying, should we be fortunate enough to have a literary agent offer us representation? In this interview, Halla Williams describes how she came to write the March 2020 #Pitmad pitch which led to signing with her literary agent, and what signing and the early stages of working with her agent have been like, over the course of a year like few others (2020).
What was pitching your Epic Fantasy like?
My first experience of pitching felt like jumping in at the deep end without learning to swim first. After I’d got the manuscript as polished as I could, even getting a developmental edit to check the very complex multi-POV plot worked, I went to a writers’ day run by the SFF publisher at Gollancz. I paid £65 to go but it was worth it. Gollancz authors like Joanne Harris and Ben Aaronovitch and some agents and editors were doing panels and then they moved around the audience tables, heard what you were doing and gave you feedback. It was so useful.
Jo Abercrombie loved the written pitch he kindly agreed to read. One of the Gollancz editors hated my very under-confident spoken version. I realised that I had no idea how to sell this book verbally.
I thought, ok, I need to slow down and think about what sells. What were the ideas that people could relate to and latch onto, that evoke what I’m offering – which is really complicated and multi layered, and doesn’t have clear main characters and doesn’t have a single clear plot? It was going to be a struggle.
I started writing my query then. I foolishly sent it too soon to Joe Abercrombie’s agent and ‘said Jo Abercrombie liked it.” I got a form rejection. Those first few are hard because they just confirm that dread that it’s not going to be easy. So I took it slowly because I knew I didn’t know how to sell it. I only sent them out gradually.
I started getting in touch with people on Twitter who were also querying. We talked and my query evolved. Then Flights of Foundry [an SFF convention that went online because of the pandemic] came up. There was a lottery for a critique of your query by Jose Iriarte and Elle Ire. I was lucky enough to win a place only 6 people got. I sent it off in advance and they were going to give feedback on the day but the connection was awful. They said, “We’ll email it and you can send your next draft as well.” Jose didn’t like it and Lisa loved it. She really related to the query and he didn’t at all. I re-wrote it based on that feedback and Jose said he was amazed at how much I improved it based on what they said. I thought, “Oo, I’m feeling a bit more confident now!”
What was your experience of pitch parties and follow up querying?
I wrote a few pitches in response to that and shared them on Facebook for people to respond to. I looked at feedback and went by my gut to choose which ones to pitch. I pitched in #Pitmad and got no likes. Then I pitched in #SFFPit and botched it. An American agent liked my pitch. He said on his Twitter, “Find out about me. It’s a wooing process. Don’t just send me stuff and don’t know who I am.” So I did loads and loads of research. I wasn’t aware of how far back in the past it went but I picked the most appropriate connection I found. I just got a form rejection back and was disappointed. But at the same con I mentioned earlier, Flights of Foundry, he said, not knowing I was there, “Don’t do what this stalker did and dig years into the past to find something that connects you.”
Elise: And you sat there going, “Awesome. That was me…”
Halla: Yes! I was mortified even though I wasn’t digging through his trash, or hacking his account! I guess it wasn’t meant to be. Just because you’ve got a like doesn’t mean anything. You still need to be able to connect with that person. Just be yourself. Have confidence that you’re offering something that will connect with that person. Don’t scrabble around like an idiot, trying to find a connection that isn’t there.
By the time we got to the March Pitmad, I knew my query said what I wanted it to say. It was nearly 400 words – outside the guidelines for what people say is an appropriate length for a query! But the more good examples in high fantasy I see, the less I think it should go down to 300.
Elise I saw a post where an agent reported on average query length in their inbox. Some went up to 450 and the agent believed there were appropriate reasons for them to be that long. I guess that’s the problem with hard and fast rules -they don’t apply across the board.
Halla: It’s quite a long complex novel. At that point, it was 130k words of epicness.
You never know if someone’s going to like the enigmatic ex-mercenary, or the courtesan or if they’re going to be attracted to a rebellious Fae. Skimping too much means you could leave out the ideas that could appeal to the right person.
Getting that down into a Twitter pitch was hard but the same applies – get in the appealing ideas. Although there are so many pitches going by that you may not get seen by agents, it’s still great practice.
Elise: From the pitch parties I attended in 2020, I think if you’re writing adult there’s a chance, but for YA Fantasy the odds of being seen by the industry seem astronomical. I’ve had a few press likes in SFFPit, but that’s the only party my YA Fantasy has got industry attention in. I can see myself querying publishers and then self publishing.
Halla: That’s what I thought I was going to have to do.
How did you know that you have the right agent? And what was your early contact with him like?
After I got the like in the March PitMad, I did some digging into him and I could see that he was a new agent. I liked what he’d been posting and how he came across on Twitter. When I sent the query in, he responded almost immediately. He rang me up and said, “I know people don’t normally ring, but I really like what you sent me and can I have the full please?” No one else had shown interest. He sounded really nice on the phone. We had a chat and a laugh. Afterwards, I realised I hadn’t sent the full to anyone, so I had to format it… chapters a third down the page… Times 12 New Roman 12pt. I worried whether I’d got the right, most up-to-date version. It only took me four hours, but it was really intense between feeding a small child and other things going on to distract me.
He emailed me the next morning and said, “I’m a few chapters in. I really liked when… has anyone else got it?” He was obviously really keen.
Three days later he said, ”Can I call you and talk to you about it?” I thought, is this going to be a revise and resubmit? I knew a phone call was a good thing, but I didn’t know how good. I was having a hell of a day the day he wanted to call me, so I put it off to the next day.
He called me up and said it was as brilliant as he hoped. He really liked this and that about it. He gave me some constructive feedback so I’d get a feel for his edits: “This is happening off stage and is reported. You need to write some actions scenes and get a thrill pulse going.”
He told me so much about my novel that resonated with me that I thought you get what I’m trying to do. We had a good chat and formed a good bond.
He gave me seven days to make a decision. I said, “That might not be long enough because I really want to investigate your references. I might want to drop a line to the other agents who’ve got it and say, ‘I’ve got an offer.’ He said, “You can have up to two weeks.”
Elise: That’s industry standard.
Halla: I’d done my research, so I knew I could ask for two weeks. I’m glad I knew, because otherwise I wouldn’t have felt I could push him on it. I got the references off him. He only had two other clients before me. He’d said, “I want to work with you for your whole career, not just this book.” That was what I wanted and needed. I thought he’s an agent with a small list, I’ll get loads of attention. And he seemed to be a rising star. I was pretty sure he was the one. But the other person who had my query was someone I was really interested in, so I did nudge her and she said, “Send me the full.”
Just after I sent her the full, I got his references and they were glowing. Both authors were keen to talk to me and sing his praises. Apparently, he’s got a great eye for edits!
I ended up emailing the other agent and saying, “I’m sorry, I’ve made my decision.” It just felt really right and I wanted to move forward. I contacted him and said “I really want to come and work with you. Let’s do it.” And he seemed delighted!
What was signing your agency agreement like?
There were a couple of things I wasn’t sure about, so we talked through the contract. After that I was happy and celebrated and posted a picture of me and my contract – blurred out – on Twitter.
And the next client he signed after me won the Rivers of London Prize. So he’s been able to talk to editors he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. That book is fantasy, so it has opened doors to talk about mine. I’m very happy about that.
What stage is your book at now, and when might it go on submission?
2020 was a difficult year in terms of getting things done and moving forward. I got my full edits in January (2021). We’re going to make the changes we need to make, then we’ll go on submission. You think you’re going to just do some revisions then it’s going to go out there, but because it’s a big, complicated book, it’s going to take longer than I’d imagined.
Elise: Did he give you feedback officially to do some edits earlier? Has it been multiple rounds?
Halla: He gave me some things to work on when we did the signing at the end of May. I got some broad comments in December. The people he’s signed since are behind me in the queue, so they’re going to take longer. Somebody told me a publishing house editor had hers for 5 months before she heard anything.
Elise: It seems to be the thing with traditional publishing – that it will take time full stop – at all stages.
Halla: However keen I am to push it on and hurry it, you’ve just got to wait for other people.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
How much of it feels like luck.
Just connecting with the right person at the right time is staggeringly unlikely. You’ve got to be good, but you’ve also got to be lucky. Lots of people saying no isn’t necessarily because you’re not good. There are so many reasons why people say no that have nothing to do with you.
I had been getting to the point where I’d queried for a while and I was wondering if it was the pages and whether I should cut the first few chapters. You get to a point where you feel like you should change something. I’m glad I didn’t because I didn’t need to.
What advice would you give people in the querying trenches?
Get lots of people to give feedback on your query and don’t believe everybody. Just take on board what makes sense to you and opens your mind to how other people are perceiving what you’ve written. You know the story so well that you can’t know what the words you’ve chosen are suggesting to other people. They may come across quite differently. Ask people to tell you what kind of person they’re finding that character to be. Are you finding that person engaging? What is charming about what I’ve written? What stands out to you? Really interrogate that.
[I was one of the people who gave Halla feedback on her query, and something she did well was following up on comments with questions. She wasn’t afraid to seek clarification or additional feedback from people who’d already given her feedback. I remember being impressed by how much her queries developed from one revision to the next – faster than mine and the tens of queries I’ve given feedback on.]
Halla: Different people are going to like different things about it. Take what seems to you to be good advice.
Elise: I got to the point by June, or possibly earlier, where I could tell straight away when I was looking at a really good pitch. I’d read it and go, “Oh wow, that’s a great pitch!” But I could still detach from that, read it again critically and give feedback on how to improve it.
Halla: I think sometimes a story centres on a great idea, and those pitches are easier to write well.
But if you’re trying to write lots of subtlety, you have to cheat it. Make your pitch not quite as complex as it is, to get an agent to read it. You’ve just got to get them to pay attention enough to get hooked into reading. Then they’ll see that it’s subtle and complex.
It is collecting together the ideas that make a good pitch, rather than trying to convey the essence of the story.
I think my pitch makes it sound a bit like a romantic relationship between Ashari and Westorr. That isn’t the case, but there is something about the ambiguity of that relationship which is intriguing. It doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it was accurate as written and enough to pull somebody in.
Halla Williams writes high fantasy. She’s also a developmental and copyeditor and sings in an acoustic duo called Telhalla.
Having grown up in the small town of Nailsea in England, Halla studied Drama at Exeter University. She then toured as an actor for six years, performing in everything from Shakespeare to comedy musicals to children’s theatre.
Although she discovered many wonderful places, she came back to live in Bristol, near where she grew up, to work as an English teacher. After 16 years, she left teaching to become a proofreader and editor and finally finish Song of the Storm.
Bristol’s live music scene is a particular joy for her and she sings regularly at the ‘famous’ open mic at The Oxford pub in Totterdown. Her favourite local band is the Dusk Brothers.
As a fantasy reader, her favourites include Robin Hobb, Janny Wurts, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Mercedes Lackey and Brandon Sanderson. She has a Facebook page and you can follow her on Twitter if you are interested in the writing/publishing process.
You’ll find her website here.
If you’re curious about the alternative -signing with Indie publishers- here’s my interview with three authors about how they found, signed with and knew they had the right Indie Publisher for their book.
For more information about querying, all of my favourite querying resources are linked in Querying Links: Letters & Literary Agents.
You’ll find my best advice on query letter structure and a query pitch breakdown in Comprehensive Query Letter Tips.