Debut Author, Aliya Ali-Afzal, quickly signed with her dream agent through the slush pile, although she refreshingly reminds us that everyone’s experience is different. What aspiring authors can take away from this interview is how relatable Aliya’s story is. There were no prizes, no careers in journalism or feature writing prior to her contract with her dream agency. No, Aliya did what most writers have done or do. She wrote for fun for many years, studies creative writing, got accepted into a writing course, albeit, a prestigious one (Curtis Brown Creative) and submitted to top agencies, believing it would take months or even years.
Aliya is honest, yet open-minded about her account and encourages hopeful writers not to compare their journey with others (something that we too often do). But what’s great is that Aliya reminds us that it’s not all down to luck when it comes to securing a contract. Polishing that MS, researching agents and their personal requirements, attending pitching conferences, working hard on cover letters and remembering… this is a job interview, are all vital steps and strategies needed to get noticed by a literary agent.
Aliya’s commercial novel, Would I Lie To You? was fought over in a three-way auction, proving that writers who submit to the “slush-pile” really do have a chance of gaining an agent and publisher through hard work, dedication, oh… and an awesome hook which Aliya openly shares with us in this interview.
How long have you been writing?
Forever! Some of my earliest memories are of writing poems and short stories when I was around six, and I also wrote stories for my children when they were growing up. I had always secretly dreamed of writing a novel ‘one day’, but in quite an abstract sense. I never actually started one. I took the first step impulsively a few years ago, almost on a whim, when I came across the novel-writing course at Curtis Brown Creative, and applied at the last minute. I had to write 5000 words of the start of a novel and a synopsis, which I managed to do. The idea for the novel had been in my head for along time! When, to my utter surprise, I was selected as one of 15 students from over 200 applicants, it was a huge confidence boost. Suddenly I was with a group of people who took their writing seriously, and so I felt that I could too, at long last.
Although I started my novel on the course in 2014, soon afterwards, I had to stop writing completely for three years, due to family circumstances. However, I didn’t give up my dream and came back to the novel in 2017. It took me two years to write Would I Lie To You? , which I completed it in 2019.
What led to your offer of representation with an agent (or contract with a publisher, if you went that way around first?)
I started submitting Would I Lie To You? to agents in December 2019 and signed with my dream agent Juliet Mushens in January 2020, via the slush pile.
It was much quicker than I had anticipated. I think everyone’s experience is different, and you should go into the process with no particular expectations, either good or bad, or any worries and fears. I had expected it to take months, even years, before I found representation, but it only took six weeks. This is also why it is so important to have your manuscript ready and polished before you start to submit. Don’t assume that you will have 3 months to polish it up while you wait for agents to reply!
It is impossible to predict how long it will take to get an agent. Just focus on your research, target the right agents for your work, submit, and keep on submitting.
How long did you have to wait to hear back and was it a partial or full request?
It varied. I met one agent for a booked 1-1 feedback session at a writers’ conference, for which I had submitted 3000 words of my novel in advance. She asked for the full manuscript when we met.
I met another agent at a networking Open Day at a literary agency. I pitched my novel to an agent who asked me to submit 10, 000 words. They got back to me eight weeks later to request the full manuscript.
The rest of the submissions were online to the slush pile and all the agents got back to me within three days.
The most interesting experience was with my agent Juliet Mushens. I was very nervous submitting to her as she was ‘The One’, and I took ages writing my cover letter. After pressing ‘send’ I was exhausted and hungry, and made myself some breakfast. Just before I ate, I checked my phone and saw the email that would change my life. Juliet had replied after twenty minutes, saying that she wanted to see the full manuscript.
This is where luck or fate must have also stepped in though because no one ever hears back this quickly! My email must have dropped into my agent’s inbox at exactly the moment when she happened to be free and happened to check her email. That’s why I always advise writers to keep submitting. You never know when it could be your lucky day.
How many submissions did you make prior to gaining representation/publishing contract?
I submitted Would I Lie To you? to five agents in all. As well as my dream agent, I chose a mixture of well-established industry leaders, and also upcoming ‘rising star’ agents, who were more junior and still building their lists, but within leading agencies.
I would advise writers to also try to go to events like the writers’ conference that I attended, or to open pitching events, whether online or in person (once we are on the other side of the pandemic!). Sometimes you may click with an agent at an event and they may request to see your ms when it is ready. I met one agent at a friend’s book launch months before I had completed writing my book. She liked the sound of my book and asked me to submit to her when it was ready. This gave me confidence in my book idea and great motivation to finish my novel. I also then had someone who I knew wanted to read my novel when it was ready.
None of this is essential though, so don’t worry if you don’t get a chance to network! In the end, I sent my submission via email to an agent I didn’t know at all, into a slush pile, and still got signed up.
Any tips on cover letters/synopsis/pitches?
I worked very hard on cover letters and it took me quite a long time to get them right. The key thing is to make sure you are tailoring the cover letter for each agent. So, demonstrate that you have researched their wish-list, and why your novel would be a good addition to it.
Different agents have different instructions on the sort of information they would like in cover letters too. For example, one agent said she wanted to know the wordcount at the start of the cover letter, but the others didn’t, so research is very important. There are lots of videos online of agents talking about what they want to see in cover letters and submissions, and I watched as many of them as I could. Although cover letters are very important, they don’t have to be perfect either. If an agent loves your novel, they will excuse a less than perfect cover letter!
The synopsis is always a nightmare but so long as you’re prepared for that, you can just keep working on it until you get it right, Don’t worry if you struggle. It’s perfectly normal for it to be a torturous process! You will be able to do it.
The best advice I was given about writing a pitch was this formula: this is a story about a woman/ man who…then write what is happening to them (their dilemma/ situation, and finally, end with a question. For example, for my novel it would be:
Would I Lie To You? is the story of a woman who has secretly spent her family’s savings. When her husband loses his job, she must replace the money before he discovers the ruth.
Your first reaction when they offered the representation/contract?
Five stress-filled, unbearable days after my agent had requested the full ms, I got a long email from her giving me a lot of feedback and some great editorial input. I read it all thinking that she was turning me down but in a nice way. When I got to the bottom of the email though, she said that she loved the book and wanted to offer me representation. I cannot describe the immense happiness, relief and numb disbelief I felt! I had to read the email several times before it actually sank in. It was one of the best moments of my life, without doubt.
Two days later, I met Juliet in her Soho office, and we got on brilliantly. I had no hesitation in saying yes, because she absolutely understood the novel, and she also loved my writing. I had complete confidence that she was the right person to advise and support me on this journey.
What’s next for you?
Would I Lie To You is being published in hardback in July 2021 in the UK, with the paperback to follow next year, and it will also be published in the USA. I am now writing book two, which will be published in July 2022.
It has only recently sunk in that I am now a working writer. That vaguest of dreams from so long ago, has now transformed into the reality of a writing and publishing deadlines, and the thrill of holding my book in my hands and sharing it with readers, which is why I wrote the book in the first place!
It makes me so happy to read about writer success stories and Aliya’s is no exception! I cannot wait to read her awesome novel Would I Lie To You? It’s going to be a hit! You can learn more about Aliya here. Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Aliya!
And thank you all for stopping by.