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Why debut author, Meera Shah, compares finding an agent to dating… relatable, right?

October 19, 2021

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The reason I love debut author, Meera Shah‘s, publication journey is because unlike most authors, Meera proves you don’t need the degree in writing, the career in writing or the family with a writing background to get published and sign a two-book deal. She’s like most hopeful and aspiring writers out there with that dream to become an author and with no clue how to reach that goal. But Meera reached it, and quite quickly mind you. Her wealth of advice and information and in depth timeline of events will provide writers with the tools, motivation and encouragement to pick up their pencils and get writing!

Meera is my agency sister and not only a uplifting and supportive human, but now also a published author with Hodder & Stoughton! I couldn’t be happier for her. Like me, Meera was accepted into the Curtis Brown Creative course and from that, secured representation with a top London agency. Follow her advice, follow her and model the steps Meera took to get to that finish line.

How long have you been writing?

Like many writers, I discovered writing through my passion for reading. I am a reader, first and foremost. Growing up we didn’t have a lot of books – mama inspired us through experiences rather than possessions. Every Saturday morning she’d take my sister and I to the local library and we’d always leave hours later balancing a pile of books stacked high above our little heads! I never dreamed of becoming a writer/author. Not because I didn’t enjoy it – I’ve been making up stories ever since I could speak – more that I didn’t think it was a career open to people like me. There were only a handful of well-known Indian/BIPOC writers. Family members were farmers, bus drivers and shopkeepers, and later pharmacists, accountants, and dentists. In fact, I’m the first writer in my family. I hope I won’t be the last.

I stumbled across writing in my mid to late twenties as a form of therapy. My wonderful mama passed away from an unexpected cancer diagnosis just after my 20th birthday. Outwardly I seemed fine because I had no other option. I completed my degree, went to the law school and became a commercial litigator in the City. But inside, I was crippled by the weight of such overwhelming loss. There was no one I could talk to about my feelings (none of my friends had been through it, and over a decade later fortunately still haven’t) so I turned to writing. First in private through journaling and personal essays. And then on Instagram, in the hope of building a community and supporting others like myself. It wasn’t long before I realised how powerful my words were. I still receive messages daily from other teen and young adult grievers who thank me for articulating what they are unable to express.

For my 30th birthday present, my lovely husband booked me onto the Starting to Write Your Novel course, run by Curtis Brown Creative. Scrap that, he’s not that lovely. He spent my 30th on a work trip in Sri Lanka so let’s just say he had some making up to do! At that point I hadn’t started writing a novel, let alone come up with an idea or even the genre I wanted to write in. But it was the first time I felt that fire burning. Over a year later, just before the first Covid-19 national lockdown in the UK, I applied for the selective Three-Month Writing Your Novel course with author Charlotte Mendelson. It is expensive and I couldn’t really afford it, but I knew I needed someone to hold me accountable. I made a promise to myself that if I secured a place on that course, I would finally start taking my writing seriously.

And guess what? I did.

What led to your offer of representation with an agent (or contract with a publisher, if you went that way around first?)

I wrote the first draft of my novel in three caffeine fuelled, sleep deprived months during the first national lockdown, alongside a stressful full-time job. My partner and I share our flat with three dogs and a cat so it’s pretty, shall we say cosy. But we don’t have children yet so thankfully my free time wasn’t consumed with the likes of home-schooling. Saying that, this is by no means the norm. My lovely agent always tells me that I write super-fast, and I edit furiously as I go along – it’s the lawyer in me!

At the end of July, I put my novel ‘in a drawer’ for just over a month and tried to forget about it. I did normal things like hanging out with friends in the park, walking the dogs, binging Netflix and lying in (remember that early bird writers?). But my characters visited me in my sleep practically every night. They still do.

In September, I powered through with the editing process. As part of the Curtis Brown Creative course, we had the opportunity to submit our opening by way of an anthology, which was sent to all agents at Curtis Brown and C&W. I had some interest from that, which gave me all the motivation I needed to type every writer’s favourite two words. The End. I also sent the edited version to my sister and a handful of trusted friends. They all flew through it in days and showered me with support and praise, which gave me hope that I was onto something special. It also helped having fresh pairs of eyes on my work and I encouraged their critique, a lot of which I implemented in the editing process.

By October 2020, I felt that I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore and lost the ability to tell the difference between pure magic and garbage. So, I decided to take a chance on myself and let someone else decide.

How many submissions did you make prior to gaining representation/publishing contract?

I knew absolutely nothing about the agent querying process and scoured the internet late at night for anything and everything I could find. Jericho Writers is a valuable resource, as is my agent sister Phoebe Morgan’s blog post (in fact, her whole blog series is a goldmine). My debut author friend Danielle Owen Jones recently shared her querying experience here, which I’d thoroughly recommend if you’re about to brave the slush pile. I know that some authors advise purchasing the Writer’s and Artist’s Handbook. Admittedly I did this on a whim, but to be honest everything you need is available online.

I perused agency websites, read any interviews I could find and looked up the agents of my favourite authors. I then set about making a list of my top 30 (a mixture of experienced agents and ambitious fledglings). This is where most authors talk about the joys of colour coordinated spreadsheets but I’m old school and stuck to a trusty notebook and my largely illegible handwriting.

I spent about a week writing and refining my pitch letter and synopsis (FYI – the Curtis Brown Creative course gives you tips on creating both) and then selected my top five agents, plus one of the agents at Curtis Brown who showed interested in my anthology submission.

Pressing send on my first submission was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life!

How long did you have to wait to hear back and was it a partial or full request?

I received my first full request within 24 hours and my first offer in just over two weeks. This is by no means the norm, or reflective of your novel and submission package. I genuinely believe that navigating the slush pile requires just as much luck and timing, as it does talent. Agents are humans (surprise and surprise) with hectic personal and professional lives, so sadly much of it is out of your control and can be dependent on factors such as their mood on opening your email, what they’ve already received that week/month, who they have on their books (and what they are writing) and whether your submission matches what they’ve been looking for. It is important to remember this and to try not to take rejections personally (although I realise that this is often easier said than done).

I’ve heard a lot of people compare it to dating. Some find their ‘match’ instantly, whereas for others it takes months or even years.

Any tips on cover letters/synopsis/pitches?

Funnily enough, my agent did say that my pitch letter was one of the best she has read. That says more about the number of legal training contract applications I had to write more than anything else!

For pitch/cover letters, I have three key pieces of advice:

  • Stand out. Remember that most agents receive up to 100 submissions per week so do everything you can to make your pitch letter stand out. You can do this a number of ways: cutting out the waffle, refining your one-line pitch so it is succinct and sharp and drawing them in from word go so they want to keep reading.
  • It may be tempting to rehash the same pitch letter for every agent, but most of them will be able to see through this. Do your research and read anything your agent as written. Use this as ammunition to win them over.
  • My agent says that she wouldn’t reject a submission just because it was littered with spelling errors, but it certainly won’t help.

The writing community is filled with so many talented, inspirational, and wonderfully generous people. I really want to help in any way I can. Whilst I may be a newbie when it comes to critiquing prose, I do offer free reviews of pitch letters from time to time through my Twitter page (@ElbayMeera).

Your first reaction when they offered the representation/contract?

I had a good feeling about Camilla, my agent from the very first e-mail I received from her. I remember calling my sister and screaming down the phone, even at that early stage. Before she made her formal offer, she sent me six pages of notes about my novel and how we could make it even better. I loved all her suggestions, and her observations were spot on. It was like she had written it herself! Not only was that flattering but I could tell how much she wanted it.

She told me to explore the other interest I had received, and I met with each agent to give them proper consideration, but deep down I knew who I would choose. I’m a real believer in following your gut (and your heart).

What’s next for you?

I’m currently in the process of working on draft two of my second novel, a high concept, locked room thriller set in rural Italy. But I’ll soon have to put it temporarily aside to focus on the structural edits of my domestic suspense debut set in my hometown of Highgate, North London (due to be published in 2023).

In all honesty, I found the submission process much harder than the querying process. My confidence took a huge battering, and I began to doubt myself and my book. It didn’t get snapped up in 24 hours or fought over at auction, but I had to remind myself that those are both rare cases. I did, however, secure a two-book deal with an amazing publisher (details to be announced) and have shared my experience of the submission process on my website. I’m ever so grateful for the opportunity, but I don’t think it will feel real until I’m holding an actual book with my name on the front cover.

I am so so excited to read Meera’s fabulous novel and continue to follow her journey beyond book 1 and 2! I think it’s fair to say that Meera has just about covered most of what us writers are wondering about along the way: the ups and downs, the queries, the anxiety provoking rejections and waiting. She endured and followed her gut and won in the end with a two-book deal! Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Meera!

And thanks for stopping by readers,

Holly

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