I’ve been staring at this title for about ten minutes now, still unable to believe that I’m lucky enough to be working with Susan Armstrong, a leading literary agent with Conville and Walsh. Before I explain how my dream (finally) came true, there are two things I want to say: first, if you’re reading this, then chances are you don’t yet have an agent. I’ve read and enjoyed these kinds of posts for years, so I know that on a bad day, reading about someone else’s success can sometimes make you feel like a ‘failure’. Well you’re not, and I hope that reading this post will give you more, not less hope.
My second piece of advice is to pull up a chair: my journey to representation was not a short one, so I’m going to describe each of the ten agonising steps that (eventually) got me there:
Step one: remembering I was supposed to write
A lot of authors talk about when they started to write, but I think the real question is, when did we stop? Most of us loved writing when we were young: it’s what we were praised for at school, the thing that defined us. But once I graduated and started working, I stopped writing – or at least, I stopped writing fiction. It was all bullet points and headings, introductions and conclusions with footnotes and annexes to persuade and explain. I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and my career quickly progressed, until one day in my early thirties I met up with an old school friend. We hadn’t seen each other since we were teenagers, and I was looking forward to impressing him with my Big Important Job. But when we met, all he wanted to know was, was I still writing? And the disappointment on his face when I said ‘no’ made me feel like I’d not just failed, but betrayed a younger, truer version of myself. I was a writer – how and when had I forgotten that?
Step two: realising I had to make the time to write
But I was also a new mother, so although I’d made the mental decision to start writing again, I decided to ‘wait until I had more time’. I wasted years waiting for one of those little parachutes in the Hunger Games to arrive, carrying the gift of extra time. Then when I was 39, my dad celebrated his 70th birthday and I wrote a poem for him. Of course, it was awful – the first one I’d written in twenty years – but even as I stared at the raw, ragged thing, I was proud that it existed. Two hours before, I’d had a blank sheet of paper: now I had a poem. It was created on a busy Saturday morning whilst I got the kids’ breakfasts together, wrapped my dad’s presents and got everyone dressed. But I did it, and it was a revelation: I had created the time, and more importantly, a piece of writing.
Step three: learning the habit of writing
So for my 40th birthday, I asked for – and was lucky enough to receive – a laptop from my family. This was it: I was going to write a novel! I spent the months in the run up to my birthday jotting ideas and scenes down into a note pad, so now I ‘just’ had to write it up, right? I figured it would take me a year (tops) to finish it and get a book deal. I wasn’t totally naïve. I bought several ‘how to’ books, and worked hard at learning the basics of punctuation, how to write dialogue, plot a novel, write in double-spaced lines and Times Roman 12. I thought I was learning the craft of writing, but actually, what I learned in that first year was the habit of writing: the habit of coming in from work, and after doing the kids’ baths and beds, not watching telly or having a bath or a drink, but switching my computer on and putting my bum in that seat.
Step four: learning about rejection
OK, this is the embarrassing bit. My birthday was in September, and by the following summer, I’d written a couple of drafts of a MG time-travel novel. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but surely an agent would see the potential because the world needed my book NOW. I bought the Writers and Artists Year Book – the first of many – and bashed out query letters to five agents and…
Nothing. Some didn’t reply; others gave form rejections. Cue big crash. I pulled myself together for another batch of queries – maybe I’d just picked the wrong agents – but I received the same response. I’d read enough about writing and submitting by now to realise that if I was getting ten form rejections then something was wrong. But what could it be? I was a writer – all my teachers at school had said so – and I’d finally made the time, so WHAT WAS THE PROBLEM? I found this part of my writing journey the hardest, because in every other sphere of my life, I’d learned that if I tried hard enough at something, then I almost always succeeded. But now I’d tried really hard at something I secretly thought I was good at, and yet I’d Failed with a capital ‘F’.
Step five: give up or get better – learning the craft of writing
At this stage, we all face a choice: give up or get better. I decided that I needed to get better, but I needed professional help to do so. I was fortunate enough to be able to afford a critique from Cornerstones, and I don’t want to swallow the importance of this point. Unfortunately, there is an increasing cost to attending writing conferences and courses and I know that I’ve benefited from having access to services that not everyone can afford. It was expensive – about £800 – but it was the best money I have ever spent. An experienced, published author read the whole of my MS, providing me with a written report, line edits and a one-hour consultation by phone. By this time, I had read and acquired an extensive collection of ‘how to write’ books, but having someone point out the flaws in your own work is invaluable. My professional reader told me that I could write, but that my MS mixed up two books: a sci-fi time-travel story and a straight historical novel. She advised me to write a historical romance novel, make it darker and aim it at a YA audience. I thought about it for one day, then rolled up my sleeves, attacked the MS and hacked out a new novel (this is the half referred to in the title). I sent it back to the same author/reader for review, and she loved it – it made her cry. And the knowledge that another published author actually thought I could write kept me going through the wintery years of rejection ahead.
Step six: repeat steps four and five several times
I submitted my revised historical novel to just one agent. After many months, she replied saying she didn’t connect strongly enough with the character and that historical fiction was a tough sell. I was disappointed, but also pleased that I had a personal rejection. Progress! I didn’t submit that MS to any other agents – partly because I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a historical fiction writer – but mostly because I was buzzing with a whole new idea for a YA thriller. This was The One.
I went back to the beginning, applying all the knowledge I’d learned by writing my one and a half books, taking on board the advice from Cornerstones and uncovering ideas and themes that had been fermenting in my head since I was a teenager. I can’t tell you how excited, how certain I was about that MS. I worked quickly, and even though I was working full time and it was an incredibly complex novel, I produced six drafts in less than a year. Once again, it was summer, and – I thought – time to send it out.
By now, I understood the importance of opening chapters and query letters, so I spent weeks crafting my query package. Because my story was pretty unique and a bit of a genre-mash up, I had one agent in mind who I hoped would be drawn to the ideas in my novel. I sent it to him, and five days later he asked for a full. My first full request! At last, this was it! Cue an agonising wait whilst he went on his summer holiday, only to return saying that although he had loved the beginning, he thought there were too many coincidences in the plot.
I was gutted. Reluctantly, I submitted it to four more agents, and although they sent personal, positive rejections, there were no more requests for fulls. I didn’t exactly lose faith in the book, but all the energy and excitement that had fuelled me through the writing of it fell out of me. I suspected that the first agent was right – I needed to look at the plot again – but I was too close to it. And by now I was fizzing with the idea for another novel: a YA epic love story. Surely this was The One? So I put away the YA thriller and for the fourth time, I began to write a novel.
Back to step five: learning the craft of writing
Whilst I wrote this MS, I joined an on-line writing course (The Writers’ Academy run by Penguin Random House). Again, this cost several hundred pounds and took up a fair bit of time, but the advice and encouragement from my fellow students and fabulous teacher/author Bea Davenport was invaluable, and it gave me the confidence to finish this huge, ambitious MS in the autumn of 2014. I had the first few chapters critiqued by agents at the York Festival of Writing, and although I didn’t get any requests for fulls, they were complementary about my writing, and gave me feedback on how to improve it further.
Back to step four: learning about rejection
By November 2014 I was (I thought) ready to submit to five agents. Even though at 117k words it was way over industry guidelines for a YA novel – I told myself that it was ‘epic’, spanning two time-lines in two different centuries, and to be honest, I loved it so much, I hoped that my novel could overcome industry norms. So when my submissions were met with silence, I was hurt and puzzled. Eventually, I got some rejections, and two full requests – one of whom said it was a very close call – but by the New Year, I realised that once again it wasn’t going to happen.
I was heart-broken. Soul-sick. I had poured everything I knew and cared about into that book, writing late into the night whilst my family slept, getting up for work after little more than four hours sleep. I suspected that the beginning was wrong, and clearly it was too long, but I was too close to see how to fix it, and beginning to doubt whether the continued neglect of my family was worth it.
For the first time, I seriously considered giving up writing. By this point, I had been trying for over five years – maybe it was time to accept that I wasn’t ever going to get published.
Step seven: discovering twitter and the writing community
Luckily, I had just joined twitter. I started following authors, bloggers and aspiring writers, people like me struggling to work and write whilst being a parent and a partner, driven by irrational hope against a wall of rejection. I will write another post about this soon, but far from being a drain on my creative time, twitter energised and encouraged me. I am certain that without twitter, and the friends and support I found there (you know who you are) I would not have stayed the course or found my agent. I started a blog, made a New Year’s resolution to review every book I read, and joined the on-line Curtis Brown Book Club, enabling me to read the most amazing debuts. I read as a writer, realising just how very high the bar is right now, and once again made a choice: I wasn’t going to give up – I was going to get better.
Back to step five: learning the craft of writing.
I decided to ‘rest’ the epic love story for a few months and revisit my YA thriller. My plan was to rewrite it, mainly as a mental palette cleanser so that I could go back to my love story with fresh eyes. I hadn’t read the YA thriller in over a year, so I was surprised that the writing was actually OK, but the plot and the characters weren’t quite right. The MS was sitting on lots of fences and it lacked an internal conviction. So instead of rushing the rewrite, I spent three months re-reading all of my research books, revisiting my character profiles going back (and I mean way back – thirteen thousand years back) to the beginning of my story, trying to figure out who knew what, when and why. By this time, I genuinely wasn’t thinking about getting published. These were ideas that had niggled at me for over thirty years, like the pea in the proverbial bed, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I thrashed it out in my head with post-its, charts, questionnaires and long, frowny walks: what was I really trying to say?
I waited until I had a solid golden line of history and plot, then I revisited my character profiles and brought them to life. Once my characters were breathing, I put the two together, asking myself how my characters would really react if they were confronted with X,Y or Z. And this character-driven approach, underpinned by a deep understanding of my own themes and story, helped me to rewrite the plot. This whole process took three months – during which time I didn’t write a single word of the MS. Then I began The Rewrite – and I mean a rewrite. Practically every single word I wrote was new, as I struggled to turn a complex and outlandish plot spanning the entire history of human civilisation into something that was plausible and readable, completing it just before my 46th birthday, 6 years after I began to write.
Back to step four…
Like a bruised fighter, I was reluctant to get back into the ring, so I decided to test the YA thriller out at the York Festival of Writing in September 2015. I got some great feedback, and both agents I met requested a full. I was two-thirds of the way through a re-draft of the re-write, and their comments gave me the courage to enter the Mslexia novel competition. By the end of the month, I discovered I was long-listed! This gave me the deadline I needed to finish the MS, and I sent it off by October 31st.
The following week, I agonised. I had a completed MS. Should I submit it to agents, or just wait for the results of the competition? I wasn’t sure I could take any more rejection, but eventually I sent it to the two agents from York who had asked for a full, plus three agents who had given me positive feedback before. One of these agents was Susan Armstrong, from Conville and Walsh, as although she’d rejected the epic love story, her email was so lovely and encouraging that she was top of my list for sending a re-written version to. I very nearly didn’t – she represented the highly-acclaimed James Hannah (The A-Z of Me and You) and Joanna Cannon, who has written one of the most anticipated debuts of 2016, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep. Could she possibly be interested in my YA thriller?
Step eight: learning about luck
I sent off a full to one of the agents I met in York (the other was now closed to submissions) and three new queries. A few days later, on Saturday, I had a request for a full from an agent. Cue excitement! I dropped Susan an email to let her know, and on the Sunday night at 11pm she replied promising to ‘get her skates on’. At 11.30pm, she emailed to say that she had read the first three chapters and thought they were ‘brilliant’, and would I send her the full please? (I didn’t see this email until Monday morning, btw – I never would have slept otherwise). I sent her the full just before going to work. The following morning (Tuesday), I checked my emails and saw there was a message from Susan. Here we go, I thought, fully expecting to see the usual, ‘it was good but’. Except it didn’t. She said lots of incredibly nice things about my MS, and then offered to represent me! Just like that – no phone call, no meeting, no caveats.
I could not believe it. Seriously. I could barely breathe when I rang my long-suffering partner to tell him what had happened, and my thumbs shook as I DM’d my talented and supportive CP. It was the most surreal moment of my life. After six years of trying, within twenty-four hours of reading my query, an agent – a brilliant agent – had offered to represent me!
The following week was very strange as I had another request for a full, and I had to let the other agents know that I had an offer, and after researching how to handle this, I followed the advice and gave them a week to get back to me. But I hated that week. It didn’t sit right with me, as my heart and my gut told me I should work with Sue, and I didn’t like putting the other agents under yet more pressure. But I won’t lie: it was lovely to see my inbox suddenly full of personal emails from agents – talk about buses all arriving at once.
I arranged to meet with Sue, and after an initial scare (she was very sick, so unfortunately had to cancel – cue paranoia: she’s changed her mind! It Was All A Dream etc.), but eventually we met in her offices in London. And after the email offering representation, that was the second most surreal moment of my life: me sitting in her (very tidy) office, surrounded by great books by authors such as James Hannah, Joanna Cannon and Simon Slyvester, whilst she talked about my MS: the story and characters that until now had existed only in my head. And she was so lovely, sharing with me her thoughts of what she liked and which bits might need more work. She kept offering to give me more time to think about whether I ‘really’ wanted her to represent me (!) and I didn’t even pretend to be cool about it. Yes, yes, yes, I said, just about resisting the urge to kiss her feet. Because apart from the fact that she works for an internationally renowned agency, has over ten-years-experience and represents award-winning authors, the key thing about Sue was that she loved my book – I mean really loved it. I have read so many times that you need an agent who loves your story, but now, after getting that 24-hour-this-is-for-me-email – now I finally get it.
Step nine: learning to do it all over again – but with an agent
I have no illusions about what happens next: I know I that I am heading straight back to steps four and five where I will have to learn more about writing and re-writing and editing, before hopefully submitting to – and no doubt being rejected by – publishers. But this time I will be doing it with the support and advice of an industry professional, someone who believes in me and my book, and more importantly, someone who can help me make it be the very best it can be.
Step ten: learning about persistence
But if there is one thing you take away from this (very long) post, it is that you shouldn’t, mustn’t ever give up writing. It is a tough, soul-destroying, sleep-stealing and subjective business. Shortly after I signed with Sue, I found out that I hadn’t been shortlisted by Mslexia – and do you know what? It still hurt. Rejection always hurts. But just because your work has been rejected, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good enough: it could be that it’s not good enough yet, and/or that you haven’t found the right agent or publisher who connects with it. For me, I think I made a breakthrough when I stopped trying to get published, when I slammed the door shut and sucked on my pen and asked myself honestly: what I am really trying to say, before trying my absolute best to express it – not for an agent or the market or a publisher – but for myself.
I hope one day you will get to read my MS (actually no, that’s a lie – the thought makes me feel slightly sick). But thank you, twitter writers and friends for all your support and kind thoughts, and I wish you well in your writing journey, whichever of the ten agonising steps you are currently on. Many of you are amazing writers, and I know I will be reading your ‘how I got my agent’ post very soon indeed – although hopefully your story will be shorter than mine…