The View From Here

Looking Back At The Journey To Publication.

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The journey from the blank page and blinking cursor to successful author with books on shelves is a lot like mountaineering (or, as close to it as a decidedly NON outdoorsy person like me is ever likely to get).  You’re constantly striving for that peak, head down and ploughing on against an onslaught of unforgiving headwind. All you can do is keep on keeping on. One foot in front of the other, barely able to see the path ahead.  And when you reach that coveted peak? Well, you quickly discover that there’s another, even more insurmountable, mountain straight ahead.

My debut novel Poster Boy will be released exactly two months from today. It’s safe to say, I’ve scaled a few slippery peaks to get to this point. And yet, I’m always looking at the next, seemingly unreachable, summit instead of taking the time to appreciate my current surroundings. And from talking to other authors, it seems we’re pretty much all guilty of that.

So today, instead of staring at the next obstacle and feeling ill-equipped to conquer it, I’ve resolved to stop and look around at the view I have already achieved for myself. And wherever you are in your expedition, I encourage you to do the same.

This time five years ago, I was still at base camp. Tapping away tentatively, writing and submitting short stories, finding my bearings and trying to acclimatise. It was time well spent, and when I embarked on climbing my first peak (completing a novel) there were already other footsteps in the snow beside me – in the form of the critique partners and friends I had found among the writing community. Going out in such hostile conditions completely alone would be madness, after all. By pooling resources and expertise, we all stand a much better chance out there.

This time four years ago, I had scaled Mt Finish A Novel.  But I quickly slid down the other side and landed on my arse when I realised I had NO idea how to turn that 120k word story into something resembling a structured novel, or even what freaking genre it was. Yup. I’d been climbing with my shoes on backwards and paying no heed to my depleting rations.  So, Changing Skies never saw the light of day (Or rather, never darkened an agent’s inbox). It sits on my hard drive still, any maybe one day I’ll revisit that first mountain, better equipped to tackle its pitfalls.

So, I then found myself at the bottom of the second peak, Mt Write-A-Better-Novel. But this time, I was much more prepared. I’d learned what supplies I would need, put my shoes on the right way, and improved my climbing technique. Plus, there were even more footsteps in the snow around me than before.  After a couple of years of pushing ever onward, with the occasional fall (thank goodness for the safety rope that is my writer friends!) and more than a few ‘I can’t go on!’ moments, the first draft of Poster Boy was complete!

But there was no time to sit atop the mountain exclaiming ‘huzzah’ and drinking lashings of ginger beer, oh no. For now I was faced with peak three – the formidable Mt Edit-That-Shit. The tricky thing about Mt Edit-That-Shit is that it doesn’t follow the standard ‘just keep heading up’ format of Mts Finish-A-Novel and Write-A-Better-Novel. Oh no. Mt Edit-That-Shit is a tricksy mistress. In order to reach its peak, you have to do a lot of walking backwards. You have to be prepared to undo what seemed to be progress in order to make real progress. And let me tell you, it’s the peak on which many a story meets its demise. The paths are littered with the corpses of the manuscripts that refused to be restructured or rewritten. If you listen carefully, you can hear shrieks of, ‘But it’s the best scene in the book!’ on the wind.  It’s a cold, harsh mountain to climb.

But climb it I did. And there I set up camp, and may very well have ended my expedition, so scared was I to attempt the next challenge, if my fellow travellers hadn’t shoved me off the top and sent me hurtling to the base of peak four – Mt Query-Agents.

Although Mt Query-Agents has its challenges, to say the least (those avalanches, otherwise known as ‘form rejections’ can make you lose your footing if you’re not ready for them), it does follow the keep-on-keeping-on rule. With an occasional rest stop to re-evaluate your submission package if you’re not making any progress, of course. Plough on, plough on, side-step the falling snow, negotiate the black-ice of the schmagents and ghosters, on and on and ever on, until you make it to the other side of the communication dead-zone and a friendly voice radios in to tell you that you’ve made it. From now on you’ll have a guiding voice helping you navigate. Which is just as well because, after a brief respite at the oasis of revisions, it’s on to the most treacherous peak yet.

Mt We-Do-Not-Speak-Its-Name (it’s On Sub, guys. Mt On-Sub 😉 )looms tall and foreboding. Shrouded in dense fog, few travellers ever speak of the horrors they encountered there. When you’re climbing all the previous peaks, you can send postcards. You can shout about your journey on social media, get words of encouragement when you face rejection and whoops of joy when you have success. But not Mt On-Sub. For, tis not the done thing to speak of it. Occasionally, you might reach out in the dark and find a fellow climber, whereupon you’ll whisper good wishes to one another before disappearing back in to the swirling mists, hoping to meet again at the top. Now and then, your radio will hiss and your heart will thump, but it’s just your agent telling you you’re at a dead end and suggesting a change in direction.

Mt On-Sub is the final resting place of many a valiant manuscript.  But those who make it to the summit of Mt On-Sub find themselves in possession of the very thing they never thought possible back in the days of blank screen and blinking cursor – a publishing deal.

And that, my friends, is where I sit today. Already I’ve forgotten how much I once coveted the view I now have, so consumed am I with making preparations for the next climb. But just for now, just for once, I’m going to take a moment to look back across all the terrain I conquered to make it here, and hold my past-self tight and tell her she WAS good enough, all along.

Wherever you are on the journey, I encourage you to do the same. Take a breath. Take a look around. You’ll miss this mountain once you’ve conquered it, I promise you. Think for just a moment of all you’ve achieved thus far, count the footsteps in the snow beside you – and thank your travelling companions.

I can’t stay still for long. Mt Make-A-Successful-Career is calling my name. I have no idea how to conquer her and I don’t feel capable, or equipped, to begin. But, guess what? I felt that way about all the peaks that came before too…

How I Got My Agent

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In case you missed the Twitter announcement, I am absolutely thrilled to say that I am now officially represented by the very lovely Emily Sweet (Emily Sweet Associates.)

If you’d have told me two months ago (when I was deep in the emotional turmoil of the dreaded ‘Query Trenches’) that I would be writing one of these blog posts – the type I devoured to try to distract myself from constantly refreshing my inbox, I would have laughed. Or cried. Or stared at you with wild eyes, twitched a bit, and then hoovered up anything vaguely chocolatey in the vicinity. Because querying was like being in some kind of limbo-esque parallel universe. You smile and nod, you make the right noises in your daily interactions, but your brain is somewhere in an agent’s unread inbox, and your fingers constantly twitch – compelled to check your email, even though you’ve got your notifications set to ‘Sonic Boom’ so there’s no way you could have missed an incoming message… But, that little old lady’s trolley wheel was a bit squeaky, maybe you DID miss it? Better check…

So why did I put myself through it? Well, if your goal is to be traditionally published, chances are you are going to need an agent.  The majority of traditional publishers do not accept submissions from unagented authors (unless they’re running a particular competition/open submission period). Given that there are vastly more agents than there are publishers, and that many of these agents receive hundreds of submissions A WEEK, you can kinda see why. But, an agent (a good one anyway) is more than just a book seller. The right agent can help you get your manuscript ready for publishers, advise you on all aspects of your writing career, and hold your hand when it all gets a bit much.

Query Stats

So, my stats (because I know that’s what all the currently querying authors want to know 😉 )

Queries sent: 28

Full Requests: 5

Form Rejections: 5

Queries withdrawn/not responded to: 18

Offers of Representation: 2

The Journey

Initially, I sent just five queries, to agents I had seen active on Twitter who seemed like they might be a good fit. Two of them came back within days asking for the full manuscript. I was elated, overjoyed, bouncing off the walls… and naïve.

I reasoned (disclaimer: querying authors have no sense of reason. Do not trust your reason when you’re querying) that it would be foolish to send any more queries until I’d heard back on the fulls. What if there was something glaring wrong with the book? If I’d already sent it to all and sundry I could keep getting rejected for the same thing. So I waited.

And waited…

And waited…

Hint: There is a lot of waiting involved in the query process.

Summer holidays came, and I tried to put my non-pinging inbox out of my mind. But when September came around I decided I’d waited long enough (FYI, I never did hear back on those fulls). So, I resolved this time to take a more methodical approach than just querying agents I had looked up (OK, stalked…) on Twitter.

Out came the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, and I went through the list of literary agents, looking at their websites and researching their preferences and submission guidelines. Finally, I had a list of twenty three agents I thought might be interested in my humble manuscript. One of whom was Emily.

I sent twenty three queries in two days. This is no mean feat. Yes, lots of agents ask for the ‘standard’ submission package (query letter, synopsis, first three chapters), but plenty don’t. Some want differing lengths of sample material, some want you to copy and paste into an email, some want a bio. Some want your first born child gift wrapped in scented paper – OK, I made that one up. Emily’s website asked for just the covering letter initially – so I duly sent that, and continued on with my marathon query sesh.

About an hour later, while I was busy cursing an agent who wanted the sample material formatted COMPLETELY differently to anyone else, (WHY?) my inbox chimed. It was Emily, and she liked my pitch. She asked for the first ten thousand words and synopsis. Fortunately, by this point I had approximately ten squillion different files with every length of sample material you could ever wish for, so I located my ‘first 10k’ file and sent it off.

I didn’t expect to hear anything quickly… or ever, to be honest. But to my surprise, a couple of hours later she replied again, complimenting my writing and asking for the full manuscript. After the months of deafening silence, I MAY have screamed a little bit…

After squealing at my husband, and cursing Windows 10 for choosing THIS moment to do an update, I composed myself and sent off the manuscript. Shortly after, more full requests rolled in, and were sent off. Then, I prepared myself for the long wait.

Which, as it turns out, wasn’t long at all…

The Call

The day after I sent my manuscript to Emily, I received an email from her – late in the evening. She’d already read the whole book! And what’s more, she described it as ‘incredible’ and wanted to arrange a time to speak on the phone! I was at work at the time (on a nightshift) so my poor colleague had to put up with me squealing, crying, and swearing at my phone for its lousy internet connection. We arranged to speak the next morning. I mean, there was no way I was going to be able to sleep, even after a long shift, until I’d heard what she had to say.

I tried not to get too excited. I had heard tell of ‘The Call that is not The Call’ – agents calling authors usually means they’re thinking of offering representation, but some poor souls have received calls only to be told all the reasons why the agent can’t offer…

But, it was indeed ‘The Call’ – after a long chat about the book, possible revisions, and future career, Emily said the magic words, “I’d like to offer you representation.” She was so passionate, so lovely, and I could already see how her suggestions would improve the book, I wanted to say ‘Yes!’ right there and then… But somehow I kept my cool. I was already out on full elsewhere, and I had to give other agents a fair chance to make counter offers (not that I expected any!). Emily didn’t give me a time limit for my answer (yet another reason I felt she was ‘the one’), but I promised to get back to her within two weeks.

Silence is Broken

My dead-as-the-grave inbox was in for a big surprise when I started notifying other agents of an offer of representation.

At this point, I had a good hard look at who I had queried, and (not wanting to waste anyone’s time) wrote to withdraw my submission from most of the agents. For those I felt I would still consider an offer from, I simply notified them and gave them a ten day deadline if they wished to counter offer.

All of a sudden, I went from a never-changing-inbox to having more emails than I could handle. Notified agents replied almost instantly, promising to get back to me ASAP. Even agents I had withdrawn from sent congratulations ‘to you and your agent’! It was a little surreal.

In the end, I did receive a counter offer – and from an agent who was one of my top picks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest decisions of my life (more about multiple offers in a later post), but in the end I went with my heart. Emily’s passion for my novel, and the gut feeling that we were simply a better fit personality wise, drew me to her. And then I found myself in the very topsy-turvy position of being the one to make ‘The Call’ to an agent, and having to send a decline to the other.

In the end, after months of waiting on other agents, I went from initial query to offer in less than 48 hours. And signed two weeks later.

For Those In ‘The Query Trenches’

But, the query process is different for everyone. One of the best things about the writing community is its ‘pay it forward’ camaraderie.  I learned everything I needed to know about querying from other writers, and will be passing what I’ve learned on to other authors who are yet to query, or who are currently in the trenches.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing posts on every aspect of the torture that is trying to secure a literary agent. From writing a killer query letter, and doing your research, to how to cope with silence, and what to do when you receive more than one offer.

I’ll be compiling some of the best resources for querying authors, and even offering some query letter critiques to my followers – so watch this space!