How I got a book deal

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I got a book deal. It still feels a bit surreal but I’m slowly getting my head around the idea that the characters that I’ve been carrying around my head for so long are finally going to go out into the big wide world.

I wrote about the long gestation of this novel in a previous post. (Click here if you’re interested.) But now I’d like to write about how the deal actually came about as I always love reading about other authors’ road to publication.

My first big break was sending my opening to Simon and Schuster’s Books and the City ‘One Day’ open submission call. They don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts except on this one day where they ask for the first chapter, a synopsis and a short bio. I was still a few months from finishing my book, but I took a chance and sent it off and was amazed when a few weeks later I had a request for the full manuscript from Sara-Jade Virtue and Emma Capron.

With trembling fingers I emailed back to say my book wasn’t yet ready, fully expecting to be told I’d blown my chance. However, they replied telling me to take my time and to send in it when it was ready.

It was all the spur I needed to buckle down and get the book finished.

I always knew that I wanted to get an agent so as I was polishing my manuscript I also focused on researching agents to find the right one for me.

I came up with an initial list of eight suitable agents. They were my A-list and even though I hadn’t actually finished my book, I nervously sent out the first three chapters and one-page synopsis.

Within a month, I had three requests for the full manuscript. I was overjoyed! Having previously queried agents I knew how rare it was to get even one call-in, so to get three out of eight was thrilling! By now I’d finished my book, and even though I wanted to keep fiddling with it, I sent it out.

Sadly, although one agent requested a meeting, all three eventually turned down the book. It was January now and a gentle reminder from Emma Capron pinged into my inbox. Too scared to keep her hanging any longer, I crossed my fingers and emailed it to her.

Then, even though I hadn’t yet heard back from all eight original agents, (three had yet to reply) I rolled up my sleeves and sent out the opening to about fifteen more. It might sound like a lot, but now that a real life editor was reading the book, I knew that should Emma reply favourably, I’d want an agent ASAP. I mentioned in my covering letters that I had vague publisher interest, and this seemed to help. Of the new batch of agents, four requested to read the full manuscript. And oddly, one of the original eight got back to me saying it wasn’t for her, but that she’d passed the submission on to another agent at the same agency. Because I’d had full requests, I cheekily sent the full off to her too, not expecting much…

It was February now, my birthday month, and that year, the big day landed on a Sunday. So, when I opened up my email on that Sunday birthday morning, and saw a message from an agent, my heart started to race.

Alas, it was a ‘no’. But props to this hard-working agent who read her submissions on a Sunday morning!

A few weeks later I got an email from Emma Capron telling me the book was going to a meeting. I wasn’t sure exactly what this meant, but had an inkling this was A Good Thing. The London Book Fair was coming up, and she asked me to be patient till after that. It was great news, but terrible timing to be emailing agents to let them know my book was going an acquisitions meeting at a major publisher… But I emailed those who had the full to let them know.

Astonishingly, three agents wanted to meet to discuss!

I knew from my previous round of submissions that meetings didn’t necessarily result in offers of representation, but allowed myself to feel a sliver of hope. I met the agents and found myself in the enviable position of having three offers of representation.

More astonishing news was to follow when Emma emailed to also ask to meet. A couple of days later, I found myself in the offices of S&S and had an amazing meeting with Emma Capron and Sara-Jade Virtue. They said they were going to make me an offer – once I’d decided on an agent. It was a huge moment – one I’d been working towards for years.

In the end, I went with Jemima Forrester at David Higham Associates, who had been one of my original eight agencies. It felt right and she’d been so enthusiastic when we met. She is also the master of brilliant emails. I was in a second-hand car showroom on the day (again, a weekend!) when she emailed to say she loved my book, and she expressed herself so eloquently and said so many amazing things about the book that I started to cry. Poor Graham who was trying to sell us a Volvo didn’t quite know what to say…

We finally signed a deal on my birthday. Yes, another whole year had passed. (Publishing can sometimes move at a glacial pace!) Sadly, I was to be Emma’s last acquisition at S&S. She subsequently left, but the gods were smiling on me because my new editor, Rebecca Farrell, has been a powerhouse of enthusiasm and brilliant ideas and I couldn’t be happier to be in her capable hands.

 

Writing advice to my younger self: just crack on!

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Getting a book published is a hard slog. And I don’t mean the nuts and bolts of publication – involving cover designs and copy edits or the weeks of contract negotiations – because all that heavy lifting is mostly done by other people. I’m talking about how difficult it is to start with a blank page and end up with a finished book.

It’s like climbing a mountain, never sure whether the next rocky outcrop will take you to the blue-skied summit. (Spoiler alert: there’s always another peak to crest.)

My writing journey started 15 years ago. I was a journalist and I decided to try my hand at fiction thinking it would be easy. Writing is writing, right? Wrong. It’s one thing to knock out a 300-word news item in 15 minutes, or a 1500-word feature in an afternoon; a 90k-word novel is a different thing entirely. In many ways, my journalist brain was a hindrance. I’d got used to delivering my copy fast and publishable first time. It took me years to realise that I was holding my fiction writing to impossible standards. Better to get it out – warts and all – and clean it up afterwards, than to stare at a screen trying to compose the perfect sentence. After I’d re-written the first 40k for the 3258th time, I finally realised that I was never going to move forward till I lowered my expectations and just powered through to the end.

Another hindrance was being one of those kids who got good grades at school without having to try very much. I took success for granted, but when you’ve never experienced knock-backs, the first time you’re shoved flat on your face by rejection it’s a shock. How the hell did I get here? And, more importantly, how the hell do I get up again?

The answer, I’ve learned, is you just have to tough it out. Again and again and again. Luckily, the road to publication is generously paved with opportunities to develop a thick skin to deal with rejection. Yay! (Not).

I wrote my first book within two years. I polished it, sent it to freelance editors, re-tooled it, then starting sending to agents. The first agent I wrote to asked to see the full manuscript. I was thrilled! But although she sent me some positive feedback, she eventually passed on the book. As did the two dozen other agents I approached. I still have a shoebox full of the rejection letters. (This was before the days of email submissions.)

One agent like the book enough to send it out to three publishers. It was an odd situation. I had no idea he was doing this; and bizarrely he didn’t sign me before he sent my manuscript out. Once he’d accrued three rejections he wrote to tell me he wasn’t going to try any longer. It’s only with the experience I have now that I realise this is a bloody strange way to go about things. But still, I was happy at the time.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that this book was never going to go anywhere. Someone had pointed out that although it was ‘chick lit’ the protagonist was a man, so it didn’t quite fit into the right box. Looking back, that was the least of its problems. But I took the kernel of the idea and re-imagined it with a female lead and started again from word one.

This time, it took a lot longer than two years to get it finished. A lot of it was my fault – I could go months without looking at it. A bunch of life stuff was happening – including meeting my future husband, moving house twice and getting married abroad.

In 2012, on a whim, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. Telling no one, I sat in my bedroom on my laptop and hurriedly sent my submission the night before the deadline, realising a moment too late there was a typo in the first line. Argh!! (Getting better at proof-reading would be a new year’s resolution.)

The course was a crucial turning point. It was an amazing three months; I learned not only about writing, but about the business and how to approach agents and publishers. Best of all, it provided me with a group of like-minded writers who’ve since become my writing buddies, all willing to offer feedback. A group of us still meet up to this day. (See my blog post here.)

Early readers are invaluable. You need to get feedback on what you write, otherwise you have no idea if you’re on the right track or not. It’s no use dismissing others’ opinions if they don’t match your own. (Believe me, I lied to myself a long time, saying that I knew my characters better than anyone.) What you can’t judge is whether what you intend to communicate is what you actually communicate. So, a scene that had been in my book from the beginning, one that I thought was a cute, flirty food fight between my two leads,  stayed in the book until a professional editor told me the scene made her want to vomit. If she’d sugar-coated it, I’d never have taken it out. But it was such a shocking reaction, I realised I’d better listen to it! And in hindsight, one of the reasons why that scene wasn’t working was because I’d written it so long ago that by the time I’d completed the draft, my characters and voice had subtly changed. And sometimes it’s only other people who can see this.

The book underwent another massive change – characters changed jobs, names, a murder-suicide plot that I’d struggled with got binned, the romance got bigger, I de-fluffed the book. (I hated reading clumsy/ditzy heroines, so how on earth had I ended up writing one?) But I still couldn’t get to the end. Eventually, my husband bought me the James Patterson masterclass and something he said spurred me to get to the end. He emphasised the importance of outlining the whole novel to give yourself a road-map. Before this, I’d been a bit of a ‘pantster’ – writing by the seat of my pants. Armed with a 10-page outline of the major plot points, I started at the half-way point (leaving a 10-000-word gap) and ploughed through to until I got the end.

And something amazing happened. Whereas before I’d have to force myself to sit and write, now I found that I didn’t want to do anything other than write. The last four weeks were a blur of near 24-hour absorption in my book. Even a weekend in Paris and my first visit to the Louvre as an adult couldn’t keep me grounded in the moment. Half of me was always in my own head, thinking of my characters and what they were up to.

At the end of November 2017 I finished the draft. It was an amazing feeling – a moment of pure joy  unhampered by any inner critic or niggling voice comparing myself to other writers. This was my story, fully realised in 80,000 words.

Of course, there was still the little matter of a re-write and finding an agent and publisher but I will save those things for another post. Nothing beats the feeling of finishing a work you can be proud of. So, for anyone out there who’s struggling to fulfill a long-cherished ambition of writing a book. Do yourself a favour: glue yourself to your seat and get cracking.

My Writing Group

Writing is a lonely job. Sure, you can go on research trips, or let plot points bubble in your subconscious while you’re sorting your sock drawer, but a book won’t get written unless you sit at your desk and churn out words till you’ve got at least 80,000 of them. (In more or less the right order.)

Spending so much time alone means you can never really be sure if what you’re writing is any good. So, there comes a point where you have to take a deep breath and dip your delicate writerly toe into the icy waters of beta readers.

But finding the right readers isn’t easy. Your close friends and family might mean well but if they aren’t writers themselves, it can be hard for them to provide meaningful feedback beyond saying they (hopefully) love it!

That’s where a writing group comes in. The best people to advise you on your work-in-progress are usually other writers who are also working on their own books. I feel very lucky because I’m part of a brilliant writing group, and have been since 2012. We met on the Curtis Brown Creative 3-month writing course, and a few of us have continued to meet up every fortnight ever since. Six years on, we’re down to about five regular members – all talented, enthusiastic and generous writers. We take it in turns to submit 3000-word chunks of our novels and then provide written notes which we discuss over coffee/tea/cocktails in Waterstones, Piccadilly.

There were times during the long gestation of my novel, that hitting 3000-words each fortnight was the only thing keeping me going. Without my writing group, I might have gone weeks without looking at my WIP. And getting specific feedback is invaluable – how else can you ascertain whether your jokes raise a smile? Or that your cultural references aren’t sailing over readers’ heads?

I’d been writing and re-writing the first half of my book for years before I stumbled on a way through to the end: a new title and new backstory for my two main characters. It was a little daunting to open a new document and start the story again, but my writing group confirmed the new ideas worked and this helped me find the courage to keep going and get to the end. It was my group who helped shape the sub-plot that had rendered me inert for months. And one very inspired member also provided a neat twist that unlocked the ending of the book. And when I realised I needed to change the title yet again, it was a brilliant one-hour emergency session that produced the current title of my now finished book.

And outside our meetings, my writing friends – and friends we certainly now are – were there at the end of the phone to help with last-minute submission nerves and providing lightning fast proof-reading on new sections that needed writing ASAP.

What we didn’t realise when we started the group was that we’d coach each other not only through the writing process, but also through the labyrinthine path to publication. Being a published author doesn’t mean we might need each other less. If anything, we rely on each other even more, having developed a short-hand that’s impossible to recreate without the hours we’ve put in nurturing each other’s creative endeavours. The fun part is that our support of each other now extends to cheer-leading at book launches and banging the social media drum.

We’ve managed five published books between us. And none of plan on stopping any time soon. Thank you, guys. Until I have my own acknowledgement page, this post is for you.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association summer party 2018

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Picture credit: RNA

Last month, I went to my first RNA Summer Party. The night also marked another debut – it was the first time the event was held at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford.

The Romantic Novelists’ Association is a rather lovely organisation, championing romantic fiction and its writers. And how lovely it was to be in a room full of romance writers sharing the space with classical statues that one or two of us might have glanced at and thought: hmm, maybe the next hero I write ought to have calves like that…

It was lovely to meet so many fellow writers and hear wonderful stories about published writers who’d come through the New Writers’ Scheme. The highlight of the night was the presentation of the Joan Hessayon award which is given to a debut writer whose novel has been through the NWS. This year, there were 17 contenders – by all accounts a bumper year. Congratulations to all those nominated. The award went to Hannah Begbie for her novel ‘Mother’. She gave very a moving speech as did last year’s winner, Kate Field, who presented the prize. Both writers overcame considerable personal odds to finish their novels, and I’m not ashamed to admit their stories brought a tear to my eye.

The NWS has played a big role in so many writers’ path to publication, and it’s a scheme I’m fully behind – I first joined in 2013. You get become a member of the RNA – so can go to their events – but the main reason to join is the opportunity to submit your manuscript to a professional reader who then gives you a detailed report. The first year I submitted I was pleasantly shocked by the positive feedback. It was an incomplete manuscript, but my reader urged me to finish as she saw potential. It took me until 2017 to submit a finished manuscript. So, for any budding romantic fiction writers, do take a look at what the Romantic Novelists’ Association can do for you.

The London Book Fair

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Last week, I went to the London Book Fair for the first time. It’s a trade event, aimed squarely at publishers, but I was impressed with the number of seminars pitched at writers. There were even dedicated stands – ‘Authors HQ’, and the neatly named ‘Writers’ Block.’

The most anticipated event was ‘The Write Stuff’ where six brave authors pitched their books to a panel of five agents – in front of an audience. It was billed as a dragon’s den for writers and rightly so. Authors had three minutes to cover the ‘hook’, the plot,  characters, and a little about themselves. Oh, and what other books yours is similar to. A lot to pack into three minutes. But the advice from the agents was invaluable: hone that all-important ‘elevator pitch’; give us characters we can root for (or at least be fascinated enough to follow for the better part of 100,000 words) and of course, make sure the plot is killer.

Simple, really.

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Afterwards, I wandered around, admiring Olympia’s fabulous roof but slightly in awe of the scale of the show. All the big publishers were there: with editors installed at little white tables taking back-to-back meetings. They had it easy compared to the literary agents, however, who were crammed into a windowless hall with as much leg-room as a low-cost airline seat. (And the queues for coffee were decidedly long-haul.)

The fair is a three-day sales pitch, and the prize for most eye-catching stunt goes to Penguin who enlisted a Donald Trump-lookalike in a mocked-up Oval office to promote the new James Patterson thriller – co-authored by former president Bill Clinton.

I was hoping to score some swag – a tote bag here, and pen there. And there were even promises of free books, (at least, according to Twitter) but alas I didn’t manage to nab any. It was still worthwhile event though, and would definitely recommend it to other authors but with the following advice: wear comfy shoes, stay hydrated, and steer clear of orange-skinned men in red baseball caps.

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