Entering the Citadel

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    Philippa East

    In February 2018, I wrote and posted a blog charting my writing journey to the point of signing with an agent (you can find that blog here: https://www.denofwriters.com/forums/topic/getting-an-agent-blog/#post-4152).

    This second blog tells what happened next.

    February-May 2018
    I had signed with agent Sarah Manning, on the basis that I would effectively re-write my entire book by the following February (in time for London Book Fair). It needed a big twist adding in the plot, and it needed to change from a single POV narrative to dual.
    By this point, I at least had an outline for the new plot (which Sarah had okayed) and a plan for which scenes would go into which POV.
    So I began the slog. I had done a lot of thinking and planning up to this point, so I felt I had a fairly good grasp of where I was headed. (Top tip: It showed me just how valuable an outline is, if you can possibly conceive one).
    As I worked on the re-write, I had to make a conscious effort to protect the private space of writing from the outside world and the “external” ambitions and successes of signing with Sarah. I recognised the need to separate me “the author” (who e.g. publishes my successes on Twitter) and me “the writer” who retreats into the cave with nothing but my imagination. I sensed I was going to need this ability to separate the two “roles” more and more over the next year.

    May-June 2018
    I continued the rewrite. Some parts came fairly easily, others were like tunnelling through mud. I felt the weight of the work, the burden of fitting it around my (albeit part-time) day job. There were many, many false summits: points when I thought I had pretty much done it, only to realise there was another whole swathe of edits required. I particularly struggled with the characterisation and voice of my new POV character. I’d had two years to get to know my original protagonist; now I was trying to put a second character on the page with as much richness of detail, in a matter of mere months. It was exhausting work, writing and re-writing whole scenes again from scratch. I kept going, kept going. Serendipitously, a few months earlier, I had discovered a series of writing craft podcasts at storygrid.com. These were absolutely invaluable in getting the structure and pacing of the new novel working right. (I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about story structure.)

    June 2018
    I got there. I sent the draft rewrite to Sarah and had a two week break from everything. I did little but sunbathe, and built up a nice tan. Whilst lying in the sun, I played around with ideas for book 2, again using the Story Grid principles.

    July 2018
    Sarah got back to me on the draft. Much to my relief, she was really happy with it overall. She would now give it a close read and send specific edits through.
    Meanwhile, I wrote a draft opening chapter and a synopsis for book 2.
    A couple of weeks later, Sarah sent me her first-pass editorial comments. Overall she was very happy, but there was still work needed on character arcs, backstory, sections that needed elaborating, sections that might need deleting completely. Could I work on the opening third to begin with?
    I had the usual attack of anger, anxiety, despondency, despair, exhaustion. How, HOW could there still be so much work to do?? And the edits she was suggesting meant going beyond what I had managed to do up until now. I would be working on the very outer edge of my competence. I had to do better than my best. (Incidentally, I think this is what makes writing so damn terrifying.)
    I had to go right back to basics and look at each of my character profiles, all those parts I’d “fudged” up till now. But I’d come this far. What else could I do except go on?

    September 2018
    So on I slogged. A couple of months later, I sent my first round of edits back to Sarah.
    Meanwhile, my first chapter and pitch for book 2 were shortlisted in the York Festival of Writing competitions.
    I was riding high.

    September-October 2018
    Sarah returned her comments on my work so far, and the rest of her edits. It wasn’t far, she said, from being ready to submit. Those words were thrilling and terrifying all at once.
    I got stuck into the second round of edits, trying all the time to tune out thoughts about next steps – thoughts about the fact that every word I wrote now might one day be judged by REAL READERS. I so wanted to be done, but I had to keep working until it was the best I could make it. Otherwise, I would never forgive myself if I failed. (FWIW I’ve come to realise that for every “success” level you reach, an equivalent level of potential failure materialises alongside.) The next step felt so make or break. With getting an agent, I kept ruminating, you could continue to submit, revise, re-submit and edit almost indefinitely. With submitting to publishers, if they all said no, your only real option was to shelve the book and try something else. In a matter of weeks’ time, I could be in the position of having to put three years’ work in the bin.
    Sarah emailed me to say she’d already spoken to “lots of editors” about the book and wanted to send the MS out to publishers on 1st November 2018. She also wanted me to put together a list of potential alternative titles, as a few editors hadn’t liked the current one (“Here Ends An Abduction”). Cue panic attack. This was getting very very real.

    October-November 2018
    I sent the final draft to Sarah (ahead of our original schedule, because I’m neurotic like that), and also title suggestions, plus the pitch, synopsis and first chapter for book 2 (I had told her about the Festival shortlistings). We arranged a phone call to discuss her strategy for submission, and my plans for book 2.
    That phone call with agent Sarah was really important. As I prepared myself for this huge, unfamiliar next step, it meant a lot to be able to speak to her directly, ask questions and get clear on everything. (FWIW: I think any decent agent will arrange phone calls like this with you.) Over the next few weeks, I would see just how important Sarah’s support and close guidance would be.
    After some discussion, we agreed that she would update me every Wednesday with any (positive) news (Wednesdays because I was at the psychology practice Thursdays and Fridays which would hopefully take my mind off whatever terrifying news she had for me). We agreed she wouldn’t mention the negatives, and she would hold back any editorial feedback because I knew I’d find it too crushing to hear while still living in hope. She said it would probably be about a month before we’d know if we had any firm offers.
    So Sarah was ready to send the book out in a couple of days’ time (retitled at that point “After We Found Her”)… but between now and then she wanted me to re-write the climactic scene so that it had had all the impact it needed.
    Also… she was going to be completely transparent with me. She was not keen on my idea for book 2. Wrong genre, she felt. Psychological thrillers weren’t the way to go at this point (even if it had got shortlisted at York). But ideally we’d need something to pitch for book 2.
    At first, I suggested I could re-write the pitch, making it less “thriller-ish” and more in keeping with the style of book 1. I also mentioned another idea I had been toying with – little more than a one-line premise at this stage. I would send her that in the next couple of days too.
    I was up late the next few nights, getting everything done.
    I went down with a horrible cold.

    2nd November 2018
    I sent the climax scene re-write and my re-written book 2 pitch and my sketchy premise for an alternative book 2 to Sarah. By the end of that week, I was officially “on sub”. I was also officially sick.
    Sarah sent the MS to 17 editors in total, across a range of publishing houses.
    I tried to distract myself with the flat we were in the process of selling in London – another stress to take my mind off the first (hah hah).
    Meanwhile, Sarah said she liked the second idea for book 2 far more than my first. So, could I work up a proper pitch from my one-line premise by, oo, Monday? Sure, I said (blowing my nose). I would try my best.

    4th – 9th November 2018
    I drafted a pitch for a brand new book two. It seemed to read okay (after some invaluable input from @elle), but I knew there was a lot of blank space behind the blurb (e.g. my protagonist had a “secret burden” but I had no idea what). Still, Sarah was happy with it. Phew, bloody phew.
    Then on Sunday, while I was in London sorting things out for the flat, Sarah forwarded me an email from the editor at a major publishing imprint. The editor wrote that she had “devoured” the book and been “blown away” by the writing. She would be taking it to the “the team” (editorial?? acquisitions??) next week. I was thrilled, dizzy with excitement. The next few days felt pretty darn good. I tried my best to keep hopes in check while working on planning book 2 (working out all those blanks) with renewed vigour.
    Absolutely miraculously, on Wednesday, Sarah called to say we had our first offer – a substantial offer from that same publisher.

    9th – 15th November 2018
    I knew I should be full of joy, but everything was happening so suddenly and so fast and I felt so disorientated. I was still ill and seemingly unable to recover and that was scaring me (I had suffered post-viral fatigue in my 20s that knocked me out for three months straight). I was still trying to sell a flat. By Friday morning, it was all too much. When my husband asked me how I was, I burst into tears.
    (Lesson: Don’t assume your reactions will make any sense.)
    I did my best to pull myself together. I slowed down. I tried to pace myself at work. I rested when I could. I focused on what was steady and familiar in my life. I got over my cold.
    Sarah arranged for me to speak by phone to interested editors the following Wednesday – four signed up for calls (though one cancelled due to a family emergency). This was kind of a fun part: like a job interview for a dream job, with an offer already in the bag. Sarah was on the calls too, supporting and guiding.
    The editors told me about their imprints and how they worked, and about their editorial ideas for the book. (Fortunately the editorial comments all fitted together and didn’t sound too severe. I don’t think I could have faced more drastic edits after all that rewriting I had already done). I had quite different gut reactions to each phone call. I knew I was going to have a big decision to make.
    Sarah set a deadline for “first offers” for close of play the next day.

    16th – 21st November 2018
    We received three official offers.
    This was an amazing position to be in: an “auction” situation. (WTF????)
    Over the next few days, Sarah ran rounds of the auction (“improved bids”, “best bids”), leveraging one offer against another. By the next week, we had two “best bids” left standing. They were both great offers from two amazing publishers.
    Before making a final choice, Sarah arranged for me to travel down to London to meet the two teams.

    27th – 28th November 2018
    I arrived in London. It was another dream-come-true moment: completely surreal. The team at Publisher 1 were fabulous. They were warm, dynamic, friendly, professional and had pulled out all the stops to impress me and Sarah. I felt they “got” me and my book and I felt immediately at home.
    The team at Publisher 2 were also enthusiastic, professional, invested and friendly. They had a fantastic reputation and a very select list. But, for various reasons, it didn’t “click” in the same way.
    I knew in my heart who I wanted to go with. The problem was (nice problem to have), on paper my choice didn’t entirely make sense; it certainly wasn’t the outcome Sarah had anticipated. People didn’t turn down offers from Publisher 2. Heart was battling head. Sarah and I sat in a café trying to decide what to do.
    This was wonderful position to be in – we had two really strong offers from two really great publishers. But I was terrified of making the “wrong decision” and / or finding myself with a publisher that just didn’t feel “right”. Whatever path I chose would define so much of my career going forwards.
    Sarah contacted her agency colleagues for advice. Their feedback suggested we weren’t completely crazy for wanting to go with Publisher 1.
    Sarah and I agreed to sleep on it.
    The next morning, I still knew where my heart lay. I emailed Sarah my decision. Sarah’s was on board too. Full of confidence, joy and excitement, I whooped about the house.
    Now Sarah began the clause-by-clause negotiations.

    30th November – 4th December 2018
    Just two days later, Sarah emailed to say she was running into difficulties. (Lesson: don’t count your publishing chickens until the deal is closed.) The publisher I had chosen was so far refusing to budge on key points of the contract. Sarah was concerned that the deal as it stood wouldn’t serve me well. She asked me to think about whether I could imagine instead going with Publisher 2. If she had to serve Publisher 1 an ultimatum, could I be ready to walk away?
    With my head, I knew she was giving me good advice and making sure I was protected as an author. I did my best to stay calm. But physically, the anxiety and disappointment was crushing. I wanted to throw up. How could my instincts have been so wrong? How could my gut and the universe not line up? Was I really going to have to walk away from a choice that had felt so right for me?
    While I went to work at the psychology practice, Sarah continued to push and negotiate. She kept me updated every step of the way. (Lesson: a good agent is worth their weight in gold.) In between my clinics, we exchanged numerous phone calls and emails. I learnt about Canada exclusions, joint vs separate accounting, home vs export royalties, marketing plans, payment schedules… All things that tipped the balance back and forth from one publisher to the other.
    It was an emotional rollercoaster. No matter how hard I tried to stay open-minded and receptive to the idea of going with the Publisher 2, I couldn’t override my feelings. It just didn’t seem like we were a “fit”, brilliant though they were.
    Sarah did a great job of advising and informing me all the way. In the end, to my vast relief, she said her heart was in the same place as mine. Despite the niggles (most of which she’d by now negotiated out), she couldn’t in good faith advise me to walk away from Publisher 1. They had so much going for them. They were the ones for me. I knew it.

    4th December 2018
    So we said ‘yes’. We officially accepted a two-book deal with HQ, a dynamic new imprint of HarperCollins.
    Over the next few weeks, I would find myself filling in a publicity questionnaire, generating quotes for a press release, and getting my head down on yet more edits.
    But for now, I finally cracked open the bubbly: Sainsbury’s Pink Cava.
    After all, it would still be a few weeks before the first advance installment came through.


    Hooray hooray HOORAY!! You deserve this so much, for your amazing perseverance, your all round kindness and your writing (looking forward to reading this!). So very happy for you 😘🍾🥂💕


    It is such an emotional rollercoaster, isn’t it? So glad you came out of it on a high – well deserved. Really happy it’s all come together for you. x


    Phew indeed, Philippa – but so very pleased you survived it all – very well done.


    Wow, what a ride! Really illuminating blog. This stuff is difficult, isn’t it? Sounds as though you made absolutely the right choice. Heart/gut has to inform head in these circumstances. Loved reading about it, looking forward to the next stage


    Fascinating but daunting. So glad for you that it turned out so well, but anyone reading this who believes they’ll have it made once they’ve got an agent is really going to have their eyes opened. But we need to know what we’re up against, so thanks for posting this. And, again, congratulations.

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 12 months ago by RichardB.
    Philippa East

    Thanks guys!

    I think I am like the “doom-monger” blogger. I read so many articles that are like “the whole thing was amazing and I felt thrilled the whole time” and I’m like… “really??”

    Alright, so I am a born worrier and totally neurotic, but I do want to share an honest account of the challenges that come, even when on paper what’s happening is “success”.

    If I’ve learnt anything so far in this process it’s that…. it only gets harder!

    But the growth in it is a reward in itself, me thinks.


    I think you’re right to be absolutely honest and not gloss over the difficulties and how emotionally taxing success can be. As writers we need to hear it and be under no illusions (and I think it would be nice if readers were a bit more aware of that too – a fellow writer and illustrator tells me his daughter’s friends refuse to accept that’s what he does for a living because he’s not living in a gilded mansion)


    @philippaeast this is brilliant. You are fab, and you deserve all this success. And like Daeds says, it is so valuable to see the non-glossy version of people’s experiences, although I know it takes bravery to tell it. There are too many stories from authors who knew someone who knew an agent and tada! they were taken on, so it is heartening to know that sometimes hard work and talent get you all the good things too! Sending you SO MUCH congratulatory hugs and cheers, I’m so vicariously proud!! 🙂


    Philippa, huge congratulations. I was riding the roller coaster with you. I know it was a long journey and a heck of a ride but to read it…not sure I could do it. Maybe thirty years ago.
    I agree with you, writing can be damn terrifying. I often wonder why I put myself through it.
    I wish you success and look forward to seeing your book on the shelves so I can buy it. And, yes, do please pace yourself. You don’t want to have more adrenal fatigue it can take so much time from you. I’ve been there and even now have to be thoughtful about energy.


    I’m buzzing for you. What a ride! And thank you so much for taking the time to tell us honestly what it is actually like.

    Philippa East

    Thanks so much, guys. Good advice @bren on the pacing! SO important.

    I’ll let you know how the next phase goes…..

    Alan Rain

    @Philippaeast This is brilliant. I’ve only just caught up with the news. I’ve really been in a self-imposed bubble for the last 3 months.
    I’ve read the last few paras of you blog, and can now understand what a strain you’ve been through. But you’ve come through it with honours. So interested to keep following your journey.
    Again, congrats and enjoy the moment.


    Oh, wow, Philippa! What a journey! And you are still standing – and your book is going to be in the world. It’s so brilliant to read all of this – the lows and the highs. Thank you so much for posting. And a great big huge Well done! You did it!

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