December 18, 2018 at 4:08 pm #3500
This blog was previously up on the (now defunct) Word Cloud. I thought I’d post it again here, in case it is of help to anyone else climbing the same parapets…
Breaching the Citadel
(aka Getting a foothold in the Publishing World)
Everyone’s journey up there is different. Following the fine Cloudie tradition, here’s mine….
2010-2011: Way out on the flat plains
In June 2010, whilst changing NHS jobs, I had a week off work. For no particular reason, I got the first line of a novel in my head and decided to write the whole thing. I hadn’t written fiction since school.
Over 18 months I wrote about 70,000 words. It was fun, I was playing. I discovered the WordCloud and posted a section on the critiques forum. I got the sort of feedback you might expect, but also the comment, ‘you can clearly write.’ Hum, I thought, can I?
2011-2013: Gentle slopes
I tucked the novel up in the drawer (which remains closed to this day) and set about learning the craft of writing (this part of the journey was like hiking through a nettle patch – painful). I began to test my writing out with short stories. I liked these. I could faff about with 2,000 words at a time, fiddling over details, going all experimental, and ditching the ones that didn’t work without too much heart-ache. One of my stories fluked a runner-up prize in a competition. Headily, I entered the Bridport, Costa and Lightship awards and got absolutely nowhere. But I still liked writing. I was experimenting.
2013-2015: Ascending in earnest
I continued to write short stories, got better at researching the right places to submit them, and began to get a trickle of acceptances from small-scale lit mags and comps. My hit rate rose to about one-in-three, an improvement from my one-in-eight hit rate at the start. The secret (honestly?): I researched mags carefully (including reading issues of the mags I planned to sub to) and aimed LOW. I went for the mags I felt I had a good chance of getting into. (I’d caught the publication bug, but my ego was delicate.)
My plan? Keep improving and work my way up. Practice, practice, practice. When I was happy with each piece, I sought feedback, cried at the feedback, licked my wounds, and tried again. I was hard on myself. I went on free courses, read blogs, how-to-write books, anything I could get my hands on. I wanted to know everything I could about how to write (well). My motto at this time (and since) was from Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
September 2015: A turning point
I quit the NHS to set up my own part-time psychology clinic. I continued to write (better) short stories, and got some bigger successes. I’d probably composed about 30-40 short stories by this point (many consigned to the drawer with the first novel).
A new novel had been brewing in my head for a while. It was little more than a premise and a few characters at this stage, but I had deliberately given myself more time to write, so what else should I do but get on with it?
I used Skylark’s unbroken chain and set out to write 1,000 words a day for three months (Dec-Feb). 90,000 words = a novel, right? Sometimes the 1,000 words were hard to write, sometimes easier. Sometimes it would take me all day to come up with a scene (pantsing, anyone?). I hit the 30,000-word doldrums, found Emma Darwin’s blog about it and kept going. I had no direction, I just kept writing (tip: try not to do this; a bit of direction is usually good).
I ended up with 82,000 words of… something. I wrote THE END on the final page anyway. Draft 0, aka the shitty first draft. Mine was very shitty.
2015-2016: A steeper gradient
I had written a mess, basically a patchwork of random scenes. It had no plot, no shape, no theme. There was a story in there somewhere if you looked hard enough, but it was buried under chaos. I tidied up what I could and gave it (now called draft 2) to my sister. Always my biggest critic, I knew she’d be honest. She had a lot to say, some positive, a lot on what needed improving, all of it valid. I wanted to make it better but I was completely overwhelmed.
I signed up for Emma and Debi’s self-edit course, hoping to find some nice folk to hold my hand and give me tissues while I tackled the rewrites. The course was great, I leant a lot – stuff I hadn’t figured out even after six years of learning my craft – and came out with a clearer idea of what I was doing.
I rewrote and rewrote.
September 2016: Crossing a threshold
I went to the fantastic York Festival of Writing for the first time. I had two one-to-ones, and immediately liked the look of the first agent I sat down with (SM). She had some pertinent feedback (the whole weird omniscient narrator bit wasn’t working AT ALL), but asked to see the full thing. Maybe I liked her because she asked for the full, but I think I liked her anyway. The other agent (RL) didn’t think much of my cover letter, wanted to know where the story was going, hummed and hawed and said maybe I could send her a longer extract.
The novel, though, was nowhere near finished. It was still a mess. I was still rewriting and rewriting.
2016-2017: Steep slopes and false summits
I entered Twitter’s #Pitch CB I got a ‘favourite’ from agent SC. I sent a submission (draft 8a) to her. She highlighted issues with plot, pacing and voice – so most of it, then. She passed with some nice noises and a suggestion to R&R, if I revised it ‘considerably’.
In December 2016, I was awarded a mentorship scheme with Writing East Midlands. This gave me hope that I was getting something right, that maybe I really COULD do this. Over the next six months, I worked with the lovely Judith Allnatt. We revised voice, plot, pacing, prose, characters – the lot. Every time I thought I was there, I wasn’t (false summits, anyone?), BUT I felt the MS getting stronger and tighter each time.
I continued to redraft. I wanted to realise my vision and make this book work. Things were happening. Things were getting serious.
August-September 2017: Scaling the ramparts
By now, York Festival was coming round again. I had finished the MS as best I could and the full was finally ready to send. By now it was on draft 12.
I sent the full to agent SM (the agent I liked). I sent the longer extract (3 chaps) to agent RL as requested (and never heard back from her – I’ve since heard she’s had a baby). I sent cold subs to two other agents, and booked two more one-to-ones for York.
SM was at York with my full MS somewhere in her inbox. I tried to stalk her and avoid her at the same time. Awkward.
At my one-to-ones, agent JB was very excited and asked for the full. I was thrilled (and shrieked down the phone to my husband), but I could also tell straight off that she had got the wrong idea about my book. She thought it was a pacey thriller; I knew that it wasn’t. This was going to be embarrassing. More cringe. The other agent (EF) was very lovely and very positive, but in the end the book wasn’t for her.
On the train home from the festival I emailed SM and told her I’d had another request for the full. She emailed back to say she’s started reading last week, and would let me know her thoughts once she had finished.
My heart sank. She wasn’t gushing, she wasn’t rushing to finish the MS THAT NIGHT, she’d started last week and put it down, so clearly not gripped, etc. etc. Her email was clearly a kindly precursor to a ‘no’. I fell off my giddy high, missed my train stop, and had to take a round trip via Peterborough.
When I got home, dejected, my husband couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.
October 2017: Inching up the battlements
Agents are like buses. After two weeks of radio silence since York, agent JB passed on the full. The next day I received an email from agent SM. It said:
There is a lot I like here but I think at the moment it isn’t twisty enough for me to offer representation. I would love a call with you though to discuss some of my editorial thoughts as I do think it has real potential, but I think it would take a lot of work.
(For the record, I think this article clarifies what this meant. An odd one, but good.
SM called. We spoke. She was right. It would take A LOT of work. She felt the plot needed a big twist. She thought (as did I) that it would work better written from two alternating POVs, instead of the current singular POV. This was (in her words) ‘a massive rewrite’. Was I up for it?
By now I’d already written this book 12 times. I had worked on it for almost two years. Now an agent was suggesting I rewrite the whole damn thing? Was I up for it?
To be honest, it wasn’t just that I had an agent interested. It was that I knew the book could – and therefore should – go up another level. Agent JB had put her finger on something: the premise had the flavour of a thriller, but the book – as it stood – wasn’t living up to its promise. I knew I had written the book that was for me – a sort of coming-of-age-thing reflecting my own concerns and experiences. Now it was time to let go of that version and write a book for the outside world.
I told SM I would give it a go. We agreed I’d send her an outline of my new plot, and then an early draft. Nothing was guaranteed on either side.
November 2017: Clawing the air
Meanwhile, one of the cold-sub agents passed. It wasn’t for them, they said, but they were sure another agent would ‘jump on it’. Sure! Someone already almost had! I just had to come up with a GREAT TWIST IDEA.
I tried to think of one. I tried and tried, and rewrote and rewrote my synopsis and sent it to critique partners who weren’t at all convinced. I cried and had anxiety attacks and felt like I was completely losing myself. I couldn’t get it to work. I was SO CLOSE but I was frozen: the air up here, on the ramparts of the citadel, was so thin and from here I had such a long way to fall.
After a week of this, I made myself stop. I banned myself from writing anything. I threw away all the notes I’d made. I ignored timescales and tried to trust my creative instincts.
I got a glimmer of an idea. It glowed, brightened, faded, went out, came back. It grew stronger. It was close, but not quite there. I tried to be patient, I tried not to panic at the weeks passing by. I tried not to think how much was at stake.
Eventually, I got it. An idea fell into place.
I emailed SM the plan. She loved it.
December 2017 – January 2018: Same again, the next ledge up
Now she asked me to send her the opening 30-50 pages, re-written with the new alternating POV structure.
I had never written anything with multiple POVs before, and this one change turned out to affect everything. I mean EVERYTHING. I’d have to change character profiles, create new scenes, drop whole plot-lines, restructure story-arcs, and tweak almost every line of prose to create distinct voices.
I began to rewrite. I took draft chapters to my critique group. They tore them apart. I fell apart again: I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I didn’t have the writing skills for this. I had got this far and I was going to fail CATASTROPHICALLY.
But I kept trying. I wanted this so badly. I read everything I could about writing from alternating POVs. I made Emma write a blog about it. I worked 6-7 hours a day on my days off – hours and hours on just two chapters, three. I was a mess.
I wrote and rewrote, inching my way there. Finally, I achieved what I wanted with the chapters. Not perfect, but good enough to represent my vision.
On the 25th January, I sent my first 47 pages to SM. She emailed back within a few hours. She loved them and wanted to represent me.
I jumped for joy, all about my house.
February 2018: Breaching the citadel
Before officially saying yes, I asked SM for a meeting in London. (I wanted to live out my meet-the-agent-in-London fantasy). The run-up to this was a happy time: a chance to rest on my laurels and savour the moment.
I was nervous but happy to meet with her, and the meeting (yesterday) went very well – I asked my questions, she explained what I needed to know. We talked about the vision for the book, her plans for submitting, how her agency worked, my ideas for further books, and more.
We agreed that I would complete the rewrite over the next 6-9 months, go through a few rounds of edits with her once the draft was complete with a view to submitting to publishers this time next year.
With a plan agreed, I formally accepted her offer of representation. I signed with Sarah Manning of The Bent Agency.
Today: “I’ve made it into the lobby at least”
Since yesterday [13th February 2018], I’ve juggled a mixture of happiness, excitement, fear and grief. Happiness and excitement for the obvious reasons. Fear because I’ve been signed on a book which effectively I have yet to write (can I do it??? What if I can’t??? cue terror). And grief because this means saying goodbye to the part myself who could write with 100% creative freedom – any idea that came into my head, writing of any quality. Now I am accountable.
I know that a whole new journey starts here. There remain no guarantees: that I can re-write the book properly, that I will find a place with a publisher, that the book (currently unwritten) will sell. I am going to need a lot of faith.
Maybe I have made the journey here sound easy. IT HAS NOT BEEN, and I know it won’t get any easier going forwards. But I am proud and thrilled to have reached this stage, and I am overwhelmingly grateful to all on the Cloud for supporting me in my ascent to this point. I’ve made it into the lobby at least.
PhilippaDecember 18, 2018 at 4:41 pm #3501AthelstoneModerator
Fascinating then and fascinating now! I think one thing that you express so well here is the sheer workload of writing a successful book. OK, not everybody is going to make the huge changes that you did, but the fact remains that ‘tinkering’ is almost never enough. Great blog.December 18, 2018 at 6:25 pm #3503LibbyParticipant
Thank you for posting this, Philippa; it’s a great insight into your novel’s development and your own progress as a writer. What you say is both heartening and daunting. So much work! I’m really pleased you have an agent you like, one who is helping you develop the MS to an even higher level and who – by the sounds of things – shares your own ideas of what you want to achieve.
Good luck with the next stage! Or is that the current stage? Anyhow, with tackling the amendments you’ve mentioned in recent posts.December 20, 2018 at 4:06 pm #3525
Thanks Ath and Libby!
Yes I think my experience was unusual in the sheer volume of rewriting I ended up doing. It really didn’t help that I began writing the novel with absolutely no idea about plot or where I was headed. I’m pretty sure that if I’d had a clearer outline and idea of the shape of my book from the start it wouldn’t have needed 24 (and counting) drafts!
But I do think the principal stands that you have to be incredibly ruthless with your own work to get it up to standard for potential publication.
I am hoping to post an update on my journey and progress soon. Watch this space…December 21, 2018 at 11:10 am #3528LibbyParticipant
I look forward to it!December 21, 2018 at 1:08 pm #3532RaineParticipant
Yeah, do post an update when you have time, @philippaeast! I’d love to hear how it’s worked doing such big edits with your agent as editor. I didn’t really get much of that with mine, so would be interested to hear how it’s been.January 31, 2019 at 12:46 pm #4126January 31, 2019 at 8:15 pm #4152
Update coming now!!
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