The beginning of my writerly story is lost in the mists of my childhood. I struggled with writing at school because, being a fluent reader (but not a writer) by the age of five, I was put into a class of kids who’d already had over a year in school. Playing catch-up, my mum encouraged me to spend twenty minutes writing a story every lunchtime (I went home for lunch in those days). Result: compulsive writer. I’ve never been able to stop. I’m not a writer because I can write. I’m a writer because I can’t NOT write.
I started my first novel aged 15 and the world will be highly relieved to know that I only managed to write the first six chapters, though I may have been a little ahead of my time as it was a future dystopia. (Take that, Hunger Games!) Unfortunately it was peopled by close analogues of my favourite pop stars, particularly Scott Walker. Oh, well… at least my school friends thought it was brilliant. (Lesson number one: never ask your closest friends to be your critique partners.)
So let’s not start right back at the beginning, let’s skip a few years to 1994 when a friend lent me her Amstrad PCW on which to write my magnum opus. Before then I’d always written longhand and being a lousy typist might never have got to the stage of having a finished manuscript. So when I returned said machine I was bereft and immediately went out and bought one. Own up, how many of you started writing on an Amstrad in all its glory: non-WYSIWYG, with green-screen and a dot matrix printer? And wasn’t it glorious compared to an Imperial 66 manual typewriter or a notebook and pen? (Lesson number two: have the right tools for the job.)
I wrote my first two novels on that Amstrad, juggling husband, kids and widowed mother while also carrying on a singing career with a cappella folk trio, Artisan (www.artisan-harmony.com) which involved a lot of travelling. The family was, if not supportive (because they barely knew what I was up to) at least tolerant of late mealtimes, late nights, obsessive keyboard hammering. Then I transferred to a PC, discovered email, got on the triple ‘W’ and found a usenet writers; group called misc.writing. There I learned about essentials like manuscript format, how to submit to a publisher and… the fact that if I was serious about this writing lark I needed an agent. (Lesson number three: talk to other writers and learn all you can from their experience.)
By this time, through a friend of a friend in the music business, I’d met American writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, author of Nebula winner, The Healer’s War, who was writing a series of novels with Anne McCaffrey. Annie bought my first short story for an anthology she was editing called Warrior Princesses which came out in 1998. Anyhow, one Annie talked to the other on my behalf and an introduction to an agent in New Jersey ensued. By that time, though I’m British and based in Yorkshire, Artisan was playing regularly in the USA, so I even got to meet said agent in person. (Not always the case when you live half a world away from each other.) She shopped around my first novel and got a very encouraging ‘we-nearly-bought-this’ from HarperCollins, but regrettably didn’t actually sell it to any one of the (then) nine major publishers of fantasy and science fiction in the USA. I wasn’t too disappointed. First books don’t always sell, right? But I’d made a big rookie mistake in that the second book was a sequel to the first. (Lesson number four: stay flexible and keep your eye on practical possibilities.) Yeah, my agent shoulda, coulda warned me, but she wasn’t a hands-on agent, and we didn’t have that kind of relationship. In those days I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a hands-on agent. Anyhow, I tried to make the sequel feel like a standalone and sent it to her. After a couple of months I got an email to say that she couldn’t sell the second book.
Now, it had taken over a year for her to decide she couldn’t sell the first book, and I got a list of which publishers had seen it and when. With the second one she was vague and somewhat evasive. Who’s seen it, I asked. Everyone. Well, can you give me a list? No answer. Did HarperCollins see it? They don’t want to see the same book twice. It’s not the same book… You get the idea? So (politely) we parted company. (Lesson number five: when something is really not working walk away with good grace and no acrimony.)
Getting agent number one had been so easy that I had no concept of how difficult it would be to get another agent. I was back at the beginning, learning how to write a cover letter and deal with the whole submission process. I was used to submitting short stories to magazines (I’d sold a few) and even sending full books to publishers’ slushpiles, so I had the no simultaneous submissions rule pretty firmly in my head and I carried that forward into my submissions to agents. Submitting to only one agent at a time, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting. Some agents (bless them) rejected pretty quickly, some took six or nine months to reject (sometimes after going through the send-the-full-MS stage) others never responded at all. Skip forward eight years, and in that time I’d made about nine agency submissions, one painful long-drawn-out application at a time. (Lesson number six: Don’t waste time and/or opportunities.)
And then I got my break, a relatively new agent with a big New York agency who was just building a client list and whose guidelines said that [agent] did not necessarily require an exclusive submission, but if the author wished to give [agent] an exclusive then [agent] would respond more swiftly. I’d been giving agents exclusives for eight years! So I submitted, made sure [agent] knew it was an exclusive submission and waited. Bang on the time given in the agency guidelines I got a response asking for the full manuscript and shortly after that an offer of representation.
I was elated!
Unlike my first agent, Agent Two was a hands-on agent and worked with me to improve my manuscript before finally saying it was good enough to send out. (This is the manuscript that eventually became Winterwood.) I really liked Agent Two and was very hopeful. Then… with my book under submission, my agent decided to get out of agenting. Devastated doesn’t even begin to cover my feelings.
So now I had a book that Agent Two thought was perfectly marketable, but had already been seen by at least four of the major publishers with no success so far, and I was back to square one. No agent and no book sale. Though I did have a much improved book, thanks to my agent’s editorial advice.
But by this time I’d begun to wise up. (Lesson number seven: REALLY don’t waste time.) There’s nothing in the (unwritten) rules of submitting that says you can’t sim-sub to agents. I figured that I didn’t want to waste another decade with eight or nine agency submissions, so I decided to submit to all of them at once. Well, not quite all of them and not quite all at once, but…
I decided to make getting an agent my ‘job’ for the next few months. I began with research. There are a lot of websites out there that list agents and what they are looking for, one of the best being agentquery.com (http://www.agentquery.com/) which claims to be the internet’s largest free database of literary agents. I can easily believe that, though it is North-American in bias. I supplemented this with the Writers and Artists Yearbook in the UK (I’m British and I was looking on both sides of the Atlantic), and Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents), a blog on the Writer’s Digest website.
Then, having built up my own database I started with my top picks and sent individual targeted submissions to each one, checking their websites and following their own guidelines. I also wrote a fresh cover letter for each one, picking up on their likes and dislikes if at all possible. I sent out fifty of these in a month. It was practically all I did. I was straight with them that the book Agent Two had submitted had already been seen by four publishers and that the only reason I was looking for a new agent was because my previous agent was retiring from the business, but that in the meantime I had more novels in reserve, seven in total. (Lesson number eight: whether your books are selling on not, keep writing, build up a portfolio.)
In the meantime I sent my manuscript to a publisher I really liked and one that I knew had not yet read the submission that Agent Two had sent. I did it with a recommendation from a friend already published by that publisher, which may have placed me closer to the top of the slushpile and certainly got me a note from the editor promising that she would read it as soon as she could but that she was very busy. Being very busy all the time is the natural state in which editors exist. (Lesson number nine: don’t be afraid to make use of contacts freely offered – but don’t be obnoxious if contacts are NOT freely offered.)
I began to get responses from my agent submissions. Some were form rejections, others were polite personal rejections and a few – enough – were requests for full manuscripts, which was encouraging.
My fifty submissions were still in the early stages. I’d ruled out about twenty of them, had not heard back from another twenty or twenty five, yet (but there was still time) and I had sent full manuscripts to a few and was waiting to hear back. I wasn’t getting despondent.
Then in July 2013 I got that email that every author wants. Sheila Gilbert at DAW said, I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?
Let me just say that again: I want to buy your book, when can I phone you?
And it was Christmas and Birthday all at once.
I didn’t need an agent now… but, hang on, yes I did. Why? Agents do more than sell a single book, they negotiate contracts, offer career advice and support and sell books for foreign language translation. My editor said she was happy to do the contract direct with me or to work through my agent, to which I said: Can you give me a week on that? She agreed. And then she asked the magic question: What else have you got?
So while I sent Sheila two more finished manuscripts I looked back at my list of agency submissions and picked out my ten favourites. Some had already asked for full manuscripts, some had not yet responded and one had already sent me a rejection, but I figured with an offer on the table she might change her mind. She didn’t – but I respect her for that. My email basically said I’d had an offer for my book and I would need a response within the week if the agent was interested in discussing the matter of representation further.
To cut a long story short: I received five offers of representation. Within a week I’d had long telephone conversations with the five who made offers, narrowed it down to one British and one American agent, both from highly respected agencies, and dithered for a couple of days, weighing up pros and cons. In the end, there was nothing to choose between them, so I went with my gut feeling and picked the one I’d been most comfortable chatting to. And I’m so pleased that I did. I am currently represented by the lovely Amy Boggs of Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York.
Amy developed DAW’s initial offer into a three book deal, two of them already written, Empire of Dust and Winterwood, and a sequel to Empire, to be written from scratch. This turned into Crossways. Following on from that is another deal, this time for two books, a sequel to Winterwood, called Silverwolf, which is due out on 3rd January 2017, and the final book in the Psi-Tech Trilogy, following on from Empire of Dust and Crossways. This one will be called Nimbus and will be out in October 2017.
So there you have it, my overnight success only took sixteen years from the first short story sale to the first novel sale. (Lesson number ten: don’t ever give up, and when the big moment happens, grab it with both hands and hang on as you enjoy the ride.)