From Rejection to Two-Book Publishing Deal with Hodder & Stoughton

I’m overjoyed that my debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November this year.

The Maid’s Room is also being published by Penguin in Spain, Mondadori in Italy, Gyldendal in Norway and Rosinante in Denmark.

In addition to this, Hodder & Stoughton has commissioned me to write a second book.

I’m feeling so many things at the moment – excitement, relief (it’s been a long road) and such gratitude to the many people who have helped me get to this  place – the domestic helpers in Singapore who shared their stories with me, the wonderful editor who put her heart and soul into getting my book back on track, my formidable literary agent Rowan Lawton, and to Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton, as well as the numerous friends who’ve mopped up my tears along the way.

More from me soon.

 

 

Why This Writer Needs Other Writers

I spent the first half of last year being cross at my writing. It had taken me away from people and I was beginning to feel quite isolated.

Then something started to change – my writing began to bring connection, people who I could really hear, people who energised me.

It started when an agent put me in touch with an editor. Yeah, yeah – I know lots of us have been through this, and I was cynical but decided to take a leap of faith and pay for my novel to be edited. It was a wise choice. Editor, Sara Sarre, got my book, was enthusiastic about it. Her wisdom gave me a new spark. Suddenly I felt as if I wasn’t in this alone.

And it was a magical moment in June when literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My face hurt, my smile was that wide.

Writing has brought me new friends too. In November, I met up with a group of writers who I knew only through Twitter. I stood outside a restaurant in Covent Garden feeling nervous before I opened the door and sat down to lunch with seven complete strangers. It was one of the highlights of my year. Forget nothing conversations about the weather; here we talked openly about our fears, our hopes, our children. And oh how we laughed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to meet gifted writer Joanna Campbell whose work I admire. In December, I got my chance at the launch of her short story collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Her nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me. As has her book – it is so well observed and funny and I am enjoying it immensely.

I’m ending the year feeling grateful to my writing. It’s brought me some special personalities, people who have made my life better with their thoughts and funny asides. I’ll be holed up in the writer’s cave again throughout 2017, but I intend to make regular escapes to talk about it all.

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Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.

From Rejection to Representation – 6 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent

Well, I have to admit my head is spinning. After more than three years of trying to hook a literary agent, Rowan Lawton is now representing me, and I am beyond delighted.

If you’re looking for representation, or smarting from yet another rejection letter, please don’t switch off. I’ve had some major disappointments since my first rejection letter in January 2013, but somehow I just kept writing.

I’ve kept most of my rejections in a folder called Novel. (It should really be called Novels, since I’ve written three of the things.) There have been highs – being shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2014, for example, when writers and publishing bods including organiser Joe Melia said some lovely things about my work. (I tucked these away for dark days.) And there have been lows. At one point, five agents were reading a full manuscript, but all of them turned me down.

When I look back though, the extreme lows, the moments that hit me hardest were the turning points – not that I knew that then. My ego was battered purple, and just a tiny frazzle of hope remained – but I kept going and at the moment, I am so thankful that I did.

Here are my six wobbly steps to getting representation (I fell over several times):

Step 1: Write the Damn Book

I didn’t do a creative writing course; I got five books out of the library about how to write a novel, and started reading them. A shame then that I didn’t take enough notice of them. I scribbled down a theme and two flagpole events then started typing. I wrote 1,000 words a day. And two years later, in 2012, I had a book. It was riddled with telling instead of showing, and it had more tangents than the human circulatory system.

Step 2: Enter a Competition

I entered my novel, Out of the Cupboard, into a debut novel competition. And fist pumps and high pitched ‘yessing’ – it was longlisted. It went on to be shortlisted and read by a panel of literary agent judges including Rowan. I didn’t win, but to my amazement, Rowan wanted to meet me. A few months later in September 2013, we met up and Rowan gave me her editorial thoughts on my book. She read the book again after I’d made changes, and boom – she rejected me. I was never going to get another chance like this, never, I told myself. I buried the book on my computer and decided to write a second one.

Step 3: Write a Second Book

Clearly upmarket women’s commercial fiction wasn’t my genre, I thought. Inspired by Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, I began writing a dark and moody literary love story. Meanwhile I was shortlisted in the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize with a panel of judges, including Rowan. My story was entered anonymously and although it didn’t win, it was published in the anthology. I went down to the prize ceremony in Bristol where I pitched my second novel to Rowan who said she’d love to take a look.

However I then decided that this book didn’t make the grade. I excavated book one and started working on it all over again. Things began to look up when another agent requested the full, using words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘wonderful.’ Then two other agents requested the full. This is it, I thought. Trouble was all of them turned it down. One added that, for her, it was too bleak and one of the characters was too wet. Goddamn it, I’d failed again. Even my eternally optimistic husband was lost for words. However, this was a turning point.

Step 4: Write a Third Book

There was nowhere else to go with this book. I spent three days thinking about how unfair life was. And then, you know how it goes, an idea dripped in, followed by another and another. I got out a blank sheet of A3 paper and started plotting. There were columns and thought bubbles, and notes in the margin. I met up with my journalist friend, Lucy, for lunch, pulled out my A3 sheet and subjected her to the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation while she chomped on her quinoa. She dabbed her mouth with a serviette and when she pulled it away, she was smiling. ‘I like it,’ she said.

I wrote The Maid’s Room, in a matter of months. To my delight, I was shortlisted again in the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and several literary agents contacted me through Twitter to request a look at my third book. One in particular seemed extremely interested in it. I contacted Rowan once again and was really surprised when she asked to see the full manuscript. There were five agents now reading it. One by one the rejections arrived. They all said much the same thing. They enjoyed my book, but the narrative wasn’t quite taut enough, the pacing wasn’t right. I was lost, and low, the lowest I’d ever been about my writing. (This was another turning point.)

Step 5: Find a Fantastic Editor

I was sitting on the floor with my back against the radiator writing a freelance health piece when I decided to open one of the rejection letters and read it again. There’s nothing like torturing yourself, right? In it, the agent said she could recommend an editor to me. I’d had my first and second book edited though and it still hadn’t got me an agent. Oh, what the hell?! I replied, saying that yes, I’d love a recommendation. And that’s when I met Sara Sarre. She read my book in two days, and said that she thought it was really strong then cut to the chase – I’d only started the story halfway through the book and two of my main characters had no arc. I wrote, and rewrote while Sara mentored me – going well beyond the call of duty. Sara read my book three times in all, and finally said the magic words. ‘You’ve nailed it and I think it’s brilliant.’

Step 6: Submit Only when the Book is Ready

I sent the full book to Rowan and initial submissions to three other agents. Two of them requested a full. Ten days later, an email from Rowan arrived. I read the last line first, but there was no brush off. Rowan wanted to meet me and talk about representation. My hands were shaking, and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ quite a lot. It was a blurry-headed moment. A few days later in a cafe close to the Furniss Lawton offices in central London, I met up with Rowan. She gave me some more editorial suggestions for my book then talked about her high hopes for it.

I’m realistic; I know this is just the beginning, but all those late nights and early mornings, all that rejection, well, it was worth it. Because finally I’ve found an agent who believes in me and my work. So please keep writing – because those dreadful down days really can lead to something good.

What’s the Best Book You’ve Ever Read?

It’s a question to induce frown lines.

How can you choose your number one when every book gives you such different things? It might be a beautifully drawn character, a killer twist, or a pace that turns you into a bionic reader. Picking your dream book is a task that demands you dig deep.

On Saturday, I asked my sunny New Yorker friend Gerry to do just that.

She fanned her fingers through the air, and widened her sparkly blue shadowed eyes. She was about to impart something important.

‘It has to be If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor,’ she said.

This was a recommendation I couldn’t forget. I typed the title into my iPhone and the next day, hunted the book down.

I Tweeted my little find a few hours ago and was met by a swathe of appreciation for it. It’s going to be a good’un, I reckon.

By asking the question – what’s your best book ever? – you’re bound to end up with great recommendations.

Here’s mine: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It’s an epic story about the biblical character Dinah and is laced with betrayal, infertility, love. I’m not a massive fan of historical fiction, so I wouldn’t have gone for it ordinarily, but a friend gave me my first copy, telling me I just had to read it. It delivers on every count – the writing is enchanting, the landscape vivid and the characters richly drawn. I’ve read it three times and don’t rule out reading it another three. I’ve bought it God knows how many times for loads of friends – because frankly it’s the perfect gift for a friend.

Have you got a number one book? If so, I’d love to add your picks to my list of unbeige books to be read.

Do you finish books you hate?

When I read, I want a story to open up a space in my chest for someone to dance in. I want intensity. I want to feel, to believe. Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns both did the job.

But sometimes a book doesn’t slice my loaf – there are seven of those piled up beside my bed with an empty mug perched on top like an amateur art installation. ‘I’ll come back to you,’ I think. (I lie.)

It’s not like any of those books are rubbish, they’re just not doing it for me.

A couple of weeks ago, an editor asked me: ‘Do you read as reader or as a writer?’

And something has switched over the past year because I now read as a writer. I take notes, and analyse clues and complicated plots.

That’s turned me into even more of a quitter of books I don’t really like. I want to be inspired after all. Reading has become study. Rather than watching a magician do tricks, I’m leaning over to the side, having a good old nosey at where she’s stuffed her ace of clubs.

But I could learn something from my bedside pile. Just what is it that’s not working for me? Is the main character too much of a snooty toff to identify with? Or is it that the plot is too slow, the characters too passive?

Pressing on with a book that makes you groan for all the wrong reasons can pay dividends. I gave up with We Need to Talk About Kevin 100 pages in, but I returned to it a year later, and what a punch-to-the-gut read it was. Similarly, I toiled over the opening chapters of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but stuck with Dorrigo Evans to the bitter, beautiful end.

I had to exercise patience with both books, and boy was it worth it. I felt, I believed. Someone salsa-ed inside my ribcage.

So – oh go on then – I’m going back to my bedside pile.

What kind of reader are you – a quitter or a plough-on-until-the-ender?

The Weekend Read – A Short Story

 

In the first week of December 2015, my story The Colour of Mud was featured as The Weekend Read on the For Books’ Sake website which champions women’s writing. It was originally published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7. Lots of people got in touch to say how much they enjoyed reading it online – and that’s always an energy boost.

Read the opening paragraphs below. The rest of the story is available for 99p on Kindle for a limited time only. Buy it here.

Submit your short stories to For Books’ Sake here.

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The Colour of Mud

I am never gonna be clean, even though I wipe myself down seventeen times a night. It’s the mud, see.

I pull my scarf around my face and jump puddles alongside the wall of trucks, grey ones, black ones, all blanketed by the dirt.

There are three men playing poker at a table they’ve set up in the middle of the drag. A standing man, his leg bent up on a chair, blows a tuneless harmonica. A jar on a table beside him is scabbed with ash.

I step forward and the mud sucks my leg down knee-deep. I grunt and slurp it out.

The lights of a bar flash on and off: The Good Times Saloon, the scaffolding on the roof a kind of skeleton. An open kitchen fogs oil and fried plantain. Further up the drag, the cooking mixes with the night stench. Petrol, tobacco, skin slicked in sweat.

There are echoes of laughter and the underfoot beat from a song on the radio.

I pass an island of scorched grass and stare down searching for remarkable signs of green. There’s no such thing as colour in this non-existent town. It’s not on no map, but the truckers know just where it is, halfway along the Western stretch of the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.

In praise of the Short Story

I’m so enjoying short stories at the moment – reading them and writing them. You get yourself an idea; you spend hours researching it, then you bang away at the keyboard until it’s done. You can explore ideas that aren’t sustainable over 300 pages, and you might even get yourself a bigger idea. One that’ll morph itself into a novel. Failing that, perhaps you’ll meet a character that you’ll want to stay with for longer.

A few short story collections from my shelves….

A few short story collections from my shelves….

This year’s Costa Short Story finalists have been an inspiration. How I loved Zoe Gilbert’s Fishskin, Hareskin and the beautiful Glassblower’s Daughter by Lucy Ribchester. Benjamin Myers’ A Peacock, A Pig in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7 did things to my stomach that hurt – it was that brilliant. And how I laughed my way through Kevin Franke’s A Visitor, runner up in last year’s Writers & Artists Short Story Competition.

So here I am without the big idea for book three, (Well, there is an idea, I’m just not sure it’s the right one) but I can’t stop writing littlies. I’ve written six over the past three months and I’m pleased with them, especially one particular favourite.

I was going to give myself a grand goal this year – a short story a week. But perhaps that’s a bit too grand, given that I’m job hunting – so here’s a lesser promise. A short story a month for the rest of 2015. I’ll have me a collection by the end of the year (well, I’m hopeful anyway) and maybe I’ll find that big book idea along the way.

Confessions of a Writing Competition Judge

Last week, I helped longlist for a writing competition for teenagers.

I was given two batches of twenty prose and poetry pieces and asked to choose my favourite four in each.

I read, reread, pondered and scored.

All of my scores were on the Craig Revel Horwood side of stinginess, so when a piece of writing scored a SEVEN, well oh my giddy aunt, it was good. It was easy to choose the best two works in each batch. Sassy, original with beautiful turns of phrase, they stood out.

It was less easy to choose the third and fourth pieces to go through. There were so many pieces which each had different merits, a smack-you-around-the-face ending or an opener that shone, a dodgy first half followed by a magical second. I reread these pieces lots of times before I was able to make a choice.

Here are the two things that struck me most about this competition:

  • Originality is almost all. Lots of writers had similar ideas, but the entries that went through had a concept that was a cut above the rest.
  • Why use a big word when crisp simplicity works so well? As Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

I so enjoyed being an early reader in this competition and contributing to that bit of sparkle that writers feel when their work makes it through.

So to all early readers in writing competitions, thanks for tangling yourself in words.