Why I Abandoned The Book I Was Writing – interview in today’s The Gloss Magazine

I am so thrilled to feature in today’s The Gloss Magazine interviewed by the wonderful Sophie Grenham. I’m talking jogging (aka fast walking), what it’s like to have to abandon a book because another author’s already written it, and what the defining moment was that made me pick up my pen and write The Maid’s Room.

Sophie says: ‘Fiona’s refreshing and respectful prose gives voice to a nation of people that are often seen and not heard, and shines a light on a system that should have been challenged long ago. In preparation for her novel, she interviewed many women working as maids, who opened up to her about their treatment.’

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

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The Surprising Benefits of Submitting to Literary Agents

Rejection didn’t break me, but it did chink away at my self-confidence. Not because of what any of the literary agents said about my work, but because I made the mistake of listening to that nagging voice in my head. ‘This is never going to happen for you.’ ‘You’re fooling yourself.’ ‘You’re wasting years of your life doing this.’

This week, 32 copies of my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, arrived by courier. My daughter shunted folders aside on some shelves to make way for them. And as she did, a rejection letter for my very first novel fluttered onto the floor.

The words stared up at me. ‘I read the material with interest but I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with your book in the way I had hoped to.’

I’ve given away two copies of The Maid’s Room so far, and now have 30 copies left. 30. The number of rejections I received far exceeded that. Most of them arrived in emails which I’ve still got in a file marked, ‘Novel Stuff’. (Perhaps I should print them all out, or maybe I should delete them. What do you reckon?)

Every time, a writer contacts me to say they’ve just been rejected, it throws me right back to that place. God, how it stings. But the arrival of my big box of books this week made me think – even though rejection hurts, it does have some fringe benefits. Here are just five of them:

  • Finding the right agent for you. All of those rejection letters are a way of figuring out which agents to approach again when the book is better. Forget the agents that ignore you, or the stock rejections. Set your sights on the agents that give you great feedback. When you find a brilliant agent, you’ll be glad the others turned you down.
  • Finding writer friends. My family and friends propped me up when my ego was as a saggy as old knicker elastic. But finding people who are going through the same thing as you really helps too. I’m lucky to have met lots of people on Twitter, then in person, who have cheered me on and vice versa.
  • Gaining writing plaudits. If I’d been snapped up within 24 hours of sending my novel to an agent, I might not have entered all those writing competitions. Getting shortlisted in a few was a boon. And I feel lucky to be one of the Bristol Short Story Prize alumni.
  • The larger your pile of rejection letters the more manic your happy dance will be when you get representation. And it’ll be especially pleasing for your friends and family who’ve put up with all your bad moods after reading a rejection letter.
  • Your writing will get better. Yes, rejection is exquisitely painful (tumbler of gin, anyone?). But keep writing and the words you produce will improve.

Hook an Agent Part V – Bestselling authors share how they found their agent

Thank you to author Louise Jensen for including me in her ‘Hook an Agent’ blog post. Here’s how I got signed by my brilliant and lovely agent Rowan Lawton. Other authors share how they got taken on by their agents too.

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In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here. Part IV, you can read here, featured agent Eugenie Furniss advising us to tighten those first 3 chapters, I also shared the opening of The Sister.

Today, the final part of the series, is all about how to find an agent. It’s tricky to find the right agent for you and as with any industry there are those who are fabulous and those who aren’t. It’s imperative to find someone you can trust because not only will they…

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Just been Rejected by a Literary Agent? Keep the Faith . . . #writing #novels

I just pulled Stephen King’s On Writing off my book shelf. The shelf that’s only for my best books – the ones that inspire me to write.

I opened it up  and looked down at all the sentences I’d underlined. Here’s one:

‘You should have an agent, and if your work is saleable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t saleable, as long as it shows promise.’

Er, really, Stephen? Yes, I suspect there are writers who haven’t even finished the first draft of their books, and have still managed to get signed by an agent, but King makes it sound like a breeze, and let’s face it, for most of us it’s not.

If you’ve just opened a rejection email from an agent, you’ll probably be feeling a bit bruised. And the likelihood is that you might just have to read a few more of these before you find an agent who’s right for you.

It’s been a year since my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton took me on. Thanks to her, my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, and rights have been sold in four other territories.

But it took me years to get signed by Rowan. YEARS. My heart used drop into my shoes every time an email from an agent landed in my inbox. I’d curl my lip and say ‘Oh God!’ very loudly indeed. And that was even before I’d read the ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Invariably that email would ruin my day.

But the thing about putting yourself through all of this, is that if you take note, it can make your book better – I don’t mean the bog standard email rejections (they don’t offer you anything) but the ones where an agent has taken the time to point out things they liked about your book, and the things that they didn’t. Mull over, chuck bits away, rewrite. Let other people read it. When it’s the best you think it can be, find a good editor if you can afford one. And know this – as the rejection letters stack up, there might just be a genie lurking among them.

Rowan rejected an early novel of mine a few years ago. (Yes reader I kept the email.) Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the first time and decided to go to the awards ceremony. (Do go,  2017 shortlisted writers; it’s fantastic.) Rowan was one of the judges that year and I ended up talking to her for quite a while. It was then that I realised that we got on really well, plus I loved her ideas about books. I could have chatted to her for hours.

So I kept on trying, kept changing and tweaking, and occasionally even got a bit hopeful. And finally, my biggest, happiest, most wonderful turning point arrived – and Rowan signed me. (Cue chin wobbling, and an enormous amount of gushy thank you’s). But that moment only arrived when the book was in a much more presentable state than it had ever been.

If you’ve had a rejection letter today, I hope this post might inspire you to keep going. Keep the faith and keep writing because getting your book published really can happen.

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.

UPDATE – My debut novel The Maid’s Room was published in hardback in November 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. The paperback will be published on 19 April 2018.

The number one mistake NOT to make when submitting to literary agents

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So I finish the novel (for the *ahem* fourth time) and send it back to the agent who read the book once and told me that the concept was brilliant and that she loved my writing, but that changes were needed.

She replies. And there it is, that sting, ‘another agent might feel differently.’ Cue re-reading the email four more times (Let’s be honest, it was 10 times, analysing it word by word like Jacques flipping Derrida). It’s definitely a no then….

But this time I was so sure it was ready. The characters had sharp edges and bulgy bits. They smiled; they did the whole dramatic thing better than Sofia Helin. (Okay, so no one does it quite like her.) But they’re good people and I blooming love them, and so do my friends.

I pull off the Kleenex that I’ve Sellotaped to my cheekbones to mop up the tears, and get on with the day job. Besides it’s not that bad; other agents have requested the full novel too. Surely one of those will be The One.

Each of them replies and gives detailed feedback. (One sends me a standard rejection letter, but that’s a small detail.) All of them agree – I need to streamline the narrative; it needs more pace.

One of them suggests an editor. But hang on a minute, I had it edited two years ago, 700 quids worth of edits, I can’t keep throwing money at a project that might never see the light of day, can I?

Something persuades me, some deep belief that this book is beginning to be more than half-decent. Perhaps it just needs a little bit of help. After all, it’s a very different book to the one it was two years ago when it was shortlisted in a competition run by literary consultancy Cornerstones. I contact the agent who’s suggested an edit and she puts me in touch with a trusted editor – a specialist in narrative structure.

The editor reads the book in two days and hacks away at the narrative like it was one of those overgrown lavender bushes in my neglected back garden. Right there in the centre are the bones of the thing, all tangled up in subplot. The pace has been slowed by it, the main drive has been strangled.

Then something magical happens. The editor invites me to meet up. She tells me she likes the book a lot. She agrees to be my mentor while I finish it.

Writing a book is a massive investment – your time, your sanity (occasionally) – but if you really believe you have something that could be good, it’s worth shelling out for an editor. It’s a false economy not to, I reckon. I’d become so embroiled in my novel that I just couldn’t see its faults.

So I may not be finishing the year with a literary agent, but I’m not on my own anymore. I’ve found a mentor who’s in my corner. And, this wannabe debut novelist is back in the ring.

 

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How to Stay Sane When Submitting Your Novel

How NOT to lose the plot when submitting your book

Recently literary agent Juliet Mushens suggested in a Tweet that it’s a good idea to submit to eight to ten agents at a time rather than blanket submitting. Brilliant advice, I reckon. If your book’s got some kind of magic to it, you might just get some agent feedback. Even if the book gets rejected, you could still come away more clued-up about what’s not right with it, bruised ego aside. You might then choose to rework it before submitting to other agents.

A few months ago, I got a request for the full manuscript of my second book. Ultimately the agent turned it down saying she didn’t find the characters likeable enough and she wasn’t sure what was driving the story. I’ve stopped sending it out and am halfway through a rewrite. I think the characters are more sympathetic now, with meatier back stories; I might just have a better book on my hands.

 

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That brings me back to my first book. I had some encouraging agent interest in it two months ago and ended up rewriting it. The book is stronger now and I’ve sent the first three chapters to several agents. So here’s how to hold onto your sanity while waiting for a reply.

1. Don’t refresh your email account every five minutes.

Turn it off. Turn off social media too. Do not allow yourself to look at the Twitter accounts of the eight agents on your list. God, she’s reading Goddamn Marlon James when she should be reading my MS…. Look away. Log off. Go and do something less boring instead.

2. Don’t be tempted to send out to more than ten agents at a time.

Remember, you might just learn something. So you’ve written the whole thing in patois and the agent who loved your concept absolutely hated the Gads instead of Gods, the me sandals instead of my sandals. Okay, admittedly there might be those of you who love that kind of thang (sic), but if more than one agent says it doesn’t work, it could be time to take notice. If after the first few submissions, you learn two things about how to improve your book, you’ll be well pleased you didn’t do multiple submissions.

3. Do not delete the rejection emails.

Your lips may bulge with that silent F, so let them, but do not let your fingers smash that delete box. It’s very useful to keep a log of who’s rejected you. That doesn’t mean you can’t contact them again when the book is better, or when you’ve penned your second masterpiece. And just because you’ve got a rejection from one person at a big agency doesn’t mean to say someone else at that agency won’t fall in love with your writing. Also, think about how much fun it’s going to be counting up all those rejection letters when you’re finally published. Yeah, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mrs/Mr ‘I’m going to pass….’

4. When an agent asks to see the full manuscript, don’t stand in front of the mirror practising what you’re going to say if she/he offers you representation.

‘I’d just like to thank my husband for his attention to apostrophes, my friend Jill who was there from the start….’ Waste of time! Chances are you might have a long wait for representation, so instead of risking your family banging on the bathroom door – ‘Is everything alright in there?’ – just get back to writing, or reading, or thinking up new ideas. Preferably all three.

5. Do not put your writing on hold.

If anything write more. Discarding all of the above, this is one thing I have managed to do. I’ve always got a short story on the go. Just write something, anything, write rubbish then rework it, edit it, perfect it. For me, short stories silence the self-doubt. I love them. They’re a rejection letter quick fix. So keeeeeeep writing!

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6. Do not burn your book.

So you’ve now got 30 rejections in the bag, but don’t start carping. ‘That’s it, I’m finished.’ Last year an agent who I met at a literary event talked about how a novelist’s first novel often becomes her second or third published novel. And since I know a couple of best-selling authors, I can vouch for that. Keep searching for ideas, maybe even start book two. Keep trying. Things can only get better, right?

Is Your Novel Ready To Submit?

I thought I knew the answer to this question. I’d written and rewritten my first book, given the thing to friends to read, gone back to it and changed bits. And then I’d sent it off to agents, in full book deal fantasy mode.

I’ve probably submitted about 30 times in all, but each of those submissions was flawed. A central character lacked depth, another character wasn’t as funny as she should have been. You know the drill.

And so the rejection letters stacked up, sometimes with reasons: ‘it’s not enough to stand out in today’s overcrowded fiction market.’ Oh yeah? ‘I didn’t fall in love with it.’ Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then something fortuitous happened, a gem of a thing. An agent read through half of it. She loved my concept, my writing, but the characters’ voices just weren’t strong enough, she thought. I know it’s all subjective, but the thing is, I agreed. All my editing had turned the characters into papery beings, people on the wrong side of dull.

Me old novel!

Me old novel!

I started over. I didn’t write it chapter by chronological chapter. I wrote one character in her entirety in one file, another character in another file and so on – that helped me to discover each character and give them a distinct voice. I then fitted the novel back together with its brand new plot and a completely different ending.

I’ve edited it, and given it to one person to read – he loved it. Another friend has started reading and is two chapters in. As it stands, my book is the best it can be at this moment in time. The characters are strong (I think, but then I’ve thought that before), the plot line has drive, (but then I’ve thought that before too).

So is it ready to send out? One more proofread and yes, I think it is. Cue fantasy mode again.

But the beauty of starting over is this: I’m hoping that this new book has all the magic of the original draft of my first book before it got ironed flat by edits.

Sending out to Agents – Three at a time or Scattergun?

When I ‘finished’ my first novel (I use the word ‘finished’ because it sure as hell isn’t – that’s all too clear to me now), I sent the book out to three agents at a time. Standard rejection letters came back.

One competition shortlisting later, one agent liked it enough to meet me and talk through changes. She didn’t take me on, so I made further changes and scattergunned loads of other agents with it. One of them requested the whole book, but I didn’t hear from her again. Ouch!

More rejections piled up, this time with compliments thrown in. ‘It rose to the top of the pile.’ ‘You’re talented’, that kind of thing. But it was a bit like someone finishing with you. ‘I like you; it’s just I’m not in love with you.’ I emailed my friend and soon-to-be published author who’d read the first chapters of the book and loved them. (Believe me, she’s not a good liar). ‘Maybe it’s a bit crap,’ I said. ‘Because I just don’t get why no one’s taken it on.’

Then last week, my answer arrived. I emailed an agent who seemed to be looking for just my kind of book: a moral dilemma in an unusual setting. Fifteen minutes later, the agent requested the entire book then contacted me to say she was ‘really enjoying it.’ She hasn’t taken me on. However, she does want to read it again if I’m able to transform it.

Her email was a turning point because she was so honest, so detailed and so helpful. And boy, am I grateful because there’s not that many people who’ll be honest about your book. ‘That’s lovely, darling.’ (Your parents.) ‘You want me to read it again?!’ (Your husband.) ‘Oh it’s brilliant, just brilliant.’ (Your friends, who’re actually thinking, Jesus, that was hardgoing.)

So why has no one taken my little book on yet? Because it’s too blooming bleak. But it does have ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL.’ Yes, ‘ENORMOUS POTENTIAL!’

I’m mulling again, researching, thinking, planning, locating my funny bone. And then ding-ding, there will be a Round Four to this book. There’s just a small matter of fine-tuning my second book, oh, and earning a living. And as for firing your manuscript off to loads of agents at the same time, I wouldn’t bother. Do some careful research on what agents are looking for then send out to your chosen few, I reckon. If they give you some helpful feedback, act on it and send it out again.

* Post Script: I wrote a third book and this time, I got an agent and a publishing deal. My debut novel The Maid’s Room was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.

What NOT to do when a literary agent reads your book

Three years ago, I finished my first book. I entered it into a competition and although it didn’t win, it was among the final three on the shortlist. A literary agent liked it enough to meet me and ran through the things I should change. One thing I needed to do was big up one of my main characters.

I patted and shaped, tore the book to pieces and put it back together again. And in the middle of all this, I ended up on the shortlist of another major competition. Yes, I clenched my fists and jumped up and down. This is it: signing with an agent, here I come. Except, it didn’t quite go like that.

The agent enjoyed the first half of The Maid’s Room, but didn’t fall in love with it. Oh I admit it, I snivelled.

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But not for long. The next day, I started my second novel and spent three months bashing away at the keyboard until it was finished. (It’s now in the polishing stages.)

Something unexpected happened then. I started to think about my first book. I tried not to, I really did, but there it was – with its underground car parks, its jackfruit and its rambutans. There it was, with its swimming pools and shopping malls. I could see suddenly how everything in the story connected. I hadn’t seen it back then when I’d been so close to landing an agent. When she’d asked me to rewrite a third of the book and give that character new life, what I’d done was create someone flat and unbelievable, someone dull, not the feisty, clever, tactless woman she is now, not the woman with three dimensions instead of just two. Worse than that though, I’d written the whole damn soul out of the book.

Well, now, I’ve put the soul back in. I’m proud of it, really proud, in a way that I wasn’t before. Best make a start on sending it out then……

* Thirteen months after writing this post, literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.