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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How Friendship Helps You Write Books

A dear friend gave this canvas to me last week. It is a painting of the cover of my novel, The Maid’s Room. My friend, Paola, didn’t just pop down to Snappy Snaps and copy the cover onto a canvas, she took weeks to paint it, and what’s even more remarkable is that she’s never painted a canvas before.

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She watched YouTube videos on how to paint a canvas; she made regular visits to an art shop to match each of the cover’s colours; and she repainted parts numerous times to get the picture exactly right. It’s an extraordinary gift and a symbol of true friendship.

It was thanks to my friends that I carried on writing my first book, even when trying to get published seemed like a fool’s errand. My friends listened to me complain and snivel as rejection after rejection plopped into my email inbox. My friends made me laugh. They kept on regaling me with their own stories, and they made their way into my books, my friends – funny moments they shared, their burning questions about the state of the world, their interactions with people.

The Maid’s Room and my next book called The Swap, which is published in April next year, both ask the question, what is family? – if it’s broken, if it’s small, if it doesn’t exist at all. Sometimes people tilt their heads and look sorry for me when I tell them I don’t have any siblings – my daughter doesn’t either – but for me, friends are family. They’re the ones that connect, that get you, and they can inspire you to do all sorts of things you thought you might not be capable of.

So here’s to discovering talents you didn’t know you had, to art, and to books, and to friendship. Oh, and now seems like just the right time to stop faffing around and write the acknowledgements page for my next book.

5 Types Of Rejection Letters And What You Can Learn From Them

On submission? Then you’re either roller coasting upwards, or plummeting down; maybe though you’ve only just begun.

It still hurts to look at my fat folder of rejection letters, formerly known as ‘The Folder of Doom’, but I can’t bring myself to delete any of them. They’re badges of honour, aren’t they? Look at this pile, and yet still I carried on and on and . . . 

Unwelcome though these missives were, they did contain some upsides though. Honest. Here’s what:

1. The Encouraging Rejection Letter

‘You write vividly, well.’ This was my first ever rejection letter dated 21 January 2013. It was for a novel called Out of The Cupboard – which was a pretentious precursor to The Maid’s Room. If an agent was bothering to be complimentary, then perhaps I was onto something, I thought. I chose to ignore every iota of advice that letter contained – ‘There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s taking too long to focus.’ I should have paused, thought deeply about what the agent was saying. Instead, I kept sending out the book regardless. Even if you don’t take all the advice an agent gives you, it’s probably worth taking note.

2. The Bog-Standard Rejection Letter

The standard letter where the agent’s assistant has typed your name over somebody else’s – ‘I’m going to pass’, ‘I didn’t fall in love’ – will have you tutting/swearing/crying into a cushion depending on how many times you’ve received such a response. Well, grind my ego under the sole of your sandal, why don’t you? Know this: there may well be a next time. Several of these bog-standard replies turned into requests for a full when I sent the agents a book that was more evolved than my first offering.

3. The Request for a Full (Followed by a No-Thanks) Letter

This will get your excited hands shaking over your keyboard, adding superfluous commas everywhere, and doing frenzied spell checks. It’s a moment to be celebrated because this could be the one. And if it isn’t, all is not lost. This is an opportunity to get feedback. Every agent that requested a full from me (bar one – see point 4) has given me invaluable feedback which helped me to improve my writing.

4. The Absent Rejection Letter

This is when the agent requests your full manuscript then doesn’t even bother replying. Ever. It’s happened to a couple of writers I know, and it’s happened to me as well. It’s incredibly disappointing, then relief descends. I lose my keys on a daily basis; I shove my post into a pile and riffle through it, papers flying, when I need to find something. So does someone as disorganised as me want an agent who doesn’t even reply to represent me? No, I do not.

5. The Rip your Novel Apart Rejection Letter

One agent requested my whole book then listed the things she loathed about it. Her email might have mentioned the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘talent’, but it also said my ‘story was too bleak’ and that one of my characters was ‘too wet’. It was my face that was wet after reading that. And after I mopped up my tears, I peppered the air with swear words. It was my lowest point, but it was also a turning point because it was then that I decided to set that novel aside. I took my central idea and wrote a new novel, the one that eventually landed me an agent and a publishing deal.

If a rejection letter happens to land in your inbox today, chances are you’re going to feel horrible. But you’re in this for the long haul, so use anything these letters tell you to make your writing stronger. Get angry and use that anger to power you on.

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.

What It Was Like to Give my First Author Talk

Today I gave a talk to writers in Singapore via FaceTime and surprisingly, for someone who claims not to like public speaking all that much, I enjoyed it.

Hooking up via a wonky Skype connection, then reverting to FaceTime, there were about fourteen writers in the room making notes while I talked about the long route from starting my very first novel to landing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Publication of The Maid’s Room is now only six weeks away and I can’t wait.

Hopefully I managed to relay some tips that the writers will find useful. The word ‘perseverance’ was uttered more than once.

I took me three years, three months and 29 days from receiving my first agent rejection letter to getting representation from my lovely agent Rowan Lawton. During that time I became an expert in rejection, so a large part of my talk was dedicated to surviving the submissions process.

My top survival tips include:

  • Logging onto Paul McVeigh’s brilliant website to keep you going. There were so many times I snivelled over my keyboard as I read one of the author interviews featured to make myself feel just that little bit better about everything.
  • Entering writing competitions. Being shortlisted in the Bristol Short Story Prize for the very first time buoyed me up. Some of the judges and authors who read my story liked my work and encouraged me to keep writing.
  • Watching TED Talks. On the days I felt particularly low, I’d watched a Ted Talk. There’s so much to inspire you here, from writers talking about books, to people who’ve overcome enormous obstacles to achieve their personal bests.
  • Using the anger. I did quite a bit of ranting about rejection, but then somehow I managed to turn that emotion into energy. Try it – you might just end up writing your soul onto the page.

Preparing this talk was a real eye-opener for me. It took quite a few hours to plan what I wanted to say, so a big shout-out to inspirational teachers everywhere. I had no idea teaching involved so much hard graft.

But the biggest revelation for me was just how much I loved doing a spot of public speaking – hopefully I’ll remember that in future.

Huge thank you to author Alice Clark-Platts for inviting me to speak, and the Singapore Writers’ Group, thanks for listening.

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.

Why do we keep writing?

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why do we write?

These are questions often asked with a roll of eyes and a deranged laugh. Sometimes they’re a response to disappointment or routes blocked. And God knows, there are many of them when it comes to writing.

So just why are we doing this when there are other more worthwhile tasks or pastimes we could be undertaking? Like making a start on the dandelions colonising our lawns….

Gardening works for my mum – her back garden is awash with colour and shape, and in darker times when she hasn’t been able to get outside, it’s a thing of beauty that reaches through the glass and whispers, ‘This is something good.’ Pink roses thread their way over an archway in the corner. There’s an old butler sink crammed with purple hyacinths. Only friends and family get to see it, an occasional neighbour sticking their nose over the fence. It’s never been sent out into the world by way of competition or through Facebook snaps. My mum doesn’t need to show off her garden to enjoy it, she just does.

But that’s not the way I feel about writing. I write to be read. Yes, there’s a part of me that’s pleased when I’ve written a heart-tugging line or a sentence with some kind of rhythm. But really, I’m writing so that someone else can read my work, feel my words. I’m not talking compliments, I’m talking connection. Like a lock of eyes or a certain conversation. The way my mum once reached her hand out and touched the arm of a crying stranger in a hospital elevator. They looked at each other, the woman and my mum. No one spoke, but for a few brief seconds there was no one there but them.

If a friend or a stranger, reads one of my stories or longer works and says, ‘God, but that was good.’ or ‘That character’s really stayed with me,’ I’ve done what I set out to do.

Of course, as in life, we can’t always connect. Words can miss their mark. The reader and writer might clear their throats and cough some withering laughter into the rolling tumbleweed. There might be an honest, ‘I didn’t really get it,’ but more likely no one will mention it at all.  And that’s just fine.

When readers feel that place you drew with your words though – the orange that the prisoner refused to eat because it gave such colour to the blank cell; the way the grandmother with brittle bones picked up her granddaughter and swung her around and around; the moment when a stranger laid a hand on someone in deep grief – well, that’s why I keep on with this tangle of upset and joy we call writing.

Writers: Why rejection is good for you

A rejection letter ruins my day. And the closer I seem to get to finding an agent, the more those letters sting.

But rejection has an unexpected edge. It makes your work better.

Every time I get a rejection from a literary agent, I’m crumpled. The words, It’s not fair! kick through my head in a silent, red-faced tantrum. I find it hard to lift a smile. Everything seems heavy.

But my mope always sends me back to the screen. How can I make this thing sing? I try again.

Rejection shakes your work up; it fine-tunes it. It reimagines and reshapes things. It helps you create something a hundred times better than what’s been given the big thumbs down.

But God does it hurt.

There’s a world of difference between the amateur book that I first submitted three years ago. The story is different, the title too. Many darlings have been murdered, but not forgotten. All that telling rather than showing has been rooted out and shoved onto the slag heap.

But it was only by going back to that really rather rubbish book and sending it out again, that it got a new life.

A rejection letter from a literary agent has led me to a brilliant editor and mentor who’s helped me write a book with all the things that were missing from that first attempt. Pace, tension, character arcs – things I hadn’t even realised weren’t there. It was only by sending out my book again and getting rejected over and over that I found her.

She (and me) thinks my book is just about ready – one more scene to write, two more proofreads and then ping – I’m hoping that this book might earn itself a new R word. Representation.

* Post-script – I found representation just a few weeks after I wrote this blog post, and my novel The Maid’s Room has been published by Hodder & Stoughton.

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

What NOT to Do When A Literary Agent asks for your Whole Novel

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Who wouldn’t be excited when a literary agent asks for a full manuscript? It’s likely to send you into a proof-reading frenzy (comma overdose,,,,,) your fingers wobbling over the keyboard as you finally hit Send. Then just after you do, you’ll spot a typo.

Things go oh-so-quiet after all that frenetic activity. And you wait, your imagination looping UPthe next time the phone rings, it’ll be her – and then whoosh – DOWNIf she rejects me, I’m never going to get another chance like this, never.

It’s going to be a nail-chewing, neck-tensing, grump-inducing time, so here are some tips:

1. Don’t start monitoring the literary agent.

Googling her name, looking up other people who she’s offered representation to. Sound familiar? Force yourself to look away from the screen, and stop logging onto Twitter every five minutes to see if she’s posted. Put your energy into starting something new. A short story. A new novel. Read or collect ideas for future work.

2. Don’t bombard the agent with emails.

Coo-ee, just wondering how you’re getting on with The Masterpiece? Then two days later: Me again. And, don’t phone. That’s the equivalent of repeatedly ding-donging someone’s doorbell when all the lights are on, but no one’s opening up. Reading a full takes time. Some agents take about three months to reply to an initial submission of three chapters and a synopsis, so how long is it going to take to read your 90,000 words? A few weeks ago I read an account by a published author that went something like this. I wrote to a literary agent and 24 hours later she offered me representation. Two days after that, she negotiated me a three book deal with Penguin. I lay my head on the desk and almost muttered the words, I’m unworthy. I ate a scone instead. Thing is, it doesn’t happen like that for most writers. Exercise patience, distract yourself, keep writing. Agents who’ve requested a full can take anything from one month to six to reply.

3. If an agent who requested a full hasn’t replied after three months, do email and say you’d welcome some feedback.

Sometimes when an agent requests a full they don’t reply at all. Yep, this happened to me with an early version of my first book. It’s happened to other writers I know too. Try not to take it personally, it’s more of a reflection on the agent than on your writing. So there!

4.When the agent turns your book down with feedback, don’t do anything apart from flaring your nostrils and swearing.

Don’t bash out an instant reply. ‘Thanks for your patronising comments, but…’ Step away. Go for a run. Punch that pillow. A rejection usually comes with pointers. ‘The narrative wasn’t taut enough,’ for instance. ‘The plot lost direction halfway through.’ File the email somewhere other than in your inbox, so it’s not staring out at you for the next few miserable mornings as your damp cornflakes slap onto your keyboard. When you’ve calmed down, read the email again, process it and adjust your manuscript accordingly. Send it to an editor too – you might think that’s a waste of money, but the fact that anyone has requested your full means that there’s some magic to it. An editor could be just the genie you need.

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5. When the reply doesn’t contain any feedback, write back saying you’d welcome some.

Most agents will be more than happy to give you their thoughts. Don’t expect compliments. Do expect constructive criticism.

6. When an agent reads a full, and asks for a second read once you’ve made changes, definitely send it back to her.

Once you’ve made changes, you could send out more submissions too – to up to six agents at a time – after all, by the time your MS has risen to the top of the slush pile, your almost-agent might have signed or rejected you anyway. Alternatively, you could stop sending your book out. But remember, this is limbo land – an exciting yet anxiety-ridden place. Do whatever feels right for you. But whatever you do, eat scones, don’t cyber-stalk, and keep writing.

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton.