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.
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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.

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’d 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.

Meet the Writer: Fiona Mitchell

So enjoyed being interviewed by Grab the Lapels this week:

Grab the Lapels

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Fiona Mitchell is an author and journalist. She is the winner of the 2015 Frome Short Story Competition and has work published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology for the second year running. She is the author of the blog Writing Mad. All links below take you to various posts on Writing Mad. You can also socialize with Fiona on Twitter and Facebook.

In one of your blog posts you mention writing many drafts—five, in fact—as the result of input from others. Do you ever get to the point when you feel like the novel isn’t even yours anymore?

Now I’ve gotten to the stage where I feel my book The Maid’s Room is the very best it can be. I recently opened up my first draft and took a look. There is a hell of a lot of waffle in it and the plot goes off on…

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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, grumpy-mood-inducing time, so here’s 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 eight 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 by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.

 

 

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 will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.