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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What It Feels Like To Hold Your Book in Your Hands For The First Time

It’s been a day to remember. The postman brought me my very first finished copy of my debut novel The Maid’s Room which will be published in hardback in just four weeks time.

I’m absolutely delighted with the beautiful cover, the font, the bit that says copyright Fiona Mitchell.

Watching my daughter’s reaction as she opened the book and realised I’d dedicated it to her was an absolute gift. I dedicated it to my husband too, mentioning all that I’d gone “through” to get the book published. ‘Oh God, you’ve spelt “through” wrong,’ he said. ‘What?’ I replied, horrified until the smile stretched across his face.

My first and only copy so far of my lovely book is now sitting on the windowsill with a bottle of Mr Sheen beside it.

But I am super happy. Excited. Feeling lucky. Holding my book is like holding almost seven years worth of hard work and determination in my hands. I’ve worked hard at many things in my life – pregnancy wasn’t a doddle for me, parking has all but defeated me. I pounded the pavements as a rookie reporter before enjoying years as a features writer. But this, this feels like the thing I’ve worked hardest at.

For all those writers plugging away at your keyboards, please know, it didn’t just happen for me. There were so many moments when I thought all hope was gone, but I got there in the end.

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.

How I Landed a Publishing Deal for My Novel

I’m bowled over that my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, but I’ve also been feeling reflective about the reasons why I started to write my book back in December 2010.

I was living in Singapore where more than 230,000 women work as domestic helpers. Many of them sleep in windowless cupboards and back then, they had no legal right to a day off.

As a freelance journalist, I began to research a feature about the women’s lives, but as I listened to their stories, another idea took hold. It was a story about all the different ways women can be mothers, even if they can’t give birth, even if they are separated from their children for years on end.

I went to the library, borrowed two beginners’ guides to writing novels and got to work. At that point, I don’t think I even knew what a literary agent did, and I certainly had no plans to get published.

It was only after I returned to the UK that the urge to get published arrived. I’d finished the book, so I might as well try, right?

And, oh, how I tried. I received piles of rejection letters (I really am going to count them one day); several requests from literary agents for the full manuscript that met with eventual no’s; I scrapped the book entirely then wrote it again from scratch. (And that’s not even mentioning the other novel that I wrote in between.)

Eventually, I employed a fantastic editor and ten days after reading my novel, literary agent Rowan Lawton agreed to represent me.

Together, we fine-tuned the book, and in October last year, Rowan began submitting it to publishers in the UK and overseas.

Days later, the book was pre-empted in Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain. I whooped a lot, laughed; I cracked open a bottle of pink champagne.

I tried to keep my hopes low, yet I willed a UK publisher to take on The Maid’s Room too. I closed my eyes at random times and whispered, ‘Please.’

Then Rowan told me that two UK publishers wanted to meet me. One of them was Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton. It was surreal drinking tea and talking about my book with her at the Hachette offices on Victoria Embankment. To my relief, days later, both publishing houses made me an offer, and I decided to sign with Hodder.

The excitement still hasn’t worn off. Nor has my reflective state of mind. I’ve been thinking hard about the defining moment that motivated me to write the book. And it was this:

I met a 48-year-old woman in Singapore who had been working as a maid for almost twenty years. She told me how she’d left her sons, then ten and eight, back in the Philippines to get a job as a domestic helper initially in Hong Kong. She cried as she confided the pain of being separated from her boys – she wasn’t to see them again for another three years. Then almost in passing, the woman mentioned how her first employer had made her sleep under the dining room table at night.

Sure, I needed a hefty dose of luck to get my book published, but it was this woman’s story that set The Maid’s Room in motion and made me persevere.

Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.

What It’s Like to Attend a Writing Masterclass

Paul McVeigh’s fantastic blog for writers has wrenched me out of the downest of days, so when Word Factory announced he was giving a Masterclass at Waterstones Piccadilly, I signed up.

About 30 people listened as The Good Son author talked about the challenges of getting your book on the shelves and helping it into the hands of readers. His honesty was refreshing, and at times hilarious too.

‘“What’s your book about?” It’s the cringiest question in the world.’ Paul proceeded to do a pretty good impression of most writers when they’re asked that question. Bumbling, boring on about themes, eyes scraping the ceiling in search of the right words, five minutes of waffle then the ensuing painful silence. Clearly, we all related to this because the room was loud with laughter.

Best to have your tagline ready for when people ask then. In fact, keep it in mind while you’re writing the book.

Write down what your character’s goal is and what’s preventing her from achieving her goal then put this in the header and footer of your manuscript to encourage you not to stray.

‘Every sentence should further the plot or enhance character. If it doesn’t do this, it shouldn’t be in there,’ said Paul. And when the character reaches her goal, ‘it should be a complex victory. There should always be a price to pay.’

Paul spent the second half of the three-hour session talking about how to publicise your book before it hits the shelves. Get involved, he said. Help out at writing events. Cultivate relationships with writers and other organisations too. Think about what angles your book has and write blog posts accordingly, so that you have a stock of good quality stuff ready to go for when the time comes.

I am easily distracted, but not once did I stop listening to Polari-Prize-winning Paul who is dynamic and witty. And during the breaks I enjoyed talking to some of the other writers. It was particularly special to meet my Twitter friend, Word Factory apprentice writer Emily Devane for the first time.

The class was well worth the money. I came away with lots to think about, including this: ‘All writers have an arrogance. You must have because you think you’ve got something important to say.’ Blimey – that’s an idea to hold on to, especially if another rejection email happens to plop into your inbox today…..

Digging Deep for the Second Draft #novel #writing

This next bit’s going to be painful, but it’s my favourite part. I’ve written the first draft of my novel, and am about to embark on my second.

This is when the characters will take shape, but for that to happen, I’m going to have to get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling. Flinging yourself over a six-foot-high wall to save someone’s life? I’m in. Finding out your husband’s told you a huge lie? Yep – here I come.

Switch on FaceTime by mistake in the middle of this draft and I’ll see my own brow knitted, or my lip curled into a snarl. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s essential.

This is method acting for writers. I’m going to be a 43-year-old woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, an Italian man who’s a cross between Benicio del Toro and my friend’s husband, and an elderly man paralysed down his left side.

I’m going to have to dig deep. Imagination, yes; a bad mood, most probably; yet another frown line, you bet. And masses of research.

This time around I’ll be rewriting and editing with this word on replay: Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.

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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How to Start Writing a Novel – The First Steps to a First Draft

I’m three weeks into writing my new novel. It had been so long since I wrote a first draft that I’d forgotten just how difficult it is.

For starters, there was blank page syndrome. That sickly feeling when you see your computer lurking on your desk, and all those things you do to avoid sitting in front of it. Gardening in sub-zero temperatures anyone?

My first few paragraphs didn’t have an easy birth, beset by distractions. Copious cups of tea were made. Toast was burnt. And oh, what the hell, just one more look at my emails.

Then, falteringly, somehow I hit 31,000 words. 31,000 rough words that I wouldn’t want anyone to read just yet. But still….

For me – starting is the hardest part. And in starting, it all came back to me. So here are three steps that have kept me on the straight and narrow and stopped me staring aimlessly into space.

Step One: Make a Plan then Make Another One

I scribbled a rough plan of the whole book before I started to write. Once I’d started, the story began to take its own shape, so I tore up my plan and wrote a new one, detailing the dramatic peaks of the story and the development of my characters. If I was an organised kind of person, I’d pin this new plan to the wall, but every time I start writing again, there’s a snowstorm of papers as I riffle through the mounds to find it. (Note to self – buy some Blu Tack.

Step Two: Research then Research Some More

I did a lot of research before I started to write -newspaper cuttings, lectures, speaking to an in-the-know friend. And I’ve punctuated my writing with doing yet more research. Reading about the subject at the centre  of my novel is helping to make the writing more authentic. It informs character development and sets off new ideas too.

Step Three: Write one Character at a Time then Rewrite and Repeat

My novel has two points of view, so I’ve started by writing one character in her entirety. That way, I might get more of a handle on her essence, on how she reacts to things, the way she speaks. She started off as a Victoria, transformed into a Kate and now she’s someone else entirely. Once I’ve finished writing her, I’ll rewrite her all over again hopefully turning her into a really strong character. Next it’ll be over to my second character. After that, I’ll start piecing their narratives together and work on pace.

Right, I’m going back in…..