In 2010, the formidably efficient Susan Franklin rang the bell at the Festival of Writing and it was my turn to pitch my novel, The Class Ceiling, to an agent. An agent! A proper literary agent with the power to make my dreams come true. So the only reasonable thing to do was shake like a leaf and talk so fast that the poor man was probably wondering at what point passing me a paper bag would become an excellent idea. About five minutes into my precious ten minutes of pitch time, I managed to get my nerves under control and started to get a grip on the fact that the man in front of me wasn’t actually god – close, but not the man himself – and it was OK to have an intelligent debate with him, even ask a question.
I’d love to say at this point that he waved my pages and pronounced them a masterpiece. Sadly, not even close. However, the same day, I went through it all again with a different agent who asked to see the full manuscript. A small step towards realizing that it’s a subjective business, a giant leap in demystifying the whole ‘agents are alien beings’ process.
In my naivety, and desire to find representation, I probably forgot to listen to the actual feedback. As it turned out, I had the next three years plus the aide-memoire of an inbox full of rejections to help me grasp that particular lesson. It quickly became clear that sticking my fingers in my ears and singing every time an agent or book doctor offered a constructive comment wouldn’t improve my chances of publication.
In fact, the importance of ‘hearing’ feedback was highlighted to me after the Festival of Writing in 2011. After failing to get an agent for The Class Ceiling, I wrote The Divorce Domino, which won first prize at the festival for the opening line, ‘I was wearing the wrong bra for sitting in a police cell.’ Surely, surely, agents and publication were a mere phone call away? A manuscript critique was my prize and I waited for the ‘fit for publication’ verdict to come in. Which was, in fact, nine pages of ‘fixes’, followed by several days sitting huffily on the sofa and a suggestion from the husband that I give up this writing lark. However, in the end, I had to face the fact that most of the observations were spot on.
Even revised until I could recite The Divorce Domino backwards, agents were not bursting forth out of the woodwork. But the one thing I continued to do was network. I went to hear other writers speak and introduced myself when I bought their books. I started to tell authors on Twitter how much I enjoyed their writing and followed agents I liked the look of – cyberly rather than in real life, obviously… I attended festivals and the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) parties. After several events hiding behind pillars, I occasionally plucked up courage to talk to agents and eventually realised that they quite liked to be asked, ‘How’s your day been?’ rather than flattened by a book pitch. I couldn’t concentrate on the answer in case they asked me what I was writing, but I still asked the question.
In the end, it was the networking that paid off. I met Helen Bolton, an editor at Avon, HarperCollins, at an RNA party and just chatted about one of her authors without discussing my work at all. Afterwards, I did a long shot to end all long shots and sent her the first five chapters of The Class Ceiling (which I had, by now, self-published reasonably successfully). She came back to me to ask for the rest, plus my next book. In the meantime, I approached agents I liked. Clare Wallace from Darley Anderson, whom I had also met at the RNA party, offered me representation one afternoon last August. When I got home, I had a two-book deal in my inbox from Helen. So…five years with nothing then an agent and a book deal on the same day. The Class Ceiling will be published as The School Gate Survival Guide this summer.
I leave you with this. However shy you are or however awkward you feel about putting your writing ‘out there’, my husband was absolutely right: you won’t sell your book sitting at the kitchen table. Buy yourself a ticket to the Festival of Writing now!
P.S I’ll be there with my lovely agent, Clare Wallace, for our Ask Us Anything panel – but if you see me floating about, do come and speak to me, I’d be delighted to meet you. Or come and find me on Twitter or Facebook.