My Writing Journey 1: How I got my Literary Agent
The article below appeared previously on Jericho Writers in 2021
The writing bug first bit as a teenager when I entered a sixth-form essay competition run by Barclays Bank and shocked myself by winning a runner’s up prize. Heady stuff! But the real surprise was how much fun telling a story could be when I wasn’t being told what to write. Anyway, I was now sold on a career as a novelist and the only sensible step was to study English Literature at university… although unfortunately, after three years of Dickens, Wordsworth and the major works of Shakespeare, I was no nearer to being published.
My biggest hurdle was thinking I knew everything just because I’d read a few novels. I spent years on a lovely story titled The English Witch – a sort of Sabrina meets Harry Potter (all before J.K. Rowling put pen to paper) set in the 1930s – that I couldn’t interest agents in, although my friends were generous. ‘Better than Tolkien’, one told me, although that isn’t as great as it sounds because he was no fan of the great man.
After The English Witch, I wrote an historical novel about a piano-playing German girl and with it made my first sensible decision – I commissioned editorial feedback. Nervous as to what I was paying for, I opted for Jericho Writers (Writers’ Workshop as it was then) on the basis that the offer included a follow up ‘conversation’, a guarantee in effect that the editor would have to do a half-decent job. In the event I got lucky and was allocated the truly excellent Liz Garner, who wrote me several extensive assessments, each followed up by a long phone call.
I took my now much-improved piano-playing German girl manuscript to their York Festival of Writing but failed to interest my chosen agents in it. However, one of these agents was the fantastic Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson, who was eventually to sign me, so not all would be lost, although of course I could not know that at the time.
By now fed up with historical fiction, I was willing to do almost anything to succeed and turned my hand to a contemporary thriller set in Finland.
The process of leaving my comfort zone was like casting off heavy boots and this book – The Butterfly Hunt, was my best work to date. Three of the first four agents I queried (including Joanna) requested the whole manuscript but the feedback I received was consistent, that although the first third worked, I needed to rewrite the rest. Which unfortunately was easier said than done! I think the lesson I learned is that when you change significant elements of a carefully structured plot, you can end up twisting it completely out of shape and end up with less than what you had before.
In early 2018 I started on The Actuality, a further genre shift, this time into speculative fiction. The Actuality is set a hundred years in the future and could be best described as a cautionary tale of friendship, love and advanced bioengineering.
My approach to writing The Actuality came from my experience on previous projects. My method has become to first plan out an overall structure, getting the main beats in place and when I’m happy with all of that, I dive in to see how I do. If this appears to work, I merely keep writing, filling in the plot details and editing chapters as I go, and if all continues to go well, in four or five months I have a reasonable first draft. That’s the plan anyway, but in the case of The Actuality it wasn’t so simple.
In fact it was a massive struggle and this was because I grew to believe that the story of an AI living with her ‘husband’ at the top of a Thames-side high-rise complete with rooftop garden was almost certainly unpublishable. In the end, after rushing through the last couple of sections, I did make it to the finish line, but the word count barely scraped 62,000. Anxious as to what I had created, I only sent it to Joanna, hoping I could trust her not to laugh. To be honest, if she had, I would have shelved it. Instead, amazingly, she actually liked it, and liked it enough to chat about it and encourage me to expand it to a commercial length. Confidence regained, this I did, adding 18,000 words, and shortly after that in October 2018, she took me on!
Last Piece Of Advice
I think, if I was passing on any advice, it would be three things. Number One (and I think most readers will have worked it out for themselves by now) – Seek Professional Advice, whether that is through courses, editorial assessments or reading up on the craft – don’t spend years thinking you know everything. Two – Escape Your Comfort Zone – perhaps try a completely different genre, you can always go back, you never know you may not want to. And Number Three – Don’t Be Afraid of Trying Something a Bit Different, if that’s what you fancy – different will stand you out from the crowd if nothing else and if there is passion behind it, that will make a huge difference too.