I expect you’ve read stories before about writers who became famous overnight. They woke up one morning with this little idea that they might write a novel. So they dashed one off over the course of a few rainy weekends, found an agent on the Monday, were in an auction with ten top publishers by the Tuesday and banked their six- figure cheque on Friday just before they flew off to the States to discuss the screen-play.
This didn’t happen to me.
I wrote my first novel in 1998 – and sold it in August 2000. Nobody fought over me. Rather, they unplugged their phones, switched email addresses, took long sabbaticals on the other side of the world and instructed their assistants to tell me they’d died of a rare and sudden tropical disease.
My file marked: “AGENTS – those who’ve said NO” – bulged and broke its seams. After a year of jiffy bags thumping depressingly back on the doormat, I made a detailed analysis of the list of objections in order to tackle a well-considered re-write. These were the conclusions of my study:
The heroine was both weak and too assertive. She was unbelievably naive and much too sharp-edged. There was an abundance of her mother in evidence and also not enough. It had a strong beginning and a slow start. The ending was unusual and predictable. My favourite sub-plot needed to stay in and be taken out.
73% of agents thought I was amusing, 47% would be willing to read my second novel if I didn’t place this one, 18% suggested I try other agents. 1% offered to meet me for lunch. 100% were saying NO. And all the while, there were these nuggets of wisdom popping up in well-meaning articles that said how hard it was. (Oh really?) “It is easier to get a publisher than an agent” they cried. Do you believe that? Did I? Of course not! Do lottery winners swallow that junk about camels and eyes of needles?
But was it worth a try? Even though the same wisdom also says that if you don’t have an agent most publishers won’t even open the envelope? I tell you, by that time, chaining myself naked to their steps seemed a viable proposition, never mind a couple of pleading letters. I emailed the first one. “Have written marvellous novel,” I typed. “Would you like to read it?”
“Why not?” he replied two hours later. “Send it by all means..”
He didn’t buy it but he said all the things I wanted to hear. You have TALENT he said. A HIGHLY ORIGINAL VOICE! “Have you tried approaching an agent?” he asked me.
Not blooming likely, I replied. But I was already emailing the next publisher. She replied in six minutes. “Anyone that can make me laugh on a Monday morning gets my vote,” she wrote. “Please do let me see your manuscript.”
And three weeks later she bought it.
Well Hurrah and Thank God! Bring on the Champagne…
TEN GREAT THINGS ABOUT SELLING YOUR NOVEL
1. When people who’ve always hated you, stop you in the street and say: Hah-hah-hah- have-you-got-that-novel-published-yet? You can cry: YES!
2. You can put “author” in the occupation box on a form without the receptionist at the new Fitness Centre smiling sympathetically and imagining you’re being taken care of in the community.
3. You can stare out of the window meaningfully while your husband does the cooking AND stacks the dishwasher, and get away with it.
4. You can ask lots of nosy questions knowing that your friends will feel flattered that they’re obviously helping with the research for the next one, instead of being all pissed-off at how nosy you are.
5. You get to be interviewed (oh bliss).
6. You get to talk about yourself (see above), at length, without anyone rolling their eyes.
7. You have your photograph taken under the glare of the sort of 1000 watt bulb that irons out all the wrinkles and that scar on your chin where you had the boil.
8. Publishers buy you lunch instead of sending nastily-sized padded envelopes thumping back onto your doormat.
9. Agents are nice to you.
10. Your mum tells everyone in town you’re a genius.
TEN THINGS NOBODY TOLD YOU ABOUT SAME.
1. People cross the road to avoid you because your mum got to them first.
2. You practise making fourteen intelligent observations on today’s Book Industry only to find the interviewer only wrote down the bit about eating Kit-Kats.
3. Everybody you show your publicity photo to looks blank and then holds it up to the light to search for your warts. “It doesn’t look like you at all, does it?” they say brightly..
4. You spend lots of time in bookshops looking for where the “W”s are stacked. Answer – down by your feet, to the extreme right where the dust lurks and nobody goes.
5. You spend even more time reminding yourself that it didn’t do Fay Weldon any harm.
6. You find out that writing your second book is not as easy as you thought it would be.
7. Consequently your writer’s bottom gets much worse.
8. The neighbours don’t get as excited about seeing your book cover as you do. Even if you lay on drinks and cheese straws.
9. Time takes on a peculiar quality. Six months seems like six years when you’re waiting for your launch party to arrive. About six minutes when you remember that the second manuscript has to be delivered before then!
10. (Because even finding nine was a struggle) It feels fantastic! Imagine all the orgasms you’ve ever had and add a bottle of champagne, an egg-and-cress sandwich and a packet of crisps. It’s better than that!
I wrote the above a long, long time ago, as the song goes.
Now holding my first new novel in seven years in my hot hands (I’ve written two non-fiction books since then, in case you think I’ve been slacking) it really is still such a thrill. Underlaced by the old anxiety – suppose nobody buys it….