So in the summer of 2014 I had an 88,000-word first draft. And I was pretty pleased with it! But nobody in the history of everything has subbed an untouched first draft, right? So here’s what I did next, to get me to the point of querying – a journey that took eight months.
i. I put Draft #1 in a drawer* for two months. You need distance to give you a critical perspective on your manuscript. Plus, having written it in every spare minute, I had a massive life backlog to clear: job, friends and family, paperwork, etc. I needed to work through all that before I’d have a clear head to write with.
ii. Two months later, in September 2014, I went on holiday. It was a long sea voyage by mailboat, and I was finally in the mood to approach my manuscript as a reader rather than as its writer. When I re-read it, I was relieved to find I enjoyed it! I felt intuitively that this story would be worth putting more work into, in a way that I’d sensed Novel #1 was not. I began tidying it up and making light revisions. Voila, Draft #2!
iii. For the next step, I had a trick up my sleeve. The amazing UK writing community sometimes holds online auctions to raise money for disaster relief. Donated lots include everything from signed books to swanky lunch-dates with publishers. During one of these auctions, I had bid on a manuscript critique from a junior editor at fabulous UK publisher Canongate. I’d intended it to be for the 100k Viking novel, but Draft #2 was now my passion project. I sent it off to the editor, and waited.
OTHER OPTIONS: If I’d not had this opportunity, I would have hired a professional editor. I’d always recommend this and it need not be expensive, though the best editors are worth every penny. If you don’t have the financial resources there are other alternatives: feedback from a strong critique partner, or finding an experienced mentor through #pitchwars, the WoMentoring project, or similar.
iv. The edits came back several months later, in the form of a letter. (These are what we call ‘developmental edits’, about broad points of plot and characterisation, not ‘line edits’, which are about language and details.) The letter was thorough, insightful and fabulously encouraging. But I read it and thought ‘I’m not sure I agree with every suggestion – so what do I do next?’ It can be difficult, the first time you allow other people’s opinions to have an impact on your writing. But it’s something you’ll need to get used to if you really want to be published. There’s a reason why the people that buy manuscripts for publishing houses are called ‘editors’!
v. So I let it sink in for a month. I allowed the editor’s suggestions to mesh with my vision of the book. At the end of that process, I could see how many of them would improve my story. Edits aren’t about another person telling you what to do to your book, and you simply obeying. It’s about being open to possibilities and suggestions. You have to believe that every edit you implement will make the story stronger. If you don’t – don’t do it!
vi. Those rewrites took about three months, and produced Draft #3. I was pretty darn happy with it. But was it good enough to query? There was only one way to find out: let a real, live agent see the manuscript. By now, it was March 2015. Every year in April, London Book Fair hits town, and recently they’ve laid on more events for authors. In 2015, these included an Agent 1-2-1. You had to submit a synopsis and brief pitch to the organisers. Three days later, I heard back: I’d been selected to meet an agent, and needed to send in the first chapter of my book. I was thrilled! The agent I was meeting was from a solid agency and I liked his profile. Would he like my book?
OTHER OPTIONS: You don’t need to attend a global book fair! Agent 1-2-1s are now a common part of book festivals, or courses run by the likes of Writers&Artists. Alternatively, use Twitter to try snagging an agent’s attention in #pitmad or keeping an eye out for #MSWL manuscript wish-list. Think of this process as testing the waters: finding out more about how agents work and what they’re looking for. It may also clarify any uncertainties you have – eg. is your book YA or adult. It’s not always a good idea to target your dream agent with your very first query, in case your pitch package isn’t quite ready.
vii. After turning up ridiculously early, and wiping sweaty hands down my dress far too many times to be hygienic, I sat down for my 1-2-1. And it was delightful. The agent didn’t toss me any hard questions – he looked rather exhausted, having come off the back of several days of LBF madness. We spoke a little about my inspiration, and the full arc of the story (your manuscript had to be complete to apply). At the end of the meeting he asked me to send me the whole thing. I did a little airpunch and happy-dance. As one does.
Check back soon for the next part, Getting an agent and a deal.
* This is an entirely metaphysical drawer. I mean ‘I didn’t click the icon on my desktop.’