2009 feels like an awfully long time ago. Five years, to be precise. But that’s where it all started.
My year went something like this: redundancy, tears, Inkwell writing course, excitement, blog, freelancing, first novel, first agent, excitement, rejection from publishers, tears, repeat. It was, as they say, emotional.
But it was also important, because although I couldn’t see it and stubbornly refused to acknowledge it at the time, all those experiences (good, bad, hideous) were helping me to learn my craft, to understand what it felt like to write a novel (it turns out that 100,000 words is A LOT of words) and to discover what I really wanted to write and how to go about writing it. I was getting somewhere in this quest of mine to be a published author. It just didn’t feel like it.
2010 followed a similar pattern to 2009, with perhaps a few more tears.
Fast forward to March, 2011 and progress. I signed with a new agent (hooray). I completed my second novel (hooray) and then I had a light bulb moment. Titanic. I wanted to write a novel set around Titanic. I’d said years ago that I wanted to write a novel set around Titanic. I was excited. Very excited. Could I? Would I? Should I?
By the end of 2011 The Girl Who Came Home was written and submitted to a couple of Irish publishers with a cautionary note from my agent that since 2012 would be the centenary anniversary of the Titanic disaster, most publisher’s ‘Titanic’ lists would probably be full. And guess what. Rejections arrived. Nice rejections, but rejections all the same. Cue more tears.
BUT, all was not lost.
Because the Titanic centenary was looming in April 2012, my agent (and friends and family) suggested that I might consider self-publishing. Self-publish? But I don’t want to self-publish, I want a traditional deal. But I don’t know how to self-publish, I want a traditional deal. There were lots of buts.
In March 2012, three years after I’d started out on this new writing path of mine, I took the plunge. I self-published The Girl Who Came Home on Kindle. It was an exciting, terrifying, strangely un-ceremonial experience. There was no launch. No champagne. No confetti. Just a quiet click of a button that said PUBLISH and off she went.
And then things got serious. After offering the book as a free download for a day at the end of March, the book shot up the Kindle charts. The following day, people started to buy the book. Lots of people started to buy the book. My sales figures took a remarkable leap. 2012 was a good year!
Fast forward to Jan 2013. My new novel Daughters of the Flowers (my fourth novel in total) had been submitted to publishers in the UK and Ireland. It got lots of positive feedback and even a comment from one publisher that they would have been very interested, but had just bought something similar the previous week (groan). Ultimately, I got – you guessed it – the dreaded rejections. And to top it all off, I parted company with my agent.
So, I started 2013 agentless, with a bestselling ebook and a great new novel which nobody wanted to publish. I started to think that my time might be better spent sorting out the hot press and the kitchen cupboards.
Being a stubborn Taurean (and from Yorkshire), I refused to give up and took the road less travelled. I started to research and write my next novel and also started to research new agents who might be interested in me. Five submissions, five polite declines of representation later and those kitchen cupboards were still staring at me.
And then …
along came May 2013. My birthday month – surely something good was going to happen. The Girl had been back up the Kindle rankings for Historical Fiction after featuring as part of a Kindle Daily Deal. The book was being noticed again and being read by lots of people, including (deep breath) two New York based agents who contacted me, completely out of the blue and within a week of each other. Both loved The Girl Who Came Home and both were interested in representing me.
*collapses on the floor*
Lots of excitement and heart palpitations later, in mid-May I signed with Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management. By early June, I had my first offer of publication and in mid-June my two novels (The Girl Who Came Home and Daughters of the Flowers) went to auction and were bought by William Morrow/HarperCollins.
After so many false starts, dashed hopes, ups and downs, round and rounds, nearlys and not quites, the dream had finally – FINALLY – come true. I was no longer chasing. I was no longer terminally waiting to hear from someone, somewhere about something. I was no longer worrying and doubting. I was a writer.
And ……………………….. relax.
So, what’s changed?
A lot. The shift from being self-published to working with a publisher has been quite something. Self-publishing was a great experience and, without a doubt, the last stepping stone to the traditional deal. I’m glad I took the leap and I’d encourage other writers to consider it as an option, as a way to get their writing out there. That said, as another self-published to traditionally published author, Mel Sherratt, says: ‘there’s a lot of ‘self’ in self-publishing.’ There really is. Imagine attempting Everest without a Sherpa. Imagine Maverick without Goose. Imagine Niall Horan without the rest of the 1D boys. Everyone thrives with a partner, with a team behind them, and that was what I wanted too.
Getting a publishing deal is about so much more than the validation and the ability to change your Twitter profile. It’s about people in the business being invested in your writing – financially and emotionally. It’s about professional editors, copy editors and proof readers, cover designers and publicists – an entire team – really getting behind you and your book. They get excited when you get excited. They share the experience with you. Through working with my editor and publishers, I’ve also learnt so much about my writing and the mechanics of putting a book ‘out there’. In short, it has been everything I’d imagined it would be – and so much more.
Those five years of dreaming still feel like an awfully long time. There were many points when it all felt improbable – impossible even – but slowly, slowly things turned around for me. While I feel extremely lucky to be doing a job I love so much, I still don’t consider myself to have ‘got there’ – wherever ‘there’ is. I am very conscious of the fact that when my book hits the shops, it is very much a beginning. And like every good book, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
‘Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.’ Louisa May Alcott
Ten things I’ve learned during my five years of dreaming
- First drafts are exactly that. What I may have fooled myself into believing was the finished thing was far, far from finished. It is amazing how much a book can change and improve through rewrites, constructive feedback and the eagle eye of a copyeditor.
- Rejection and knock backs are an important part of the process of becoming a published writer. They might make you cry like a girl (especially if you are a girl), but they can also make you want to prove people wrong, write better and become a little more objective about everything. Take them on the chin and get back to the desk.
- Open your own doors. Go to writing workshops, go to book launches, connect with other writers, contribute to writing websites and blogs – including your own. You just never know when one of those opportunities will lead to something quite remarkable and unexpected.
- Even when you get published, you will still agonise over your words and doubt the sense of every new book you set out to write.
- Be brave. Tackle the subjects, people, issues and events which really interest you. Some people might write what they know, but I’m a firm believer in writing what I love and want to know. As Toni Morrison once said, ‘I wrote my first book because I wanted to read it.’ In The Girl Who Came Home and Daughters of the Flowers, I cover subjects as diverse as the world’s most famous ship and the life of orphaned flower sellers in Victorian London. In my third book, I am in seventeenth century England during the Civil Wars. From someone who started out writing about her own children and wrote her first novel (now hidden under the bed) about three women on holiday in Venice, this is quite a leap!
- There is no magic formula. You might self-publish a book. It might go on to sell heaps and be very successful. This does not mean that you will land a publishing deal overnight, or retain your agent. It might, in fact, take a whole year of Kindle sales, more rejections, a new agent and another 100,000 word novel to finally get where you want to be.
- Take nothing for granted. You are only as good as your last book. Work really, really hard and write the best book you can write. Every time.
- Be proud of yourself when writing success, in any form, comes your way. Give yourself a pat on the back and say ‘yes’ when asked if you’d like cream on your gingerbread latte.
- Organise yourself. Keep different versions of your WIP clearly labelled. If you delete great chunks of text, keep them in a separate document – you just might find a place for a small nugget of something in there. Keep track of articles and blog posts you write. Get your author bio written and a decent photo taken. Think of these things as the ladder, paint and brushes of your trade. They need to be ready to go at all times.
- And finally, there is no shame in wearing your dressing gown over your clothes to keep warm while you write in your attic (which is being pounded by hurricane force winds). Just remember to take it off before you answer the door, or go to the school to collect your kids, or people will start to wonder about you.
(c) Hazel Gaynor