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How I Didn’t Get Published by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Article by Catherine Ryan Howard ©.
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If you somehow managed to escape my constant bleating on about it earlier this week, I have signed a 2-book deal with Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books, and my debut thriller Distress Signals will be published in the UK and Ireland in June 2016. Now, I know whenever I heard of someone getting a book deal, my first thought was always HOW?! Tell me immediately! So this is my story. But since I’ve only been published a week and not published for about fourteen years, this post is mostly about how not to get published. And it’s very long. You might want to make a cup of coffee before you start…

catherine typewriter xmasI was making up stories before I could read or write (which I think is called lying…?). When I started going to school I loved ‘Story Time’ when the teacher would sit on top of her desk and read aloud to us from a picture book, showing us the illustrations while she did. Back in my bedroom I’d line up all my Barbies and Sindys, hoist myself onto my dressing table and ‘read’ to them in the same way. One Christmas I asked Santa for a typewriter. Another year I asked my parents for an electronic upgrade. Teenage Me persuaded them to buy a Compaq Presario in 1998 because – I told them – I was, like, the ONLY girl in my class who didn’t have a computer at home. In truth, I became one of the few who did. More lies…

The first ‘novel’ I ever completed was a procrastination exercise. It was called Diary of an Irish Leaving Cert and I wrote it instead of studying for my Leaving Cert. I sent it to a well-known Irish publishing house who at the time had an office five minutes’ drive from my house. For some reason I thought our geographical proximity would make a difference.

I can still quote the rejection letter from memory: Thank you for sending us this. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s strong enough to capture the competitive youth market, but you are obviously a born writer (why study science???) and we look forward to seeing more of your work in the future. Reading this now, thirty-two-year-old me sees it for what it was: encouragement. But eighteen-year-old me was devastated and Diary ended up in the bin.

I started on another, Formula 1-themed novel, which was basically an excuse to daydream excessively about the ab-tastic picture on the cover of Jacques Villeneuve: A Champion in Pictures… Sorry, drifted off there for a second. I called it Chequered Flag and carried it around on a floppy disk, but I never got past the first few chapters. (I still love that title though.)

Why study science??? with three exclamation marks was something I was asking myself a year later when October 2001 saw the beginning and end of my university career. I spent just three weeks at Lancaster University studying for a Combined Science degree, and one of those weeks was Fresher’s. I dropped out, returned home to Ireland and began a new phase in my life: working a job that turned another slice of my soul necrotic every working day while daydreaming about a six-figure deal that would change my life overnight.

Daydreaming was all I did about it though. That was the problem. I had a path worn through the carpet between the door to Waterstone’s on Patrick Street and their reference section, where I slowly but surely built up a vast collection of books with titles like How To Get An Agent Who’ll Make You A Millionaire Before You’ve Even Written a Word – This Weekend! I went to writing workshops and scoured the Acknowledgements of my favourite books for mentions of particularly appreciated agents. I cried – cried! – the Friday night I turned on The Late Late Show and saw Cecilia Ahern (my age, my hair colour, my dreams) being interviewed about her mega-deal.

But I never actually did any writing.

cath_mickey_mouse smallThen I got a teeny bit distracted. On a whim I applied to work abroad with a camping brand and ended up spending two seven-month stints in the middle of nowhere in the Netherlands, having the time of my life. After that I wrangled an eighteen-month J-1 visa and went to work in a hotel in Walt Disney World, Florida, achieving two of my three lifelong dreams while I was there: living in the U.S. and seeing a Space Shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral. The third lifelong dream was (still) to be a published author but I got no closer to it until the summer of 2008, when I returned to Ireland after some reluctant backpacking in Central America and wrote what I hoped was a humorous account of my time in Orlando: Mousetrapped.

Now by this stage I might as well have had a PhD in the submission process what with all those ‘how to’ books I’d been reading, but I ignored all the advice and went with the gimmick instead. (Tut-tut.) I prepared a flyer ‘advertising’ Mousetrapped, under the header COMING SOON TO A BOOKSHELF NEAR YOU. It had glowing ‘blurbs’, such as one supposedly from my dad that said something like, ‘I didn’t even know she could type!’ and lots of pictures. I got them printed professionally and sent one to about ten London-based literary agents, with Disney-themed stamps on the envelopes.

FOR SHAME.

As I’m sure you’ll be not shocked to learn, I only got one reply. (Not just one positive reply – one reply, total.) It wasn’t from an agent but an agent’s assistant, who I’ll call Helen here. Inexplicably, she loved it and asked to see sample chapters. She loved those, and asked to see the whole book. She loved the whole book, and pitched it to her boss… who said no. But also: have you ever written fiction? We’d love to see it, if you do.

Have I! Fiction was all I’d ever wanted to write! But… well, no. No, I haven’t really. Other than Diary nearly ten years before, I’d never written more than a few chapters here and there. Because – crucial point, this – I didn’t actually have any ideas for a story that would sustain a novel. But now one began to form: a satire of the slimming industry, an industry I had plenty of experience of. I decided I would start to write that – and this time, I’d finish it too.

But after taking my first summer back in Ireland ‘off’ to finish Mousetrapped, I now needed to get a job – if only to afford more How To Get a Six-Figure Deal books. I did, and it turned out to be the worst job I have ever had. It sucked the life right out of me, even when I wasn’t there. I read stories about writers getting up at 4:30am or staying up until 4:30am and dealing with babies and sick parents and incredibly demanding jobs and all the while producing a novel a year, but I couldn’t scrape together the energy to write on Saturday afternoons. A year passed. In the summer of 2009, I decided to take drastic action. I quit my job.

Remember: this is how not to do it. Quitting my job was a reckless thing to do, but I had no responsibilities and understanding parents, and it turned out to be what I had to do. Here’s what I was thinking: (a) I hate my job so much I’m slowly dying inside, (b) a devastating recession has just hit Ireland and so it’s socially acceptable to be unemployed and (c) I’m not getting any younger. I was twenty-six at the time.

I’d come across an interview with Irish crime writer Alex Barclay, in which she described finishing her first novel in holiday homes around Ireland. Renting a holiday home for a while seemed ideal: comfortable, quiet and, in the off-season, relatively cheap to rent. In the autumn I found one in East Cork, locked myself into it for six weeks and wrote the first draft of my slimming satire novel.

mousetrapped launchMeanwhile I’d spent a year submitting Mousetrapped to Irish publishers, but they’d all said no. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of Lulu, where it seemed you could upload a file and – ta-daa! – it would turn into a paperback for sale on Amazon. What sorcery was this?! I decided I might as well self-publish Mousetrapped, and I did in March 2010. You probably know the rest of that story…

What you might not know is what was going on with my fiction behind the scenes. Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin – founder of this very site, literary scout extraordinaire and as of spring 2016, published crime writer – read my novel, LOVED it and passed it onto A Major Publisher, who liked it too only not as much. They did bring me in for a meeting though, and I spent a giddy hour in their office, wide-eyed at the stacks of books everywhere, talking excitedly about writing. In the end, I agreed to go away and write something else that I would show them when it was done.

Over the next two years the self-publishing thing really took off, and I found myself in newspapers and being interviewed on radio and doing speaking engagements in very exciting places, like Faber & Faber in London, the offices of the Guardian and ChipLitFest. But my novel-writing languished. I came up with various women’s commercial fiction ideas – 30,000 words here, an outline there – and sent them to A Major Publisher, but none hit the spot.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that I don’t even read women’s commercial fiction, generally. I’m a crime fiction fan. Have been since I discovered Patricia Cornwell at the age of 14. Michael Connelly, to me, is a literary god among men. But I was – naively, stupidly, tragically – writing not what I loved, but what I thought would get me published.

Again, this is what not to do.

Then, two important things happened.

The first was my mother. Or rather, my mother’s really annoying habit of saving newspaper and magazine articles for you because they have extremely tenuous links to things you are interested in. In late 2011 she gave me a copy of the Guardian weekend magazine in which Jon Ronson wrote about cruise ship disappearances. (She gave it to me because it involved a Disney cruise ship, and I used to work in Walt Disney World but not for The Walt Disney Company, who are a different entity to the cruise line anyway. See what I mean?) The more I read, the more the slightly crazy crime fiction fan in me thought a cruise ship would be the perfect hunting ground for a serial killer.

The second was that one day during the summer of 2012, I caught myself thinking If I finish The Supposedly Funny Women’s Commercial Fiction Novel by x date, then I’ll try to write my Serial Killer on a Cruise Ship Thriller for fun.

plottingUm… WHAT? Shouldn’t everything I write be for fun? I didn’t have to do it, so why else would I, ever? In that instant, I ditched any notion of writing anything but the kind of novel I loved, the book I wanted to read but couldn’t find on the shelves.

Flash forward now to the summer of 2014. I’ve found out that I’ve been accepted onto Trinity College Dublin’s English degree programme as a mature student. Term starts in September. I’ve been working freelance for Penguin Ireland, helping with their Goodreads and social media campaigns, and between that and Netflix, not a lot of writing’s getting done. Add full-time education to the mix and I know there’ll be none at all. So in a caffeine-fuelled frenzy, I finally finish my novel a week before term starts – the novel I know I was supposed to write, Distress Signals.

Part of the reason I applied to study at Trinity was that I felt like my life had become all about waiting – waiting for something to happen with my publishing dreams that, in the end, I didn’t really have that much control over. Therefore it was majorly bemusing, let’s say, to have to fly to London during Reading Week – a mere six weeks into my four-year degree – and meet with the two agents who were offering me representation.

One of them was Helen from three hours ago, back when you started reading this article/thesis. Remember: the agent’s assistant who’d loved Mousetrapped? She was now an agent in her own right with a stable of successful authors. I went to meet her in the café in Foyles and – I get a lump in my throat just thinking about this – she had brought something to show me. She reached into her bag and pulled out the Mousetrapped ‘flyer’ I’d sent her all those years before, still in its original envelope complete with the Disney stamps. She’d kept it, all this time and through an office move, because she said it was one of the first queries she felt really excited about. I couldn’t believe it.

But unfortunately for Helen, the other agent I was meeting with was Jane Gregory. If you write crime you’ll undoubtedly already know her name. She is a superstar agent with a superstar roster: Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, Sarah Hilary, Belinda Bauer and our own Niamh O’Connor. I almost didn’t bother submitting to her because I honestly thought I’d no chance – and she only accepts ten pages in the first instance. Ten! The norm is more like fifty. But she offered representation before she’d even finished the book and as soon as I met her, I knew her agency was the right place for me. I talked to Jane and some of her team for two and a half hours that time, we were just gabbing about the crime and thriller books we liked.

The day after St Patrick’s Day, Distress Signals went out on submission. Five days later at lunchtime, Jane rang to say that Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic, had made a pre-emptive offer for two books. (Was it a six-figure deal, like my ‘how to’ library had promised? Not technically, no, but if you converted the advance from British sterling into Euro and added, say, a credit card’s credit limit, it could be. That’s what my mum’s telling everyone anyway.) By close of business, the deal was done. I had a book deal. Whaaaa…..?

When a publisher releases a press release about a new acquisition, the author is asked to supply a quote. Mine talked about how delighted I was with my publisher, thanked my agent, apologised to the English department of Trinity (because my exam results are going to be abysmal – how could I possibly concentrate on Old English and Romanticism and Ancient Greek Theatre when all this was going on, eh?) and talked about the realisation of a lifelong dream. But what I really wanted to do was talk to the writers out there still trying to get published, who read book deal news with a kind of sickening dread – like I did, up until two months ago. I wanted to say that this took me (at least) fourteen years, but boy, am I glad now I never gave up.

(c) Catherine Ryan Howard

Distress Signals will be published in June 2016.


Catherine Ryan Howard is the author of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, Mousetrapped and Backpacked. Her blog  www.catherineryanhoward.com has been voted on of the top 10 self publishing blogs in the world. She is represented by Jane Gregory.