2015 will for ever be the year I tried — and failed — to get a literary agent. 2015 was a year of failure.
It’s hard to write that. Not because I’m sad and it hurts, but because I generally like to be optimistic. Upbeat. I went into 2015 with a polished manuscript and a shiny query letter, hopeful — no, certain — that I’d be leaving it with a top literary agent and a publishing deal.
What an idiot, right?
Well, yes and no. I was definitely foolish to think a funny mystery about a beautician-turned-sleuth would take the publishing world by storm, but my heart was certainly in the right place. And that’s important.
Serious writing — that is, writing with the intention of being published — is a series of terrible, terrible experiences for the author. The strain of finding a killer idea; writer’s block; harsh critiques; even harsher critiques; writing the bloody synopsis; editing for the 576th time; agonising over personalised query letters; rejection; rejection; rejection. And even those who do make it to publication don’t have it easy. Unfair Amazon reviews, anyone?
Why on earth would anyone put themselves through all that when there’s absolutely no guarantee of success? The answer is one word: hope.
We’re a hopeful bunch, writers. Hope sustains us, encourages us, softens the blow of reality. We know there will be bad days and very, very, very bad days, but we do it anyway. “Write a novel in a genre nobody’s interested in? You got it, brain!” “Hmm, one random blog post says hyphenated words are out? Woo, deletion spree!” “Literary agent with a track record of nastily rejecting all my friends? Sure I’ll query her!”
We go through all this — the tears, tantrums, and Twitter meltdowns — because if we manage to get lucky, it’ll all be worth it. If just one person buys the book we slaved over and enjoys it, we’ll have won. And, as unlikely as publication might be, you won’t get there at all if you don’t try.
So I tried! I sent out a volley of submissions and I kept my chin up as the rejections hurled back toward me. I got overexcited at a few full requests. I bit the inside of my cheek and smiled through the resulting rejections. I tried not to cry when a query I’d spent over an hour researching and tailoring came back just minutes later with a curt ‘We’re not interested in your genre anymore so we’re not going to read your pages’. I dug my nails into my palms and grinned as writing friends were chased by agents and competition judges and success — happy for them, but at the same the time wondering: why couldn’t that be me? When would it be my turn?
So I can’t lie: 2015 was fucking rough.
But it wasn’t all bad. Things rarely are, are they? I had full MS requests from six agents out of sixty submissions. A 10% request rate is nothing to get excited about, but these people liked my book. They did! (Well, most of them…) And the main feedback I got from them was that the book was solid, but the marketability was not. As in, it didn’t have any. It was fun, enjoyable, and hilarious — but nobody would touch it. A devastating diagnosis, of course, but somewhat complimentary in the same breath.
I had my first ever piece of flash fiction shortlisted for the Mash Stories competition — showing I was good at something, at least — and I then joined the team as a judge. As someone who permanently has a red pen clutched between their evil, critique-mad fingers, I can’t stress how happy that made me. I get to read and judge new stories every single week, and I don’t run the risk of offending anybody because it’s all anonymous! Yay! (My writing group are all breathing a sigh of relief, you know. It’s like distracting a ferocious lion with a hastily thrown bit of steak.)
In September I got into Pitch Wars, a competition run by the lovely, generous Brenda Drake to help aspiring writers polish their MSs with the help of agented and published authors who act as mentors. Okay, so it didn’t work out very well for me, but it helped me regain confidence in my novel after seven months of rejections, and I got to give my book a final polish before drawing a line under it. I’m now part of another wonderful community of writers — the 2015 Pitch Wars mentees — but I’m such a lurker on the Facebook page I doubt anyone knows who I am! Must remember to combat my social anxiety more in 2016…
Despite 2015’s fug of disappointment and discouragement, I wrote a lot: a draft and a half. The half was Book 2 of my beautician mystery series. I was loving it, seeing those characters again and creating lots of barmy situations for them, but in the face of so much rejection I just couldn’t do it anymore. It felt pointless, like spending hours getting a stain out of a T-shirt that’s too small to wear anyway. One morning I just didn’t feel like opening up the file to work on it, so I didn’t. And I haven’t since, either. Instead I created a fresh document for a fresh idea — a dark psychological thriller — and after a month or so of planning and experimenting, I started the first draft. I was done within six weeks. That’s fast for me. Lightning. I knew I was on to something.
And suddenly I wasn’t a failed author with a MS nobody wanted to represent anymore: I was an up-and-coming writer with a brilliant book I couldn’t wait for the world to see. Just like that. Perspective, huh?
I think I’ll touch more on the freedom of swapping genres and starting afresh in another post, but let me just say that it was the best idea I ever had. Although my new novel is dark and claustrophobic and oppressive, I’ve never felt freer. I love writing comedy and in many ways I think it’s probably what I’m best at, but releasing myself from the responsibility of always being funny, always having a new twist, was wonderful. I suppose I replaced it with having to be mysterious and clever, but that felt fresh and exciting. The whole book feels fresh and exciting.
Sure, there’s a long way to go yet: the second draft, editing that, possibly rewriting again, another seven edits… But it’s a project I love — and, I’m almost certain, a project other people will love, too.
Marketability! See, agents? I learned.
So as terrible as 2015 was, it was also pretty good. Yes, the big event was that I tried and spectacularly failed to get an agent, but that’s just one part of it. I plucked up the courage to submit to agents, which is pretty amazing for an awkward little social anxiety sufferer like me. I started a blog, which is also good on the anxiety part. (Okay, I lapsed and didn’t post for months, but baby steps, people! Baby steps.) I wrote two pieces of flash fiction: one shortlisted, the other currently “fate unknown” on another competition and about something close to my heart. I became a Mash judge. I wrote half a book, which will help if I decide to self-pub my mystery series one day. I got into Pitch Wars and met some lovely writers. I wrote a full draft of a kick-ass psych-thriller that I can’t wait to rewrite and polish.
I went into 2015 certain that I’d be leaving it with a literary agent and a book deal and now, in 2016, nothing’s changed — except the book.
Are the odds against me? Of course! But I’m a writer. I’m strong. And I (almost) always look on the bright side.
Finishing the novel will be a tough ol’ slog. Getting a submission package together will be worse. Querying, while exciting at first, will bring disappointment and doubt. But I’ll get there. Even if it takes me another year, another novel, another meltdown and solidifying reformation, I’ll get there.
So bring on 2016 — the year I refused to stop trying, even in the face of failure.