How I got published

Susan Elliot Wright Sheffield Star

Photo credit: Sheffield Star

I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I suppose I thought it was an impossible dream. People like me didn’t become novelists – I didn’t come from a literary family, and I had left school at 16 with just one O-level. But after returned to education in my 30s and gaining a reasonably good degree in English, I started to wonder whether it was worth aiming a little higher after all. Okay, I’d never be the next JK Rowling, but I began to wonder whether maybe I could write the sort of articles I sometimes read in woman’s magazines – features about family, parenting and so on. I could craft a good sentence, I’d written some decent essays – maybe it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might one day get something published and have the thrill of seeing my name in print.

So I began working hard at learning how to write for the women’s consumer magazine market. I studied the magazines carefully, learning a lot about style in the process. I then did a distance learning writing course which taught me a lot about writing articles and short stories. My first article was published by Bella magazine in December 1997. It was a piece about keeping your kids entertained over the Christmas holidays. I focused on using lovely Christmassy words and imagery, and making the whole thing feel warm and cosy, while still writing in the same style as the other articles in the magazine. I spent hours and hours on it, then faxed it over to the editor (how quaint and old-fashioned!) and bit my nails until I heard from her – I hadn’t let on that this was my first ever piece of journalism.

But she was impressed and began to commission work from me on a regular basis. This gave me the confidence to take my writing seriously. I gave up my day job – I was working as a chef at the time – and took a post-grad course in Periodical Journalism at the London College of Printing, after which I became a freelance magazine journalist. It was hard to make a living at first, and I still did occasional cheffing on the side, but during those few years I published hundreds of features and several non-fiction (health-related) books.

But my first love was always fiction. I signed up for creative writing classes and workshops and really started to get to grips with the craft of writing fiction. Becoming a published novelist still seemed like an impossible dream, but a few years before, seeing my name in print at all was an impossible dream, so the impossible had started to look as though maybe it wasn’t so impossible after all.

I began to get good feedback on my short stories, but I really wanted to write a novel, and I decided that even if it was crap, even if it never saw the light of day, I would try my damnedest to write one – it was possible.

I came up with some characters and a situation and I started writing. When I was offered a place on the then prestigious MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, my husband and I upped sticks from London and moved to Sheffield. By the time I started the MA, I had 40,000 words. My tutor liked my writing, she also liked the setting and the characters, but she pointed out the one major flaw – I didn’t actually have a plot. I’d written a series of episodes – interesting and well-written, but episodes nonetheless.

That night, I drowned my sorrows. The next day, I got up, dusted myself down, took painkillers for my hangover and made the decision to start again, and that was how my debut novel, The Things We Never Said was born.

Even though I knew more about the craft of novel writing by now, I still managed to write myself down blind alleys several times. At one point, I got stuck for six months. But with the encouragement of my tutors and fellow writers on the course, I finished the novel in 2008.

I began approaching agents, and within a few weeks, received a phone call from an agent from United Agents. She loved my writing but she thought the novel needed more work. The problem was, she was about to go on maternity leave and felt there wouldn’t be time to do the work needed and get a publishing deal before she went. A publishing deal! The very words thrilled me to my core. She told me that if I hadn’t been taken on by the time she returned from maternity leave, she would love to represent me.

What a huge confidence boost! Then over the next six months or so my confidence took a bashing as the rejections poured in. Lots of standard rejections, but now and again, an agent took the trouble to send an encouraging personal message. I hung onto these precious words of encouragement like a life raft.

Eventually, I was offered representation by two agents in the same week – I actually had a choice – another ‘impossible dream’! I met them both in London. Both were experienced agents, both were nice women. One said my novel was “good enough” to go out to publishers as it was. This surprised me – I’d been led to believe it was usual for a novel to require more editorial work before being submitted to publishers – so I queried it. Was there anything she felt I needed to work on? No, she said, not really. Tempting though it was to be flattered, I remained cautious.

The other agent, Kate Shaw, felt it needed quite a bit of work. She had a lot of suggestions, including a major structural change. She’d annotated my manuscript and made copious notes, and it was immediately clear that she’d already spent a considerable amount of time thinking about and working on my novel before we’d even met. If I went with Kate, I would have to do a great deal more redrafting that would probably take several months.

Guess who I went with? I’ve never for a moment regretted signing up with Kate. Her editorial advice and insights were and are invaluable. I worked on the novel for around eight months, completely restructuring it, and eventually, it went out to twelve publishers. Suffice to say, it didn’t get a deal at that point. Two didn’t respond, three weren’t keen, four were ‘tempted’, ‘came close’ or ‘really liked it’ but didn’t quite feel they could make an offer. The other three weren’t so keen on this book, but wanted to see whatever I wrote next.

So near and yet so far. I was gutted, obviously, but a publisher will only buy a book if they think they’re going to be able to make money out of it. After more rewriting, it still didn’t feel quite right, so I put it aside and started work on what eventually became The Secrets We Left Behind.

I waited a year, then hauled the first book out and read the whole thing again. And you know what? It wasn’t bad at all. The beginning still wasn’t right, but I was too close to it now, so I decided to invest in another professional opinion. I sent it to a freelance editor who’d worked for one of the big publishers so knew what the market was looking for. She was very encouraging. She said the novel was almost there, but there was something not quite right about one character’s motivation. She suggested a reordering of events might help get around the problem.

So that’s what I did – actually only a few days’ work this time, but it made all the difference. And the rest, as they say…

Within a few weeks of the novel going out again, I had a two book deal with Simon & Schuster. What’s more, when it was published over a year later, The Things We Never Said went straight into the bestseller list.  Who says dreams don’t come true?

The moral of this story is, if you want to be a novelist, don’t give up. It’s hard work, and you’ll have to make sacrifices – it’s time-consuming, so you’ll probably have to give up a few hours a week where you’d normally be watching telly, socialising, gardening – whatever. You will suffer rejection after rejection, you’ll get stuck, you’ll feel your imagination has deserted you, and you will be certain you’ll never be published so what’s the point?

You may decide at some point that writing a novel isn’t a priority for you. But if you really want to do it, you’ll make time to write. And once you’ve written it (and rewritten it, and rewritten it again and again) who’s to say you won’t get a publishing deal? Yes, it’s difficult. But one thing’s for sure – if you haven’t written a novel, you definitely won’t get a publishing deal. I say go for it – good luck!