Publishing Quest, Pt 1: The Seeking of the Literary Agent

…or, “A long dark coffee-time of the soul”

I am not the kind of person who grew up wanting to be a writer.

I was born in Texas and grew up in Hong Kong, in a biracial household that ate Tex-mex stir frys and Chinese tacos. I had few friends during childhood and drifted through that grey area between cultures.

Books became my anchor, a steady certainty amidst the chop-and-change of moving homes, moving countries; of learning and forgetting languages. I read books at school during class, and wrote fanfiction instead of doing homework. I wasn’t a very good student, and that was probably why.

None of this translated into dreams of authorhood, though. By the age of 12, I’d already figured out that writing was a Bad Career. Loads of people wanted to be writers, most people weren’t good at it, and the few who didn’t suck barely made any money. Before writing could ever be a goal or aspiration, I had already consigned the idea of it to the metaphorical bin.

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Life rolled by. Eventually, I washed up at university in the UK, where I studied English. I got married, settled down, and started working as a web editor. Sometimes, I thought about writing stories on my slower work days, fiddling with ideas or creative threads, but I didn’t have the time or inclination to chase it seriously. My job was good enough, and a Safe Occupation.

Until it wasn’t.

The wheels came off the proverbial bus in my mid-twenties. I fell unexpectedly pregnant, lost my job, and lost my marital residency visa due to a Home Office error—all at the same time. In the space of months, I became an illegal alien with no income, and a newborn baby who ate all my energy. Add in a hard pregnancy, bad birth, “mild” PTSD , a daughter who never slept, two and half years of immigration wrangles, a lot of bad times that don’t deserve space on this page–and that wraps up my late 20s.

I also couldn’t go back to work. Initially because of the immigration status, then later a lack of childcare, and finally a lack of confidence built out of years of staying at hom. In other words, by the time my external reasons had cleared up, internal ones had cropped up.

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In that long dry spell without books or my occasional hobbyist scribbles, I started to miss writing. Literally, I was missing something I’d never really had, because I’d never really done it. The worse things got, inside my head and outside our house, the more that writing itch dug in. Half-formed ideas and characters refused to go away. Stories nagged me at night.

By the summer of 2016, after we’d tentatively found our feet and Child #2 had arrived, the itch of writing had become a burn. It started to really bother me that I might live my entire life and never write any of this stuff down. I wanted to finish something, anything, because I don’t finish things; I’d left a trail of half-arsed jobs and interests, flirted with but always, always abandoned eventually.

In the end, I felt I had nothing to lose by trying.

I set myself a time-frame of two years to ‘give it a go’ and see what happened. With hindsight, I realise how laughably short 2 years is in this industry, but back then it seemed a vast quantity of time.

Once that decision was made, it was like ten thousand different doors, locked shut my entire adult life, had suddenly blown down. At 25 I could barely write a birthday card now, at 29, suddenly a whole entire book poured out. I had no idea what I was doing; I wrote. I had to google every aspect of craft; I wrote. I wanted to finish; I wrote.

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Desperation provides a beautiful kind of motivation. I ratcheted up wordcount in the frantic months of July, August, September, October; breaking in November to help my partner finish setting up his business; then picking up again and finishing in mid-December. Great! I was done!

I showed my first ever wobbly draft of a novel to my partner. He read 200 words and said, with a grimace, “Is it all like this? I want to stop already.”

Well. Nothing’s perfect on the first try, right?

Good thing I’m very thick-skinned. I wasn’t hurt, or even offended. We simply talked about how and why it didn’t work. Then I rewrote it. Just the beginning because, DUH, the rest of it was fine.

And thus began a critique relationship that continued for months. Every chapter my partner read, needed a rewrite. The whole book was overhauled and it was better. Sort of.

Time for some beta readers.  I must admit, I have a laugh every time some writing website recommends getting “one or two” sets of eyes on your work. I had around 24 beta readers for Origin of Sight (I’ve lost count exactly), and I needed every single one.

I had so many because the first fourteen readers in a row could not get past chapter 2. Dense, inaccessible, full of passive writing, confusing, no emotion, no character connection, too much world-building, no pacing, no tension, no interest, on and on  and on. Every craft flaw you can think of, and I had it. (And this was after my rewrite. Wheee.)

So I kept rewriting. I rewrote that entire bloody book every month, for four months. From scratch, each time. Oh, the joys of writing.

That’s not an unusual experience, I’m afraid. Writing forums are chock full of other writers with similar journeys. Your first book is brutal, and for that reason alone I really think it has to be a labor of love. Only love of your own story and a dollop of delusional hope will get you through that grind. Let the cynicism come later; give yourself that hope.

Eventually, I got somebody to finish reading the sodding thing, flaws and all. I found other writers, starting with Essa Hansen and Rebecca Deer, and we built a critique group called Writer Alliance. And then 9 months after starting to write, I began querying.

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Obviously, I was querying way too early. It should be a law of the universe that you’re not allowed to query in your first fucking year. Sadly, it wasn’t. Over the next 11 months, I sent 130+ queries to every agent I could find, and a few small presses. I had zero agent interest, and a handful of small press requests which all ended in rejection. Some of the rejections were quietly encouraging, but still rejections.

In the scheme of things, writing moved pretty fast for me, overall. But at the time it didn’t feel fast, because the nature of this business is that you are a failure until you’re not; you’re grinding, until you suddenly level up. The grind seemed potentially endless. A friend once described writing as a career defined by long periods of drought–and the difficulty is, you start in a drought and might continue without ever finding rain.

The reality I wasn’t accepting is that writing can’t be learned in a few weeks. I think, when we start out, we all secretly hope that it can, that we’ll dash down a first novel and get launched into publication.  Realistically, of course, you’ve got a better chance of being launched into the sun. (Those who fly at first jump, are a rare breed indeed.)

At the end of one year I turned 30, and was still in drought with nothing to show for it–at least, not to outside eyes. Objectively, I knew I’d learned a lot, and I tried to keep that in mind.

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Here’s the main lesson Book 1 taught me: there is a categorical difference between sentence-level craft, and narrative shape.

As writers, we spend a lot of time honing our sentence level craft and that is very important–-to a point. But I’d argue that narrative arc and character-reader connections are probably more important. As a reader, it’s certainly true for me. If I can’t connect with a character, I lose interest in the plot events. If the book doesn’t have a strong story, no amount of beautiful writing will save it. Even if I do love to consume beautiful writing.

Building on that, all of my rejections had two overarching themes: we cannot connect to your characters, and, your story is inaccessible.

Turns out there was a very specific reason for that. Over the following year, as my youngest received a diagnosis for autism and I began the process of getting a similar diagnosis for myself, I came to realise that my struggles to make relatable characters mirrored from my own struggle to relate in day-to-day life with neurotypical people.

In writing terms, I needed to adjust my characters for the sake of readers. I already adjusted my real-life behaviours and reactions to make what personal connections I could with neurotypical folk, and the same principles could be applied to writing. Much more easily, too, because real life doesn’t have an edit function; writing does.

I suppose in an ideal world, neurotypical people would make more of an effort to relate to neurodiverse people on our terms, but we don’t live in an ideal world. In the end, wanting to be heard mattered more to me than misplaced artistic integrity.

I changed tactics, and mentally reorganised everything I thought I knew or considered important about writing, and prepared to start again. Once more, but with feeling.

Narrative feeling, that is. The goal was to make other people feel something, you see.

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A lot of autistic people report a sensation of existing in a control room inside their own head, a silent dispassionate observer of their own lives. Sort of like a mecha pilot, but less emotional. That’s mostly where the idea for ANCHOR (Book 2) came from. I have always had a “control room” figure that I’m aware of, a disconnection between the different parts of myself, and the concept that this ‘self’ might gain awareness at night in some dream dimension was a long-running bit of fancy.

I took that idea and then I sat down with my critique partner, Essa Hansen, and we discussed very critically which books which ‘connect’ well with readers. We are autistic, and did it in an autistic way: meaning, we approached it in a dispassionate and methodical manner.

First person was an obvious boost; more immediate for most readers. (I’d only written in third until that point.) Ergo, my new novel would need to be in first person, to help me maximise connection. Sarcasm and extroverted characteristics were popular.  No more quiet, withdrawn characters, then (or at least, not as the protagonist.) High concept, fast paced. Okay, so no more philosophy or social commentary or pretentious dives into phenomelogy.

Make it simple, make it commercial; but above all, just make people feeling something. Make them want to turn the page. Getting fancy can come later.

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The idea of doing another book from scratch, and without any guarantee of different results, was totally terrifying. Especially as I read more and more stories of authors on their 8th, 9th, 10th+ books still struggling to find publication; good writers who just couldn’t get a good break. Luck is brutally important in publishing, as is privilege. I didn’t have the fortitude to stick at it for decades, and I knew that. And what was I doing it for? To write a book I didn’t really enjoy or believe in?

But in the end, I couldn’t do anything else except try. Besides, I had more experience, an awesome critique group, and a year left on the timer.  What else was there to lose?

A lot, as it turned out. I didn’t have a good year. My partner suffered from ill health for months (kidney problems) which affected his job. The depression came back, his and mine, not that it was ever very far away. Youngest Child became steadily more challenging. We bled money and swelled with debt. Life stagnated.

I should have tried to get a proper employment; instead, I worked on Anchor. The dumb and illogical decision. The selfish decision. Our ship was sinking and instead of bailing water, I was concentrating on making pigs fly.

In the Geek Feminist Revolution, Hurley wrote: “I’d reached a point in my life where I didn’t know how to do anything else but finish the fucking book.”

That’s where things stood for me. Life was falling apart; keep writing. Nothing made sense; keep writing. No future and no way to dig ourselves out of the endless chasm we were falling further into. Keep writing. All your words are going into a void but at least if they’re down on paper, they’re not eating you up from the inside out.

Besides, my two-year time frame was still running. Shameful as it was to continuing writing when I should have been doing anything else, it’d be even more shameful to quit before the two-year mark and leave writing as yet another thing I’d abandoned.

I was acutely aware that if I packed it in now, I probably wouldn’t be trying again, and I felt I owed it to myself to finish.

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One thing that helped keep me sane was the short stories. I wanted to learn this medium and found it useful for a number of reasons which you can read about elsewhere on the site. I wrote my first EVER short story in July 2017… and got it published. Like, I got paid and everything. I was so ridiculously, naively, goofily proud and I won’t even apologise. Publishing my small story felt like the only good and useful thing I’d ever done.

All in all, I wrote six short stories between July 2017 and June 2018; five of them got published. Sometimes with, in the case of “–Good.”, with kind reviews. But more important than simply being published, the stories evoked emotion and created connections with readers. That great elusive thing I struggled to do, in real life and in my first manuscript, I was finally getting a grasp on.

Maybe there was some long-term hope, after all.

That awful year staggered to an end and blossomed into an exhaustion-riddled spring. Partner’s health cleared up, and the business tentatively started again. By then I’d sold four short stories and, to my surprise, Anchor was growing on me. I no longer hated the premise, writing, or main character with the fiery passion I initially had, in large part because the novel had changed.

I’d planned Anchor to be the kind of novel I thought would sell, ie with as little bizzareness as possible, and not much darkness, but despite my best efforts the novel had turned out weird. Really damn weird. Oh, well. Another lesson learned: you can’t be something you’re not.

And then summer arrived, meaning my 2-year timer for playing Author Pretend had run out. I needed to put the writing on hold and find something more useful (and hopefully more money-making) to do with my life. If nothing else, Youngest Child was needing more and more care as his needs proliferated in complexity.

But Anchor was more or less done, and I could at least query it in the background while adjusting back to non-writing life.  I trunked my remaining short stories, started subbing, and sat back to let the rejections roll in.

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My query letter process I detailed in this post on the Bookends Literary websiteso I won’t go into that here. Needless to say, it was a totally different experience from Origin; I got an offer within twelve days of starting to query. Twelve days.

I couldn’t believe it; the time-frame stunned me. I hadn’t even finished wrapping up my writing and already my plans to quit had been foiled, in the best possible way. I bought cheap champagne and cried into a glass.

The Call was terrifying (I hate phones) but Naomi was brilliant, and very kind. Same day as the offer of rep came through, I got an email telling me that my latest short story submission had found a home. On the heels of that, revisions for another short (sold but not yet published) arrived in my inbox, and those are always great fun to work through.

It seemed I wasn’t done with writing just yet.

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I know how lucky I am. Writing is supposed to take years, multiple books, and a lot of misery (although I think I could make a case for Origin counting as multiple books, since every draft was SO different–but I digress). I know that I’m a product of privilege, with a healthy dose of good fortune.

I listed 130+ rejections, over 200 if you stack in short story refusals, but that’s not a huge amount in this business. People routinely collect hundreds, if not thousands. For years, sometimes decades. Sometimes, a part of me thinks about how quickly everything happened and cringes with guilt because others who deserve it more have been trying longer and harder.

But I can’t control those factors, and besides, it’s not a race to the bottom. In an ideal world, we would all find success. Either way, this is the path I took which found me agent representation, and maybe it will be of some interest or consolation to someone else.

There’s still a lot more left to do; at time of writing, I’m elbow deep in the first round of pre-submission revisions, and the submission process itself will be months or years with, again, no guarantee of success.

That’s okay, though, because in this industry there are never guarantees. The only thing you can be sure of is what you’ve already done.

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