Vicky Newham


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Submitting to agents and choosing the ‘right’ one

Since signing with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop in July 2016, I’ve had a lot of emails asking me about the submission process, and my agent, Adam Gauntlett, so I decided to write a blogpost. All I can say is how I used the advice I obtained, and went about things. It makes me sad when I read tweets and articles saying it’s impossible to get anywhere in publishing unless you have contacts, a private income and/or are supported financially. There are enough hurdles to overcome without unhelpful beliefs such as these. I don’t have any contacts, and I support myself.

 

Opening doors, timing and the book

At a talk which local author, Peggy Riley, gave about getting your novel ready for submission, she said that if you’re going to knock on doors, it’s important to consider the timing. I quickly discovered that it’s easy to talk about the novel you’re writing and drum up interest but if your book’s not ready to send out, it can be pointless. You will simply get, ‘Great. Contact me when it’s finished.’ If you get interest in your novel, you need to be able to send out the full MS within a day, preferably straightaway. If you cannot do that, I don’t think it’s worth querying agents. If you send out your book before it’s ready, you could blow your chances with that agent or book, and you may not find out why. You might get a chance with another book, or a substantial re-write, but you might get pigeon-holed as an average/dull/poor/whatever writer.

Several years ago, I had an agent ask to read my first novel. I rewrote it a few times, but what I sent wasn’t submission-ready, partly because I was over-excited (I know, can you believe it?!) and impatient. I got some useful and very encouraging feedback from it, perhaps because he’d asked to read it, but actually it would have been better to have rewritten that novel several more times and then sent it. As it turned out, someone published a novel with a very similar plot, so I shelved that book and wrote another.

It can be useful to do pitching events if you want a bit of feedback on your concept and writing, but it’s also important to bear in mind that your work will be judged on a small sample and a very short synopsis: polishing 2,500 words isn’t the same as re-writing 100,000 words and getting your structure and pace right. If the feedback you get is encouraging, that can be validating. If it’s bad, it can really knock your confidence. Whatever it is, though, it’s only the opinion of one person. I did a couple of one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing in 2012. I pitched my first book to Juliet Mushens and Hellie Ogden. They were both lovely, and enthusiastic about the premise of the book and my writing, so it was a very positive experience for me – but, crucially, I was unable to follow it up as I hadn’t finished re-writing the book. When I then met Juliet to discuss my dissertation novel, I had to explain what happened with the previous one.

Regarding pitching at festivals, I know some people get their agents that way, but I decided the best approach for me was to submit through each agency, with a proper sample, detailed synopsis and cover letter. I find pitching sessions a little like speed dating but without the alcohol …!

Personally, I do not believe that all feedback is useful and I find it most useful when I’ve done my absolute best first. I also need to trust and respect the person giving the feedback.

 

Courses and masterclasses

There are numerous courses designed to demystify and ease the agent submission process. I always look carefully at who teaches any course I’m interested in, and what their credentials and experience are. I did a Guardian masterclass with the literary agent, Juliet Mushens. I knew and liked Juliet as she supervised my MA dissertation (which became my novel). Two of her authors, Jessie Burton and Francesca Haig, came along and talked through their submission processes. I also did a Guardian masterclass with Scott Pack, who I knew from Twitter. He’s worked as a bookseller and buyer, editor, and publisher. Between the two of them, what they don’t know about the industry isn’t worth knowing. Whenever I go on courses, I’m a complete geek: I write down everything, and write up my notes afterwards. And I followed their advice to the letter.

I saw on Twitter last night that Scott has written an e-book based on his masterclass, which can be found here.

 

Researching agents and agencies

If you query an agent, and they read your MS and offer you representation, you need to be prepared to work with that agent or turn them down. I decided, therefore, it was essential to only submit to agents whose comments and wish list appealed. I spent ages with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I took notes from Agent Hunter and Query Tracker. I googled each agent, and read everything that had been written and said about/by them, making notes. I used this information to personalise my query letters.

When you identify an agent you want to query, check out their agency. Are they a new agent? How big is the agency? If they work alone, who handles their subsidiary rights? Can they handle film and TV inquiries? How many clients does the agent have, and who are they? What deals has the agent made? Does the agency appeal as a whole? (When I went to meet Adam at PFD, the first thing I saw when I came out of the lift was a dog’s toy. Good sign!)

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD.

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD

It’s really important to read and adhere to the submission guidelines for each agent and agency. Some are similar but some are specific, and even have their own submission portal. I had various documents of different lengths. Do check how your MS may fit their requirements. If they ask for the first three chapters, and your first three amount to five pages, you may want to re-jig the chapter breaks. I am sure it’s true that the first page is a good indicator of your writing, and the particular book, but a few pages won’t show much about your structure, pace, dialogue etc.

 

Market research, deals and debuts

In 2012 I went to my first London Book Fair and Crimefest, then Theakston’s crime writing festival in Harrogate in 2013. The debut author panels at these events are informative about what novels have been bought a year earlier by which publishers and from which agents. I went to every panel I could at each subsequent Crimefest, sat in the front row and took notes! I also started using Twitter more often, and reading announcements in the Bookseller. The Bookseller gives an indicator of which agents are selling, and the sorts of books publishers are buying. I firmly believe that you have to write the book that fires you up, but it is important to get a feel for the market, and know where your book fits in your genre or category.

I quickly saw that some agents were getting good deals for debut authors, and actively like working with them while others seem less keen. I also noticed that attitudes to the slush pile vary. If people make it very difficult for you to submit to them, it’s worth thinking about. Response time varies enormously. Some agents state they can take up to two months to read your submission. Some reply and some don’t. I only queried a dozen or so agents but most of them I heard back from very quickly, including a couple on the day I subbed.

This brings me on to editorial input. Some agents like to take on books which don’t need much/any work before they can be subbed to editors. Others enjoy working with their clients editorially. It is often the case that the more clients an agent has, the less time they will have to work with you on your MS. It’s worth considering whether you want detailed editorial input from an agent, what it will involve and whether representation is contingent on you making certain changes.

It’s also useful to check out which agents represent the authors of books you like. I looked up agents who rep crime novels which are a little ‘different’. My series isn’t a traditional police procedural. I call it #UrbanNoir. It combines the police procedural with reflection on cultural dislocation, urban life and the psychology of violence. The crimes stem from the psycho-geography and socio-economics of Tower Hamlets in East London. I thought it was important to flag up these aspects (not all of them) in my query letter, and make it clear from the opening of the novel.

 

Social media

I find it hard to mention social media without a groan emerging. While it can be a major time-suck, and the rabbit holes and misunderstandings can be awful, I’ve found Twitter a fabulous way to gain information and get to know people. Many of the people I got in contact with on Twitter, in 2012, I quickly met in real life at events and festivals.

It is worth thinking about what you post, not just from the point of view of libel laws but general perception. The reason I say this is because in the last week an editor told me he’d checked out my Twitter feed, and a TV production company executive told me he’d read a blogpost I’d written on education and social mobility. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. That said, my rule for social media is the same as for everything else: to be myself. I use Twitter and Facebook for having a laugh, posting pix of the dog and the sea, and enthusing about books and dramas I like. I post about stuff which interests and bothers me. It is useful for getting a feel for what people are like. Most agents are on Twitter, so check them out.

 

Manuscript assessments, beta readers and feedback

I think it’s extremely difficult to know when your book is ready to send out on submission to agents. I don’t see agents as the people to use for feedback because they are extremely busy and you may not get any, or hear anything. In which case, how do you interpret that?

I decided not to query until I really thought my novel was ready. I was contemplating querying at one point but had reservations. Unable to decide whether my reservations were self-doubt and fear, or genuinely meant my book still needed work, I paid for a professional manuscript critique. In addition, an author friend offered to beta read for me. Having done two workshop modules on my MA, I knew I was okay with honest, constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the MS critique didn’t identify any strengths in my novel but listed a lot of ways I could write it differently. This was confusing and destructive for me, and I completely lost my confidence in the book and my own writing for at least a month. Fortunately, the report from my beta reader was more balanced and constructive, and another author friend offered to read for me, and gave me feedback. After a few weeks, I compiled a master list of all three sets of feedback, and set about making all the changes which felt right, ticking them off my list. After this, I rewrote the whole MS twice more, line by line, and read it aloud.

 

Which agent?

It helps to have a clear idea of the sort of person you will work well with. Having been a teacher for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from different people: as a teacher, you are ‘observed’ from the moment you step in the classroom. I also did the dissertation for my Effective Learning MA on feedback, and what is/isn’t helpful for learning. This has enabled me to clarify what feedback style works for me.

Above all, I wanted:

1) an agent I felt I could talk to, feel relaxed with and laugh with. You need to be able to be honest with your agent, and him/her with you. I didn’t want to have to have a gin before/after speaking to him (or both!). It is a business relationship but humour is a great defuser. (As Adam and I found out the first time I used tracking changes and didn’t realise you had to actually switch them on …! Gawd, the embarrassment.)

2) an agent whose judgement I respect, and who I trust.

3) an agent who liked my book on its own merits, not because others were interested in it.

When it came down to it, I was very lucky. I very quickly got several offers of representation. I also made my decision before everyone who had my full MS got back to me. Why? Because my gut feeling told me Adam was the right fit.

Do get clear before you sign with an agency what edits the agent is going to request, and whether you have a similar vision for the novel. None of the edits Adam suggested were deal breakers, and they’ve all helped to make the book stronger and tighter. I think it’s important to know what edits you are prepared to make and which will fundamentally change the book for you.

 

Attitude and beliefs

Assuming you want one, getting an agent is one step along the traditional route to a publishing contract. If you believe it won’t happen, that things like that happen to other people but not you, it’s unlikely to. If you believe it’s possible, it’s more likely. And if you can nurture the determination to do your absolute best, to get your novel as good as it can be, you’re in with a chance. Then, you can let go and see what happens. Expect nothing, hope for the best and believe it can occur.

On Facebook today, I got one of those memory things. Two years ago today I handed in the dissertation which became my novel. I began writing it in early 2014. Since then, I’ve re-homed a crazy puppy, finished my MA, finished the novel, bought three flats, done two up and sold them, written the first draft of another novel and half the follow-up of this one.

My point? ‘Luck’ and timing all come into play. All the rest is hard graft, and takes a lonnnng time.

 

Asking for advice

When I was subbing to agents, numerous author pals gave me advice on Facebook and privately. It was hugely appreciated and very helpful. I have written this post as I want to encourage people to feel optimistic about querying. All the agents I’ve dealt with have been really lovely, and there are lots of people around to ask for help. Everyone who’s written a novel knows how hard it is, and in itself is a massive achievement.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 


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Keeping my eyes on the ball

At school we had a PE teacher whose favourite mantra was “Keep your eyes on the ball”. During the course of a 45 minute hockey, netball or tennis lesson she would yell it dozens of times. Of course, we sniggered and imitated her behind her back, as kids do. But it’s always stuck with me.

I’ve seen the Festival of Writing in York advertised in various places. Even got as far as looking at the website. Nope, can’t afford it, I told myself, and carried on with my novel and my course. On Friday, when I exchanged contracts on the sale of my house in Croydon, a millstone round my neck for the last six months, I happened upon a Tweet about the festival. See? Serendipity. Within half an hour I’d paid for my ticket for the weekend, selected my workshops, and very importantly, booked one-to-one slots with two of the agents on my To Submit To List.

Something that appeals to me about this festival is that, although it isn’t a crime-specific event, it seems to attract a lot of good agents, editors and publishing folk. I’ve always been of the mind that if you don’t try things, you can’t succeed or fail. And neither can you learn from trying or from feedback. I also believe in moving towards goals, and in practising the things needed to achieve them. And for me this is what York is about. I’ve no idea how I will find the one-to-one experience. I’ve always felt that the Literary Speed Dating Thing probably wasn’t for me, that a longer submission and introductory letter would be more advantageous. But, with that method, you don’t get to meet the agent unless he or she asks to do so.

Ultimately, I would like to secure agent representation in the next few months and I am after a book deal. As per my ex-PE teacher, my eyes are firmly on those two things. So I decided to give the one-to-ones a whirl. I am looking forward to meeting my two agents, and to hearing what they think of my opening chapter and book concept. Oh, and what they think of me. I have decided to view it as a source of information: Is my writing good enough? Does my first novel appeal? How can I improve it? Am I seen as a viable publishing prospect? Yup, it’s judgement time. And it’s of my own making. Staying at home might be free, less scary and potentially less disappointing than going to York but it’s good to put yourself out there, right? Precisely. I’m glad you agree with my argument.

So, in the next few weeks, once I’ve sent off the requisite bits of writing to York, I shall be re-writing and re-editing my first novel in case they request a full MS. I shall be preparing my elevator pitch and boring my friends silly with it. I shall be compiling a list of questions for my two agents, and will be practising answers to questions which they may ask me. I shall also be galvanising my courage and self-belief. Despite the potential importance of the event, I know that it will be terrific fun. I enjoy meeting new people, love talking to other writers, and several people I ‘know’ from Twitter are going.

And now I’m off to repeat the mantra and practise my forehand.

If you fancy a peek, the festival website is here: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/events.html

Vicky Newham © 2013


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Post-finishing Book One dilemmas

I’ve been thinking a lot about timing recently. And about how much waiting is involved in writing books and wanting to get them published. Why have I been thinking about these two things? Because they both have a number of implications for my life and my writing at the moment.

Essentially my main question is what do you ‘do’ when you’ve written a book and are waiting for feedback on it? Do you put your feet up and have a rest? Or do you get on and write something else?

me and boots at sea re-sized

I’m not great at sitting around, treading water. I like to get started with the next project because it a) gives me a means of distraction, b) makes me feel that I’m doing something constructive, and c) offers an insurance policy of sorts. But in this situation it can be difficult to decide what exactly to get started on next. If what you’ve written is a standalone novel, you can plunge into plotting and writing the next one. If you’ve written the first book in a series, your decisions are more complex. Do you assume that the first book is okay-ish, and start writing the next one in the series? Do you assume it’s rubbish and cut your losses? Or do you keep your options open and attempt to keep both sets of balls in the air? Or is it in fact better to be patient and wait for that feedback to come in and, er … do nothing? And what if that feedback never comes in? Decisions, decisions.

For me, personally, I’ve always believed that you have to be positive in life but also realistic. I know how difficult it is to get a publishing contract in an already over-crowded market. Since finishing my first novel – and when I say finishing it I mean getting it as good as I can get it for now – I’ve plotted the next book in the series, and have also plotted a whole new novel, nothing to do with the first one. This is a different type of crime novel from the first one. I’ve realised there are a number of implications to each potential writing choice. If I continue writing my series, without feedback on Book One, I may be unwittingly repeating mistakes I’ve made. If I start on something different I may not want to return to my series. Oh darnit. It’s not easy, is it?

I also believe that nothing is really ‘a waste of time’ as long as you keep writing, and keep reflecting on your writing. So even if you start on a short story or an experimental piece, you will still learn from that. Perhaps there isn’t a right or wrong way of handling the situation. You just have to do what works for you. At times it does feel disconcerting. But what I’ve realised in life is that sometimes you do just have to wait and put up with not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s hard, particularly when what’s at stake means a lot to you. That means finding strategies to cope with the frustration that waiting causes.

For me, one way to cope with uncertainty is knowing I have options. And that means creating a Plan B and a Plan C. It means knowing what I will do if this situation arises, or that one. It also means making sure that I have the psychological flexibility to cope with possible outcomes, to not be immobilised by not knowing how things are going to pan out. And – it also means that I have to feel confident that I can cope with the unexpected too.

When you’ve finished a book it’s a good time to reflect on it. To leave it to breathe for a while and then be brutally honest with yourself about what needs to be done. If you don’t know, you can get some advice or get it read by a few people. I’ve enjoyed leaving my book on my Kindle. It’s not been forgotten; it’s in both my conscious and unconscious mind. I still wake up thinking, “damn, I forgot x”, or “there’s not enough y”. And I write it down, and will use that running list when I return to Book One in due course.

Waiting sucks. But it can be used to your advantage and psychologically that can help you to feel more in control. You can use it as a period of reflection, planning, research and reading. And that’s not so bad because it still feels constructive. It’s also a good time to update your website and blog, and to think about how you could access alternative or supplementary sources of income. I like to take photographs and jot notes of things which I want to include in future pieces of writing. Often it’s characters, titles and places.

planning eqip pad & sunnies re-sized

Of course, another option is to submit your book and then take off on holiday and forget all about it. On that note, if anyone has a villa on Lake Garda that’s lying empty, I’d be happy to look after the plants and open and close shutters every day in exchange for bed and board. Just kidding, people: I have my house to move into in two weeks time.

Vicky Newham © 2013


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What have I learnt from editing and revising my manuscript?

Over the last three weeks I’ve been re-writing my first novel. With a particular and important goal in mind, I made the decision to re-write it until I was able to say ‘It’s finished for now’. It has been a fantastic experience, a brilliant learning opportunity and highly satisfying. It has also been intense and demanding.

On previous occasions I’d re-written lots of the chapters several times, and some of them a few times, sort of picking at it, I guess. So, I decided to start at the beginning and work systematically through each chapter. I will definitely do this next time.

One of the problems I encountered was that the story had evolved as I wrote the first draft, and this meant that with each significant change, I’d had to start the story again in a different structural place. When it came to the re-write, and deciding on that all-important first chapter, and the first 10,000 words, I needed to think hard. I tried to draw on what I’ve learnt on my MA, what I’ve observed successful authors doing in their books, plus, of course the creative writing theory.

When it came to re-writing the other 80,000 words, I decided to cull a large sub-plot. I think that this has been in the interests of the novel as a whole. There were two reasons for this, which I will cover in another blog post, but doing so cut my word count by 10,000 words. Initially this sent me into a panic, but I decided to hold my nerve and just keep re-writing.

As this is the longest piece of writing I have completed, I found that re-reading the story from start to finish was essential to having every little detail in my head. The Post-its on the wall and the mind maps were great, but I needed it in my head to have a sense of the whole. It was, however, very time-consuming to do this. I also wanted to make one set of revisions, print out the whole manuscript, read it through on paper and mark up further edits. I’ve always done this with academic pieces, and report-checking for school, and have found that it works for me. But, again, it’s very time-consuming and uses a lot of paper! As I’d seen authors on Twitter refer to the benefits of reading manuscripts on an e-reader (Cheers, Fiona! @fcmalby) I decided to try this. I found that I read more quickly on my Kindle, but I didn’t like having to then leaf through a printout to find the relevant page to mark up an edit. Perhaps this comes with practice. But I found it was a really good way to read my book through quickly to get a sense of how any major changes affected the overall story.

Something else I wanted to do was alternate interlinking plotlines as much as possible and found that this is very complex to organise. If ‘x’ is here doing something, he can’t be there doing something at the same time. Obvious, of course, but very fiddly to write and edit. I knew from my planning and timelines that the whole plot takes places in just over a week. When I wrote the first draft I used chapter headings and the navigation pane to help me to organise the story as it grew. I have decided to leave the chapter headings in for now, as I’ve seen them in other books with a non-linear narrative. Some of my MA peers said that they didn’t like not knowing ‘where’ and ‘when’ they ‘were’ at the start of a chapter, and some said they didn’t like being told! So I shall have to wait and see on that one, and see what advice I get.

Each time I marked up a set of edits on paper, it took me almost a day to make the required revisions in my document. Then it took me a day to read the whole thing through again, and mark up the next set. I did this three times, and then did a final proofreading. Each time I did it, I varied the font type and size, which helped to focus my attention. I’d love to know how other people go about this. Perhaps it is simply the case that it takes everyone a long time, and that one has to factor that into one’s schedule for deadline-meeting.

From starting this process to finishing it, I found that I got quicker at some aspects and slower at others. I got quicker at re-writing, and slower at reading and making revisions on the document. Psychologically, I can see how and why this would be the case. I also discovered, that the whole process took me longer than I’d envisaged, but this also wasn’t a major surprise (most things in life seem to!). Because I had a specific goal in mind, and a self-imposed target to meet, I had to go about it in a more intensive way than I would have liked. But what I’ve learnt is that a) I can write, re-write, edit and revise a novel, and b) I want to approach the re-writing of the next one in a more measured way.

Having submitted my novel yesterday to its destination, I couldn’t resist having another peek at it today on my Kindle. Guess what! Yep, a few typos, and I cringed and nearly wept with disappointment. However, I know from the tweets and blogposts of experienced writers on Twitter (Cheers Stav! @stavsherez and Julia! @thatjuliacrouch) that this is invariably the case, and is why ‘proper’ editing is essential. Whilst I’m saying thanks, a mention to Mel Sherratt (@writermels) for being an awesome sounding board.

Is my book “completely finished”? Nope. I am sure that it needs professional editing, hopefully through an agent or publisher, and will benefit hugely from this. What I am confident about, though, is that I have done the absolute best I could on it at the present moment. All in all, I feel that it’s a major achievement, and I have lots of learning to carry forward with me into novel number two! Has it put me off writing another novel? And wanting to be “a writer”. Absolutely not. It’s made me more determined and, in a strange way, has given me confidence. And whilst it felt a bit masochistic at times … I absolutely loved every minute of it!

Vicky Newham © 2013