Is it ‘who you know’, or ‘what you know’? Does having industry contacts help a writer get a book deal?

Before I began writing novels, this was a question I often asked myself. I thought novelists belonged to a special kind of club only accessible if you knew someone already in it. I had only written short stories up until then and I wrote alone – I thought that was how it should be done. I also believed that writing a whole book required a unique knowledge – that it just came to the author like an epiphany. It all seemed so out of reach to me.

My thinking changed when my partner, Dom, brought home a copy of Writing Magazine. He wanted to start writing. But, before he had a chance to read it, I had a flick through. There was a whole world of writers out there: writing groups, conventions and festivals. It felt like coming home! But there was still that burning question: did it help a writer to know people in the industry? How did writers get their books published – would attending writing events and festivals help?

After working on my first novel for a few months (oh how naïve was I?), I entered it into a national writing competition. Of course, I wasn’t shortlisted, but I met several other entrants online who were all in the same boat. We formed an online writing group.

This gave me the confidence to go to the York Festival of Writing. I’d been working on my first manuscript for nearly two years; I felt I was nearly there.

It was another revelation. There were loads more writers out there, just like me; writing and hoping that one day we’d be just like those authors who hosted the workshops we attended. Our day will come.

As part of this festival, I paid to have a one-to-one with a literary agent who would critique a few pages of my first ever ‘masterpiece’.

The agent said the writing was good, but was I really going to keep working on this story? ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I believe in it.’ The agent put his head in his hands. Literally.

As I talked to other writers, there were rumours that some ‘lucky’ writers had been asked for full requests after their one-to-ones. It was a brilliant day, though I left York thinking, It’s not my time. Yet I took with me hope that one day it would be. But it wouldn’t be with the book I had spent so much time working on.

The next event I went to – a year later – was Getting Published, organised by literary agency Janklow & Nesbitt in conjunction with Mumsnet. We, the audience, listened with piqued interest, as established authors told us about their paths to publication. We heard anecdotes from respected agents and editors. Then came the pitching session. I had never done one of these before. At York festival, the agent had read my work, but now I had to actually speak. I ended up reading from a sheet of paper, my mouth dry with nerves. The agent couldn’t have been more lovely – she was a normal person! ‘When it’s ready,’ she said, ‘send it to me.’

I sent her the fourth manuscript I’d been working on (I’d completed two NaNo’s in this time, but these will never see daylight!). Surely – after writing four whole books, this would be the one! I could mention in my cover letter that I’d actually met the agent. It took only minutes for the agent to respond to my initial submission – she wanted to see the rest of the manuscript!

Other agents requested this book, too, and it was longlisted in several well-known writing competitions. But ultimately it wasn’t the one for the agent I met – nor any of the others.

Whilst submitting my fourth book, I’d begun another called 99 Red Balloons. I was determined never to give up – I’d come so far. I’d also thought of another idea if this one didn’t ‘work’. I was a few weeks off finishing 99 Red Balloons when I registered for the Curtis Brown Discovery Day.

There were hundreds of writers there, queuing along the bannisters of three floors inside Foyles book shop in London, clutching their first pages that a Curtis Brown agent would read. My legs were shaking, my hands were sweating. When I sat down in front of the agent, my mind went blank. I babbled a bit about what I’d written in the past and was so relieved when she started to read my page. ‘Send it to us when you’ve finished,’ she said. I’d heard that before, but I had confidence in this novel. (Yeah, okay – I’d felt that about the others.)

When I completed my manuscript, I submitted to Curtis Brown. It wasn’t for them, but I had also sent it to a handful of other agents (that I’d never met) who’d expressed interest in my previous work. Several of them liked it enough to offer me representation.

Attending these events was brilliant for meeting other writers and seeing that agents and editors are ordinary people in search of a great book. They aren’t scary gate-keepers to a secret society. There are no rules; there are no special clubs. Even if you have an agent as a best friend, they’ll not represent you if she or he doesn’t like your book.

What it came down to, for me, was to write and write until you’ve written the best book you can at that moment in time, even if you won’t know if it’s the ‘right’ book until you send it out there. The more you write, the better you get.

I heard this phrase once, several years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since: The harder I work, the luckier I get. I think it’s true.

99 Red Balloons is available here


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