Don’t give up when your first book isn’t published…
Let’s start with ‘The End’ and what a misnomer that is. I wrote those words triumphantly, stabbing the keys with numb fingers in the same way mountaineers trudge the last steps to the summit. I willed my heavy screen-zombie eyes to squeeze out a few tears in acknowledgement of this longed-for moment. But much like mountaineers know that the hardest part of any expedition is trekking back down the treacherous route to basecamp, so my body stubbornly refused to grant me such dramatic indulgence, because it knew, ‘nuh uh, this is so not the end, you idiot.’
And yet, I tucked myself into bed so hopefully that night. ‘Will it be one day or two before a publisher bids’, I wondered dreamily, delusional. Maybe an auction.’
And then a week goes by, and then two. ‘Summer can be slow’, warns my agent, and so I tell her I’m writing my next anyway, a novel this time, and then realise I’m glued at the starting line, because surely, I have to keep my brain completely clear for the inevitable round of edits from whoever my publisher turns out to be.
Three weeks. I start googling the Twitter profiles of the editors on my submission list, looking for cryptic tweets about having just found the next big thing they stayed up all night reading and can’t wait to sign. ‘Last tweeted January 1999’. The thing about editors is that they spend their free time reading actual manuscripts, rather than tweeting about how they’re reading them.
One month. Hmm. I now can’t remember what I’ve written. I think it’s a memoir. You know when toast is freshly popped and hot and delicious? Well my idea has been popped for four weeks, and now it seems stale and hard.
Six weeks. I’ve run out of ways to tell family and friends that it’s still on submission, that I am very much in submission to a higher set of publishing gods. I’ve run out of fingernails. I’ve run out of patience. But still, the hope exists.
And then, the replies come in. Rejection feels like a harsh word, reserved for lion cubs left to die in the wild. These were the nicest possible set of ’nos’.
‘We already have a similar title on our list, sorry!’
‘It’s going to be very hard to sell without Kate having a bigger online platform’
‘A rowing memoir is a little too niche for us’
‘It’s trying to be too literary.’
’I wanted to love it but…’
‘What’s with all the metaphors.’
‘That’s okay’, I said brightly to my lovely agent, who had clearly tried her absolute best to get these vultures to eat a piece of stale toast. (Still, those metaphors are a hard habit to crack). ‘I will write another’, I force myself to say through broken dreams. ‘I’ve learned so much, I can use this!’
Inside, I was embarrassed, and it took me a few months to truly believe what I garbled out in the face of rejection. Would my agent still want to represent me if I couldn’t write something that publishers wanted? Was I the only writer at the agency not published first time round? What on earth did I write now?
But, I had learned a lot, and today I'm going to share those learnings with you...
Your first book might not get published – and that’s okay! I spent the best part of a year writing mine, and this was tough enough to take, so if you have spent far longer writing yours, then I imagine you will feel the pain far more acutely. What made me feel instantly better, was knowing that I was not alone. C.J. Tudor who I am lucky enough to share an agency with, spent 10 years trying to get published before her Stephen King-endorsed debut, The Chalk Man, became a bestseller. Then there’s internationally adored authors like Jo Jo Moyes, whose first three manuscripts were turned down by publishers
Your first book might be the place you make all your mistakes, and then book two is so dramatically different that you wonder if your hands and brain have been transplanted. It took writing 100,000 words about myself to learn that what I was really good at was writing fiction – not reflective, philosophical musings about my life. Don’t be afraid to learn hard truths and ditch an idea that hasn’t worked, it is never wasted time.
A good agent will still love you like an adopted child. Mine made me a cup of tea, encouraged me to send her a new synopsis, and made me really excited about the next book
Publishing is a hard, commercial industry, be open to what makes a story sellable but don’t sell out. One publisher asked me to resubmit with a sample that played up the angles of mental health, body image and romance, so I did, but later realised that it wasn’t the book I wanted to write, even if it meant I could sell it
Accept criticism like medicine. It’s good for you and will make you better. Style, tone, clarity, they are subjective, but critique can only help. Learn what you need to get better at asap, don’t panic and feel small and stressed, just keep working
If you are truly a writer and it’s what you love, you will keep marching on!
You can follow Kate here.