All I want for Christmas...

Most writers have a pretty standard Christmas list that reads something like this:
- More Twitter followers, FB likes, blog readers and website visitors. (I've grouped them together because it's all the same fairy dust.)
- To be on the best seller list for their genre in Amazon (step forward Martin Bodenham).
- A contract with an agent or a publishing house. Dora Bryan might have settled for a Beatle, but that just won't do any more.

For one of my fellow contributors to Beyond the Horizon (Bamboccioni Books), Christmas has come early. Chloe Banks, a first time novelist, has signed a contract with David Haviland of The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. I picked her brains to find out where others - including me - might have been going wrong!

1. I have to start with many congratulations, Chloe. It's every novelist's dream - has it sunk in?
I think so! The first couple of days after getting the offer I was unable to concentrate on anything – I was so excited but also overwhelmed by the speed it all happened. I was expecting months of rejections but I had an agent within about five weeks of finishing writing, after only one rejection. I sent my book to David one Tuesday and he made an offer on Friday. Once we started talking about everything that needs to be done to the book now, it made everything feel more normal. I still sometimes have to pinch myself though.

2. Have you met the agent in person yet? Is it true that they are surrounded by humming birds and creatures of the forest? (I might be confusing the words 'agent' and 'Disney cartoon' here.)
No humming birds, just thousands of Londoners rushing to get places! I travelled to London to see David. It wasn’t strictly necessary but I thought it was better to have met in person and I’m so glad I did. I think agents had always been mythical creatures to me until then. But he was a normal person (he actually recognised me in the street – rather than me spotting him by the glow of sheer agently awesomeness surrounding him) and very lovely. If all goes well, an agent could work with you for your whole career, potentially over several decades, so it’s good to get off on the right foot. We did a very unglamorous and unceremonious signing of the contract in a basement cafĂ©, but I liked the workmanlike feel to it – writing is a job not an “experience”.

3. What led you to the original premise for your novel and did it change much along the way? (Tell us about the book)
TheArt of Letting Go started in the least sophisticated way possible. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo (the annual event where participants try to write 50 000 words of a novel in a month) in 2011 as I had nothing else on my writing horizon. I had three or four short stories that hadn’t worked at all, but that contained an idea or two that I still loved – an abstract artist, a man in a coma, a missing god. So I decided to try to mash them together as an experiment!
At the end of the month, I had the world’s worst book – my draft zero. I decided to do one “real” draft to see if it had potential. I almost gave up after that as it was still awful. But the characters had trapped me. A year after I started and two more drafts later it was unrecognisable, but I thought I had something.

The book is about lies and art, secrets and madness. It tells the story of physics professor Rosemary Blunt who is leading a double life, split between respectable retirement in a seaside village and secret visits to see a comatose man lying in a nearby hospital. It’s her decision whether he lives or dies and nobody in the village has any idea he even exists. When Ben – an abstract artist – turns up, his attempt to paint a picture of God disturbs Rosemary more than it should. Despite this, an unlikely friendship develops and begins to threaten the security of her secret. But she’s not the only one with a past she’d rather forget. As summer passes they have to decide whether they can trust each other enough to set themselves free, or whether their secrets are just too terrible to be told.

The story is told from four points of view. Interwoven with the action, Ben tells the reader a very potted history of abstract art – leaving the reader to draw their own parallels between the deceptions practised by the characters, and the deceptions practised by abstract artists. I suppose if I was to pick one theme it would be that of ‘things not looking like what they are meant to be’!

4. A tricky question, but what do you think it was about your novel that attracted the agent?
I think David liked the position it holds on the novel spectrum. It’s not literary, but it’s also not a family saga or romance – and definitely not chick lit. It’s at that cross-over point between the two and therefore (hopefully!) is quite commercial. Good writing and commercial potential are the two most important things to an agent. I seem to have managed to do enough of the former – though there’s loads more work to do – and I was lucky that it happens to have the latter too! I think the use of multiple first-person viewpoints worked in my favour, which I’m very glad of as it was a gamble for a first novel. I was worried it would seem pretentious rather than interesting! But you have to find the voice that works for the story you’re telling – no point trying to imitate another book or author. I didn’t feel like I could write it any other way.

5. What happens next in the process?
I’ve got a fair bit of re-writing to do now that I have David’s notes (I’m doubly blessed that he is a very experienced editor and writer as well as an agent). Once that’s done – hopefully in a month or so – we’ll put together a proposal for publishers and then David will do his stuff, sending it out to editors seeing if he can get anyone to bite! I’ll be glad to hand it all over to him and get started on the next novel.

6. I know that you have had significant success with short stories. How did you apply that experience to writing longer fiction?
My short story successes aren’t really that significant – it’s all been in small, low-key competitions. But it has been significant to my development – both the times I’ve won and the times I’ve got it horribly wrong. Short stories and novels are such different skills, once you know how to write I’m not sure they really help each other much. But when you are just starting out, as I was three or four years ago, all writing teaches you so much, and short fiction is great because you can get it wrong 20 times over and learn 20 times as much in the time it takes you to get your first novel wrong! Short stories taught me how to build characters and plots, carry tension and create satisfying endings. They also gave me a confidence boost and a handy couple of sentences to put in my cover letter to agents!

7. How will you balance any rewriting with working on your next book?
Oh, I am itching to get on with the next book. But I’m not very good at writing two things at once. So I am compromising by concentrating on the re-writing for now, and just allowing myself the occasional hour to jot down some planning notes for the next one. I’m so excited by my initial idea, I can’t wait to get going! But I’m also not completely bored by The Art of Letting Go yet so it shouldn’t be too much of a chore. I’ll be interested to see whether writing a novel feels different when you know you already have an agent for it.

8. Does your success change how you see yourself as a writer and how you interact with other writers?
I never expected to be a writer so it’s all been a bit crazy. I have a first-class science degree, nothing more! I was only playing with writing as a hobby until – and I know how much this can make me sound like a crank – I felt like God was telling me to write. I’m a Christian and my faith is the most important part of my life (even though I don’t write Christian books). I tried to ignore God for about 18 months, and only took it semi-seriously. Then one day a visiting pastor came to speak at our church. He’d never met me and knew nothing about me and yet, as I left after we’d chatted, he told me, “God wants you to keep writing. You’ve got what it takes.” So I’ve spent the last two years trying to have what it takes. We moved to Devon and I started to tell people I was a writer – however embarrassed I felt by it.

At times I’ve stepped back and thought, ‘Seriously? Your whole life is based around the hope that you heard God right when he told you to get writing?!’ But I kept going and God was faithful even when I wasn’t. My husband is amazing too. He trusted that it was what God wanted and never put pressure on me to get a “proper job”. Now, of course, he says I’m his pension plan for the future when I’m selling Hollywood rights to all my books!

Even though I know the most crucial factor in getting an agent is writing a good book, I still find it hard to believe that I “deserve” to have got one. I felt a bit guilty that my book was recommended to David by a friend of mine, rather than having been discovered on the slush pile. There was another agency who were interested in my novel, and they did find it on the slush pile, so that helped me get over the guilt, but I don’t think of myself as a better writer now particularly – just a very blessed one! And, I suppose a bit more of a confident one. The quality of my writing didn’t suddenly change because somebody thought it was good. Getting an agent is great but it doesn’t mean a lot unless I also find a publisher. Success – whatever that is – is made up of thousands of steps and this is just one of them.

I find in this early stage I’m very wary of how I come across to people who have been reading my blog for ages. I’m worried if I say anything encouraging that I’ll sound patronising now, whereas I wouldn’t have thought twice before – we writers need all the encouragement we can get! I know I’ll still need it. In the space of a couple of weeks I posted on my blog about getting my first rejection and about getting an agent, and both times I was so glad of the encouragement of other writers. There will be writers who I know who will never get an agent or publisher – some because they just won’t ever be good enough (just like I will never be picked for the Olympic athletics team despite spending my whole youth running round a track), but others just because. That sucks; that’s life. I’m so aware that writing requires luck as well as talent. But we can get hung up on the luck part and worry about the submissions process and wearing our lucky pants when we post our manuscript and all sorts of silly stuff, when really the bit we can control is writing a good book in the first place.

I'd be delighted if people want to come and say hello on my blog, chat on Twitter or find out more about me and the book on the agency website.

My thanks to Chloe for being so open and honest. There you are folks - it can happen the way we've always wanted to believe. Time to get writing!

1 comment:

Martin Bodenham said...

Congratulations, Chloe.