How I (almost) published my first novel

The world of publishing is clothed in secrecy, shrouded in dark capes and guarded by cantankerous gatekeepers. Publishers sigh on their website that it will take them over three months to wade through the grimy slush pile and summon the energy to write you a rejection letter. But what if you are one of the brave souls that want to enter this bleak landscape, with your precious manuscript in one quivering hand? I did, and made a few horrendous mistakes in the process.

1. I sent my pitch before my manuscript was ready. As I mentioned, I had read on copious publishing websites that it takes several months to respond to a pitch. I banged out three chapters and a synopsis and thought, why don’t I shortcut the process by sending this into the ether before writing anything else? I didn’t bargain for a response from a major South African publisher three days later, asking to see the full manuscript.

2. I sent through an unedited first draft. What would you do if a publisher wrote you a personal mail saying that they would love to read a book you haven’t written yet? You write it, and fast. I wrote all night, during stolen moments at my day job, on planes and at conferences. Because this book was a commercial female novel loosely based on my own dating disasters, the material came thick and fast and was ready in a few weeks. That’s a whole book that I was banking my future on, in a few weeks. I suppose I was trying to be one of those prodigies who create a work of genius in their teens in a few hours while suspended from the edge of a cliff in a snowstorm. The truth is, nobody can live up to that.


3. I hung all my hopes on one publisher. The amazing, respected publisher loved my entire manuscript! My weeks were electrified with the thrill of receiving an email from the submissions manager, letting me know that my little book had made it to the next stage. I picked apart every communication. “OMG he said warm regards this time, and not just regards! It’s pretty much a done deal!” “They said they were pleased to accept my edits. Pleased! Bet they don’t talk like this to all authors!” I was so convinced it was a done deal, I never thought to send it to another South African publisher, or to an overseas agent. Why would I? I was going to be the exception.

4. I got too confident. Months passed and the positive feedback from the publisher continued to flow, along with apologies for taking so long to assess my novel. They entered me into the PEN New Voices competition. They asked me to write alternative endings to the book, which they sighed over. Add this to the fact that I had won every writing competition I’d ever entered beforehand, I grew a bit of an ego. I felt young and invincible.


5. I didn’t understand the publishing industry. The whole process was alien to me, so I hung onto every little development. What I should have been doing was focusing on writing my next book! I didn’t understand the many factors publishers consider before taking on a novel, and the stakeholders involved. It’s not simply about writing well. Even if the editorial team loves you to pieces, a finance manager could shut down the party quicker than you can say ‘but we need something more like 50 Shade of Grey.’ When the heartfelt mail came from the editors saying the book was a no-go, I send them a gracious response and then spent the rest of the day sobbing.

6. I didn’t believe in my work. This was the worst mistake of all. I was looking for a publisher to give me confidence, to knight me with their fountain pen and say, ‘Congratulations, you are a real writer.’ It should have been the other way around. I dismissed the content of the novel, telling myself that I was writing commercial female fiction as some sort of compromise to get my name out there. When faced with rejection, I concluded that the book had been crap all along, shelved it and carried on working. A few weeks ago and a few books later, I revisited this first effort. It’s damn good. Sure it needs to go through a second and third draft, but it’s funny, authentic and would be cathartic for many women to read.

So this time around I am putting into practice the greatest lesson of all: when rejected, keep writing.