Getting published has been my dream for as long as I have been a writer. What could be better than seeing your name in print, than knowing that people all over the world would be reading your story? I always thought that 'making it' consisted of getting my name on a book jacket, but the real achievement was becoming the best writer I could be. My journey to publication required three books, a thick skin and whole lot of faith, so I thought I would get it all down to encourage anyone waiting for their big break.
The beginning (book 1)
I started writing in my early twenties, and entered the writing scene with an inordinate amount of luck. Every short story I wrote got placed in a competition and I got put forward for the PEN New Voices Award. I thought, quite arrogantly, clearly I am meant to do this. I wrote the first three chapters of a humorous romance novel not-so-loosely based on my own dating exploits and sent it to a publisher (without writing the rest of the book #rookie-error). They loved it, I rushed to finish the novel and spent a year polishing it with them. The deal fell through at the last minute and it broke my heart.
Gaining in confidence and rejections (book 2)
After writing the first book during stolen moments at my corporate job, I realised that I could write a book from start to finish! All I needed to do was be dedicated and consistent. This time around, I made up a thriller based in Africa with a killer premise, and fell in love with telling stories that weren't my own. I pitched the book to the entire Writers and Artists Yearbook (to which agents responded that it was too literary with not enough thriller) and submitted it to a South African publisher. Again, I got really far in the submissions process. But, like the last time, the answer was no. I cried over that rejection, even more so than the first one, but I was so proud of myself. Because while nobody seemed to want the book, my writing had got so much better. I understood how to write characters, how to plot a thriller and how to fight my way to 80 000 words.
The in between
By this stage I had quit my job and was working as a freelance corporate and ghost writer. For a while work took over my schedule and I channelled all my creativity into writing websites, advertising campaigns and columns for CEOs. This was a necessary interlude, as it helped me realise that I only wanted to write fiction, and would do anything to make my dream a reality. I faced more rejection - I submitted two novel ideas to a massive African writing scholarship and got shortlisted for the prize, but nothing came of it. I was devastated, but by this stage I had begun to understand the secret to becoming a writer: you just have to doggedly keep at it.
The big idea
I can't remember when the idea for Shame on You came to me, but I remember it came all at once. I wrote the pitch for the book before I had written the first page, the same pitch that would later be sent to agents. I sent it to my husband, my writing group and my sister. The response was resounding: they needed to read this book! My idea was incredibly topical, so I wrote the book quickly, often writing from 8-5pm every day and completing my client work at night. I finished the first draft in a couple of months. The day I typed 'The End,' Rhys bought me a bunch of roses and I made a bean chilli, which I promptly burnt (I was shattered). The whole thing felt like the beginning of something.
Submitting, revising, resubmitting
It was the beginning of a whole lot of close calls. This time around, quite a few agents responded to my book. I started getting personalised rejections, with helpful suggestions for improvement. Believe me, there is such a thing as a good rejection - it helps you realise that you are there, in the ring, fighting for your chance. Three agents in the UK really loved the manuscript, two even asked for revisions, but ultimately they didn't feel passionately enough about the novel. In publishing, agents and publishers mention this often, because their passion is everything - it shows in the way they pitch or how the book is marketed. No writer, no matter how keen to get published should settle for anything less. After another comprehensive edit based on some of the agents' feedback, I became shrewd about who I sent my manuscript to. I studied agent profiles and only sent my novel to those who I thought would really adore the book. I narrowed my selection down to an A-list of two agents who I thought would really love the book. One of those agents was Jenny Bent. She loved the novel, but felt it needed work. I resubmitted it to her based on her feedback and she made me an offer of representation. I am summarising this for the purpose of this long post, but this process alone took a couple of months.
Editing and pitching!
So Jenny was to be my agent in the US and Sarah, her colleague, my agent in the UK. They gave me further editorial feedback and Sarah and I polished the manuscript. By this stage, I was probably editing this novel for the tenth time, but I kept throwing everything I had into it. My previous two novels were shitty first drafts that I had given no room to breathe. For my novel to be successful, I needed to work with experts so that the story was the absolute best it could be. Finally, the pitches were sent out. Again, there were a few close calls and some positive rejections. I celebrated every one as I knew we were getting closer.
From the moment the UK pitch was sent out, Bonnier Zaffre expressed an enthusiasm for Shame on You. Their offer reflected this. They 'got' the book and not only offered me an amazing two-book deal, but a marketing campaign that would reach those who would truly connect with Shame on You. After waiting for so many years for this moment, I thought that when it eventually arrived I would go and celebrate with a lavish dinner, but I happened to be in labour at the time so instead I ate some tomato spaghetti and watched X-Factor!
There's a lot more I could talk about, but in all honesty getting published is not just about a slick cover letter, attracting the attention of an agent or nailing the gist of your book in a killer synopsis. Those things help but ultimately it is about writing the best book you can write, or keeping on trying until you do. Where your book travels after that is part skill, part savvy online marketing and part resiliance, but mostly it is magic.