How I got my book deal
So! Those who have read my previous blog post about my long, mildly traumatic, querying journey will know the situation I found myself in after signing with my agent. Battered, bruised, but full of trepidatious hope. I was that soldier stumbling out the trenches, wounded but in awe of her own survival.
We all know what happens once you finally snag that dream agent--you sell the book. That's the process. Everyone knows that. It's smooth sailing. The hard part is over! Right?
alt text: A gif of old nan in Game of Thrones saying 'Oh, my sweet summer child.'
Submission (or going 'on sub') is an aspect of the publishing process that is rarely spoken about. I understand why. Once publishers get involved there are certain things you're not allowed to talk about until a certain time (if ever).
To put it simply – going on submission is like querying but instead of agents it’s publishers and editors who are reading (and rejecting) your book, and it goes through your agent instead of you. Then at the end if they like it, you're going to be published.
So, there I was in spring 2021 with a book that I believed was the one. It had got me out of the trenches. My readers loved it. My agent loved it. An editor would surely also love it. I’d had such a long and bloody journey while querying, my sweet dumb brain convinced me this part at least would be smooth sailing.
alt text: a gif of Maleficent uttering 'you poor simple fools.'
We have all seen those deal announcements because those are the ones that go viral. Pre-empts, overnight success, editors throwing aside their schedules for this book. Six figure deals! Ten house auctions! When I tried to find submission accounts from authors, the majority said ‘and then we sold it to a publisher.’
So when my the one went out to editors I was clinging to my phone the very next day. Despite my agent assuring me that these things take time, I had seen that deals can and do happen quickly. All the stories I had read were quick sales. Every email sent me into heart palpitations. This book would sell and quickly. Because that's how sub works.
Except instead of my phone filling with deals and gushing editors...there was day after day of silence. Days turned into weeks into months, and one day I looked up and realised I'd returned to the place I thought I'd never see again.
alt text: a gif from 1917, a young soldier moves through the trenches in world war 1
I was back in the trenches. Albeit with a batman in the form of my agent at my side, doing his best to keep my spirits up. Except this time the stakes were higher. A yes didn't mean 'you are one step closer', a yes meant 'your childhood dream and lifelong ambition is coming true.'
Then the rejections trickled in.
I will say one thing for submission, the rejections are almost always personalised. You do not have the form rejections that tell you nothing, like in querying. But this is both a positive and negative. Editors were saying nice things about my writing! I could tell they had actually read it! Yay! But also if two editors happened to mention the same thing I became convinced that was some huge flaw in my writing and that all the others would reject for the same reason.
The most frustrating were the glowing complimentary replies that read like offers, but ultimately rejected for something that seemed to me a small fix.
I watched helplessly as the one was rejected by all the publishers I’d dreamed of working with. My agent was lovely and supportive but I worried the rejections would expose me for the fraud I felt I was. I've never felt imposter syndrome quite like when on sub.
alt text: a gif, an Among Us character stands below the word 'imposter'
One of the rejections mentioned a possible revision, and once (around 3 months in) everyone else on our list had rejected, my agent and I decided to take them up on that offer. The editor kindly sent me detailed notes, and even jumped on a call to talk through the revisions. Editors are busy people. They do not jump on calls with authors if they’re not interested. This felt like a lifeline.
Now, as this is a 'how I got my book deal' post, I think it's obvious where this story goes. I do the edits. I get the sale.
Except...here’s the unplanned piece in this story. The plot twist. This goddamn new book which just refused to go away.
alt text: a gif of a man pushing another aside at a photocopier saying 'move, i'm gay.'
The book that wouldn't die
I slightly misled you earlier. I wasn’t JUST sitting and twiddling my thumbs while on sub. I did the only thing any author can do while waiting for publishing to catch up, I worked on another book.
I had written the first draft of this book while I was querying my the one book, to survive the querying trenches. And I returned to that little life raft of a book when sub turned sour.
Life raft is an ironic way to talk about this book. As it is, for all intents and purposes, a murder boat book.
I've always been obsessed, to some would say a worrying degree, with crime. Murder podcasts, true crime, those trashy netflix docs, you name it. When I was six years old my sister and I used to plan out murder mysteries for the other to solve. Ya know. Just girly things.
alt text: A gif of Wednesday Addams saying 'I have decided to scalp you.'
This book combined my addiction to murder mysteries with my love of fantasy. It had the kind of murder mystery set up I love--a bunch of eccentric characters (12 heirs of regions of an empire), enclosed in a setting (a ship), with a ticking clock (12 days), as they are picked off one by one (in the style of my favourite murder mystery of all, And Then There Were None.) But also with heaps of magic (all the heirs have unique, secret, magical abilities which add to the intrigue. If anyone here is a Danganronpa fan, that aspect was totally inspired by those fantastic and traumatising games.)
alt text: A gif of Monokuma, a black and white cartoon bear, saying 'who will be the last to survive? And...who will be the next to die?'
I don’t want to pretend I started writing this book and had a Paul on the road to Damascus moment. The sun did not shine down upon me and tell me to ‘abandon all other books’.
To be totally frank, I wasn’t even sure, after the first draft, if I would even return to the story.
But that little murder boat was waiting for me when I needed it most. And maybe it was something to do with the fact my defences were crumbling due to the exhaustion of the submission process, or for whatever reason, when I returned to that book, something clicked.
I felt a wall go down within me. I just let myself write to my giddy hearts desire. No industry expectations, no this is what the market expects. I let my MC be as chaotic and flawed as he demanded. I let him be fat and queer and fabulous. I unleashed my terrible sense of humour. I gave the characters a kaleidoscopic rainbow of hair colours. I wanted tiny dragons butlers wearing bowties so in they went.
Nobody else could have written that book. It felt the closest to that elusive thing writers and readers call ‘voice’ I’d ever gotten.
I felt it in my bones. This is what I should be writing. This is it. This is me. My other book was not a bad book by any means. But it didn't feel as authentically me as this one did.
alt text: a panel from 'The Enigma of Amigara Fault' with a man climbing into a human shaped hole in a mountain saying 'This was my hole! It was made for me!'
And so I was faced with a decision. Either do the edits for a very reputable publisher who already had expressed an interest in my old book.
Or trust in the new book. The chaotic murdery rainbow me book.
alt text: a gif of a blonde woman saying 'I choose me!'
You better believe I chose the chaos book.
I cleaned the novel up, sent it to betas and then my agent (I’m not sure there is any terror quite like sending an agent your second book after the first didn't sell). Luckily for me, my agent also shares/tolerates my sense of humour and embraced my messy gremlin MC.
After a couple of rounds of edits I was ready for my second foray into the sub trenches. This was the one. This was my time. The stars were ALIGNED. The phone was CLUTCHED. My heart was THUMPING. My email box was REFRESHING.
alt text: a gif of tumbleweed travelling through the desert
You think I would've learned by now to stop having these sky high expectations. I had not.
I’m starting to think the overnight success stories are what we assume are normal because people are ashamed to admit when they are not snapped up immediately. I get it. Everyone wants to be the golden child. But I also think that when these are the only narratives spoken about, it sets up these crazy expectations for what is normal. And that is not normal. Quite often in publishing these things take that most painful of things: time.
The rejections trickled in. Most were lovely. A small minority were not. Some made me believe there was still hope. Some made me consider giving up that same hope.
I told myself to write something else. I tried to protect myself by convincing myself I was a fool before. That this book was actually terrible and would be better if it didn't sell.
But, for the first time, I was unable to do it. I couldn’t bury the book. It was a stubborn little bugger and kept crawling out of its grave.
alt text: a gif of a zombie hand emerging from a grave wearing a 'number 1' foam finger
Around four months into sub, facing only rejections, and with nothing new written I decided to forcibly kill the book. Drop it off a cliff. Drown it. I withdrew from a very lovely supportive on-sub reading group because hearing people compliment my book made it hard to kill. I picked out the coffin and ironed my black dress. I was going to take this fucker down.
Then, the very next day, while listening to inspiring music to trick my brain into hyper-fixating on something anything else my agent called me.
We’d got an offer from a publisher.
I have very little recollection of what I said in that call. I suspect it was mainly incomprehensible garbled noises. I didn't even cry. I was in a state of shock and mild hysteria.
alt text: a gif of a flower being on a cat's head. It reacts with wide eyes, while the background turns into a galaxy
The next stage was to update all the other publishers who still had the book. This resulted, predictably, in more rejections but also, incredibly, more interest.
Suddenly I had gone from bludgeoning my book with a bloody shovel to sitting on calls with editors, listening to them praise it.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like the bizarre but joyful experience of listening to editors telling me all the things they loved about my book, gushing about my flawed MC, discussing all their wild and wonderful plans for it.
alt text: a gif of a woman asking 'am I dreaming right now?'
The fact I managed not to pass out in those calls may be the greatest achievement of my adult life.
After that whirlwind, we received best bids from the editors, then my agent and I discussed our options. In the end, we came to a choice which felt completely right for me.
(An important note here about how much of a lifeline my agent was at this stage. I had the emotional and mental capacity of a slug melting in salt, and he stepped into action like Captain America while I slowly puddled in the corner. This demonstrated to me just how vital it is to have not just *any* agent but a great, supportive agent by your side in this process.)
alt text: a gif of Captain America saying 'I can do this all day.'
So finally a month after the initial offer, four months after going on sub, and over a year and a half since signing with my agent. I SAID YES TO A BOOK DEAL.
So...I guess I'll say the thing! My debut novel, Voyage of the Damned, will be released by Penguin Michael Joseph in early 2024!
And if you like the sound of a queer fantasy And Then There Were None, with equal parts humour and heartbreak you can add my debut novel (!) on Goodreads here
If you made it this far, you are an absolute trooper and thank you for accompanying me on this wild journey!
The point of me writing this was to share a success story where the deal did not happen fast (although, I'm told, four months is faster than some!) I was not an overnight success. But I found the absolutely perfect editor for my book, and could not be happier with where I ended up. I'm equal parts excited and terrified for where this will lead. But hopefully (for awhile at least) I've seen the last of those damn trenches.
alt text: a gif of soldiers in World War 1 going over the top of the trenches