Updated: Aug 7
So, I’d decided. My formerly contemporary tale of two cities actually belonged in Victorian London.
This decision opened up a whole new can of story ideas. It was heady and exciting but it also required an enormous amount of research and work on top of what I’d already done. What if nobody else thought it was a fantastic idea? What if I spent even more months and years researching something to get it right, only to have it rejected? I knew that I wouldn’t do this half heartedly and had many more months of work if I went down this path.
I was too close to the work to make any sort of informed judgement. It was time to ask people who knew about publishing and what would sell.
In 2017 I signed up for something that terrified me to the depths of my soul - a literary speed dating event run by the Australian Society of Authors at the Wheeler Centre. Along with other hopeful writers, I was faced with a roomful of publishers and agents sitting behind desks. We had strictly three minutes to pitch our book and answer any questions. Our pitch should be no longer than one minute, which would give two minutes for questions and clarification. We had to join lines behind the name of the person we wanted to pitch to, and wait our turn. I felt sick.
The bell rang and I went into panicky auto drive. I sat down in front of my first pitchee, who was kind, encouraging and smiley. After I rattled off my rehearsed pitch and she asked what I would compare my book to and took notes, I started to relax and realised that the room was simply full of fellow humans looking for great stories. They wanted to like my pitch. They were not there solely to tear me down!
From that point on, I loved it. I buzzed with adrenaline and soon realised I had a killer pitch. I was doing well. I pitched to four publishers and two agents and I got positive feedback from all, including 3 requests to send the full MS when I’d finished it, including both agents. I’d had one of these agents - Danielle Binks of Jacinta di Mase - in my sights for a while so this was especially encouraging.
I signed up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that November and started the rewrite. I wrote the 50,000 words required to finish the challenge (I finished at 50,034 words, to be precise) and kept on writing.
I finished it, polished it up and had a version ready to send out by the time the speed dating event rolled around in June the next year - and this time I signed up with alacrity. To my disappointment Danielle had to pull out of this event but I pitched again to a room full of publishers and agents, including Katrina Lehman at Penguin Random House. I’d received a lukewarm response from the Penguin editor I’d pitched to last year so I almost didn’t pitch to Katrina. And also, Penguin Random House! But I screwed up my courage and joined the line waiting near her desk and went for it.
And - she loved it and asked for the the full manuscript! I had another request for a full and one request for the first 50 pages from the same agent I’d pitched to the previous year.
I went home, did some more polishing after feedback from my wonderful beta readers, and took a deep breath. On 15 August 2018 I submitted my book (then called Snatched - yes, I KNOW) to two agents and two publishers.
The first response came less than a week later, and it knocked me flat. It was from the other agent - not Danielle - and she said the idea was very intriguing but that the writing was not yet up to par and it needed another draft or two. There was too much happening, too soon. She was very kind and encouraging but this was not for her. I was well used to rejection but this time it was especially deflating. It looked like it was back to the drawing board after all that.
Danielle got back a week later. I saw her email in my inbox, swallowed hard and opened it. The first line read, ‘So, I really love this!’
I thought I’d read it wrong. I sort of froze-read the rest of the email. Your writing is so lyrical but can change to knife-edge brutal. Delightfully fresh. All the historically-accurate turning points blew my mind!. Want to see more of your writing, what else do you have planned, send me your CV.
Only the words I had dreamed of seeing for so long! Not an actual offer of representation just yet, but definite, enthusiastic interest. I replied in a sort of haze. Danielle sent a quick note to say if she was on radio silence for a bit it was only because of Melbourne Writer's Festival craziness and catching up on inbox and contract work amidst the madness - but that she was *really* keen to talk properly with me once Festival Fever was over.
A brief silence, followed by a short email from Danielle saying she had a terrible cold. Of course I understood, but every day’s silence at this stage was excruciating! I was also heading overseas on a trip in a few weeks (remember those days?). A week later on September 9th
I sent a tentative follow up email to Danielle saying I was off travelling soon, so….
I was resigning myself to nothing much happening before then. But then! Two days after that I received an email that practically exploded out of my inbox. It was from Katrina at Penguin:
‘Wow. I absolutely loved this. I must confess to disliking time-slip stories as a whole so this is evidence of your storytelling skills. Your prose reminds me of Sonya Hartnett’s: evocative, compelling and totally unique. I loved the plot; it had shades of Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. I am just writing to let you know I have passed this on to my publisher with high hopes that she will love it too. I’ll let you know as soon as I hear from her. I would love to see the outline of the second book in the series and anything else you have in the wings. :)'
I remember the glorious shock of that email like it was yesterday. This was from a publisher. A huge, prestigious publisher! I went hot and cold and hot again, and may have had a little cry. There was a tingling in my bones that whispered, ‘this actually could be it.’ This looked very much like the huge, shiny thing I’d dreamed of for so many years. And just as much as that - it was public, expert affirmation of me as a writer. This was from someone experienced in the industry, who really knew the market and wouldn’t say so if she didn’t think it was strong. The warm wash of that email has never quite gone away. I will always be grateful to Katrina for being my very first champion at Penguin and extending a hand from that publishing citadel up on high.
So, that galvanised things into action! After my initial shock I emailed Danielle to ask her for advice, even though she wasn’t actually my agent at that stage. She was as excited as I was, told me how to respond and said she was about to send me an email she had been planning to send later in the week, right now.
She did. The subject line of that email was ‘Offer of Representation.’
To be continued…