I’m writing this as a diversion from writing what I hope will turn into my second novel. I say ‘writing’; it’s more like walking in the dark with your hands out in front of you, sometimes stumbling into holes, occasionally running, but mostly just trudging forward, one word at a time. It doesn’t feel so different from writing my first novel, apart from the fact that enough people have read and enjoyed my first book to publish it; it’s no longer this strange habit that I secretly indulge whilst other people watch box sets — I do also watch box sets — it’s my ‘career.’
Although ‘career’ isn’t really the word for it: there’s no grad scheme, no HR manager, no pay scales. There are no guarantees. But career is the word used by several of the agents I met this time last year. ‘We’re not just interested in this book, we’re interested in your whole career.’
In three days, I visited six different book-lined agency offices. I sat on many well-upholstered sofas and shook many hands. I’m not sure how many cups of tea I drank or how many opinions I heard on what kind of book I’d written and what kind of books I might write in the future, but it was a lot.
Some agents saw my book as ‘commercial’, others as more ‘literary.’ Some asked me lots of questions about how I’d written it before they suggested changes, others had made pages of detailed notes. They all, I was amazed and touched to find, seemed to believe in my work.
I do not deal well with choice. Supermarkets, with their endless aisles of unnecessary necessaries, make me shudder. When eating out, I’m more likely to order some weird combination of starters and sides than have to choose one — only one! — main. I’ve felt many a waiter bristle with irritation whilst I slowly reach what feels, to me, like a life-and-death final decision. But agents aren’t like tapas; you can only choose one. So I emailed anyone I even vaguely knew who might know about this strange world of publishing I was somehow wangling my way into with the subject line: help!
It’s like dating. Who did you feel the most chemistry with? Whose vision for the book chimed the most with yours? Who did you get on with? What do you want an agent for: a business manager, an editor or a friend?
I narrowed my six down to three. I got the train back to Leeds and wheeled my suitcase back to my flat and tried and failed to sleep and still these agents and their words whirled and whirled through my head.
Then, I went to the dentist. It was my first visit to the dentist in many years. Too many. My mouth, as it turned out, was full of holes. I stumbled out an hour later, my jaw numb and floppy. The weather had turned from one of those gracefully rusting Autumn days to one of those grey and rainy ones. There were no buses and I didn’t have an umbrella. But somewhere between the dentist’s drill and that awful neon green mouthwash, something had shifted and I knew.
I picked Zoe Waldie at Rogers, Coleridge and White. I picked her not only because we got on or because her vision for my book chimed with my own, or because of her impressive client list, but because I knew she saw All the Good Things as the beginning of, for want of a better word, my ‘career’, not the end. She was sensitive, passionate and experienced. She was also calm. I called to let her know.
By the time I got home, I’d been thoroughly rained on. My mouth was still numb. But I felt a little less alone. I would soon have a page of detailed editorial advice which I knew, in that place in your gut where you just know, would make my long Word Doc into a better one; it might even make it into a book. I reached for the hair-dryer. I told myself I could do it. I kept telling it to myself in the weeks of redrafting and running and redrafting and reading and thinking that would follow. I tried not to feel scared.
A month later, Zoe sent out the manuscript to editors. Two unspeakably anxious weeks after that, she called. ‘Are you at home?’ I was not at home. I was somewhere between Halifax and Bradford, on a train. I say ‘train’; it was one of those Northern Rail specialities that is more like a bus from the 1970s: hard, scratchy seats with no leg room, no suspension, a smoker’s cough and carriages that stink of diesel. ‘Well, call me back when you’re at home.’ Of course, it was the longest journey from Bradford to Leeds in history.
Less than twenty four hours later, we had a very enthusiastic offer from Venetia Butterfield at Viking, Penguin UK. As I write this, the cover design for the book is pinned to the wall. Am I still scared? Incredibly. Do I feel supported? Yes. I have an agent and a publisher who believe in my work and are helping me to make it the best it can be. Facts and figures and ‘career’ aside, this is what it all comes down to. I’m very grateful. Now, back to the dark…