How I got my book published - An interview with author, Marion Grace Woolley
firstwriter.com – Saturday April 30, 2011
Marion Woolley recently secured a publishing deal with a publisher she found in firstwriter.com's database of over 1,400 publishers. We asked her about her writing, and how she found success.
fw: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Marion, and congratulations on having placed your book with a publisher. Could you tell us a bit about it?
MW: The book is called Angorichina and it’s about a tuberculosis hospice in South Australia in the early 1930s, told through the eyes of four patients: Charlotte, Joe, Heath and Sean.
The time period puts it just on the cusp of medical history, before the invention of antibiotics. Being diagnosed with TB was more or less a death sentence for many, one that could take several years to claim you.
The book has a lot to do with how each character copes with the situation they find themselves in. How they deal with their own mortality whilst being miles from home, surrounded by strangers, and with very few distractions.
It could be considered depressing subject material, but I’d like to think of it more as a testament to human resilience and to the type of relationships formed under extreme conditions.
fw: Where did you get the idea from?
MW: In 2003–4 I spent a year travelling around Australia with my partner at the time. We went all over the place. Starting off in Melbourne, we worked on a fruit farm up near Swan Hill, did the Great Ocean Road, Canberra, Sydney, then bought a car and drove for two weeks across the Nullarbor to West Australia where we lived in a tent in Fremantle.
Once we made enough money, we decided to splash out on one last adventure. So we sold the car and took a plane up to Alice Springs where we joined a tour down through the centre to Kings Canyon, Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Coober Pedy.
One of the last stops was a backpackers’ hostel up in the Flinders Ranges, just North of Adelaide. This was Angorichina Station, which is still there today. I’m not sure when it stopped being a sanatorium, but I remember feeling a real sense of history about the place. It just never left me.
fw: So were you inspired to start writing straight away, or was it something you came back to later?
MW: It took me about four years to decide to actually write the novel, then five months to complete it.
I’d had a go at writing the first chapter a couple of times before, but it wasn’t until I switched to first-person that it really took off. It was as though the characters were sitting in front of me, telling me about their experiences. This change in style helped me to tap into the part of my psyche that already knew what to write.
I had shockingly bad handwriting at school, so I think I came to rely on computers to communicate effectively. On a really good day, once I know where the story’s going, I can knock out 10,000 words. It just appears on the page. The downside is that I work in fits and starts. Some days I’ll go without sleep, others I won’t write anything at all.
fw: Have you done any writing before?
MW: I’ve always loved writing stories. I remember reading one to my dad on the train when I was about eleven or twelve. As we approached a stop, the man sitting next to us got up and said “I wish I didn’t have to go now, I’d like to hear the end!”
In 2007 I moved to Africa for a couple of years. It gave me a lot of spare time and that’s when I decided to really make a go of writing. Within a year I’d completed two novels. My first was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2009, but never actually published. The second, Angorichina, has just hit the shelves. So I’m fairly happy with how it’s going so far.
fw: Do you think a track record is helpful when trying to place a work?
MW: That’s a difficult one. Ultimately, the piece of work in front of a publisher is the one they’re reading. If it’s what they want, they’ll take it. If not, they won’t.
I think the advantage of building up a portfolio is less important for the publisher than it is for the author. When you’re trying to get published you can get a lot of knock-backs. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself developing a real downer on your own work.
The worst thing for an aspiring writer is to lose confidence in themselves. A strong portfolio of work is a collection of success stories. Like a scrapbook of good memories that you can leaf through on a grey day. It helps to remind you that you are good enough, that people have published your work and that you should keep at it.
fw: How did you go about trying to get your book published? Did you start by trying to find a literary agent, or did you approach publishers direct (and did you secure your deal directly, or through an agent)?
MW: I think I did it the long and convoluted way.
Originally I didn’t really distinguish between agents and publishers. I started off scouring the firstwriter.com listings for anyone who accepted email submissions because, let’s face it, printing costs money.
I started an Excel database of who I’d applied to, what I’d sent them, when, and what their response was. Rejections in red, still waiting in amber and – finally – successes in green. My twelfth "no" was a "yes" from a newly established publishing company.
Earlier on I’d had a very polite rejection from an agent who entered into an interesting correspondence with me about the market for literary fiction. I hired him on a one-off basis to check through the contract before signing. I still think this was a good move as I had no idea what the norm was, and he pointed out some useful alterations.
Once you’re published you can join the Society of Authors and they offer free contract services – but that’s not much good when you’re just setting out.
fw: How did firstwriter.com help you in your search?
Possibly the most useful feature for me was that I could look for those that accept e-mail submissions. In this day and age it doesn’t make a lot of sense wasting money by printing out the same work over and over. And until a book is making money, you don’t really want to be spending it.
I also like the fact that people leave reviews of agents and publishers. I’ve left a few myself and I’ve steered clear of those with dodgy reputations.
fw: What kind of approach did you take when submitting to publishers?
MW: Fairly early on I ignored the advice of applying to one publisher at a time. Some take between three to six months to reply. At that rate it would have taken me five years to meet my publisher. It’s a bit dog-in-a-manger to say "we don’t want it, but nobody else can consider it either".
I have to admit, I’ve written just about every type of approach letter it’s possible to imagine. I’ve tried following guidelines, and I’ve tried begging.
If I had to pick a style, I’d go for brevity and professionalism. Mention your previous work in the first paragraph, why this book is marketable in the second, and a brief synopsis in the third. End with a "thank you for your consideration", hit send and go to the pub. It’s better for your own sanity not to keep reading back through submissions.
There’s a fairly good Guide to Getting Published by the Rupert Heath Literary Agency. It costs about two pounds and includes a lots of useful insider tips: www.rupertheath.com/guide.html
fw: Did you receive a lot of rejections?
MW: You really want to tour the hall of shame?
I received ten straight rejections from agents. One sent a lovely handwritten message saying "but I really liked it, though" – which was very sweet, but all I kept thinking was: "if you like it, represent it!"
Another agent told me that, had it been ten years ago, he might have said yes. The problem being that I write literary fiction, rather than commercial.
After my lack of success with agents, I then sent off to two publishers. Very quickly I got a reply from one asking for the full MS, and a couple of days later I was offered a contract.
I have to admit, I never had a nasty rejection. They were all either standard slips or polite replies.
fw: Which publisher signed you in the end?
MW: The publisher that took me on was Green Sunset Books. They’re newly established, but I like that. There’s a sense of possibility when you join a fresh venture. Everyone’s full of enthusiasm, and there’s a real vibe of camaraderie.
Green Sunset Books specialise in stories about travel. As I travel a lot, most of my stories draw on those experiences. So for me they’ve been a great introduction to the industry. We’re reading from the same page, as it were.
fw: What tips would you give other writers searching for a publisher?
MW: Trust your own instincts. If you think your work is good, then the chances are it is. Remember that rejections are just a marketing decision. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad, just that it doesn’t hit that publisher’s particular market.
For instance, Lionel Shriver mentioned at a literary festival that she received thirty rejections for We Need to Talk About Kevin. Which can’t have been based on the quality of her story, otherwise it wouldn’t have gone on to become an international bestseller.
I think you have to foster a certain arrogance towards your own work. If you’re really set on running the gauntlet of rejections, then it’s important not to lose your mojo. If you know your work is good, then act like it. You have a product to sell to people who are in the market to buy. First come, first served. Don’t deign to give away your own self-worth.
At the end of the day, if you do manage to exhaust every avenue of publishing, take a leaf out of D. H. Lawrence’s book. Nobody would take one of his works, so he self-published it and made a fortune. Amanda Hocking is another fine example.
You always retain the right to prove others wrong, and never before has the opportunity been affordably available to so many.
fw: And now that you've got your publisher, how are you finding the publishing process?
MW: The process? It makes writing the book feel like child’s play. Nobody warns you about what comes next. Even with an excellent publisher like Green Sunset Books, there’s quite a bit of work involved in getting it onto the page.
I’d drawn a lot from contemporary culture of the 1920s and 30s. It gave the story an authentic feel, but also resulted in having to track down some impossible lyric reprint permissions. The total process took four music companies nine months to complete. The upshot being that I’m now a budding expert on international copyright law – not out of choice, mind.
More commonly though, I think it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for your own work over such a long period of time. Stories are immediate and of-the-moment. Unfortunately, I think it’s true that after you’ve re-read your work for the twentieth time, you’re ready to let it go; to release it into the wild. Babies are born to grow up and leave home. By the time it finally hits the shelves, you’re more than ready for your next adventure.
fw: So are you already on your next adventure?
MW: Well, I’ve written two other novels since then. I’d also like to tear apart my first novel, the one that was shortlisted in 2009, and see whether I can improve upon it. The characters and the plot are both very strong, but it is a little clumsy in parts.
It would be nice to attract an agent, but I’m through trying. It’s a bit like dating, you don’t want to settle for the first person who comes along – you want to find someone who’s right for you.
At the moment I’m just enjoying myself on retreat in Poland and East Germany. Meeting artistic types and hanging out in post-communist bars, soaking up the atmosphere. I’m supposed to be writing, but right now real life seems more interesting. Gathering inspiration, as I call it.
fw: Well, good luck with the current book, and all your future adventures!
For all the latest on the release of Angorichina visit the author's website at www.authormgw.co.uk.
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