This was the #1 question that came tumbling out of the students at my first school visit. At four different sessions, in different-sized groups, students ranging from grades 9 to 12 all wanted to know the secret. And, sadly, there’s no magic for that. I don’t even think the question “how do you get published” is answerable, because routes to publication are so varied; no single path will do. I can, however, tell you how my first novel was published.
I finished my novel (and that’s a whole different series of questions which I’ve answered in parts, week by week, and will continue to do so and collect as FAQs). Once I had a complete, polished manuscript, I wrote a query letter for literary agents. I won’t get into query letters here because lit agent Nathan Bransford has already done a splendid job explaining them. Kristin Nelson, another impossibly chipper agent, posts further examples at Pub Rants. So I shined up my query and my husband, Nick, emailed it to six literary agents. Why not send it myself? Partly because I am thin-skinned and an obsessive email-checker at the most relaxed of times, and partly because Nick is lovely, amazingly supportive of my writing, and utterly fearless with stuff like this.
I got lucky: in two days I had six replies, all of which were requests for more. In five cases, “more” was a one-page synopsis and the first three chapters; the sixth agent, from William Morris, simply said, “I’d love to read it”, so I sent the full ms. A week later, this agent’s assistant emailed to say that she was halfway through, “really enjoying it”, and would I let her know if I had interest from other agencies in the meantime. (I cannot tell you how many times I stared at the words “really enjoying it” and wondered what secret code they masked.) A couple of days later, I heard from the hard-working assistant again: the agent thought the book had merit but didn’t like it enough to represent it, so she’d passed it on to a colleague, Rowan Lawton. I did a tentative happy dance.
When Rowan emailed me a couple of weeks later, she had some questions and detailed notes for me. The ms I’d submitted was for an adult historical mystery. Rowan, however, pointed out that it was really a coming-of-age story and asked if I’d consider revising it as a YA novel. I was completely surprised. But when I thought about it, I realized that she was right. Those changes would make it a better novel.
I cut 30,000 words (paring the ms from 95,000 to 65,000 words) and compressed the plot. I changed the main characters’ ages – Mary Quinn went from 21 to 17, and James Easton from 29 to 19. One thing I was careful NOT to do was simplify or lighten the novel’s themes and ideas. I hate being talked down to – always have – and would despise myself for doing so to others. Rowan and I did two edits together before we were ready to go out on submission. At this point, I officially signed with William Morris.
My job now was to buckle down, write the sequel, and try not to obsess too much; I wasn’t the one selling the book. This was, shall we say, challenging. But a few weeks later, I opened an email (I’d been on holiday with my extended family) from Rowan that said, “I have some great news for you! Do give me a call…” ARGH. It was a Friday afternoon in Vancouver and thus darkest night in London. That was one of the longest weekends of my life. Eventually, Monday came around and I heard the News: Walker Books wanted World English rights for three novels. (I have carefully resisted the use of exclamation points here, in case I never stop. But they’re there, in my head.)
And that’s how Spy came to be published.