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On persistence

This year I got my first ever American book deal. It was for my fourth novel, The Wild Girls, and I had convinced myself that it was never going to happen to the extent that over Christmas I had genuinely forgotten about the submission. We’d had interest in November time, but what with the world being in chaos and the cancellation of Christmas, I had put it out of my mind and so when my agent rang me in January to tell me that we had an offer (from a different publisher to the one who had expressed interest, too!) I couldn’t believe it.

You see, this was not the first time I had been out on US submission. Each of my three previous books had been sent out over the three years prior, and all three of them had been rejected. I work in publishing – I know how hard it is to crack America and so in all honesty I was resigned to it. I felt lucky to have a UK deal and to have sold some translation rights, so I decided to basically give up on the notion of securing a deal in the US. My agent, however, had not given up.

‘This is the one,’ she told me as we made a list of editors to submit it to, and I smiled down the phone because she was being nice and because I didn’t want to be a killjoy. I knew this book was not going to sell. Not because I didn’t believe in her ability to sell it – I absolutely did and do believe in her – but because I was so used to the idea of American rejections by then that to expect anything different felt foolish and I didn’t want to be the sort of person who was blindly optimistic in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Anyway, it did sell. It was lockdown, I was feeling pretty rubbish (as everyone is) and my phone was perched on the edge of the bath when my agent’s name flashed across the screen. (Side note, I still get the same rush of adrenaline whenever she calls as I did when she first signed me up about seven years ago. Does anyone else get that?). She told me that William Morrow had bought my book, that they would publish in Winter 2022, and that we had, essentially, done it.

I was happy. It was still mid-pandemic, so I was that kind of blunted, faded happy that I think we all are these days, rather than the full shebang, but it was above everything proof that I had been wrong. Just because I hadn’t got a deal with my first three books, didn’t mean that I never would. Even with all my publishing experience and let’s face it cynicism, I was wrong. A good thing had happened. And it was all because of persistence.

I wanted to write this post because I think, although this is in no way an original thought, that persistence is the absolute key when it comes to getting published. If I had not bothered to write a fourth book (I did actually consider stopping at three, mainly just because I was tired) then I never would have got a US deal. That would be a known fact. If I had never written it, I would know with 100 per cent certainty that that dream would simply never happen. I had to persist, as did my agent, and this time, it worked.

I lived in America for a year when I was a student; despite recent political events (!) it remains a kind of magical place to me; I have friends there, and those friends are in book groups. Lots of them asked to read my other novels (we did actually end up giving the rights to the first three books to my UK publisher to distribute, which they did brilliantly, so I did reach readers but I didn’t have a separate deal) and I always felt a bit sad that I couldn’t say I had a proper US deal to make them proud. Getting the phone call from my agent and then some lovely emails and a call from my new US editor changed that; it opened up a door that I had closed. America hadn’t closed that door to me. My agent certainly hadn’t. But I had. It was within my control.

I found a piece of paper the other day when I was frantically trying to find various bits of paperwork for my tax return. It was a printed out email with about ten messages on from US editors, who had fed back on my second book, The Girl Next Door. Some of them were short. Some of them were thoughtful. Some of them had the potential to be near misses, but it could have been that the editors were just being nice (which I know is a thing, because I do sometimes do it too, against my better judgement!) All of them were ultimately rejections. I remembered receiving a similar batch of messages from UK editors one Christmas Eve when my first book was on submission; I folded up the paper really small and put it in my bag, like a tiny painful origami bomb that could unleash tears at any minute. I expect most writers have similar pieces of paper, somewhere.

The point of this post is to say that it is so easy to give up. It really is. Especially at the moment, when it’s dark outside and the roads are covered with ice and the news is endless and you haven’t had any proper human interactions in months – let alone fun, interesting experiences to provide material for your novels. And if you do want to give up for now, that’s fine. Give up for tonight, or for this week, or for this year. Give yourself a break. But you should go back to it, to the writing. You should persist. You know you should. And you never know what might happen if you do. Remember not to close the door on yourself.

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