Rebecca Whitney, author of The Liar's Chair, discusses committing to your writing and submitting to literary agents.
I often ask myself why it took me so long to realise I wanted to be a writer. Over the years I’ve filled piles of notebooks with story fragments and poems, carting them from house to house, but I never dared share my work or imagine writing as a career. Being an author was a fantasy job, reserved for those with a magical something I never dreamed I’d possess. The careers advice officer at school didn’t offer an ‘author’ option, and I have a good idea I would have been laughed out of the gates if I’d suggested it at the time.
One of the key elements in me taking this book thing by the horns was having children. Up until then I’d fallen in to jobs, starting work in an industry my twenty-something self thought was cool and creative. But with no particular life plan, my thirty-something self ended up at the nuts and bolts end of TV and film production, which was no longer satisfying. Starting a family gave me the career break I so desperately needed, and during those lonely hours with tiny babies, I picked up my pen again as a means of adult and rational expression, and started filling more notebooks.
The time came to return to work, but the impracticalities of the profession I’d been part of alongside bringing up small children, loomed large. I desperately wanted to continue writing, and if I was going to retrain, it was now or never. As a taster I signed up for a short evening course in creative writing, and during the first class the tutor said, ‘You don’t have to know where your idea is going, just start writing’. That was my light-bulb moment; I’d always thought you needed a comprehensive plan to write a book, but this gave me permission to explore those snippets of stories I’d written that didn’t yet have an ending. Another more in-depth course at Sussex University got me started on my debut novel, The Liar’s Chair. This creative writing programme (now part of New Writing South)was fantastic for teaching me to take positives from critiques, to learn not only about weaknesses in my style, but also how to develop my strengths. After studying, I gave myself a year to complete the book, all the while trying to find a ‘proper’ job as I wondered if anyone would ever want to read this rather strange and very dark story. The novel was like my third child, but the constancy of motherhood had given me an endurance to see things through, to keep on going even when I couldn’t bear to read my words again.
Several drafts later, with the encouragement of the writing group I’d since joined, I decided it was time to quit the endless tinkering and send the damn thing out. The Liar’s Chair was as finished as it could possibly be without professional input, and I’m relieved I didn’t submit earlier as I’d been tempted to do so many times; you only get one chance with an agent. I consulted the agents section in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. By cross referencing authors that agents represented against the genres in which they were interested, I honed a list of potential submissions, circling them in red pen, starring and sometimes double-starring individual agents. The Yearbook was also an invaluable source of tips on writing synopses and covering letters.
With all this information in hand, I drew up a spreadsheet with the agent’s name, their submission requirements, and a dated column where I could tick the rejection button when it came in. (Some one should develop a downloadable version of this as every writer I know has had to create their own rather shonky version.) Following the individual submission guidelines listed in the Yearbook is essential - if an agent considers you haven’t been thorough enough to follow these, then what hope for your manuscript! The mechanics of this process took some of the fear out of finally sending out my book, and logging the dates made sure I didn’t follow-up with the same agent twice. There were a few weep-at-the-kitchen-table rejections, but I was extremely lucky to be picked up by the most excellent Sue Armstrong at Conville and Walsh on my first round of submissions. I still remember her initial email at 10.17pm on a Sunday evening where she said she loved what I’d sent her and wanted to read more. Nothing since then has quite hit that high. It was great when we met to talk about my story and characters, these creations which had been so much part of my headspace that were now out in the world. My third troublesome child had finally grown up and left home.
That wasn’t the end of the process by any means - there were re-edits, as well as the task of finding a publisher - but securing an agent was the first step in shaping my book for the market, and, most importantly, was the validation I’d been looking for. When people asked what I did, finally I could call myself a writer.
Rebecca Whitney’s debut novel ‘The Liar’s Chair’ was published in hardback in January 2015 and will be published in paperback by Pan Macmillan on 13 August, £7.99. She has a two book deal with Mantle/Pan Macmillan, and is currently working on her second psychological thriller. Rebecca has had work shortlisted for both the Fish and Bridport short story competitions, is a guest tutor on the Creative Writing Programme in Brighton, and a features writer. She lives in Sussex. Find out more on her website.