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True Grit: What I Learnt Getting A Book Deal


After getting an agent I wanted to tell the whole world and her dog about it. Who knew if anything more would happen so I figured I might as well enjoy my moment in the sunshine. 

Ironically, all this excitement wasn’t good for my writing. On sitting down at the computer, I found my fingertips hovered uncertainly over the keyboard. My fun writing project had become something else and now the thought of it being read by a professional made me question things. Did my next chapter begin with the right sentence? Was I including too much or too little description? 

Determined to make the most of the chance, however, I forced myself to write and things seemed to go least at first. My agent suggested we try to sell the novel at Frankfurt Book Fair in a few months’ time. Picking up the pace, I became completely absorbed in the story and soon felt like I was really getting somewhere. I visited Kew Gardens’ herbarium - one of the novel’s key settings - proud to tell the staff I was an agented author, and developed the backstory about a girl who begins to eat soil, has a secret friend and goes on night-time trips through the corn fields... What wasn’t to love?

But somehow the novel just didn’t come together. Being so up close, I struggled to put my finger on what was wrong. Meanwhile my agent was endlessly patient with giving advice and encouragement for revisions. Frankfurt Book Fair came and went. I carried on doggedly, waking in the early hours of the morning to bash at my keyboard. Increasingly my thoughts were sucked down plot holes and my characters told me the dialogue sucked. But I was desperate not to squander the chance of having people interested in something I’d written. 

Fast-forward a few weeks and my agent kindly suggested it was time to let go. I got this advice in an email while waiting for a train home from London. While in the city I’d told my friends from my Faber course about the novel, describing the revised storyline, and seen their faces fall as they realised how little it resembled the original idea. So I knew my agent’s advice was right. But still, the words sank through me as I walked around in the dark streets of Marylebone, shedding a tear in the rain! 

My only comfort was that, at the end of the email, my agent said she believed in me as a writer. As I returned to the train station I turned over a new idea.

It was something that’d been in the back of my mind for a long time but I’d not allowed myself to start, being fixated on the previous story. On the train home I started scribbling down ideas and was amazed at how quickly they flowed. The premise grew out of a true story from my childhood - in the summer of 1984 a man nicknamed ‘The Fox’ broke into people’s houses around the area of The Chilterns. For a while it seemed he didn’t want to take anything, he simply wanted to watch family life. I’d grown up hearing stories about how frightened the villagers were and of my dad rigging up a tripwire across the garden. I envisioned a drama set in a village, a mysterious figure unnerving residents who not only feared for their personal safety but that their own dark secrets would be discovered... 

The next morning I pitched my agent the idea and she loved it. Then, over the next two weeks, we came up with a plan, deciding on the main characters and plot points. Whereas with my first novel I’d begun writing with no clue of an ending, hoping to figure it out as I went along, this time I knew what happened at the novel’s climax. This both spurred me on and gave me confidence in the book itself, knowing it was leading somewhere good. 

Having a fresh project also helped. For some people, part of the challenge of writing a novel is working out the kinks and rewriting upteem times. There’s definitely joy in that and I’m sure I will have many more occasions of filling my desk drawers with forgotten drafts. But on this occasion, I needed to step away. My drafts weren’t improving and - most of all - the writing wasn’t fun anymore. 

With the new project it was like a rush of energy sped my writing and three months after I pitched the book idea to my agent I had a finished novel. The next month - after some intense editing - we sold it at London Book Fair to Orion and the German publisher, Zsolnay Deuticke. It will hit book stands this April!

It goes to show: things in the publishing world can happen in surprising ways. What’s crucial is to have grit and to stay upbeat about our writing. Oh, and to always be thinking about that next idea!

This blog post is part of a series by Harriet Cummings. Please watch out next week for her advice on the publishing process. 

You can read Harriet's first article on her journey to finding a literary agent here

Harriet is a freelance writer based in Leamington Spa. Her debut novel We All Begin As Strangers will be published by Orion this April and you can follow her on Twitter @HarrietWriter or find her website here.