One day my regular newsletter from the big agency whose debut novel competition I'd failed to win brought me exciting news. They'd be holding a one-to-one pitching event at a big London bookshop in a couple of months – on the day after my birthday in fact. An opportunity to discuss books-in-progress face-to-face with actual agents in the flesh.
At last: a chance for direct feedback from a live gatekeeper, no more silence or form letters.
A chance for them to sign me up on the spot, finished novels be damned.
I wrote back fast, securing a place in the earliest session of the day. I had two months to prepare. You had to turn up with a working title, a clear sense of your novel's genre, a print-out of your first page (Times New Roman, double-spaced, your full name and the book's title included in the header) and – this was the biggie – a short spoken pitch of no more than twenty words.
Twenty words to contain my wild ride. A 'logline' or 'elevator pitch' or 'high concept pitch' were the industry terms. I knew them from Twitter, had read articles, now read more of them. Those twenty words should convey the conflict, heart, stakes, flavour of your project, act as a spell to hook listeners, set them agog for more of your story. A tall order I'd initially chafed at (would Jean Rhys, would Dashiell Hammett, would Percival Everett, would Philip K. Dick..?).
But it is right and useful to be able to condense your project down to a few broad captivating strokes: "What's your novel about?" I spent two months at it, boring family and friends. The weekend before the pitch day I went to the bookshop in question, to case the joint and hone my logline further in the cafe, and to picture my finished book in the windows, perhaps a signing. All in due course. Dallying among shelves I caught a sudden glimpse of the face of my ex, a popular UK celebrity, on the front of literary magazine. I pulled it down, curious to see what he had to say for himself these days. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, an old classmate I sometimes bumped into, someone who'd been to school with me and my ex.
"What are you reading? Ohhh," when he saw what it was.
Yes, embarrassing. To hide my shame I over-explained this was a chance passing browse before I perfected my pitch for a competition. In fact – stuffing the magazine back on the shelf quickly – perhaps I could try my efforts out on him now.
For a good-natured hour this old pal listened patiently to my various attempts to squish my book down to twenty enthralling words (twelve in fact – the head honcho had recently tweeted that the very best pitches, in his experience, tended to be no more than twelve). At the end, after many helpful suggestions, my friend told me that in his frank opinion (I'd asked him to be frank), there probably was a good novel to be written about fake reality and the world's secret rulers, but he wasn't sure, by the sounds of things, that mine was the one. A sometime screenwriter himself, he told me he'd read a book which suggested you should write the pitch before you wrote your first draft and if you couldn't make a short clean punchy logline easily out of your story then you probably didn't have a very good story to begin with. No offence.
No offence taken, or not much of one displayed. I was sure there was a great logline to be made out of my book. We just hadn't got there, I just hadn't got there. More work was always the answer, plus searching IMDB for loglines of films I felt had similar plots, for me to cadge and adapt.
I worked, I counted down the days. I had my birthday, printed my first page out several times, did last minute titivations. The day came. I leaved my page into my notebook, tried to lower my expectations, took the bus down memorising the very best logline I'd managed (twenty words), still not certain it was a winner. I followed the signs and joined my nervous fellows in the cafe, giving my name to the friendly woman from the agency who was herding us, feeling sorry for the unregistered eagers pestering her for the possibility of a session. Then us first-comers were called.
So this was what the slush pile looked like in person, queueing patiently on the stairs with our dreams, awaiting our turn in the events room above. A varied mix, clutching our first pages. Some chatted nervously, building camaraderie. I'd read blog posts about a similar session run by the agency three years earlier. Friendships could be made at such events, pitches tried out on each other. I stood aloof and silent, my only communication a grateful nod to the bearded young man who stepped aside when we both tried to join the queue at the same time.
I didn't expect the head honcho who'd partially admired my earlier novel to be in regular attendance that day. Too important to sit behind a desk with his colleagues, he might mill around, make an appearance later. And even if he were there it would be absurd, even for a chronic fantasist, to think I'd get paired with him. Odds definitely against it, quell the mania, get some control please.
In fact some of my fears centred on my materials getting admired by one of his underlings, a recently-promoted junior, say, who might not have the heft or vision to bring best justice to my labours. Would it be very bad form to say I'd prefer to submit to their boss instead, mention my previous interaction? Or just nod away and go over their head later? Or just take the bird in hand?
Questions, questions. But when I was led into the room, and saw the tables of agents arranged round the edges, each one receiving a wannabe in turn, I realised, as I did my counting, that not only was the head honcho present alongside his fellows behind a white tablecloth, but that he was the one I was being guided towards.
Fate. The poor guy who'd stepped back in the queue for me must be kicking himself. After all these years, after so many attempts, grinning crazily, I shook the head honcho's hand. We sat, I introduced myself, watched him write down my name wrong but did not correct him, told him my book's then-title (it wasn't called TWICE yet), that it was a conspiracy thriller, and then did my pitch.
A nice, friendly, encouraging man, treating me with all professional respect, wearing fashionable trainers.
"OK," he said kindly, when my fumbled logline was done. Not all projects could be condensed down to a high-concept phrase, he explained (as he'd previously explained on Twitter), and it sounded like my project was one of those ones, and that was just fine (except it wasn't: he explicitly wanted high-concept projects, had said so on Twitter). Failure. He held out his hand for my page.
I watched him read it, his editing pencil poised in his hand above my familiar words. After less than a minute he put his pencil down, looked up and caught my eye, with real interest at last, I felt.
"You can certainly write," he said.
He'd said this exact phrase before, in his rejection email for my earlier book all those years ago, cherished words which had lighted my path through many dark moments over the years. They hit me again with same sanctifying glow. The room faded, it was just the two of us. He returned to my page and read more, his pencil on the table, me scrying his face for the tiniest hints.
"Well," he said when he was done. "This isn't a conspiracy thriller. It's too well-written."
Ah, sweet music to my ears, kind of.
"Is that a problem?"
It might be, he said. "It's literary." One had to be careful with genres, they mattered, he told me. He needed to know where it ended up on bookstore shelves.
"A literary conspiracy thriller?" I suggested. I didn't think my novel was literary fiction – too much plot and lowbrow thrills – but what did I know?
"Is there such a thing?"
Sure, I said: Umberto Eco, Paul Auster, uncomfortably aware I was now comparing myself to Umberto Eco and Paul Auster but too starstruck to self-deprecate.
We chatted for a while. He liked my page and was semi-intrigued by my wider spiel. "But all that Da Vinci conspiracy stuff, isn't it very fifteen years ago?" he said. Not at all, I said: my book yoked ancient to modern conspiracy in a new way – and what on earth are they actually up to in Silicon Valley right now, our dark masters? He nodded, not wholly convinced. In any case, I said, my book was less about all that in the end, more a twisty psychological identity thriller: who are people really, who can you ever really trust? "That's good," he said. But my heroine, he wanted to know, was she unreliable? I'd done my homework, knew popular books in those days tended to feature unreliable heroines. Mine, though, I was shy to say, was a straight true adventurer, slicing through deceit with sass. "Oh," he said. Now if I was telling him it was DA VINCI CODE meets GONE GIRL, then I might be onto something. We laughed.
"Well," he said, "I think you'd better send this in to us." The joy. "But not to me, I don't think," as my heart fell. "I think..." and he mused, and I prodded myself to say: no please let me send it to you, you've seen my stuff before and liked it, you've invited me, we've had a previous interaction. But I didn't manage it. He nominated a colleague for me to send it to, wished me luck, asked if he could keep my page and sent me on my way.
He asked to keep my page.
I was ushered down dazed to a table elsewhere. A group of us sat with another agent who fielded general questions and gently soft-sold writing courses. "And how did it go?" she asked us. "Very well," I smiled, though others, it seemed, had had different experiences. I felt for them.
Later though, back out in the world, I realised there were questions I should have asked. Like: should I send my book in right now when I'm just starting my second draft or should I wait until it's properly finished?
I knew the right answer to this question but I also felt I had to strike at once, and was riding high and impatient. Their submission guidelines said to send in the first ten thousand words of a completed manuscript through their online portal. I had five thousand good words of something incomplete, I stayed up all night perfecting them. I entered them into the portal, for the attention of the nominated agent, with an explanatory cover letter. Then for good measure I sent the whole submission again, via email, to the head honcho himself, using his personal email address (gleaned from my earlier rejection) despite specific agency website warnings never to do this.
There are always exceptions.
I didn't hear anything for three months.
Well it was coming up for the London Book Fair, agents got swamped at this time, I knew from Twitter. Plus one great shining thing: the honcho posted a video of a new talk he'd given on what makes a bestseller and had included the phrase 'Gone Girl meets The Da Vinci Code'. I had made my mark. Be cool.
When three months were up and the London Book Fair safely done, I wrote a polite enquiry to the agency's portal, and got a swift response from the nominated agent. A jaunty semi-generic: he thanked me for my submission, regretted that my work didn't currently fit his list, was glad I'd had a good experience at the book shop and wished me all the best with my writing.
Not a word from the honcho.
That dark cloud was tough to shake off. It wasn't your finished work. Old fuddy duddies with established blue chip clients – my alternate take on patriarchy, world history, technology, and global and personal gaslighting was too much for them and their writing courses. Hadn't the honcho's video talk said he was looking for books that were different but not too different? My book was squaring up to be bigly different and that wasn't a bad thing. It just meant finding someone up for that – there had to be someone. Once my book was done...
Plus, wasn't TWICE in part about world-wide cultural conspiracy sating the hoi-polloi with manufactured spectacle? I should be true to what I was writing: maybe there were conspiracies keeping mainstream but subversive work from the masses.
Or maybe my book wasn't any good.
But I liked it. And the honcho had liked it, kind of, the first page of it anyway.
Finish it. Plod on.
I plodded on. I wrote. I made agent spreadsheets, followed more on Twitter, read useful blogs and interviews, began to get educated, even read about independent publishers and self-publishing for the first time(!). I found a hilarious agent I loved on Twitter, due to her sass, style and cute cat pics. Now here was someone worthy, once I was ready. I probably should go with a woman agent, given my feminist themes. I worked on thickening my skin. I entered myself for a women writers' mentoring programme, heard back nothing even though they promised replies to all enquiries. I wondered if being Jewish qualified me for the BAME writing initiatives that were just starting. A close family member got a large advance for her first book (non-fiction); I was of course thrilled for her. I completed my third draft, started on my fourth.
One day on Twitter I had a nasty surprise: the sassy agent reposted a tweet from my celebrity ex. So what, I told myself. People liked what he represented, and I'd got very used to his memeable antics and face popping up on screens everywhere, even on mugs and t-shirts when I least expected them. I pictured the sassy agent and I doing some interesting girl chat over the cocktails and sushi she often photoed. All in good time. But a few days later her feed brought me the big news: her agency was now representing my ex for his 'very personal' memoir, to be published shortly.
He was writing a memoir. I doubted I'd feature much in it – he'd once promised me not to mention me in his publicity or celebrity life, and had kind of stuck to it.
Did this mean I had to strike the sassy agent off my list?
She wasn't his agent, her colleague was his agent, but she was proud and excited.
Unless my book was good enough to override even this.
Perhaps it was...
Next: Part 3: Vain Fusspots
Read my rejection odyssey from the start here.