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1: Idle and Unprofitable Speculation

Sometimes, during the many lonely years it took to write my novel TWICE, I'd consult the online Tarot to discover how my book would get on once it was finished and out there in the world. I didn’t believe in such nonsense, really. But, without the agents, editors, support crew of an established author, it could be fun, from time to time, to seek out bolstering pings from fate.

It wasn’t that I had no support. I had my friends and family: loyal first readers, early project-encouragers, my companions on treks to chalk ridges and the muddy shores of Morecambe Bay. I had my loyal husband, who drove me to Vengeance Street in Barrow-In-Furness and to off-grid homesteads on the outskirts of the Brechfa Forest.

I had my in-laws in Wales, especially my outward-bound-instructor brother-in-law who patiently tutored me on various extreme situations, and his ex-marine friend who answered my questions about how to dig holes to hide in underground and how to survive down there for days. But these kind souls were my family and pals, disposed to be nice to me. What I wanted was the acknowledgement of strangers—from readers who didn’t know me and the literary establishment, whom I couldn't approach until my book was finished, their submission guidelines said. So I did my drafts and contented myself with homemade proxies: the algorithms and luck of the tarot deck.

I say it could be fun to consult the cards; in fact it was only fun when they told me what I wanted to hear, which they sometimes did. But over the course of time I began to notice two trends. When I asked about the quality of my book ("Is my book good?" "Is my book great?") I tended to get minor encouragers ("setting out on a new adventure", "making competent progress").

But if I asked if my book would get a massive advance or be a major international bestseller, for example, I invariably got terrible cards ("pointless struggles motivated by the vain pursuit of recognition", "idle and unprofitable speculation", "failure to stand up for your beliefs in the face of a hostile majority", "wishful thinking, ungrounded impractical fantasies").

Ouch. But so what, right? Online tarot – who gives a dreck?

Or perhaps it was impure to ask questions regarding cash and ego, perhaps the cards were teaching me a lesson.

Or perhaps they were right.

I'd certainly had some real-world inklings about my book's possible reception. Although the agent websites and Twitter accounts I was beginning to be familiar with were very clear – no submissions without a completed manuscript – there had been opportunities, over the years, to tempt various industry professionals with my unfinished wares. The first came from a big literary agency, whose Twitter announced a competition for unfinished debut novels. All you needed was three completed chapters – I had three completed chapters! Email them in and the winner would receive mentoring and a free place on one of the agency's writing courses, plus possible representation down the line.

I wasn't sure I wanted a place on a writing course. I wasn't sure that Muriel Spark would have attended one, or James Ellroy, or Patricia Highsmith. But they possibly wouldn't have followed literary agents on Twitter either, times had moved on, no point being precious. And hadn't Muriel Spark launched her career by winning a short-story competition? Perhaps I could politely decline the course and just accept the mentorship and representation, once I'd won.

What I really wanted above all was to reestablish relations with this agency. In the past I'd had dealings with their warm and enthusiastic MD who'd read and rejected a previous novel of mine. TWICE is by no means the first book I've tried to get published. He'd turned me down but complimented my effort and invited me to send him something new, once I'd written it. Well here was something new, part-written but eligible for his tournament – and much better than the earlier novel he'd partially admired, I felt.

Should I mention my previous interaction with their highest honcho in my covering email to his competition administrators? In the end I decided no. I would win fair and square, with no unfair advantage over my fellow competitors, then delight my new associates with news of their double nose for talent. Then I'd ditch the lying tarot and let the agency hold my hand while I finished my book. And brandish their imprimatur at any suggestion that writing yet another book was a waste of my time, if any such suggestion occurred.

When I didn't win (not even a mention on the shortlist!) I was immensely shocked and hurt – to an extent that surprised me. Surely I was used to rejection? I'd sent three other books to agents over the years and been turned down, despite driblets of encouragement here and there, and had developed a sort of thicker skin.

But I felt different about this book.

They must have kept it from him, those junior agents and assistants winnowing through the competition inbox, timid souls looking for the safe, the conventional. Should have mentioned my previous interaction.

Ah well. Plough on.

My next attempt to secure the future of this one before it was finished was to enter a popular tabloid's Bestseller competition for unfinished novels. You needed three thousand words and a synopsis. I wasn't sure from the start. It seemed a bad brand fit: TWICE is about the global conspiracies and fake realities spun by that kind of tabloid. They weren't going to want it, even if it was the best thing ever, and even if they did, would I want to be associated with them?

I could always turn it down. I just wanted to know that my book was good enough.

Plus the agency who was judging it felt very commercial, very mainstream. My book was fairly mainstream, I thought: chock-a-block with plot and written in accessible language. Definitely more commercial than literary fiction but less formulaic, I thought, than the books the agency represented, according to their site.

But I'd never actually read any of the books the agency represented so I didn't really know what their books were like. Perhaps I ought to. Agents seemed to want to hear you'd enjoyed their books, they said so on Twitter. It was strange, through social media, to come to know a bit more about agents and what they did and who they were, and that some had quite the egos. And to get a sense of who might suit you, when your book was finished and ready. Which seemed to be taking a long time.

As it turned out, I needn't have worried. I took it a bit better, that rejection, but it still stung. Of course they're not going to be interested in your book.

My third attempt was much more exciting...


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