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Paul Braddon’s journey to publication & the speculative fiction market

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Paul Braddon’s journey to publication & the speculative fiction market

Paul Braddon discusses the publication process for his debut sci-fi/speculative fiction novel, ‘The Actuality’, published by Sandstone Press in 2021 and optioned by BBC Studios.

Paul’s connection with Jericho Writers began with a series of manuscript assessments by Liz Garner. Paul also attended our Festival of Writing for several years and was shortlisted for Friday Night Live in 2013. He got his agent in 2018, and you can read about his journey to finding representation here.

Set in a crumbling future England where human life has been bioengineered and subsequently outlawed, ‘The Actuality’ follows Evie, an example of near-perfect AI, as her hiding place is exposed and she is forced to take to the streets and make critical judgements about who she can and can’t trust.

We loved that alongside explicit sci-fi themes, ‘The Actuality’ has notes of philosophy and human psychology which invite the reader to question what sets humans apart from machines. Its pace and journey-led structure would make it ideal for television.

We sat down with Paul to discuss his debut, his experience working with his publisher Sandstone Press, and what it was like to have his work optioned by BBC Studios.

JW: Hi Paul! When we last spoke, you had recently been signed by your agent. What role has she played since she took on ‘The Actuality’?

The first thing Joanna (Joanna Swainson – Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency) helped with was making the manuscript as attention grabbing as possible. One of the challenges was ensuring that none of the tension dissipated during the opening chapters. To achieve this, I made sure that a reference to accumulating events appeared on every page. We also added a prologue to provide a foreshadowing of events and a chilling strapline (‘Fear makes her human / Humans make her fear’), which is now on the front cover of the hardback.

Once the manuscript was ready, Joanna drew up a list of editors to approach and sent it out. We had favourable feedback from quite a few but Sandstone Press was first to the table with an offer. Joanna called to let me know in April 2019 – it was my birthday and the best birthday present I could have had.

We were very happy to go with Sandstone. They’re a great indie publisher and having recently won the ‘Not the Booker’ with the dystopian ‘Sweet Fruit, Sour Land’ by Rebecca Ley, were keen to build a thread around speculative fiction. They had great ideas on how ‘The Actuality’ could be given a final polish and their enthusiasm was infectious. It took a few weeks to finalise the contract, with negotiations handled by Joanna, and then it came through to me to sign.

JW: What has been the subsequent process of working with your publisher?

Once the UK and Commonwealth rights had been acquired by Sandstone, the editorial work began. My editor, the talented Kay Farrell, gave me as the main challenge the reordering of section 4 (the novel is in five sections). She was absolutely right – the flow here was not working as well as it could. After spending a few weeks on a revised draft, I returned it and to my huge relief, had nailed it.

The manuscript was then passed back and forth a half dozen times. It was all small things, like she’d challenge why a character was behaving in the way they were and I’d go back into a scene and try to understand her concerns. It was down to me to find solutions and make the changes. Kay’s role was to challenge but I’d usually find that she was right, and an improvement could be made. By October 2019 we had an agreed draft ready for proofreading.

The proofreader – Georgie Coles – did an excellent job tidying the punctuation and ensuring consistency. Her changes were largely invisible – just as they should be – but afterwards the novel felt slicker and smoother.

The cover then went out to the designer. I was asked to contribute ideas but had no expectation of what the creative mind of Heike Schüssler would come up with. The trade loves ‘different’ and her eye-popping, all-the-best-colours-from-the-children’s-paint-box design has garnered praise from all quarters and has been successful in heralding the novel’s literary ambitions. Christina Dalcher – author of the bestselling ‘VOX’ – submitted a lovely review and from it, the word ‘Exquisite’ was taken and added to the front cover.

Next came typesetting and I was sent a pdf to check. Whenever I read the text through, I saw little things I wanted to change and although at this stage I wasn’t meant to be doing anything other than checking for typesetting errors, I persuaded Kay to allow me a few more tiny edits.

Arrangements for the audiobook were also now completed. Sandstone don’t publish audiobooks themselves but sold the rights to W.F Howes – the audiobook specialist. The audiobook for ‘The Actuality’ is now complete and is read with great sensitivity by the actress Eva Feiler. Having been used to only hearing myself read my words, it’s such a pleasure to hear them spoken so movingly.

In January 2020, I met with Ceris Jones, the Sandstone marketing exec, to discuss promotional plans, including the venue for the launch event – we were assuming a central London bookshop – and in the background I was compiling a list of attendees…

…which is when the virus struck!

Initially Sandstone tried to stick with July but when it became clear that bookshops would be closed, deferred publication to February 2021.

The delay was a disappointment but also a silver lining, as it allowed time for an option for the TV/Film rights to be sold to BBC Studios, helping create a buzz ahead of publication.

In the leadup to publication, social media activity has mounted. ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) have been sent out to reviewers to drum up excitement. One highlight is a piece on the BBC Culture website (to be published 4th of March) which positions ‘The Actuality’ in the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. I think this is lovely and works on so many levels, not least in that there is indeed something of the gothic heroine in my ‘electric’ character Evie.

The revised date for publication – Thursday 18th of February 2021 – is now upon us. As before, bookshops remain closed, but Sandstone have gained experience with online events and we have a Q&A on Twitter planned for lunchtime – plus hopefully an evening event to follow soon. I will also definitely have a proper launch party when circumstances allow and the wine can be safely shared around!

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‘The Actuality’, Paul Braddon. Sandstone Press, 2021.


JW: How would you place ‘The Actuality’ within the sci-fi/speculative fiction market? 

 ‘The Actuality’ straddles sci-fi / dystopia and literary fiction. What is rare about it, is that the story is presented through the point of view of the AI and maybe because of this, reviewers have engaged. In the words of The Publishing Planet:

‘As an exceptionally designed and advanced AI, Evie is outside the category of human but feels like the most human character in the book. Braddon’s ability to write about this rough and brutal world through the eyes of such an elegant and honest character is beguiling.’

I love that they love her.


JW: The world in the novel is quite bleak – does this reflect your perception of what the future could be like or are you more optimistic?

 The setting of ‘The Actuality’ is 2135 and the impact of climate change has taken its toll on the environment and society. The UK has fragmented, suffers bitter winters and baking summers and the population has drastically shrunk as a result of a decline in fertility caused by unchecked pollution. All of this is completely plausible.

However, our potential saviour is science – technological advance has created this mess, but it is quite within our wits to use further advances to find our way out. The rapid growth of electric vehicles is testament to this and the implementation of artificial intelligence will enable machines to aid us in the quest.


JW: In very exciting news, ‘The Actuality’ has been optioned by BBC Studios! Can you explain what the process has been like so far? 

 It was amazing getting the news that we had an offer for the TV and film rights from BBC Studios. Joanna spotted the screen potential of ‘The Actuality’ right from the start. Her agency works with a specialist dramatics rights agent called Marc Simonsson who has all the studio contacts here and abroad and had been championing it, albeit the crucial lead came from a pitch made by Sandstone, with Marc expertly negotiating with BBC Studios to close the deal. The great thing about being optioned at this stage is that it gives us valuable pre-publication publicity.


JW: What’s next for you, and how are you approaching new projects?

 ‘The Actuality’ was written as a standalone novel but the potential to develop the story is part of the appeal to BBC Studios and if a TV series is commissioned I might well revisit Evie’s world. I love dystopian/speculative themes and hope to work more in this genre. The novel I am currently working on however is a bit different – I’d love to say more because I’m very excited by it, but it’s early days and I can’t risk jinxing it!

From Paul’s Agent, Joanna Swainson (Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency)

JW: Hi Joanna! Thanks for chatting to us. What was it about Paul’s manuscript that originally drew you to it?

JS: I was initially drawn to Paul’s manuscript by the prospect of reading a novel set a hundred years in the future, in a ‘broken down England where technology has lurched forward then all but seized up’. This was how Paul described it in his pitch and although it sounds depressing, I immediately saw a vivid backdrop to a story with wonderful potential for exploring human nature. And then as soon as I started to read, I was hooked in by the atmosphere he creates and the protagonist, Evie, a beautifully drawn character who kept surprising me.

JW: As an agent, what kind of thing are you looking for right now?

 JS: As an agent, I’m genuinely open to representing a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. Particular areas of interest in fiction are novels which explore the darker side of human nature, so crime and thrillers and horror (and folk horror). But I do also like funny and uplifting, too! And in fact, I think a book should put a smile on your face, whether it’s through humour itself, or irony, or sheer ingenuity of character or writing or whatever it is. We’re here to marvel and be entertained. I’m also a big fan of history and folklore, whether in fiction or non-fiction.

JW: Could you comment on what it’s like pitching work in the sci-fi/speculative fiction market right now?

JS: There are possibly slightly fewer editors you can approach for sci-fi/speculative fiction but pitching into this market is much the same as pitching in any other – it’s tough out there, but if the work is amazing then it should get the deal. If it’s speculative with cross over (i.e. book group or literary or other categories) appeal, then all to the better. But then sometimes you don’t really know if it will cross over until it’s published and embraced by the masses and it very much depends on how a publisher positions a book too.

About Paul Braddon

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Paul Braddon lives in London with his wife Mary and son Thomas. He got the writing bug after coming runner-up in an essay competition as a teenager and went onto study English Literature at Reading University.

You can check out Paul’s website here and follow him on Twitter here.

Links to buy ‘The Actuality’:

From Sandstone Press

From Amazon

From Bookshop.org

Hardman & Swainson Literary submissions information here.

Got a manuscript ready to submit? Our renowned AgentMatch database has up-to-date information on every agent in the UK and US – perfect for compiling your shortlist.

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Neema Shah on her debut with Picador

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How Steffanie Edward went from 28 rejections to a two-book deal

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How Steffanie Edward went from 28 rejections to a two-book deal

We first met Steffanie Edward in 2018 when she became the first recipient of our Self-Edit Your Novel Course bursary.

Two years later, we caught up with Steffanie to find out what it’s been like to sign her debut contract with a digital-first publisher, without the help of an agent, discuss writing for oneself, getting past the first draft, and, of course, her fantastic achievement with Bookouture.

JW: Lovely to chat with you. Where are you at with your writing process right now?

S: At the moment I’m doing structural edits – it’s all new to me. I’ve had my work looked at through manuscript feedback, but it’s nothing like this. Structural edits are much more detailed, and all in your hands. Rather than being given specific suggestions on where and how to make changes, you’re tackling specifics where you have to read the whole novel again and again to tweak and implement changes. It forces you to go deeper into your characters, makes you interrogate who they really are and why.

JW: Your debut,This Other Island’, comes out in May 2021. What can readers expect from it?

S: It’s fresh, it’s different. It has lots of twists, turns, and surprises. Working with my editor, Isobel Akenhead, is helping me produce a novel which will have the biggest impact on readers it can possibly have, and I’m loving it.

JW: How did you land your book deal?

S: I was submitting to so many agents and just getting nowhere. Three or four of them said nice things in their rejection, but it was still a rejection. Then I signed up for a book surgery offered by Peepal Press. It was suggested that mine was quite a common journey for black writers – they often end up at independent presses because they can’t get an agent, and so it was suggested that I tried submitting to independent presses, like Peepal Press. I felt quite demoralised, but I submitted to a few independents. And then the Jericho Writers Summer Festival of Writing came up. I watched the Bookouture interview with Jenny Geras, and thought, ‘I really like this woman.’ Sometimes you just get a really good vibe. Jenny was saying all these nice things about how they don’t believe in slushpiles and you don’t need an agent to submit to them. I still didn’t submit – I thought I’d just get another rejection. Then the Jericho Writers newsletter came out and Harry did a write-up on Bookouture. He was very encouraging. He mentioned that if you do the maths, you’re more likely to get through with Bookouture than you are with an agent, just based on the number of submissions they accept per year. And there was another Jericho Writers piece about Bookouture encouraging black writers to submit to them. So, in the end, I submitted twice!

JW: How did you feel when you found out Bookouture wanted to publish your novel?

I was so overwhelmed. I’d had so many rejections from agents, I think I’d had 28 rejections. But then Isobel’s email said she was so pleased my book was assigned to her because she ‘absolutely LOVED IT’. I couldn’t believe it – it was an amazing moment.

Debi Alper [who runs our Self Edit Your Novel Course] was the first person I told because she was always there with me. Every little disappointment, every time I had doubts, she’d say ‘just keep going!’ Every time I contacted her, she came swiftly back and really helped to prop me up.

JW: That’s a lovely relationship to have. Do you think you’ll contact Debi for the draft of your second book as well?

S: Yes, I’ll always be running things by her! I feel really blessed that I’ve met her, that she believed in me and that she kept encouraging me to hang in there. ‘Keep submitting,’ she’d say. ‘You just need to find the right person at the right time.’

JW: How did you discover our Self-Editing Course in the first place?

S: I joined Jericho Writers in August 2018 mainly because I’d get access to loads of webinars and other things that I could tap into to learn more about writing and getting published. Then I saw the Self-Editing Course advertised and I thought, ‘well, I’ve got this novel I’ve been working on for the last ten years. Let me see if I can get moving on it.’ I’m not working – well not paid work anyway. I look after my mum who has Alzheimer’s, so I applied for the bursary and thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained. When Jericho contacted me to say I’d been successful, I couldn’t believe it. That was my first opening door.

“I feel really blessed that I’ve met [Debi Alper], that she believed in me and that she kept encouraging me to hang in there.”

JW: What has it been like to work with Bookouture?

S: So far, I’ve found everyone to be very on the ball, easy to talk to and efficient. When I was submitting to agents, I noticed how young many of them were and I remember saying to Debi, they’re not going to get me, they won’t get my story. Not only am I a mature writer, but I am also a black writer. She told me I should just go for it.

My editor, at Bookouture, Isobel Akenhead is young enough to be my daughter, but she knows her work and has a good eye for what works and what doesn’t. Also, she loves my work and actually gets it.

JW: That’s exactly what you need. Sometimes, especially for a debut author, the publishing process can be really daunting. What was it like to negotiate the deal without an agent there backing you up?

S: I didn’t like it. It took me away from the creative process to something more business orientated. On Debi’s advice, I joined the Society of Authors, and I sent the contract to them for feedback and advice. They gave advice on things I should query, but very little changed at the end I thought I’d take a chance and be positive about Bookouture because this is the contract that would launch my career, and they seem like a great fit.

Everything moved quite fast. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me, or that I was the person this was happening for.

JW: It must be very overwhelming. Bookouture do things like royalties slightly differently don’t they?

S: They don’t do advances, but they give you 45% of your sales. It really suits me.

JW: They’re doing a few things that are quite radically different, which I think is so intriguing. Are there any challenges that you’re facing right now as an author, and how are they different to challenges you might have faced in the past?

S: I feel now that I’ve signed a contract, I’ve joined the big league. So, I can’t get demoralised, or say, ‘I can’t be bothered to write today.’ But the great motivating thing about it is that I’m not writing in the hope that a publisher or an agent will take me on. Things are clearer, I know the stories I’m writing will be published. I love writing, find it satisfying all my efforts are being rewarded and it’s exciting, so it’s all great.

JW: How long have you been writing for?

S: I started writing seriously in my thirties. I wrote a novel when I was living in Abu Dhabi, despite knowing nothing about writing. I sent it off to all these agents in England, and all of them said ‘get stuffed,’ basically. I abandoned it, and then when I came back to England I started going on courses and getting my short stories published. I was really into Octavia E. Butler, who wrote sci-fi. All her main characters were black, and I liked that about her – I liked that they were women as well. I thought perhaps I could write a story like that.

My first novel, which was the one I submitted to the Self Edit Your Novel course, was literary fiction with Caribbean magical realism (there are lots of myths and legends in the Caribbean). I’d been writing that for so many years and couldn’t get past a certain point, and the course helped me to get past that point and actually finish it!

JW: Let’s talk about first drafts. Do you have a method that you stick to? For example, do you give yourself a certain amount of words to write each day or set deadlines?

S: That’s exactly what I do. For my second novel, which I’m writing now, as part of the Bookouture deal, the target is 1500 words each day. Sometimes I even manage 2000. For my previous novel, the target was 500 but then I realised I could do much more! You definitely have to have an element of planning. I didn’t do enough of that for my first novel. But as you’re writing it’s like some magic happens in your brain – ideas just come to you. Things just happen! You just have to keep going until you’ve got that first draft completed. Put it down for a bit, then come back to it for a second draft, which is likely to be more challenging than the first because that’s when you change things, find certain things don’t fit well into the plot; some characters disappear, another might enter etc.

“That’s the writing process. It just has magic in it.”

JW: How different is your final draft to your first?

S: With ‘This Other Island’, I started the first draft thinking I’d only have one point of view and one protagonist. My final draft has three points of view and the plot itself has become much more intertwined – with more twists and surprises. Having to write a synopsis, query letter and pitch, helped me to identify the main theme in the novel. When I was submitting to agents, some asked which novel or author your novel would sit comfortably next to. Though irritating at the time, that helped to get me focused on the themes in my novel too. With the help of Isobel, I’ve identified more themes running through ‘This Other Island’. And I feel even more proud of the novel. I have always been fascinated by the consequences of not knowing who your parents are.

JW: That’s interesting, where do you think that fascination comes from?

S: I think it comes from my culture – perhaps a historical thing from slavery when many children were sold off and didn’t know their parents. Parents had children they had to say good-bye to and never see again. I think it’s important to know who you are, who your people are, and who you’re connected with biologically If you don’t, it could lead to dire consequences.

JW: Of course. Do you feel like writing became a kind of catharsis in that sense?

S: Maybe, but unplanned. The idea for this novel actually came from my mother, when I listened to her talking about her journey to England on a ship. Then whilst plotting and getting the story out, things came through and eventually the whole thing worked. That’s the writing process. It just has magic in it.

JW: Do you have any tips for writers who might be working on their first draft?

S: Have a plan – you don’t necessarily have to know the end, but make sure you know what the characters are going to go through and have a rough idea of what you want to happen. Many seasoned writers say write the first draft for yourself. Don’t worry about the reader yet. I agree. It’s the best method for me.

From Isobel Akenhead, Steffanie’s editor at Bookouture

JW: You must see a lot of submissions at Bookouture. What was it about Steffanie’s novel that stood out for you?

Isobel: From the moment I started reading Steffanie’s novel, I was captivated by the story she was telling, the characters she’d created, and her entirely distinctive voice. It was a book I couldn’t stop thinking about! In talking to Steffanie, it became clear that we felt the same way about this beautiful novel, and shared a vision on publishing and readership, that made the editorial partnership feel strong right from the outset.

JW: What are you currently looking for at Bookouture and how can writers help their chances of success?

Isobel: [At Bookouture] we have an open submissions portal, and are equally delighted by direct and agented submissions, which we endeavour to respond to within a matter of weeks. Writing a compelling synopsis, and enclosing the entire manuscript are practical things you can do to help its success, but in terms of content, we simply want powerful, gripping stories that readers won’t be able to put down.

Whether that’s romance, crime, historical fiction, or more book club reads, broadly at Bookouture we’re just looking for commercially written stories that we think a large audience of readers will love.

With two books already on the way, Steffanie Edward is a Self-Edit Course alumna to watch. We’re so glad Steffanie found our resources useful and can’t wait to see the debut of this exciting new author on our shelves. You can follow Steffanie on Twitter at @EdwardsaEdward.

Don’t forget to view our bursary opportunities here.

See more success stories from the Self-Edit Course for yourself at #SelfEditAlumni on Twitter.

More about Steffanie’s deal with Bookouture here.

Submit your work to Bookouture here.

About Steffanie Edward


Steffanie Edward was born in St Lucia but brought up in London. Her writing career started with short stories, five of which have been published. Two of them came runner-up in a Darker Times Fiction flash competition. Her novel ‘This Other Island’, was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize.

Her first attempt at writing a novel was over twenty years ago, whilst living and working in Abu Dhabi. That novel, ‘Yvette’, didn’t make it into print, but the main protagonist, has muscled her way into Steffanie’s debut novel, ‘This Other Island.’

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The Rewriter’s Journey by John David Mann


The Rewriter’s Journey

by John David Mann

In this article, New York Times bestselling author, John David Mann shares his experiences editing and rewriting his first novel, Steel Fear (2020).

When I handed my wife my five-hundred-page, hundred-fifty-thousand-word completed draft of my first novel, she did three things. She read it. She told me she loved it. And then she gave me the best advice I’ve had in a decade: “Send it to Jericho.”


This wasn’t my maiden voyage. I first learned about the value of rewriting—the agony and ecstasy of rewriting, its trials and rewards—more than a decade earlier. Back in 2005 I coauthored a little “business parable” with a friend and managed to secure us a terrific literary agent, who in 2006 sent it round to a handful of publishers in New York and got the following responses:

Editor 1 at Publisher A said no.

Editor 2 at Publisher B said no.

Editor 3 at Publisher C said no.

Editor 4 at Publisher D said no.

Editor 5 at Publisher E said no.

Editor 6 at Publisher F said no.

Editor 7 at Publisher G said no.

Editor 8 at Publisher H said, “This one was pretty interesting. The writing is good, but the payoff was a bit lacking.” In other words…no.

Rewriting with John David Mann

So we took the manuscript back, spent months reworking it, and then in 2007 sent it round to publishers yet again. This time, some of those same editors from 2006 responded, as did a few different editors at some of those publishers, as well as some altogether new editors from entirely different publishers. Here’s what they all said:

Editor 9 at Publisher A (Editor 1’s publisher) said no.

Editor 10 at Publisher B (Editor 2’s publisher) said no.

Editor 11 at Publisher I said no.

Editor 12 at Publisher J said no.

Editor 13 at Publisher K said no.

Editor 14 at Publisher L said no.

Editor 15 at Publisher M said, “Starts out with a bang but loses steam in the middle.” That’s a no.

Editor 16 at Publisher N said, “Liked it, but not quite right for our imprint and the direction we are going in this year.” Nyet.

Editor 17 at Publisher O passed to Editor 18. Who said, “Like it, but couldn’t get other team members enthusiastic about it.” Nein danke.

Editor 4 (back at Publisher D) who’d said no on the first try, said, “It’s very well done, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book that will work well on our business list.” En-Oh.

Editor 5 (back at Publisher E) read the new version and said, “Needs a unique hook or punchline to get people to respond. Writing is great but payoff not strong enough.” Fuggedaboudit.

Editor 6 (still at Publisher F) said, “Saw this twice now. Liked it, but didn’t love it. While I like the message a lot, the story itself seemed a little more didactic and forced than we would like.” Amscray.

Editor 7 (back at Publisher G) said, “Liked it. Wanted to love it, but I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with it. I’ve been incredibly wrong before and probably am on this one, but I’m going to have to pass, with regret.” Don’t let the door hitcha where the good Lord splitcha.

Editor 19 at Publisher H, the same house where Editor 8 had said “This one was pretty interesting but the payoff was lacking” the previous year, said—

Wait, what?

He said “yes.”

The moral of the story

We published THE GO-GIVER in early 2008. It hit some lists, won some awards, and to date has sold nearly a million copies in more than two dozen languages.

But the moral of the story isn’t what you might think.

You’ve heard the stories about persistence— JK Rowling turned down by a dozen publishers. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen and their goofy idea for a book called Chicken Soup for the Soul turned down by 144 publishers. Harlan Sanders and his recipe for fried chicken rejected more than a thousand times. And so on. The moral is, persist! Believe in yourself! Don’t listen to the naysayers—keep knocking on those doors! Right?


Those first eight editors were right to reject our book. To this day I thank my lucky stars they all said “no.” Because if even one of them had said “yes” and we’d published the book back in 2006, it would not have sold a million copies. Maybe a thousand. Or not.

Because it wasn’t ready.

Those eight editors knew something we didn’t know.

And that, that, is to me the moral of the story.

Yes, believe in yourself, believe in your idea, trust that your story is the most fantastic and amazing and compelling story that has come around in years, that the world needs and wants your story. Have unshakable faith in yourself.

But keep one ear open. Maybe both ears. Because there are people who know things you don’t know. And if you want your idea to become all it can be, all it should be, all it was born to be, then you need to hear those things you don’t yet know. Hear them, and act on them.

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During those months of reworking that original manuscript, our agent first covered every page with red ink, and I then spent dozens of hours rephrasing, simplifying, compressing, and deleting. Changed one character’s gender. Cut a few other characters altogether. Remember that comment about how “the payoff was a bit lacking”? Right: we tossed out the entire last chapter and wrote a brand new one.

And it became the book it was meant to be.

Which was why Number Nineteen (aka Adrian Zackheim at Portfolio, an imprint at Penguin, now Penguin Random House) said “yes” and launched my career.

Fast forward a decade. By 2018 I’d written a bunch more books, some fairly successful, some not so much, but all of them sharing this in common: they were all shelved on the nonfiction side of the bookstore.

In June of ’18 I set out to do something that terrified me: write a novel.

Harry Bingham is one of my crime-fiction heroes. I’ve loved every word of the Fiona books. I wanted to do something like that. I’ve also come to love Harry’s teaching and coaching. Before starting work on my novel I read his How to Write cover to cover, joined Jericho Writers and watched his video course.

Then I started.

Header3 rewriting john david mann

Steel Fear

The story is a thriller called STEEL FEAR, and I cocreated it with a friend, a former Navy SEAL sniper with whom I’ve written before (all nonfiction, till now). He had the basic story idea, supplied technical and background detail, and was a rich source of color and flavor for the world I was building. The actual writing—creating characters, designing the plot, working out the twists and turns, putting flesh and blood and bones on the whole thing, and tapping out one damn word after another—was my job. Here’s the elevator pitch:

A disgraced Navy SEAL stalks a serial killer aboard an aircraft carrier in the midst of the Pacific Ocean.

It took me about fifteen months, from first research notes and scribbles to first draft.

At which point my wife said: “Send it to Jericho.”

Understand, this is something I’ve never ever done before: hired a third-party consultant to critique my first draft. I’ve gotten critique-and-review assistance from my agent, from my publishers’ editors, and from the handful of friends who form my early readers’ circle. This was different: a novel. My first. And a thriller, yet.

I knew my wife was right. I needed professional help.

So in mid-September 2019, I submitted the manuscript to Jericho for a full manuscript assessment.

I don’t think it’s too early to say, that one action has changed the trajectory of my career.

Jericho paired me up with veteran thriller author Eve Seymour, who turned around a lengthy, comprehensive critique within a shockingly short time. (Weeks, not months.)

Eve was most generous in her initial comments, the “What I think is great” part. And then got down to business. Chapter by chapter, page by page, structure, plot, characterization, pacing and tension…she mapped out the entire thing, end to end, from broad-strokes observations to detailed notes.

Her critique was fantastic, phenomenal, incisive, spot on. Kind but ruthless. Terrifying. Galvanizing. Motivating. I saw what was lacking, and what was possible.

Eve helped me see that the story had major flaws. I’d conceived of it as having more or less three protagonists—and you can see the problem right there in the phrase “more or less.” It was vague. Not a clear three-strand braid, but not a clear one-hero thread either. She prodded me to make a clear choice as to who was the protagonist, and then rework everything to serve that choice.

I had way too much backstory. Heaping helpings of unnecessary exposition. The pacing was fantastic toward the end but laborious in the first half. And inconsistent: some scenes zipped along, some dragged or halted the momentum altogether. Plot took way too long to get going. Some subplot threads didn’t really work. And so on.

I had a lot of work ahead of me.


I spent October through the end of the year completely reworking it, in the process shrinking from 152k words to 129k.

On New Year’s Day I sent Draft 2 to my agent.

Who read it. Told us she loved it. And asked for further cuts and revisions.

Her observations ran along exactly the same lines as Eve’s. All I had to do was keep going.

Between January and April I went through two more drafts, in the process taking that new 129k word count to 120k, and finally to 103k. (From the original, that’s about one in every three words chopped. Warning: Many, many darlings were murdered in the course of this production.) Deleted a handful of characters, some of whom I’d thought were “indispensable.” Tightened timelines. Shifted critical revelations to earlier. Rewrote all the murder scenes that were originally told from the killer’s POV to now be from the victims’ POV. Eliminated a prologue I’d thought of as brilliant and riveting but which turned out to be neither.

And so on.

Until, finally, it had become the book it was meant to be.

In June we got a handful of offers, took the one from Ballantine Books for a two-book deal. Signed a contract in early August. The first book of the series, STEEL FEAR, will hit the shelves on August 24, 2021. The sequel comes a year later. With, perhaps, more to follow.

And here’s the cherry on the sundae: we are presently in discussion with three A-list Hollywood producers, all of whom want to bring our story to the screen. The book has, as they say in Tinsel Town, “buzz.” Once a deal solidifies and we know for sure which horse we’re riding I’ll see if we can append that information to this post.

Will the book be a hit? No one knows. Will the screen adaptation really happen? No one knows. But this I know, and know for sure: If we hadn’t gone through all that rewriting, none of those editors in New York would have jumped on it. Not one. And the novel would have ended its days sitting on my shelf.

Writing made the story. Rewriting turned it into the story it was meant to be.

About John

John David Mann is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers The Red CircleFlash Foresight, The Slight Edge, and The Latte Factor. His Take the Lead (with Betsy Myers) was named by Tom Peters and the Washington Post as “Best Leadership Book of 2011.” His international bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) was awarded the Axiom Business Book Award’s Gold Medal and the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal given for “contribution to positive global change.”

You can keep up to date with John’s new releases, on his Amazon page. Find John on twitter here, or have a nose around his website here.

Are you on the lookout for representation? If so, why not check out AgentMatch, our database recording all UK and US literary agents.

Or, perhaps you’re also looking for some editorial feedback? If so, then you’ll probably find this blog about the types of editing really helpful, and not forgetting our editorial services too!

More on getting published


How I Got My Agent by Helen Fisher

How I got my agent by Helen Graupp-Fisher

How I Got My Agent

By Helen Fisher

In this blog post, Helen Fisher tells us about her journey to finding a literary agent for her debut novel, Spacehopper

Did I always want to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t do it until I was 44 when a friend bullied me into it. She told me to write a chapter a week and send it to her. Clocking in with her was a great incentive, although I realise a lot of authors like to write the whole thing before they let anyone see it.

About 30,000 words in, I panicked: I DON’T KNOW HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, I thought (constantly) and – realising I needed help – I bought Harry Bingham’s book: How to Write. I read it cover to cover and quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in any of my thoughts – neither the negative ones (I CAN’T do it) nor the positive (I CAN do it). As well as practical support, that book provided the emotional support I needed. I read it and went back to my novel, and – with steam coming out of my ears, and springs coming out of my head – I finished it. I commissioned a really useful editorial report via Jericho Writers, and submitted it to a few agents. But ultimately I shelved it.

A year later I wrote my second novel, Spacehopper, the one that’s going to be published. I was in a better place to do it, because this time I had some tools in my belt before I started: the ones I didn’t have until I was 30,000 words in the first time round: I’d read How to Write, been to a JW Getting Published Day and used the resources I found on the JW website.

What I learnt and how I learnt it

I learnt a lot from reading books about how to write. Not just Harry Bingham’s book, but the famous On Writing, by Stephen King, and other books like that. Reading about writing inspired me and made me believe I could do it; I needed that. Mind you, the feeling would wear off quickly, it wasn’t long before I’d start thinking I can’t do this, again. It was like a drug I had to keep topping up to get the same effect, so I kept reading.

Reading novels also helped. I found I was reading more attentively now, really looking at what I loved best in novels, so I could more knowingly make an impact on readers through my own writing. I took out a month’s membership at JW as a birthday present to myself, it was a luxury I found hard to afford – it is fantastic value, but I was skint – so I made the most of it: joined up when I knew I could make best use of the online videos. I immersed myself in the information, made notes, and soon felt like I had a bag full of stuff to help me get through the writing process.

Unfortunately, at that stage, it did feel as though I was simply trying to get to the finish line, rather than enjoying the process. I’m an impatient person, and novel-writing isn’t ideal for the impatient. Now, I’m getting there: learning to enjoy the process. With my new novel, Gabriel’s Cat, my agent asked for a synopsis early on, something I’d never done until the book was finished. Being clearer about where the story was going has helped. I feel less frightened about what will happen next when I sit down to write. I have never enjoyed writing more.

I learned a lot at a JW Getting Published Day. There were lots of really interesting and practical sessions during the day. I left with more inspiration, and was buzzing because I’d spent a blissful succession of hours with people who could talk all day long about writing novels, without glazing over once!

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My first draft

It took me four months to write the first draft of Spacehopper and I gave it to four friends to read in chunks. These were the same friends who read the novel I cut my teeth on the previous year, and this time was different. They didn’t really have any criticism, just wanted me to get on with it, so they could find out what happened next. This boost to my ego was essential: much as I wanted honest feedback, I think I would have crumbled, possibly stopped, if the feedback had been bad. I wanted them to be honest, but I wanted them to honestly love it. Spacehopper has a big twist; I didn’t think of it until I was more than halfway through writing the novel, and as soon as I decided on the ending, I couldn’t write fast enough. I wanted to hear what my readers felt about the ending. When I made them cry, I punched the air.

When the first draft was done, I did the same as last time, and commissioned a full editorial report through Jericho Writers, from the same editor as last time. It was a stretch on my finances, and I knew I would only be able to afford one round of feedback. The report I got back was worth every penny, not only in its practical suggestions, but because the editor said she was certain it was a novel that would be published. Hearing that from a professional, gave me the confidence to keep going, make a few adjustments and start to get ready to submit to agents.

I think I would have enjoyed writing Spacehopper more if I’d planned out the story in more depth before starting, and followed more of the plot structures that make stories work. Not just because there is something nice about knowing where you’re going with a story, from beginning to end – indeed I truly believe you can know too much about what’s going to happen in the novel you’re writing: things that you don’t plan will be some of the best bits. But when you understand the plot structures that make stories work – even if you don’t follow them strictly – you will surely have more confidence that your story is going to be better told. Understanding what makes stories work, makes us better storytellers.

From first draft to final version

The editor who conducted a full editorial report, via JW, suggested I make some changes. I’ve looked back in my notebook and I see I made 39 changes to Spacehopper based on her recommendations. It might sound like a lot, but the majority were fairly straightforward. Essentially the novel remained unchanged (in comparison, when I made changes to my previous novel, it was a huge task and I felt I had a different book by the time I’d edited it).

I worked for a couple of weeks tweaking Spacehopper, and after that, without the finances to put it through another round of editorial revision, I started getting ready to submit to agents. I didn’t give it to anyone else to read at this stage. As I mentioned, patience is not my strength, and I had to get it out.

header2 how i got my agent Helen Fisher

How I got my agent

In September 2018, I put together my submission pack to agents. I trawled resources online and in books, to make sure my letter was just right and I used JW’s AgentMatch to look up agents that might like my type of novel. A problem for me was that my novel includes time travel, but it’s not science fiction, or fantasy, it’s about love and grief and what we would say to those we loved and lost, given the chance. But it’s hard for people to see beyond the time travel element.

I put my synopsis together and finally decided that I needed to get a submission pack assessment done: I didn’t want to mess up my first impression with agents before I’d left the starting blocks. Again I commissioned this via JW, and after that I began submitting with confidence that my submission pack, at least, was as good as it could be.

I’d read enough to know I needed to brace myself for rejection. It was a rite of passage, everyone said so, and even if I was to get an agent one day, I knew I would have to taste rejection first. But knowing you’ll get your heart broken, doesn’t make it any easier when it happens. The first time I saw the name of an agent in my email inbox, I held my breath. I was at work, and I stopped everything: the email wouldn’t open. I trotted to another part of the college trying to get a connection, all the time thinking what if they want me?? When the email opened and I saw it was a rejection, I realised I wasn’t really prepared for the disappointment; the way it stuck in my throat and made it hard to swallow, the way I teared up because this email had been the difference between my dreams coming true and my dreams basically, not coming true.

And then I got another rejection, and another, and another, each one feeling like a shovel full of dirt being thrown over me, until I felt buried. Fourteen rejections between October and Christmas brought me to an all-time low, which I managed to hide from most family and friends. I remember thinking that if I couldn’t write, then I couldn’t do anything I really wanted to do. Plus I’d made the mistake of telling everyone that I was submitting to agents. One of my friends who’d read my book and loved it said he would help me self-publish, and I said I’d think about it. But first I needed to get myself into a better place. I’m usually a happy person and I was so down. I needed to get back up. Over Christmas and January 2019, when I’d put Spacehopper in a drawer and locked it, I convinced myself that I’d been happy before I wrote this novel, and therefore I could be happy again. Eventually I started to come to terms with the idea of not getting published, even though I still believed so strongly in this novel that I’d locked away.

Then a little bit of fate stepped in. Last year – before I started submitting to agents – my ex-husband’s fiancé asked in passing if she could read my novel, and after some deliberation, I agreed. Then in February this year, I got a message from her saying I just read a book that makes me feel a bit like your book did. That’s nice, I thought. The next day I happened to be in Waterstone’s and picked that book up, wondered if the agent was mentioned in credits. She was. Maybe – I thought – maybe I’ll try just one more agent – Judith Murray, at Greene and Heaton. And I did.

I submitted my letter, synopsis and manuscript to her in the middle of February. When I got an email saying that Judith was loving Spacehopper and could I send the rest of the manuscript, I wasn’t prepared: by now I was only prepared for rejection. I sent the manuscript, and held my breath for three days. She rang me, and on March the 1st I found myself meeting Judith in a restaurant in Borough Market in London. At last I felt I had opened the wardrobe door and stepped into another world. Meeting Judith was one of the most delightful experiences of my life, hearing her thoughts on my novel, getting to know her and that feeling that I’d met my fairy godmother and she was going to do everything she could to get me to the ball.

My author-agent relationship

After we met, Judith and I talked about making changes to my novel that she thought would give it its best shot at being an attractive prospect for publishers, and she gave me a set of notes to work from. Everything she said struck a chord, and I enjoyed working on the edit. Where the changes were trickier to come to terms with, Judith explained why they would work, and by Jove, she was right! By the beginning of April, Judith was ready to submit to publishers.

She told me that waiting to hear back from editors/publishers could be nerve-wracking (why does everything about this business have to be so bloody nerve-wracking!) and Judith clearly knows that some authors need more support than others during this stressful process. She was always there at the end of the phone or email and did what she needed to do to help me not lose heart. I always felt she was there for me, even though I knew how busy she must be with other authors and all those submissions. She kept in touch regularly during those early days of submissions and we talked on the phone weekly, or more if necessary.

Even though we now have a deal and things are calm at the moment, we still talk and email. She is an utter joy to work with, and I feel incredibly lucky that I found her, and that fate led me directly to her door. I trust her completely, she is wise, and kind and life is better for knowing her. And if that sounds over the top, don’t forget she’s negotiating on my behalf to make my dreams come true.

Last piece of advice

I have two pieces of advice I would give to anyone who wants to get published (I have more, but am sticking to two, as I’m well over my word-count limit!). The first is to listen to anyone who says your novel needs changes. If they are professionals, in particular, I think that for the most part you should trust that they’re right. You might not want to change things in the way they suggest – no problem – make changes in your own way, but certainly, listen to their advice and act on it. Similarly if your friends or family feel that something doesn’t work, even if they’re not professional writers or readers, they are still readers, and if they feel something’s not working, then they’re probably right.

Secondly, targeting the right agent is key. You know that, I knew that, I’d read it a million times. But while the information available on agents’ likes and dislikes is useful, in the end, for me, it was finding a novel that felt something like mine that led me to the right one. If you can read a lot of books and find out which agents are likely to go for a story like yours, then hopefully, you will hit a bullseye.

About Helen

Helen Fisher lives in a small Suffolk village, with a black cat and two pinkish children. Before turning her hand to writing fiction, Helen worked in a number of interesting jobs, including as an ergonomist for the RNIB (blind people, not lifeboats). Her debut novel, Spacehopper, will be published in hardback in January 2021, and in paperback later that same year, by Simon and Schuster. It’s also going to be translated into German, Swedish, Polish and Portuguese. It won’t be called Spacehopper because in America, Space Hoppers are known as Hoppity Hops, so the publishers are currently wrangling over a new name. The deal with Simon and Schuster and Droemer-Knaur (the German publisher) is a 2-book deal so she’s currently working on her next novel, which is called Gabriel’s Cat (and hopefully always will be, because in America they’re also called “cats”), and is due to be released in January 2022.

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How I got my agent by Paul Braddon

How I Got My Agent by Paul Braddon

How I got my agent by Paul Braddon

How I Got My Agent

By Paul Braddon

The first in a regular new blog series, Paul Braddon takes us through his journey to finding a literary agent.

My Writing Journey

The writing bug first bit as a teenager when I entered a sixth-form essay competition run by Barclays Bank and shocked myself by winning a runner’s up prize.  Heady stuff! But the real surprise was how much fun telling a story could be when I wasn’t being told what to write. Anyway, I was now sold on a career as a novelist and the only sensible step was to study English Literature at university… although unfortunately, after three years of Dickens, Wordsworth and the major works of Shakespeare, I was no nearer to being published.

My biggest hurdle was thinking I knew everything just because I’d read a few novels. I spent years on a lovely story titled The English Witch – a sort of Sabrina meets Harry Potter (all before JK Rowling put pen to paper) set in the 1930s – that I couldn’t interest agents in, although my friends were generous. ‘Better than Tolkien’, one told me, although that isn’t as great as it sounds because he was no lover of Tolkien.

After The English Witch, I wrote an historical novel about a piano-playing German girl and with it made my first sensible decision – I commissioned editorial feedback. Nervous as to what I was paying for, I opted for Jericho Writers (Writers’ Workshop as it was then) on the basis that the offer included a follow up ‘conversation’, a guarantee in effect that the editor would have to do a half-decent job. In the event I got lucky and was allocated the truly excellent Liz Garner, who wrote me several extensive assessments, each followed up by a long phone call.

I took my now much-improved piano-playing German girl manuscript to the York Festival of Writing but failed to interest my chosen agents in it. However, one of these agents was the fantastic Joanna Swainson, who was eventually to sign me, so not all would be lost, although of course I could not know that at the time.

By now fed up with historical fiction, I was willing to do almost anything to succeed and turned my hand to a contemporary thriller set in Finland. The process of leaving my comfort zone was like casting off heavy boots and this book – The Butterfly Hunt, was my best work to date. Three of the first four agents I queried (including Joanna) requested the whole manuscript but the feedback I received was consistent, that although the first third worked, I needed to rewrite the rest. Which unfortunately was easier said than done! I think the lesson I learned is that when you change significant elements of a carefully structured plot, you can end up twisting it completely out of shape and end up with less than what you had before.

How I got my agent by Paul Braddon

In early 2018 I started on The Actuality, a further genre shift, this time into speculative fiction. The Actuality is set a hundred years in the future and could be best described as a cautionary tale of friendship, love and advanced bioengineering.

My approach to writing The Actuality came from my experience on previous projects. My method has become to first plan out an overall structure, getting the main beats in place and when I’m happy with all of that, I dive in to see how I do. If this appears to work, I merely keep writing, filling in the plot details and editing chapters as I go, and if all continues to go well, in four or five months I have a reasonable first draft. That’s the plan anyway, but in the case of The Actuality it wasn’t so simple.

In fact it was a massive struggle and this was because I grew to believe that the story of an AI living with her ‘husband’ at the top of a Thames-side high-rise complete with rooftop garden was almost certainly unpublishable. In the end, after rushing through the last couple of sections, I did make it to the finish line, but the word count barely scraped 62,000.

Anxious as to what I had created, I only sent it to Joanna, hoping I could trust her not to laugh. To be honest, if she had, I would have shelved it. Instead, amazingly, she actually liked it, and liked it enough to chat about it and encourage me to expand it to a commercial length. Confidence regained, this I did, adding 18,000 words, and shortly after that in October 2018, she took me on!

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Last piece of advice

I think, if I was passing on any advice, it would be three things. Number One (and I think most readers will have worked it out for themselves by now) – Seek Professional Advice, whether that is through courses, editorial assessments or reading up on the craft – don’t spend years thinking you know everything. Two – Escape Your Comfort Zone – perhaps try a completely different genre, you can always go back, you never know you may not want to. And Number Three – Don’t Be Afraid of Trying Something a Bit Different, if that’s what you fancy – different will stand you out from the crowd if nothing else and if there is passion behind it, that will make a huge difference too.

About Paul Braddon

Paul Braddon lives in London with his wife Mary and son Thomas. He got the writing bug after coming runner-up in an essay competition as a teenager, and went onto study English Literature at Reading University. His debut novel, The Actuality, is due to be released in 2020 (Sandstone Press).

You can find Paul on Twitter here, or have a nose around his website here.

If Paul’s story strikes a chord with you, head on over to Townhouse and tell us about your writing journey.

Are you on the lookout for representation? If so, why not check out AgentMatch, our database recording all UK and US literary agents.

Or, are you about to embark on your first round of agent submissions? If you are, then you’ll probably find this really helpful!

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My path to publication by Ruby Speechley

My Path to Publication by Ruby Speechley

My path to publication by Ruby Speechley

My Path to Publication

by Ruby Speechley

Ruby Speechley got her big break after winning best Opening Chapter at the Festival of Writing in 2017. Now, nearly two years later, her debut novel Someone Else’s Baby has just been published. Here Ruby tells us about her path to publication and how the Festival of Writing helped her on her way.

My Writing Journey

My debut novel, Someone Else’s Baby was published by Hera Books on 25 July 2019. It won ‘Best Opening Chapter’ at the Festival of Writing in 2017, so it feels very special to be asked by Jericho Writers to blog about my publication journey.

I’ve been writing on and off ever since I first picked up a pencil, but it wasn’t until thirteen years ago that I took my writing more seriously and applied to do a part-time MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. My second child was only two and it meant driving to and from Cambridgeshire once a week, but I was determined to do it. Three years later, in 2009, I graduated with my first completed novel. But I needed a break from that book, and I wasn’t ready to start approaching agents, so I wrote another novel whilst being mentored on the Gold Dust scheme.

Header 2-plotting-novel

In 2012 I heard about the Festival of Writing and decided to go, partly to meet my new Twitter friends, Amanda Saint and Isabel Costello and partly to see if there was any interest in my second novel. I came away from the full weekend experience buzzing with everything I’d learned in some of the best workshops I’d ever been to, given by the now legendary, Debi Alper, Andrew Wille, Emma Darwin, Julie Cohen, Shelley Harris and Craig Taylor. I made lots of new friends, but there was no interest from agents.

I went home and dug out my first novel and worked on it again. In 2014, I went back to the Festival of Writing and this time three agents asked to see the full manuscript. Despite the positive comments, the rejections came in. After a further edit, I took it back in 2015 and again more agents were interested, but no offers of representation followed.

I skipped the Festival the following year and started work on a new novel, but in October 2016, another idea came to me while I was watching a FoW friend on a TV show. Another guest, a surrogate and the couple she was having the baby for, took my interest. The surrogate’s pregnancy was fraught with problems, not what she’d expected at all and to me she seemed incredibly naïve to think she’d breeze through the experience. I wondered how well she really knew this couple who were promising to involve her in their baby’s future. What obligation did they really have to this woman once they’d paid her? I had so many questions!

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For the next two months I researched my idea as much as I could and on 1 January 2017, I started writing my messy ‘zero’ draft by hand. Four months later, my third novel was completed. I typed and polished the beginning and sent it out to competitions, including the Festival of Writing, to gauge the response.

I arrived at the Festival of Writing a couple of months later, not knowing that my novel was on the shortlists for the Best Opening Chapter and Perfect Pitch competitions, because they’d forgotten to send out the email! So it was a shock to be called up on stage and even more of a shock to win Best Opening Chapter and be the runner up for the Perfect Pitch. I was asked to read out my prologue and it received a fantastic response. A flurry of agents contacted me on the night and over the following days, but my manuscript wasn’t quite ready. A couple of agents were prepared to wait for the next edit but one, Jo Bell at Bell Lomax Moreton, who I’d subbed my first novel to a year before, asked to meet me and to see my second novel, which was in a more publishable state. She loved that novel even more! When she offered to represent me, it was an easy decision because she loved my writing and all my novel ideas. I felt at ease in her company as soon as I met her. Although Jo isn’t an agent who edits, she offered insightful suggestions, as did her assistant. A few writer friends read it for me and I took on board their helpful and detailed comments in the final edit.

Sending my novel out to editors was a drawn out and painful experience. Weekly rejections for months is not something I was prepared for. My novel received mostly positive feedback but there were no offers from traditional publishers.

I believed in my novel and so did Jo. By this point it had won and been listed in eight competitions. I’d been told enough times that it was a unique take on surrogacy. I was determined to keep going so I worked on it again. This time Jo sent it out to a few digital publishers and an offer to publish quickly came back from a big publisher’s digital imprint. A few days later another offer came in from an established independent. While I was weighing them up, a third publisher, Hera Books contacted Jo. I loved reading their editor’s response to my novel – the big reveal made her gasp! They were a new company, set up by Keshini Naidoo and Lindsay Mooney. I remembered feeling excited reading in the Bookseller about this dynamic, female-led publisher only a few months before. Their entrepreneurial spirit spoke to me (I founded and ran my own local magazine business while doing my MA and successfully sold it on four years later). I consulted my scribbled wish-list – Hera Books were at the top.

Once I’d heard from all three publishers, about their thoughts on how I could edit and improve my novel, I knew for certain that Hera was the right choice for me. Keshini completely understood the true story I was trying to tell. She did an incredible job in helping me improve my manuscript through a round of structural edits followed by line edits. With her expert guidance, I worked as hard as I could to make Someone Else’s Baby the best book it could be.

My path to publication by Ruby Speechley

The Festival of Writing has been such an important part of my journey to publication. Each time I went, I used the festival dates as deadlines to finish whichever novel I was working on. The workshops and agent one-to-ones were always helpful, relaxed and friendly. It’s an incredible experience to be in a room with so many writers, all at different stages – people who really understand the ups and downs of trying to break into the business. Hats off to Harry Bingham and his team of dedicated organisers and tutors who give everything to make the process of building writers’ skills and knowledge enjoyable and accessible.

I’m back working on the novel I put aside to write Someone Else’s Baby. I was stuck, not sure how the story could develop and what the ending would be, but it worked itself out as I wrote the first draft in a month using NanoWriMo (National Write a Novel in a Month). Writing never ceases to delight and surprise me!

About Ruby

Ruby Speechley graduated from Sheffield Hallam University with an MA in Creative Writing. She is a Faber Academy alumna and prolific writer whose work has been longlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction prize, Exeter Novel Prize, The Caledonia Novel Award, The Bath Novel Award, and has won the Retreat West First Chapter Competition and Best Opening Chapter at the Festival of Writing in York. Someone Else’s Baby is her debut novel.

You can follow Ruby on Twitter here and have a look around her website here.

Have you been to the Festival of Writing before, or will this be your first year? Head on over to Townhouse and join the festival conversations. We’d love to hear from you!

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My path to publication by Sarah Linley

My Pathway to Publication by Sarah Linley

My path to publication by Sarah Linley

My Path to Publication

by Sarah Linley

This week’s entry in the My Path to Publication series belongs to guest author, Sarah Linley. Sarah’s debut novel, The Beach, will be published in 2020 by HarperCollins’ digital publishing division, One More Chapter.

Me, Myself and my book

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, but I didn’t really do anything about it until I reached my early 30s and decided that if I was ever going to get published, then I needed to take it seriously.

In 2014, I booked on to the Festival of Writing and entered all the competitions with my first novel. I was incredibly lucky and was shortlisted for Friday Night Live. At this point, I had no idea how big or influential the festival was. I thought I was going to be reading to 20 people in the back room of a pub. That was terrifying enough. I had never read my work out loud before.

I arrived to find a huge room, a stage, a microphone and an audience of around 200 writers and literary agents. Cue major stage fright and the conviction that I was going to vomit in front of everyone. I eyed up the exit and considered making a run for it. Fortunately, the other writers were equally nervous, incredibly supportive and I got through OK. People even laughed (which was good – it was a comedy). Joanna Cannon won that year and became a major literary superstar. I had two brilliant one-to-ones. I had requests for full manuscripts. I thought ‘this is easy’. I was so wrong!

That book did OK. For a first attempt, I’m surprised that I did get full manuscript requests and helpful feedback but ultimately no agent. Fair enough, I thought, I’ll try again.

I switched to crime. I read a lot of crime. I know and love the genre. My favourite books are psychological thrillers and I felt that was the right fit for me. I wrote another book. This time, I knew a bit more about story structure (thanks to Julie Cohen); psychic distance (thanks to Debi Alper) and the four-act structure (thanks to Allie Spencer). Harry Bingham had taught me to challenge my prose and to really care about its quality. I realised I needed to include some setting (which was conspicuously absent in my first book).

I went to the next Festival of Writing feeling confident with my first chapter and my synopsis fresh off the printer. In retrospect, I should have waited. It bombed. The feedback from my one-to-ones was completely true, but hard to swallow. There were tears.

I got onto the Curtis Brown Creative novel course, which was fantastic, and I learned to accept, welcome and value criticism. I met my amazing critique partner, Phil, and I revised the novel. I went to the Festival of Writing again and the feedback was more positive but still generally ‘meh’. To be honest, I was feeling the same way about book two myself.

I gave up on trying to win over the industry. It just wasn’t going to happen. I licked my wounds a little and then decided to write something just for fun. If it didn’t get published, so what? I was just going to write something that I loved and if no-one liked it, then at least I would be proud of it. I wrote my third novel free from expectation but there was something deep inside me whispering ‘this is the one’.

I started looking at digital-first publishers who would read manuscripts without an agent and had a faster track to publication. When I got the email from Killer Reads, a digital imprint of HarperCollins, I automatically thought it was another ‘thanks, but no thanks’. I had to read it several times to convince myself that it was a ‘yes’. I had a book deal. I stared at it for a long time, wondering if they had made a big mistake, sent it to the wrong person, but no, it definitely had my name on it. (NB Killer Reads has now amalgamated into One More Chapter).

By the time The Beach is published in February 2020, it will have taken the best part of a decade to get a publishing deal. And I still haven’t managed to secure an agent!

My path to publication by Sarah Linley

From manuscript to publication

I got the book deal in March, just as I was about to embark on my third and final backpacking trip with my husband.

The next stage was structural edits which came at the start of June. I was really pleased with the suggestions put forward. I thought they made the book stronger and I felt that my editor really understood what I was trying to achieve with the book. I didn’t have much to do with the title and the cover, but I thought they were both great, and I absolutely loved the blurb. They did a much better job than I could have done! I am now just awaiting the copy edits.

I have just the one contact at HarperCollins – my editor Kathryn Cheshire – and everything is done via email. I did get chance to meet her at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this summer though which was lovely.


It would have been so helpful to have had an agent when I received the publishing contract as I didn’t have a clue what to look out for! Harry Bingham’s Getting Published was invaluable for helping to explain the terms and conditions and I am fortunate that one of my best friends is a lawyer, so she helped me to understand what I was signing.

I had read a lot about the industry beforehand, so I haven’t really been surprised by anything so far. I suppose the weird thing about getting a publishing deal is that suddenly people are interested in your writing in a way they weren’t before. You go from writing something quite secretly, perhaps sharing it with some writing friends, to everyone from your boss to your next-door neighbour promising to read it, and that feels very strange!

My path to publication by Sarah Linley

Letting go

I think you have to accept that your novel will never be perfect, so my test for letting go is: if this version was published tomorrow, would I be happy for people to read it?

Beta readers are fantastic for letting you know what’s working and what isn’t. Pick people who are going to be honest with you; there’s no point otherwise and listen to their feedback. You don’t have to agree with it, but you should always consider it.

Also, deadlines help. Either your own or your publishers. As a former journalist, I am used to working to deadlines and I take pride in always meeting them, so if someone asks me for something by the end of July, it’ll be ready by the end of July!

What’s next?

I am currently working on my second novel. It’s the same genre and style as The Beach, but it’s not a sequel. I am trying to finish a complete first draft by Christmas and I’m really enjoying being back at the start of the process again, creating and developing plot and characters. Also, the research for this new novel is a lot of fun!

About Sarah Linley

Sarah Linley lives in Yorkshire and works as a Communications Manager for a housing charity. She spent two years backpacking around South-East Asia with her husband. Their travels inspired her debut novel, The Beach.

The Beach will be published by One More Chapter in February 2020 (ebook) and May 2020 (paperback).

You can follow Sarah on twitter here and keep up with her travelling adventures via her blog, here.

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feature 25 seven years to publication

7 years to publication, 7 things I’ve learned

header 25 seven years to publication

7 years to publication, 7 things I’ve learned

Isabel Costello’s debut novel Paris Mon Amour was released in June 2016 in digital and audiobook. She also hosts the Literary Sofa blog, where you can find her selection of recommended Summer Reads 2016. Isabel attended the  Festival of Writing in 2012 and 2013 and hopes to return one day!

Like any endeavour measured in years, my journey to publication has many significant milestones, starting with the decision seven years ago to stop talking about wanting to write (don’t most people?) and get on with it (many people don’t). Fast-forward three years and I had a novel ready to submit to agents (or so I thought) and attending the Festival of Writing for the first time in 2012 was a watershed. As well as being sociable, stimulating and educational, it made me realise just how many people shared my precise goal of getting their novel published.

It was the best kind of wake-up call: slightly alarming at the time but the catalyst for good things. Without it I doubt I’d have reached – another four years later! – the most exciting landmark so far: publication of my debut novel Paris Mon Amour. Many people have been astonishingly generous and supportive on a road that’s had a few bumps, as most paths to publication do. I’ve learned a lot – and not just about how to write books. This is definitely not a ‘How to…’ (it’s pretty obvious I don’t have a magic formula.) For me and most of the writers I know, getting published has been mostly down to persistence and hard work.

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1. Reading matters

Reading as a writer alters the experience in a way that can be distracting, but noticing the structure, the language, even being able to guess the twist or the ending three chapters in (so annoying!) are signs of developing your own sense of what works. Payback time comes when you forget to register any of that because you’re so immersed in the story. That’s inspiration. It’s what you’re aiming for.

2. Friends matter

You might be – and hopefully are – writing ‘the book or story only you can write’ but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. The camaraderie and support amongst writers at all stages has been one of the best parts for me. It’s easy to others at events like the Festival of Writing – I’ve made wonderful friends this way I would never have met otherwise. But keep in touch with your other friends to avoid living in a literary bubble.

3. It’s all about the book – seriously, it is

And a very large side of luck and timing. In a business where getting anywhere is very hard, it’s easy to invent imaginary obstacles. It probably doesn’t hurt to be young, movie-star gorgeous with a life story as fascinating as your book, but it’s far from essential. Not saying they aren’t great, but you do not need an MA in creative writing. (I have no writing qualifications.) And don’t fret about ‘who you know’ (or don’t) in the business. Frankly, if that made a difference it wouldn’t have taken me this long to get published!

4. There’s nothing like editorial input

This is a tricky one because it generally involves money, but the reality is that to get noticed by agents, publishers or competition judges you need to be submitting work that’s already of publishable standard, or very close. When I think mine’s good enough, it rarely is, and the honest, constructive input you need at that point is unlikely to come from anyone who’s not a confident and experienced editor. A structural edit following my first Festival of Writing transformed my fortunes entirely, resulting in a choice of agents. It was worth every penny.

5. Don’t pin your happiness on an outcome you can’t control

Learning to cope with the inevitable setbacks in a positive way is important, and something I’ve discussed openly along the way. Some advice from Lionel Shriver at an event I attended has stayed with me: write what matters to you – it’s the only way you can be sure your time is well spent. There are no guarantees in this business. Although it’s impossible to avoid completely, comparing yourself to others – your process, your book, your success – is not a good use of time or energy. The most important lesson I’ve learned is to focus on the only part I can control: producing the best work I can. Closely followed by enjoying other things!

6. Visualise writing success, but not what it looks like

I know this sounds like a contradiction, but positive thinking can be a self-fulfilling prophesy too! I could always picture myself succeeding, however remote the prospect (and for a long time it really was). ‘Disruption’ in the book business has led to many new ways of reaching readers. I may not have anticipated my novel coming out first in digital and audio but I know an exciting opportunity when I see one.

7. The right way to write is the way that works for you

Faced with the deluge of generic tips directed at writers, there’s an art to identifying those which motivate, assist and inspire you in your work – thereby making it more enjoyable, and you more likely to stick at it – and ignoring all the rest. For every person inspired by ‘write what you know’ or ‘write every day’ there are many more left cursing and grinding their teeth. Ultimately it’s not about the method; it’s the end result that matters.

Structural feedback may just help you get there, too.

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just the beginning Eleanor Anstruther

Just the Beginning: Getting Published by Eleanor Anstruther

how i got published by eleanor anstruther

Just the Beginning: Getting Published

By Eleanor Anstruther

From a typed manuscript on her kitchen table, to Salt’s lead title for 2019, by way of a life-changing Festival of Writing 2016, Eleanor Anstruther describes the euphoric moment her agent Jenny Savill told her she would be getting published and how she got there.

I got a call from my agent.  “I have news.”

I sat on my kitchen table, my feet on a chair, my elbows on my knees, one finger jammed in the other ear, the better to hear.

For the first time in days I hadn’t been obsessively checking my inbox; I’d let it go, I’d given up, I’d said to myself, oh well, I’ll just have to write something better.  I’d gone off to town with my children, I hadn’t looked at my phone all day till I was home and saw three missed calls and an email saying, do call when you have a minute.  I was holding the phone in my hands, staring at the screen, when it rang again.

how i got published by eleanor anstruther

It’s a bit like when you’re pregnant for the first time, all you think about is the birth.  Not the aftermath, the what comes next, the slow reveal of fears you never thought you’d have.  I’d spent a decade driving at representation, a manuscript finished and loved and taken up by an agent.  When I signed with Jenny Savill following FoW16, I thought that was it.  It was a height I had dreamt of and not once had I thought beyond it.  It had never crossed my mind that anything would be as fraught.

A friend once commented that being taken up by an agent was child’s play compared to selling to a publisher.  A writer can submit to the same agent year on year if they want.  But once a publisher turns your book down, that’s it.  It’s a one shot game.  At the beginning, with Frankfurt Book Fair looming and all the excitement of total ignorance, I was convinced I’d hear within days, hours, of easy success.  Instead the weekly updates from Jenny were crammed with kind, encouraging notices of failure.

It was three weeks into that torment of declines that Jenny gave me the best advice I’d ever had.  Lower your expectations she said to my whining misery that I hadn’t been bought overnight, that the industry moves at its own quiet pace, that clearly I knew nothing.  And when it seemed like pessimism was getting the better of me, she said It’s not over yet.  But Christmas came and went and my infant novel looked for all the world as if it would never make it to adulthood.  I practised saying it happens and searched for examples of Booker Prize winners who’d struggled to find air.  I got on with writing something else.

A trip to town on a freezing afternoon at the end of January, my children needing boots, or the dentist, or maybe I just needed to get out of the kitchen and away from what felt like humiliation – I don’t remember anything of that day except coming home, and checking my phone for the first time since breakfast, and seeing three missed calls and an email.  When it rang in my hand my heart jumped and my breathing went funny.

“We’ve had an offer.”  And then she told me who it was, and I sat on my kitchen table with my feet on a chair, and my elbows on my knees and one finger jammed in the other ear, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

post thumb eleanor anstruther book cover

My debut, ‘A Perfect Explanation’, comes out in March 2019, published by Salt Books, one of the finest independent publishers of literary fiction.  It’s happening; the thing that I gave no thought to, that I presumed would be easy, and wasn’t and felt crushed by.  Those four months seem like nothing now, but looking back at the struggle, I have learnt this: that every step is a test of what you know and reveal of what you don’t, and when a brilliant and hard working agent and you decide to work together, remember it is just the beginning.

Eleanor Anstrutherpost thumb eleanor anstruther headshot won the Best Opening Chapter competition and subsequently secured her literary agent, Jenny Saville of Andrew Nurnberg Associates, all at our 2016 Festival of Writing. Could this year be the year you do the same? Only one way to find out; get your tickets for the best writing conference out there now. Find Eleanor and hear more about her publishing journey via twitter here.

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