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!
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.
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.
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.