The first time I ever created a vision board was during my GCSE English Literature class. We were dissecting articles, and trying to decide the mood that the writer was trying to achieve. I am a very visual person, and so I love a vision board for my own life, be it a Pinterest board for what I want to wear or eat, or a collage slipped into my journal to keep me on track with my goals and aspirations. But to date I have never created one for a manuscript.
Yesterday, I finished what can be loosely defined as a first draft of my next book. It’s rough and ugly, and wildly inconsistent, but the skeleton of a story is there. Any written work today would have been pointless, though. Because before I sink back into it, I need to decide upon a few important things before I undertake the first major edit.
And I have found today that creating a vision board helps me answer these questions. I found images that relate to important parts of the story, or important characters and their interests, and printed them all out. Then, I began to cut and categorise. I kept the images for one character together, and then try to put each group into a rough sort of timeline. This created a sort of storyboard of emotions and events. I began to understand the mood, the setting, the colours. Weather patterns as the story unfold became clearer, as did the things that stir the senses, like smells, texture, and taste. I didn’t understand the importance of water in this manuscript, or the part buildings were playing until today. Now that has become clear. When I look at the board I can see the arc of my characters lives, and the points where they intercept. To anybody else, it might just look like a collection of images, but to me the story is told visually, and I know the temperature and nature of the story. I can see the highs and lows and how my characters feel at each moment in the story. Even their reasoning, the thing that drives them to behave the way they do, is clearer to me after this.
I have long been aware of the positive effects of creating a vision board. But now I see it can also be so helpful when it comes to writing. So, now this board will stay on my wall through the edit, and I will refer and add to it as and when I need to. Instead of panicking about this next step, which honestly, was feeling a little overwhelming, it's easier to see where I'm heading, because the map is right there in front of me.
Over on Tik Tok last week I was talking about how to find an agent as part of a series, Writing Tips for Writers. I could talk to you for hours about this, because the story is long and convoluted. I won’t though, because I managed to scale it down into a one-minute video. The short version goes something like this. I wrote a book, shipped it out to agents, it got rejected. After emigrating I wrote six more, and self-published five. My seventh book was all set to be self-published too, with a title and cover ready to go (which I still think was great) but at the last minute on a hunch/whim, I decided to do a round of agent submissions. That got me representation, a book deal, and rights sold in 17 territories.
There were a number of moments during that journey where I thought about giving up. After book one not getting picked up. After some bad reviews of my first book once it was for sale on Amazon. After book five, when I made a half-hearted attempt to get an agent and didn’t. But something kept drawing me back for another go. Considering that it takes the best part of a year for me to write, edit, and produce a book, what is it that kept pushing me to try?
Writing, by its very nature, is a practice. It’s something that we are doing from the age we can hold a pencil, finding a medium by which we can express our thoughts. My five-year-old is learning to write at the moment, and writes phonically on her drawings. While she is not a writer by the conventional definition, she is making her first steps onto that path.
Because the first time I tried to write a book, it wasn’t all that well executed. It awful, and it didn’t look like a five-year-old had done it, but that was only because I had spent a lifetime reading, and knew roughly what it was supposed to look like. Perhaps in the same way my daughter can draw a face with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Creative skills are something we are born with. But the difference between me and my daughter drawing a face, or me and my twenty-year-old self attempting to write a book is practice. Skills are acquired, then refined over time.
Writing books that people like, and that stirs their emotions is very rarely something we do right from the first try. And yet, when I wrote the first one, and sent it off in the hope of securing an agent, I really thought it was. It wasn’t, and the rejection hurt. But each book I have written, and therefore each rejection, was a step further in my journey. Each of those books contributed to the writer I am today, and to the success of any book I might write in the future.
To date, I have written;
By that total, I am currently writing my fifteenth book. I knew that a couple of these in this list weren’t good enough. A couple of them came at a cost, and it was a hard hit to take. That third thriller that didn’t sell….ouch. But still I continued to write. In fact, that first women’s fiction book, written on the back of a no-sell, went on to be the best deal I have had to date. I wrote for a year after that rejection, believing I could write better, and I did. All of this said, I have no qualifications in literature, save an A level. No connections in publishing. But what I have is a desire to write, a willingness to accept it as a practice, and I was committed to its continued improvement. And finally, of course, persistence. Because persistence, for any writer who is committed to improving, is the single most important factor when it comes to getting a book deal.
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When I first began writing, I had no idea about how hard it might be to get my work in front of readers. Looking back, my naivety kind of makes me roll my eyes. I really thought that if I had written a novel, had finished a whole book, and sent my manuscript to a few select agents, that would be it. I'd have a novel published.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
There was something I needed to know; how to submit my manuscript to a literary agent.
And during my first round of submissions with my debut novel, I didn't. Those first manuscript samples, sent out bound with a lovely red string to help it stand out - my thinking was that it was a medical thriller, you know, blood, red, danger, death - didn't get me very far. In fact, by the end of my not so thorough approach, all I had to show for it was a box of returned chapter samples, and a collection of stock rejection letters, which for a time I kept for prosperity. It was, after all a brush with the publishing industry, and I didn't want to throw that away.
Because, what I was fast beginning to realise was that getting a rejection letter was part of going out on submission, and one of the necessary steps I needed to take on the way to getting noticed. It took me another six books after that, and a lot more rejections, before I found the agent who still represents me today. But in the interest of helping you, dear writer/reader, reduce the dreaded R-number, I'm going to tell you what I think were the three most important things that I did that helped me secure an agent.
So, number one.
I was beyond organised.
When I first approached an agent, there was no such thing as an email submission. Now, thankfully, most submission processes, if not all, are done digitally. This makes it in some way much easier (and cheaper), but it is much harder to keep track of where and to whom you sent what.
Based on the fact that most agents want the same thing, i.e. a cover letter, a synopsis, and a three chapter sample, it's a good idea to get that prepped ahead of time. But beware, some agents want specific formats (font, font size, line spacing etc) and others might want more words and less synopsis, or vice versa. Agents are very clear about their requirements, and fortunately they all have a website with this information easily available. Use it. And follow it to the letter.
Once you have your submission pack ready, keep track on everything you do. I used Excel. I recorded when I was sending, how long they told me to expect to wait, and included separate columns for potential responses. And most importantly, I knew when I was supposed to send a reminder. My agent received my manuscript two months before I contacted her again, letting her know I had received a full manuscript request elsewhere. That email made all the difference. Three days later I had representation, plus one other offer. Without the nudge, it might never have made it past the slush pile.
An agent is not a hobbyist, and so when they offer you representation, they want to know they are working with somebody who is professional. You only have one way of showing them this in the first instance, and that's the cover letter. So, you'll want to make sure that yours in in tip top shape. It should be concise, include the information they ask for, and have everything they need to know about you and the manuscript. Consider that you are applying for a job.
A little note about comparisons. It's the hardest bit, or at least I think so. Offering comparisons for your work shows that you understand the market. But don't just choose the obvious ones. How many psych thrillers do you think we're compared to Gone Girl in 2015? A lot. Choose something that other people might not think about, and if you can offer a few, or it's a cross between this and that, or a this meets that, then it really helps set the scene for their reading.
So follow their website submission instructions, and make your cover letter professional. If you do speak to them on the phone, be polite. Over email, be timely in your responses, so that they will understand that you are easy to work with. Make yourself a great prospect for them, and if you've written a great book, they'll be just as keen to work with you as you are with them.
Finally. It's a big one.
The hardest one of all. After my first effort, I decided against another submission for a while. I'll be honest, being rejected, and realising my own level of naivety hurt my pride. I gave it one half hearted shot around book five, and when that didn't go well either, I considered never trying again. It was only after a chance conversation with somebody who approached me looking for advice about finding an agent, that I wondered whether I should give it another go. I decided that I would, and also that it would be my last effort.
And so I made it a good one.
It was only in doing this that I realised how lame my previous efforts had been. And so I revised that new manuscript until I could recite parts of it in my sleep. I researched agents, and who represented which writers. I listed all those I'd like to apply to. I made a schedule, saved my files with the right name, and agonised over the cover letter because it felt like something that could induce immediate failure. In short, I became obsessed. I'd like to tell you now that I went over the top, but I don't think that's true. The competition is high. You need to stand out, perhaps now more than ever. Deals are scarce, and it is harder than it used to be to sell a book to a publisher. I don't say that to put you off, only to inspire you to execute your submission to the very highest standard you can. And if you do that, when you do receive that first rejection, you'll realise that is just part of the course.
I wish I could find my submission tracker to share with you. I think it is saved on another computer, and I will look for it this weekend. But I do remember that it was over 100 submissions long. Nearly all of those were rejections.
But just remember this.
You don't need over one hundred agents to get published. You only need one.
If you would like more tips and advice on writing, like how to secure an agent, be sure to sign up for my newsletter, where every month I share something that I think will help you. You can sign up here.
I didn’t grow up in a city as such, but it was definitely something like town-based suburbia. There wasn’t much in the way of nature on our doorstep. But as a teenager, a kid even, I had a thing about getting outside into something that felt like an escape. In my town there was a particular road I liked to ride my bike along. It wasn’t much, a lane that lead away from an industrial area, that on one side was nothing but hedgerows. Berries grew in it, and if I looked down I could imagine I was somewhere else. There was no curb, no traffic. Just a few lucky houses. One of my most vivid memories as a child was a spring or summer day. I might have been six, maybe seven. A hazy sky that seemed golden as I looked up, alive with bugs and pollen, and in the distance a tree near a river that might have been a willow. Dragonflies landing on Cow Parsley taller than me, and I think, perhaps, a picnic. I asked my brother, and he might remember that day too, although neither of us are sure where or when it was.
Nature, and being in the countryside always felt like a big breath in for me. Anxieties I didn’t know I was carrying would fall away, and I would return to life feeling recharged. Or perhaps more like I had just experienced it. As an adult not long would go by before I was returning to the wild, river walks, or mountains climbs. To weather that wasn’t my friend, but whose company I enjoyed. In moving to Cyprus there was a whole different type of nature to discover. Mountains were much larger, and yet the wildness was lost. Most rivers needed a sign so that you wouldn’t miss them. Fields were not in short supply, yet they were brown, dusty, and the plants looked different. The mud wasn’t dark. So much about the world around us tells us that we are home. In a new country, there is more than new one language to learn.
Yet there are places here that I have discovered now, that feel like something I know. Something maybe, that I knew all along. And only this week I have discovered a new escape, a Venetian bridge, hidden in a small valley, accessed via roads that almost nobody would bother to drive down. There was no curb, and when we reached our destination, no route going forward. The road became the river, and to leave we would have to turn around in its flow. In arriving there, we sealed that place off from the rest of the world for a little while, and if anybody else were to try to find it, they would have instead found us, blocking the way.
The bridge itself was a beautiful hodgepodge of stones, impressive in its continued perseverance. The top of it was I suspect long overgrown with grass and plants. The river itself which ran over a weir to track beneath, seemed to come from almost nowhere, the source hidden in deep thorny undergrowth. And as it flowed away from us, it carved a route through a rocky terrain, over fallen trees and through rotting roots, to a rockface covered in moss. It was darker as I waded through, following its path, cooler and damp. The earth of the riverbank might have been brown, saturated in ground water, had I have been able to see it for the fallen leaves. Around me all was quiet, nothing but the flow of water over polished rocks and the crunch of my feet through the brown autumnal carpet. I wanted to go on, deeper still, but something called me back. Time restraints, probably. A lunch reservation. The thing we define as life.
But for a moment, we stopped. I felt nourished by the time in nature, and took the chance to relax, something I rarely seem to do. We hung back as the kids threw rocks, splashing each other with ice cold water, the knees of their trousers grey with dirt as they tried to build a dam. For a while, nobody worried about time. Even me. We picked flowers, felt the rush of water against our fingers, picked seed heads from trees, then more from those that had fallen to the ground. For two hours without phone signal, we did nothing. We watched. Chatted. Planned a trip. Craved a Starbucks, like we had been lost for hours. Maybe in truth, we had been.
But I think, for a little while at least, that was what we wanted.
We've all heard the 'new year, new me' mantra. It’s very easy around this time of year to feel the push to make new year’s resolutions. I’ve never really thought that this was something for me, and yet this year I find myself being drawn a little into the idea. A few weeks ago, I picked up a beautiful Filofax, Norfolk it’s called, in tan-brown leather with many blank pages which I am already filling. My brain often feels as if it's on overload, in too many places at once, with too many to-dos and points to remember. The Filofax therefore was brought in as a treatment regimen, an analogue version of my higher self, to cure the disease of forgotten tasks. Like paying bills, let’s say. And yet it also seems to have become an outlet for all my thoughts. It even has a place where I can slot my journal. And perhaps this is the reason why resolutions seem possible this year, rather than pointless. Because, when I am not overloaded, my brain has time to process things like desires. Hopes. Goals. Perhaps because of my Filofax, what I processed by late 2022, was that certain things did need to change.
The outgoing year was not one I’ll treasure. Of course, there were wonderful moments. Travel opened up again. I fell in love with Florence and it's history. My daughter’s speech improved immensely. She entered reception and loves it. Personally, I had the utmost pleasure of publishing another book. And yet I feel that by the end of 2022, I had lost some of the clarity about what it was I wanted from my days. And when you don’t know what it is you want, you inevitably end up accepting things you don’t.
So, this year, for the first time, with a bit of a lead up in December, the first day of the year became my reset point. I did a lot of looking back, reflecting upon what I want and don’t want. What I like and don’t like. What is it that brings me joy? And I found that besides those around me whom I love, the thing that provides me with the most joy, is creativity.
Writing for me, has always been my medium of choice, a way of expressing my thoughts and ideas. My emotions too, the things I fear, love, and cherish all go into my stories in some way or another. There’s a reason why my books are all thematically inclined towards the idea of understanding oneself, of what makes a home, and of where the lines between the past and present are blurred. And this week, during another New Year reset, I found an old wooden box under my staircase. It is stuffed with hundreds of useless items that I thought to store. A pressed coin from the Dali Museum, name cards from weddings, and a ticket for the Metro in Paris. Birthday cards, apology notes, ribbons from places long since forgotten. I recall that I once called it a memory box. I was a magpie, for little things, collected along the way. I no longer do this, namely since Covid, and perhaps also it trailed off when I became a parent and had no space for thoughts of anything but milk and sleep schedules. For a time, I think, I stopped looking outward. Maybe as a result of this I now collect thoughts, all written in my journal. But both methods are I think fulfilling the same function. To create a living document of who I am and where I’m at. Of what I like, and what made me feel loved. My intention is not to remember every single moment, but rather be clear about the things I cherish. It's about being intentional with the life I live, by collecting items and words that connect me to where I’ve been and felt present.
And so, it's with this in mind that I make my promises to myself this year. Not a resolution, but an intention to live with my gaze cast out wide instead of inward. To be part of and enjoy the process of life and creativity. To stop perhaps, being an observer, and instead become more of a participant. And to once again pick up a leaf that will one day become nothing more than dust in a forgotten wooden box, and say to myself that in that moment, in that day, I found happiness.