Authors often get asked for advice on how to get published, so here are the things I usually say.
There is no way one way to get published. It’s a bit like asking how to give birth to a baby. You might have plenty of things in common with other people’s experiences but it’ll never be exactly the same. So never take anyone else’s word as law unless they’re in the industry, in a relevant position of power. You can, and will, do it differently. As long as you don’t approach the process like a vainglorious or unprofessional dick, you’ll probably be OK in breaking the odd ‘rule’.
Have a personable covering letter, and a very good first three chapters. When you go knocking on agents, and in turn publishers, doors, you’ll stand or fall by your initial pages. As my late great agent Ali said, the rest of the book can be fixed – and when you’re being paid to fix it! Hurrah – but that opening is your sales pitch to get you through the door. Polish them, rewrite them, think about them deeply, make them completely shining, splendid and compelling. And if you have a devastatingly exciting incident happening later in the book, maybe look at ways it can be moved to the start. (No, you can’t query with later chapters. Just the same way readers won’t start there, neither will agents.) Equally, keep your ‘this is me!’ hello short, persuasive and friendly, with no creaky bragging. It’s also highly useful if you’ve got a ‘It’s X meets Y!’ example to show where your novel would slot in the market. It’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ meets ‘The Slap’ for example. (That sounds awful. Don’t do that.)
You need an agent. Yes, an agent takes 12% or similar. But they will likely deduct 12% of a far bigger sum than you’d have ever got flying solo. You need their counsel, their guidance, their wisdom and their judgment, and if you didn’t, the whole agenting job wouldn’t exist. Worry about getting an agent before getting a publisher. And approaching publishers on your own first isn’t necessarily a nothing-to-lose gamble. Agents may find it difficult to re-package your rejected project to the same people, without prejudice. If you defy the odds and get an offer, then ask an agent to represent you, your agent is still playing catch up.
Sack off slushpiles. Maybe not the most professional advice I’ll ever offer but I was too impatient, and cynical, to see the value in posting unsolicited pages and let them moulder in an in tray, so an intern could scan them in glassy eyed boredom at 4pm on a Friday and toss them into a ‘no’ pile on a whim. Instead: research agents you think might like your work. (You’ll find them thanked in acknowledgements of other books like your book.) Find their individual email, and send them a brief, pleasant introduction to you and your book, and a polite request about whether you may query them and follow up by sending your pages. Be aware you’re a stranger intruding on a busy day. A quick no is almost as good as a yes, as they say. And if it’s a yes, you won’t be anonymous when your submission does arrive. Then chances are, if you’re rejected, you’ll get one with reasons. OH GOD I DON’T WANT TO KNOW ‘WHY’ THOUGH, you howl. Yes, I’d have said that once too, however…
No is not the end of the world, it might even be a good thing. If you get a horror of a rejection, explaining why your work fell short of a masterpiece, buy a bottle of gin and do some weeping. It stings, there’s no denying it. Everyone gets them, though. And it might be the best thing that ever happened to you. An editor at a major publishing house explained to me why an early version of my first novel wasn’t working. It was a difficult and disappointing email to read, but after time had passed and the hurt had healed, I realised she was absolutely right. The rewritten version got me the deal. I owe that lady a lot. Also, many ‘noes’ are based on reasons entirely unconnected to the quality of the work, and that’s not said to spare your feelings. If they’re currently up to their tits in fantasy novels with dead protagonists, your ghost warrior saga, however sensational, has a reduced chance of being taken on by the same publisher, through no fault of yours.
Professional writing is rewriting. It’s completely understandable – in fact, a good sign – if you feel attached to the words, the way they are. But you have to find a way to take notes and go back to the same script again and again and make it better. You have to fall in love, and stay in love (and sometimes fall right out of love and declare you hate the thing.) This volatile and lengthy relationship with the manuscript is part of the deal. If you really like the idea of writing The End in a swirly font and never looking at the bloody thing as long as you live, or prefer the instant buzz of uploading a blog and moving on to the next thing, writing books might not be for you.
Don’t read too many How To Write A Bestseller manuals. It’s all good to think about the craft and sharpen your writing, and some of these guides have some excellent, thoughtful tips. (Stephen King’s On Writing is as wonderful as everyone says, by the way.) However, no-one actually knows how you set out to write a bestseller. If they did, the names on these How To books would be knocking out endless Da Vinci Codes and spunking around Caffe Florian in Venice in an ermine cape. You are being sold magic beans, and they are poisonous beans when their arbitrary rules start to attack your work and make you doubt your judgment. (‘Don’t use flashbacks!’ an example of one bizarre, scary diktat that sent me panicking, and nearly dismantling my story.) Your instinct about what works in your story, and what keeps you awake at night with excitement about it, is your most valuable asset. Guard it closely, and don’t let any bossy charlatan destroy it. Never forget the maxim about creative industries: nobody knows anything.
Careful who you show your work to. When you’ve made something up that didn’t exist before you set pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, it feels magical. You are in the first flush of passion and you want everyone to see it! Warning: not everyone will share your enthusiasm. Some won’t say anything at all, some will say not-nice things, others will try to help. I suggest editing your ‘readers’ down to people whose opinion you truly value, and people who can help get it into print. If they’re neither of these things, let their opinions into your head at your peril.
Don’t make love to the whole agenting world at once. You have to be a bit internet dating in your mindset, here. No, it’s not realistic to query one person at a time and sit waiting on their Y/N for an age and agents aren’t naïve about this. You may have several queries out there at any given time. I wouldn’t advise the paper cannon ticker tape parade query-a-geddon approach though. Agents are human, and business-minded, and they don’t much like the sound of a submission that’s been all round town before they got eyes across it. (They might also wonder: why did so many others pass?) Try to work through a top five heroes list of your most-wanted agents in turn, and never template your query: it should be tailored to that one person, and explain why you’d like to work with them. Who would you take on, the friendly, polite, humble author, or Mr / Ms: ‘DEAR WHOEVER IT MAY CONCERN AGENT PERSON. PREPARE TO SHIT YOURSELF WITH ADRENALINE.’ Exactly.
Mhairi was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1976. She went to school in Nottingham, studied English Literature at Manchester University and then returned to Nottingham to delight its citizens with her journalism. After roles as trainee reporter, reporter, feature writer and columnist, she realised she’d climbed to the very top of the mountain at the Nottingham Post and at age 31 decided to write a novel. Some very skint years followed, during which she thought she might’ve made a huge mistake.
Her debut novel, the romantic comedy You Had Me At Hello, was an instant hit upon being published in December 2012. It’s since become HarperCollins’ best selling ebook to date, has been translated into 16 languages and is being developed as a major feature film, with Mhairi writing the screenplay. The follow up, Here’s Looking At You, was published in December 2013 and made the Sunday Times Bestseller list.
Mhairi’s first hardback title for HarperFiction, It’s Not Me, It’s You, is published on November 6th 2014.
She’s currently working on her fourth novel, adapting You Had Me At Hello for screen and developing a comedy-drama script for television.