Friday, 24 July 2009

Trios: Beachcombing, by Maggie Dana: My Potholed Path To Publication

Maggie Dana, author of Beachcombing, comments regularly on this blog; she wrote a wonderful piece about typesetting for me a few weeks ago, which resulted in a spectacular spike in my reading statistics; and she's recently had her first grown-up novel* published. Here's her own account of her tortured path to publication, in which she demonstrated dedication in the extreme. Following pieces in this particular Trio will come from her editor Will Atkins, who will discuss the success of Macmillan New Writing and explain what he looks for in an author—and it's not just the writing.

When asked what got them started writing, quite a few authors will say they were bitten by the bug at an early age, six or seven, or even as late as twelve. But not me. I was a ripe old thirty-nine before I began writing, and only because my job for an absentee boss at a U.S. children’s publisher left me with little to do. So, to keep boredom at bay (and to look busy), I wrote a kid’s book—on their time, their paper, and their typewriter, and then (oh, sweet irony!), I turned around and sold it to them for $1,500, a decent chunk of change back in 1979, especially for a single mum with three teenagers, a dog, two cats, and a horse to feed.

After writing five more books for children, life intervened and it was another fifteen years before I got back to writing again. Women’s fiction this time. I’d had no trouble finding a publisher for my kids’ books; how hard would it be to find one for a novel? (Do I hear laughter? Snorts of derision?)

A year later, my first effort weighed in at 180,000 words. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I fired off a handful of query letters and landed a New York agent who, while full of enthusiasm for my novel, told me cut it in half. I protested, vociferously, but she put her foot down and deleted the first ten pages while telling me, firmly, that my story began here, at the top of page eleven.

I spent another year cutting and rewriting, and cutting some more, till the story was a manageable 90,000 words and my agent declared she was ready to submit… the day before 9/11 turned the world upside-down. Months and months went by, and my agent dragged her feet, saying the time wasn’t right, that publishing was in disarray and editors were freaking out over the anthrax scare, that nobody was buying fiction, let alone women’s fiction. Discouraged, I stuck the manuscript in a box beneath my bed, and went back to writing for kids.

Picture books this time. I found another enthusiastic agent with an impressive client list, but her personal problems got in the way of her professional life and she wound up dropping the ball as well. Even more discouraged, I stuffed my four picture books into the box with my novel and decided I wasn’t cut out to be a writer after all. Besides, I had a living to earn. I couldn’t afford to waste time writing stuff nobody wanted to read.

But a good friend, another writer, disagreed. She nagged and cajoled, encouraged and threatened, till finally she convinced me to blow the dust off my novel and begin all over again with a different tense, a different point-of-view, and a different title. Using my original version as a detailed outline, I spent ten months writing from the ground up and having more fun than I expected. Layers of stodgy writing fell away, a fresh voice emerged. Maybe I was a writer after all.

More queries went out and a third enthusiastic agent entered my life, but after coming close with a couple of New York editors and being turned down by a handful more, my agent told me to write another novel and she’d sell that one instead. So I did, but the result didn’t sit well with her. At first, I was angry and indignant; then apathy set in. I withdrew from my online writing group, parted company with my agent, and added yet another manuscript to the box under my bed.

Time to think seriously about giving up altogether.

But that determined friend wouldn’t hear of it. She insisted my novel would appeal to readers in England, given a huge chunk of it is set in London and Cornwall, and why didn’t I try submitting it myself to publishers in the U.K.? So I did, and wound up in the capable hands of Will Atkins, my brilliant editor at Macmillan New Writing.

Time elapsed from that hefty first draft to publication? Ten years, almost to the day. So when authors say that getting published is all about the three Ps, passion, patience, and perseverance, I’d like to remind them there’s another P in that path to publication: potholes.
* I'd originally referred to Beachcombing as Maggie's first adult novel but it's been pointed out to me that an "adult novel" has certain connotations, particularly in the USA. So I've changed it to "grown-up novel" now, which sounds slightly Playschoolish to me: if anyone would like to suggest a better phrase, I'd be happy to hear it!


Sally Zigmond said...

Oh Maggie. I was empathising like mad along with you as I read this--especially about the apathy bit--and agents who tell you to write another novel and they'll take a look at that one, as if it was as quick and easy as baking a cake with a 'Quick'n'Easy cake mix--just add one egg for that personal touch'!

PS Beachcombing is a great read!

none said...

And yet another P...pals ;).

Chris Stovell said...

Well, that's made me feel better! Well done, Maggie for perservering and a big pat on the back to the determined friend who supported and cajoled her.

Daniel Blythe said...

How about "novel for adults"?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

What a great story. Thank you both. Inspirational, and wise, and all sorts.

Sharon Maas said...

Wow, this story reminds me quite a bit of my own!
Glad you climbed out of your potholes; you're an inspiration to others.

none said...

Work of adult fiction?

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

you are so not alone! I think we've all been book that's getting published was finished (for the first time) 13 years ago.

thank heavens you didn't give up!

Lisa said...

I just wanted to let you know I've linked to this post in the first ever World of Fiction newsletter. Please let me know if it's a problem, and I'll be happy to remove it.

- Lisa

Maggie Dana said...

Hi Everyone, and thanks for the kind comments, and a special thanks to Jane for posting my story, potholes and all.

At 9:00 pm GMT tonight (July 24) I'm guest-hosting a #litchat session on Twitter. Now that I've figured out, more or less, how it works, I'm finding it's a fabulous way of connecting with readers, bloggers, authors, and even the odd agent and editor or two.

So, if you've nothing else to do, stop by and join in the fun. Today's topic is: Finding the Fountain of Youth in Fiction, and I'll be yammering on about that and how it ties in with my novel.

Jane Smith said...

Maggie, I'm with Sally: as I read this piece, when you first sent it to me, I was silently shouting "Yes!" and punching the air (albeit in a very quiet, restrained, English way) because it struck so many chords for me.

Last night I ventured into TweetChat (was it that? I shall soon find out when I look for it again) for the first time ever, guided by Maggie (she's a wonderful hand-holder, and perhaps more importantly, knows when to let go); I'm hoping to join her in #litchat in a quarter of an hour, but wonder if this second glass of wine might interfere with my lucidity.

Donna Hosie said...

I just love to read stories like this. Thank you for sharing.

Marya Zilberberg said...

Great writing, Mags! And what enormous patience. This is why I am sticking to blogging (for the moment anyhow).

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Loved your chat on #litchat today and reading more about you here. Yes, the path to publishing has many potholes, but a wise writer either paves them over and continues, or learns to navigate around them. You have done both, and brilliantly so.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely, maggie, and well done! (Though you make it sound as though getting a children's book published is easier - it isn't. SOME types of children book are, but SOME types of adult book are too. I don't recommend it as an easy option. As with any genre, you have to write the right book well enough, and one which a publisher can sell - which you did! Hooray!)

M. L. Kiner said...

"The Hong Kong Connection" is a legal thriller about a gutsy female attorney who takes on high ranking International officials. It's a taut, rollercoaster of a ride from New York to Palm Beach to Washington D.C. to Hong Kong. The plot is expertly woven, the characters persuasive, and the dialogue snappy and spot on.

Jane Smith said...

Mr Kiner: you've got at least one comma too many in your nasty little example of comment-spam, but to make up for it you're missing a hyphen. None of which encourages me to even consider reading the book you're promoting. If this is how you think that books should be promoted then you should think again: you're only going to alienate people by comment-spamming their blogs, much as you've now alienated me.

Mind you, the fact that the book is published by Strategic Publishing is enough to put me off even without your rudeness.

Strategic Publishing is run by one Robert Fletcher, the man behind the notorious Writers Literary Agency (and its many and various arms), which has its own special spot on Writer Beware's Twenty Worst Literary Agents List.

Here's a whole thread about Strategic Publishing on Absolute Write: if you'd like to argue with me about the merits of using Strategic or not, then please do it over there, where I post under the user name of Old Hack. But not here, OK?

Maggie Dana said...

Hi Nicola:

Oh dear, I really didn't mean it to sound like writing (and publishing) kids' books is easy. It's not. It's just that my particular experience was relatively painless. But this was in 1980, and honestly, it WAS easier back then. Less competition, less people with keyboards; more publishers and fewer agents.

If anything, it's tougher to sell a kids' book these days than it is to sell grownup fiction. I've tried, and failed, to find a home for several picture books in the past couple of years. As for YA. Hell, that's even tougher.

Paul Lamb said...

It's posts like this one that keep me coming back to this blog! Thanx.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Maggie - no, I know you didn't mean it the way I took it, but I just took the chance to emphasise my point!! Just didn't want anyone getting the wrong idea. I think you under-estimate yourself, though - I'd venture to say you got published with a picture book because you wrote the perfect picture book and the publisher knew that!