A few guest posts of mine on the WomenFictionWriters blog:
Since my last post all of seven years ago (I had actually forgotten about this blog!) many, many things have changed. New books have been written, I have a new agent, and now I am truly back to the beginning, about to self-publish my very first novel, Of Marriageable Age with the assistance of my new agent, Don Fehr of Trident Media.
Of Marriageable Age was first published by HarperCollins, London, in 1999. It has been translated into five European languages and was a huge bestseller in France. It never sold in the US, and upon revising it, I believe I know why, and have revised the problematic bits accordingly.
A new cover, new revisions, a better book altogether.
We shall see.
And so, as of September 30th 2006,
Emily Saladino of Writers House is my agent.
Let’s raise a glass to that!
Just one more word:
My last post might have given the impression that, following my heart, I rushed into her representation. But it wasn’t quite like that.
There were two agents in the running at this time. I researched them both. I wanted know more about them; more than book sales and top-notch clients. I wanted to know: what are they really like? Can I work with this person? Can I trust her to do her best for me? How high is her enthusiasm for my book?
There were non-verifiable intangibles behind the names that I simply couldn’t pick up from a website or a page on PublishersMarketplace.
What I wanted were reports from other clients.
Apart from sales reports, I could not find anything on the William Morris agent. Not a single article or mention anywhere. No enthusiastic client singing her praises. Of course, I had the option of contacting a few of those clients myself and asking: how is she to work with? I was looking for human element, because in my book it’s that that causes a business relationship to succeed or fail. I wanted an agent I could harmonize with. I wanted good chemistry.
Googling Emily, on the other hand, I found this:
The last couple of weeks were like an extended speed-dating experience, spent looking for the perfect partner among the agents who’d offered representation. Each one I spoke with had unique qualities and experiences I valued. But when I talked with Emily, we both felt agent-author chemistry, and I knew almost instantly she was The One. She’s vibrant, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and experienced. And I love her roll-up-the-sleeves commitment to me, my project, and our mutual success.
Excuse me if I don’t hang around to write a more detailed post. I’m just too excited to sit still.
I think of myself as an intuitive person. And reading that post by newport2newport, I knew. It was not just that Melodye had been through the same process and chosen Emily; I felt the chemistry through the ether. And I felt it through the phone when Emily spoke to me.
She was, indeed, The One.
There’s now not much to say about the months that followed.
Emily asked for a revision; she gave me notes to work from. There was a problem of pacing, and of secondary characters. I made the revisions, sent them in; she asked for a further tightening up. I removed over 1000 more words. We’d planned to submit at the end of November, but as the revisions took me into December Emily let know that she felt it would be better to wait till after the holiday season. In the meantime, she’d passed White Night to other Writers House colleagues and the feedback was good; “they think you’re a terrific writer”, she said, and January was simply a better time to submit.
And that, my friends, brings us to the present. Emily submitted my manuscript in mid-January. The waiting has begun.
But of course, I’m not waiting.
I’m abiding by Aruna’s Law.
And, in the meantime, Melodye and I have become friends. It’s she who encouraged me to start a LiveJournal – of which this is a shadow; she who asked the questions that motivated me to write this story. The circle has closed.
And I hope that by now you’re all rooting for White Night. Thanks for following me this far on this sometimes crazy, sometimes sad, sometimes ecstatic journey!, and I hope I can report good things in the weeks to come!
Ever heard of Aruna’s Law? Probably not; but you may have experienced it.
I am Aruna. And though I didn’t invent the law, I have observed it time enough, and I know it’s true.
Aruna’s Law is this: The Call always comes when you least expect it. Or, conversely: The Call never comes when you’re waiting for it.
So what was I to do, now that Ms Dream Agent had warned me that she’d call? Force myself NOT to expect it? Waaah!
So from around midday my time – that’s the start of the New York workday – I busied myself with – cleaning. And made an extra effort to Keep My Mind on the Cleaning, and stop eyeing the telephone; because of course it wouldn’t ring as long as I eyed it!
It was hard. Very hard. And because it was so hard, The Call didn’t come till very late in the day, when I had convinced myself I had only dreamed up that morning’s mail.
See? Aruna’s Law proven once again! It only came when I had given up!
Of course, I had prepared myself. First of all, I had to decide what to do about the many outstanding agents who still had my manuscript in full or partial, and still hadn’t Called. (IN CASE she made an offer. But I wasn’t going to assume anything, you understand. This was Just In Case…)
Professionalism called for informing them all that an offer of Representation Is On The Table, and nudging them to read and decide. If one or the other of these agents decided to offer as well I would have a choice; which is a good position for a novelist to be in.
But I already knew. In my books, enthusiasm means speed, and vice versa. If those agents hadn’t read my manuscipt all summer long then they had probably lost whatever enthusiasm they had had initially.
And the one thing I wanted above all was enthusiasm. Enthusiasm means drive, power, a magical spark.
If that wasn’t there… so I dismissed all these agents mentally.
But there was one other agent who had a partial, requested at the same time as Dream Agent. A William Morris agent, which in my eyes means power. And to besides, an older experienced agent… shouldn’t I wait to see what she had to say?
I tend not to make decisions with my head. I listen to my heart. And my heart told me very clearly what to do.
So, befofe DreamAgent made her Call, I had already made my decision.
The Call came. She elaborated on much of what she had said in the mail, and offered representation. And without skipping a beat, I said. yes.
For this first round I’d chosen only agents who accept email queries; much cheaper and quicker than snail-mail queries – remember, I lived in England. And those pesky SASE’S! I did take the precaution of getting a friend to send me ten US stamps for my SASE’s – just in case.
Most of the agents replied with in a week. Most of the replies were requests for more: partials or fulls per attachment.
The quickest was a Writers House agent I had a particularly keen eye on; his request came by return of mail. He read the partial over the weekend and asked for the full.
Immediately he jumped to first position in my order of preference, along with a William Morris agent who had also asked for a full.
In a couple of weeks I had a total of four full manuscripts and two partials out there. That’s one great harvest!
Two weeks later the Writers House agent mailed to say his assistant had given White Night a “great”. He promised to read it as quickly as possible.
In the following days I fell in love with the idea of being a Writers House agent; probably for al the wrong reasons.
I love historical houses. Especially lovely terracotta-coloured houses with trees outside them. I could just see myself walking into that romatic terracotta-coloured house on their website. It looked like just the place for me. After all, my entire life can be summed up with “search for a home” and this looked just like it. And that conference table! And those bookshelves! Would MY book be on thse shelves one day? Sure it would!
(And it helps, of course, that Writers House is one of the biggest and most powerful agencies in the US/the world!)
But a few days letter I fell from my cloud. Rejection!
After 200 pages he couldn’t connect with the main character, so stopped reading. Damn!
He had attached the very detailed readers report; she loved the story as a whole (“edge-of-the-seat”, she said!) but pinpointed some genuine flaws. Immediately I started on a new revision.
Then one fine day, a mail from the WIlliam Morris agent zinged into my inbox.
Oh! The agony of those first few moments before opening the mail, heart racing! Oh, let it be a Yeah!!!!
But it was a Nay.
Disappointmentm, but no gloom. I had many more manuscripts out there.
But no more replies came in. All summer I waited – in vain. But I also revised the manuscript thoroughly. I had received some valuable feedback through those two rejections, and made some changes so vital I wished they’d been in there before.
In September I started on a second round of queries. This time, two at a time.
Again, my top choices were a William Morris agent, and a Writers House agent.
I picked my Writers House agent carefully.
She was a junior agent; I hadn’t seen her on their agent list before.
I couldn’t find any clients for her; that meant she’d be seriously seeking.
Her profile said she liked commercial and literary fiction. And was especially interested in novels with an international setting. Something clicked.
She asked for an exclusive partial.
I explained I couldn’t, as several manuscripts were already out there.
Send it anyway, she replied, and I’ll give you a quick read.
She did. And requested the full.
The following Friday I woke up to find her mail in my inbox. Opened it.
I have finished reading WHITE NIGHT. I absolutely love it. Zena is a fantastic protagonist, her story is layered and thoughtful, your description of rural Guyana is utterly transportive, and you really bring the horror of Jonestown to life.
She asked me for a time when she could call me “tomorrow”.
“Anytime! I’ll be in all day Saturday!”
And then I realised: tomorrow was actually today! I had forgotten the time difference!
I shot off the correction:
“Sorry, I mean today!”
Dear Agent X,
I’m hoping that my novel WHITE NIGHT (approx 110,000 words) is a project you’d like to represent. WHITE NIGHT is based on the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana in which 900 people died, told from an original perspective and with a new twist.
Zena Vandermeer, a feisty Guyanese travel journalist, retreats to the rainforest to finally close the door on personal tragedy. Uncanny noises in the night – gunshots, screams, sirens, and a disembodied voice over a loudspeaker – from the nearby People’s Temple settlement lead her to suspect trouble behind the guarded gates, and she investigates. What starts out as an exposé turns into a daring plan of rescue: Zena infiltrates the cult and is drawn into a lethal web of deceit with a madman – and his tyrannical partner in crime – at its centre. Risking her life in a doomed attempt to stop the carnage, Zena finds closure and the ability to love again.
I am myself Guyanese born and bred. I have actually lived on a pineapple farm just a few miles from the Jonestown site, so I know the area and the circumstances well. WHITE NIGHT recalls that event in all its horror, but with enough fictional characters and plot twists – and a dramatic new outcome – to make it both fresh and unexpected. It explores the deeper issues of cult mentality that led to the tragedy, and takes the reader into an unfamiliar and exotic world. As a suspense story with a female protagonist and female victims it should appeal particularly to women, yet is universal enough to draw a large and diverse readership. With its serious themes and an exciting story it bridges the gap between commercial and literary fiction.
I’m a three-time novelist with HarperCollins, London. My novels sold respectably in Britain and extremely well in France, the first two climbing into the Top Ten there. The North American rights for these three novels – multi-ethnic family sagas, set mostly in India – are still available, and several foreign publishers are eager for more work from me.
I currently live in England, but I believe the US market is more appropriate for the WHITE NIGHT story, and I’m looking for dynamic new representation there. I’d be delighted to send you the manuscript.
Thank you etc. etc.
I sent this query to about 10 top US agents.
I finished the screenplay in a couple of weeks, revised it, and began networking. I joined the Done Deal screenwriters’ forum, a place where not only experienced writers but even a few production executives hang out.
Just about everyone loved my premise. Just about everyone said my first scenes were crap. You can still find my posts there, under the screen name of Aruna.
A lot of people helped me write new drafts; but finally I realised I wasn’t made for screenwriting.
I was a novelist.
The next step was obvious: White Night, the novel.
Meanwhile, I did my research. The more I read about People’s Temple and Jonestown, the more one thing became clear:
This was not going to be a sensationalist story.
It was not a story of murder and mayhem. It was not about a bunch of crazed loonies blindly following a despotic madman into death. It was not about zombies or brainwashed idiots.
It was about humans. It was about good people with high ideals who wanted nothing more than to live together in peace and happiness. It was about a community seeking a dream that turned into a nightmare. It was about deception, intimidation, fear-mongering and manipulation.
I read personal stories from survivors and relatives of victims, and wept. I read books so moving I felt presumptious for even touching this tragedy. I read conspiracy theories, academic studies, original files and transcripts from Jonestown itself. I exchanged mails with someone who had been Jim Jones’ right hand and someone who had slept with him and someone who had escaped the final catastrophe with all the loot. I sifted through pages and pages of information until I grasped what I felt to be the essence of truth; and that was the foundation of my own story.
I felt I owed it to the victims, survivors and their relatives to be loyal to this truth. Most of all, I had to respect the innocent who died, and if possible redeem them in public memory. To do this I would build upon the facts with fiction.
The book that emerged is a blend of both.
Writing it was relatively easy; I had the screenplay to work from. A screenplay is a tightly stuctured work with small and great climaxes and turning points and character arcs and action all clearly defined. Writing the novel was simply a matter of adding flesh to that structure, and involved adding characters, plot twists and themes that only enhanced the earlier version.
I loved it.
By mid-2006 it was ready for submission. My situation this time was a different one.
The obstacles that had tripped me up with Last of the Sugar Gods were now irrelevant. For one: no more British agents.
This was all about America and Americans. The location, the background, was indeed important, but the story itself screamed America. Check one.
A rejected option novel? Not in America. My previous novels had never been published there. I had no shadow in the USA. There, I counted as a debut author, yet with excellent writing credits – a double bonus! Check two.
I had a big story, a famous real-life event with an original twist. Isn’t that what agents say they want? Check three.
I has a hunch that this time, it would be different.
I did my homework. I researched American agents.
In June 2006 I sent off my query.
Tomorrow I’ll post it.
I wasn’t just out in the cold, I had hit Rock Bottom.
I’m an upbeat person, and there’s little that can really keep me down for long. But this was serious.
I’m not talented in many ways. In fact, I can only think of one thing I have the remotest affinity for, and that’s storytelling. The day I landed my first book contract a bright new world opened its doors to me, and I had gone in with my heart singing. And now the door had slammed shut with me outside it. I wept real tears; sometimes I sobbed out loud.
I could not bear to enter a bookshop. Just seeing and smelling books, and mine not there, and never would be again, broke my heart.
I could not read a novel. I could not even read a novel review. This, from someone who used to devour three or four novels a week.
I’d put my best work out there, taken the risk, and failed. Crawled out on a fragile branch, and it had broken.
But so what?
At some point during my sojourn at Rock Bottom a manuscript came into my hands.
Something I’d written a few years back.
Not a novel.
There had been some Hollywood interest in my first novel, Of Marriageable Age. Back then, the novel had somehow landed in the hands of a London-based producer from Columbia Pictures; she loved it and sent it to her studio HQ in LA. Who rejected it, for a variety of reasons.
But that encouraged me to try a screenplay. I read scriptwriting books, joined worksops, read a few scripts, met people, even travelled to California and hobnobbed with folk from the indusctry,. And then I adapted the novel into a screenplay.
That adaptation in its turn aroused a bit of interest. It got me into The Script Factory’s Writers Group of 2003, where I received yet more help and advice.
Now, I decided to dust it off and shake it into life.
I sent the screenplay ms off to the UK Film Council for review; they accept screenplays from amateurs, and give free evaluations. I applied for developmental funding.
A few weeks later I got an email: they loved the screenplay, and could I please come up to London for a talk, and bring some of my other ideas as well.
My heart leapt.
OK, no more novels were in the works, but I was a storyteller primarily. I would switch to writing for the big screen!
I wrote short outlines of all my books, including Last of the Sugar Gods, and hopped on the train to London.
This was September 2005.
It’s said that Joanna Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter on a train ride. That the entire story fell wholesale into her mind.
The same thing happened to me.
Seomthing about Guyana.
Mass suicide. 900 dead. Americans. If that wasn’t commercial, then what was?
Guyana was indeed a remote and untrendy location. But there is one thing it is famous for. One thing that outsiders, if they are old enough, will immediately think of when they hear the name.
Jonestown was one of the biggest, craziest events of the 20th century; but so long ago that a whole new generation know nothing or very little about it. And those who do remember, don’t know much beyond the bloated bodies. I would wake Jonestown from the dead.
I would write a screenplay about Jonestown.
But not the usual overdone story of “what happened that night”.
The inside story. From the point of view of an outsider.
I was that outsider.
I’d lived on a communal pineapple farm not far from Jonestown, just a few years before it happened. I knew the place.
What if –
What if I had still lived there?
Suspected foul play?
What would I have done?
And that’s the birth moment of White Night.
I would tell it from the point of view of an outsider; a young woman living nearby, who is spooked by the weird noises coming from the jungle compound. It would be really, really creepy. Spine chilling.
She would invesitigate. I’d make her a journalist, just as I had been.
She’d find a way to enter the community. She’d meet the madman Jim Jones.
She’d rescue some people. Through the jungle…
They’d escape the mass suicide. They’d be hunted by assassins. It would be exciting, thrilling, and at the same time serious, because it would explore the whole concept of cult mentality, and it would explain how something that terrible could happen.
The ideas flowed so thick and fast I could hardly contain them…. I could see it unfolding right before my eyes. My heart raced. I knew the signs.
The magic was back.
I went for my interview and talked about my script ms and my other ideas, but most of all I talked about White Night.
Now, I am not a talker. I’d much rather put my ideas down in writing than talk about them. But today I was different. I gave a perfect oral pitch.
She loved it. She was young, and had never heard of the Jonestown suicides. She couldn’t believe it had never been done before. “Do it!” she said.
I went home and did it.
When you hit rock bottom there’s only one way to go: up.
A bit of Literary Trivia…
During my research for Last of the Sugar Gods I came across a bt of literary trivia that made me almost off my chair.
Did you know that Jock Campbell, yes, that Jock Campbell who plays a major role in my book, is practically the founder of the famous Booker Prize? That the notorious Booker Brothers, the imperialist company that practically owned every corner of British Guiana, is the company from which the prize gets its name? Well, neither did I.
In the words of Sir Michael Caine, one time Chief Executive of Booker. The Booker, can trace its origin “through a quirk of history and the imaginativeness of one individual, to James Bond and the attainment of political freedom in Guyana.
The individual was a certain Scotsman called Jock Campbell who in 1945 became managing director of the Booker Company which then had most of its business in Guyana. He was also a humanitarian who deplored the wrongs and hurts of slavery. An astute businessman, he was able to transform the company from a typical colonial business into a thriving enterprise.
The birth of the Booker Prize came one day when Jock Campbell learnt that Ian Fleming, an old friend of his and golf partner, was given not more than a year to live. Fleming asked his friend Jock about the way he could secure his estate for his family by selling his interest in the James Bond novels. The two made a deal through the Booker Company and the result was the start of the Booker’s Authors Division. It soon added to Fleming other writers like Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley, Georgette Heyer, Robert Bolt and Harold Pinter.”
Out of that Authors Division the now famous Booker Prize was born. Jock had always loved the arts, and had been an avid reader. In Guyana he was known to help young writers, artists and musicians to develop. Through Bookers he awarded Arf Scholarships to England and Literary Bursaries. While writing I like to think that had I known Jock he would have helped me get started as a writer.
Certainly, reading about him made me aware that this was one of the 20th century’s greatest unsung heroes.
Ok, back to the regular programme!