Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the ongoing guest post series, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome to this site author Fiona Mitchell, who speaks of her remarkable journey from disappointing rejections to a publishing deal, and the seven steps to the publication of her debut novel, The Maid’s Room.
Congratulations on your debut, Fiona! Take it away!
‘I would have given up!’ That’s what a lot of people say when I tell them how long it took me to get published. The Maid’s Room is out this week – seven years after I started writing fiction.
Throughout that time, I received lots of rejection letters and always, my spirit would slump into the end of my toes. But giving up was never an option because I felt so passionate about my idea. Set in Singapore, The Maid’s Room explores the lives of over-worked, underpaid Filipina maids who decide to fight back and change their lives.
I kept writing, re-writing and editing and finally in October 2016, I signed a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Here are the seven steps I struggled up to turn my pipe dream into reality. And it’s worth noting that my hardest knocks were my most important turning points.
1) I blew my biggest chance: Back in 2013, I entered a novel competition that was judged by four literary agents. To my astonishment I was first longlisted then shortlisted. I didn’t win, but one of the literary agents, Rowan Lawton, wanted to meet me because she liked my novel. Rowan and I met in a cafe in London where I scribbled down her suggestions for edits. I worked on the book for a few months, but it still wasn’t right and Rowan turned it down. ‘I’ll never get another chance like this,’ I thought.
2) I wrote a second book: I set that first book aside, and wrote another one: a literary love story set on a remote Scottish island with quite a lot of sex scenes. I showed it to my husband who fell asleep somewhere around the second chapter. A writer friend of mine read it, grimaced and said, ‘Well, the thing is I really liked that first novel.’ I ignored everyone and submitted my second novel to agents including Rowan. The rejections flowed in.
3) I went back to my first book: I excavated the first book, made some changes and began sending it out again. One agent requested the full, using words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘wonderful’ to describe the opening chapters. Two other agents wanted to read the whole thing too. ‘This is my moment,’ I thought. Except it wasn’t. One by one all three agents rejected me. And that’s not mentioning the scores of other agents I sent it to. There was no body left to approach.
4) I wrote a third book: I peeled my splattered ego off the floor and started to plan a new book, using my central idea of modern-day servitude in Singapore with a brand new storyline, punctuated with humour. I wrote The Maid’s Room in a matter of months then sent the full manuscript to seven literary agents, including Rowan. One by one the rejections arrived, saying the narrative wasn’t quite taut enough, the pacing wasn’t right. I was at an all-time low.
5) I hired an editor: One agent said she’d love to read The Maid’s Room again if I had it edited. I was cynical, but eventually I thought, ‘what have I got to lose?’ I contacted story editor Sara Sarre who turned out to be my saviour. She loved The Maid’s Room and knew where I was going wrong.
6) I landed a literary agent: I sent The Maid’s Room to Rowan and ten days later, she offered to represent me. And that changed everything. Rowan and I worked together on more changes, then in October 2016, I signed contracts with four separate publishing companies in Denmark, Norway, Spain and Italy.
7) I signed with Hodder & Stoughton: It was nail-biting when Rowan started to submit to UK publishers, but thankfully the book went to auction and I ended up signing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton.
Fiona Shares Her Tips to Help Your Novel to the Finishing Post:
1) Choose an idea you’re passionate about. That idea will sustain you through rejection and furnish you with the magic ‘p’ word: perseverance.
2) Turn up. Don’t wait until you feel like writing. Treat it like a job and write every day.
3) Don’t Look Back. Complete your first draft before doing any editing. That way you’ll know your story works and that it’s worth spending time editing.
4) Put it away. When you’ve rewritten and edited your novel once, put it away for a couple of weeks and come back to it anew. You’ll see it through a stranger’s eyes then and will be more able to spot what doesn’t work.
5) When you’re submitting to literary agents, say you welcome feedback. Use that feedback to improve your book.
6) If you’re unsure how to improve your book, find a brilliant editor who connects with your writing.
7) Enter writing competitions. A longlisting in a competition will buoy you up through the submissions process and keep you writing.
8) Rejections hurt. Turn the negative emotion into energy and keep writing. The longer it takes to get representation, the better your writing will become.
Fiona Mitchell is an award-winning writer who has worked as a journalist for twenty years. She spent almost three years living in Singapore and now lives in London with her husband and daughter. The Maid’s Room, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017, is her first novel. She is currently working on a second.
Do you have questions for Fiona? Have you gone the indie or trad route? Do you prefer the independence of self-publishing? Or maybe publication by the Big Five or a small press is the only way for you? Share your thoughts and if you have questions on writing or publication for ask them in the comments!
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Thanks for sharing your process and for the great tips! Congrats on your success. I’ve just started soliciting agents two months ago. I sent out eight carefully-crafted queries critiqued (along with my first twenty pages) by an agent who wanted a full. Not surprisingly, I haven’t heard anything from anyone. My concern is that I don’t even know if they were received or landed in spam. (My real last name is Love; email is HeidiLoveAuthor…) so that can sometimes trigger spam. I’ve had two editors and beta readers review the submissions. My question for Fiona is roughly what percentage of queries did you hear back (rejections, comments, anything) versus silence. I will likely create a new email address. Do you have any other suggestions other than keep plugging away? Thanks.
Such a wonderful story of turning rejection into success! Thank you for all those tips, Fiona. And congratulations on your success story!
Thank you so much for sharing. I’m going to bookmark this post and come back to it when I’m feeling low!
Thank you for sharing, I’ve published my short novel here on WordPress and while I remain realistic, it’d be nice to garner a wider audience. Cheers.
Great story of the bloody-mindedness that is essential to getting past the starting post. I spent two years ignoring great advice from an agent to submit my draft to a literary consultant. The improvement to my writing and story-structuring when I finally took this advice was dramatic and rejections turned to MS requests.
Thanks for the tips and advice! I think we all need to put our pride in our pockets… for the sake of our work! Well, tat’s what I’m reminded of again! 😉
Super-inspiring (as the world appears to have started saying!). Everything is super this and super that. However, this blog has inspired me to keep writing, keep saving for a professional edit, and take the professional route. While self-publishing works for many, I know I would rather have that blanket of reassure around my shoulders, even if I bought it from Edinburgh Woollen Mill and had a save a little more.
Your advice is Super.
(*goes off to find the book*)
This is so inspiring! As someone who loves writing, this has really motivated me. Thank you!
I’m so pleased it helped. Happy writing.
I’m thinking of writing at some point about something I an passionate about and would deffinately self-publush using a local printer (helping local wherever we live is honour able). If there are any “oops!” spelling mistakes or repeat words in the first small print run of the the signed books, I will cover that with a sentence at the back saying spot the spelling mistakes and repeat words and have somewhere to send the answers, then take them out in the second run. Note: I’ve placed a few deliberate spelling mistakes in my comment of your blog post for a giggle too.
Good luck with it!
It’s like been there, done that when I usually read writing advice, but Fiona, did you peep into my mind? And I needed to hear that about how you held on, and on and on, till you were on firm ground. I am about to plunge into some serious work, and I have bookmarked this page. I will be coming back to it on my low days for inspiration. Good luck with the book.
My question for you is this: Is it worth entering competitions when there is an entry fee in a currency that’s worth several times your own? I am always deterred by this factor.
Hi Suneetha. Thank you. Some writing competitions are very expensive, and when you factor in the exchange rate, prohibitively so. I wasted quite a bit of money, at first, entering lots of things, then I chose only the work that I felt was in some way special, to enter just one or two competitions a year. And of course, there are many free competitions also – such as The Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize. I know how dreadful it is to feel you are not getting anywhere, but please keep writing. The very best of luck to you.
Wow! You certainly demonstrated a lot of grit and determination! Congratulations on our book dea! I like how you described the feeling of rejection as “my spirit would slump into in the ends of my toes.” I know that feeling too well.
Yes, it’s an awful feeling, and every writer experiences it. The very best of luck with your writing.
Wow!! What a story of perseverance and success. I loved the tips and inputs she has given. So much honesty and acceptance in her words. I am impressed that she has finally signed the deal she dreamed of. Thank you for sharing this Damyanti.
Best of luck and super success for the book Fiona. The story idea is so good.
Thank you so much. I hope the tips help you to keep writing.
Inderpreet, it is my pleasure to tell you that you’ve won the copy of Fiona’s book!
Please DM me your address so Fiona can send you a copy of The Maid’s Room signed to you.
Persistence goes a long ways for a writer. Congratulations Fiona
! (I love the title – makes me want to read it!)
Thank you. Persistence is the number one reason I got this book published.
After a couple of false starts publishing some dreck with a vanity publisher, it took me about a year to complete my one and only novel that got traditionally published: 2 1/2 months to write it, and about 11 months to edit/polish it.
First novel: 3 months to write, 3 years to find sufficient funds to have it edited. That first novel was unpublishable in the sense it wan’t an easy genre fit. Once I could afford the edit, I found it to be an insight into what worked and what didn’t. It helped settle my style. Have since begun 6 novels of which one is complete.
Writing is an art – sure there are mechanical aspects to it, beginning with discipline over output. The creator knows the complete form but may leave some work for the reader to do. The logic and mechanics of write, sell, repeat are self-evident; the question is what is literary merit? Something each writer must tackle.
My first-novel edit lifted me enough to try my hand at other genres: noir, humour, romance, historical fiction, and fantasy. I go to writing groups on either side of the Pennines with the view of geeing them up to publish – these are good, literary folk who need to make some literary noise. As far as my genre is concerned (SF) too many of the works via traditional publisher deals seem formulaic; I can’t summon the enthusiasm to fit a mould. Based on discussions with published authors (both in and out of genre) Here’s another writer question: Do you really want a publisher deal? Do you get what it will do to you?
I like your question. Yes, a traditional publishing deal involves all sorts of things not discussed in my post – for instance, doing lots of publicity and public speaking, and your writing must be marketable. It can be just as satisfying publishing in literary magazines, through independent publishers etc.
Those are good points.
Where I live, there are no bookshops within 20 miles. Leaving aside the why of this, it means for most it’s nearly impossible show their community what they’ve been up to. Does this affect me? I’ve plenty of projects to keep me going: and in my genre – SF – literary acceptance isn’t such a big deal. So I could concentrate on myself and whack product out. I’ve committed to helping prepare two anthologies to give other writers in my region a platform. One of these could be the basis for an ongoing project. Will it come off? I don’t know.
Those who can’t get a publisher must work hard to get on the map. Sometimes they need help. I’ll see where things go.
It only took me 6 months to publish my first novel, if I count from the time I started writing it and not from the several years earlier I spent thinking about writing it.
Significantly less time than it took me. Congratulations.
I always dreamed of writing a book, but then I started blogging and stuck with it. Somehow, I’m never quite certain whether I want a book now. But Fiona’s tips are so inspirational, I might actually have to re-think this.
Am going to check up The Maid’s Room.
Fiona’s literary journey is awe-inspiring and is all about perseverance and patience.Thanks for sharing the tips, I am inspired especially by “Turn up. Don’t wait until you feel like writing. Treat it like a job”.
Thanks, Shilpa. I hope the tips help you to stay motivated. Good luck with your writing.
Ah, the journey. You can’t have amazing ups without incredible lows, eh? Now if only there was a way to guarantee epic sales. =) Wishing you the best, Fiona, and thank you for sharing your experience!
Yes, it’s true. And even after you get a publishing deal, the extreme highs and lows continue!
What a great story, Fiona. I had similar experiences, thinking I’d landed an agent, making the requested changes and finding they weren’t good enough. It’s heart-breaking. I look forward to checking out your book.
Oh, Jacqui, it’s so hard to take those knocks. I hope you keep going. Best of luck to you. And thank you.
What a great post. Thank you for the insight from your experiences, Fiona. I am currently working with a newbie author and she gets discouraged with all these rejections. I am glad to know about the adversities you went through and emerged a winner after it all. Congratulations, well done. I am glad your perseverance paid off.
Thank you, Pragya. I hope my story helps this new writer. You have to go through so many rejections before a breakthrough.
Thanks, I am at an early stage but not sure whether there are rejections as the agents don’t respond at all. Am giving each one 8 weeks now but some say it could take longer for them to even start reading. Thankfully I am passionate about the book and must persevere.
It’s so disappointing when an agent doesn’t reply – that’s happened to me. Keep going though, and good luck.
Sorry missed this. Yes, am now looking at those who say they will reply!
Thanks for the tips. I really connected to the last one: “the longer it takes…the better your writing will become.” I’m on year four!
I’m glad that chimed with you, Heidi. I used to wonder why I was wasting my time, but I just kept going, and finally, I got lucky. Keep writing!
Success pretty much never happens overnight, and Fiona’s story certainly sounds about right.
Fiona, I’m glad you didn’t give up. Obviously, you have writing talent, and just needed to keep at it, work hard, and make the right connections at the right time. So glad for you!
That is a lovely thing to say – thank you.
Rejection is such a strong word. People face rejection when applying for jobs and so many other things but the hardest rejection is for something you’ve slaved over for months or even years. It is hard to bolster your courage and go out and try again, but most writers do this over and over. Fiona offers some great suggestions in this post.
I guess when you’ve invested so much time, and so many years into writing, it’s almost impossible to give up, despite the rejections – it was for me anyway. Thank you.
Rejection is quite often the forerunner to success because if we are wise we learn from our mistakes and take on board criticisms whether helpful or nasty. These perceptions are in miniature the response you’ll get from that wider targeted audience.
I so agree. And taking note of criticism makes for a better book. Yes, once the book is published, your work becomes fair game – anyone can interpret and criticise it. I’m thankful now that my original book is not the one that’s on the shelves!
I look forward to reading The Maid’s Room. I relate completely to your stop-start journey to publication. My own route was/is equally tortuous. Every time I’ve taken a step on the ladder – competition wins, publication, agent – I’ve stalled for months or even years on that same rung. Finally this year, with my perseverance and support of my agent, I’ve secured publication with HarperCollins. The novel was first drafted years ago and has had several re-writes since. My HC editor has been brilliant in helping me to do a professional edit.
Thank you, Rachel. That is amazing news about your novel. Massive congratulations!
Stories like Fiona’s give me hope!
Good to hear. Keep going!
Fascinating and uplifting story. Worth noting that this lady is a writer by profession – 20 years as a journalist. And still it took that long to get her novel to a state that was acceptable to a conventional publisher. I look forward to reading it. Meanwhile, I didn’t start writing until I was in my late 60s. A seven year wait for recognition is not an option, nor can I offer an agent and publisher years of future earnings. So I chose the self-publication route.
Thanks, Frank. Congrats on self-publishing!
It’s encouraging to read about a writer who’s become a success after many years of rejection. Not that I’m glad Fiona suffered so much rejection but that she persevered until she signed a contract is uplifting. Good for you, Fiona.
Thank you, Sharon. It was a long, old road, but I’m glad I kept going.
what an absolute inspirational read, I am so glad I read this today it was just what I needed xx
That’s so great to hear. Thank you, and I hope you keep writing.
What a story of perseverance and grit! I really enjoyed reading about her journey and her never-say-die attitude! 7 years! That’s a long time. It’s interesting that her rejections made her stronger. I’m really inspired by this and intend to work this into my writing practice too. Thank you for hosting her, Damyanti 🙂
Thank you. I’m so pleased to hear this.
Very inspiring to hear about the struggle of a budding author. I started blogging just ten months back and currently I can’t even get my punctuation right. I aspire to start writing soon. I sat with an idea for a book a few months back. I completed some thirty or forty pages and then took time to read my own stuff. I felt so disgusted with it that I simply gave up and deleted the document. Reading this interview gives me some fresh hope and inspires me to begin again with a new idea.
I know that feeling – that’s why I try not to read the first draft back until I’ve finished. And then I feel slightly sick because it’s not that great. Later, I start playing around with the words – and somehow it gets better.
I’ve been trying to write a novel for years but somehow I get stuck in just the bare bones . Sometimes I find it so boring myself that I yawn before the chapter is done .
But I know it’s a great story … just can’t seem to string it all together.
Each chapter comes out like a story in itself ….
Your journey as a novelist is inspiring . May just try it once more
I can relate to that. I find the first draft really difficult to write. It’s the second part I love – editing and rewriting.
Wow! Inspirational for sure. Congratulations. I love the cover design; it’s brilliant.
Thank you so much.
Great post! I finished a novel in 2012 and received a bunch of rejections. While somewhat dejected but figured I needed to fiddle with it more. Finally accepted by an agent (the one of choice!) and did a few edits requested. Now I am in limbo while they go the next round. I didn’t know that agents rejected MS even after accepting and requesting edits! Good to know, because I would not have been prepared for that… whew… In the meantime, I have plenty of other novels to work on.
It sounds like you’re in a great place, Claire. Very best of luck to you.