In light of today’s CBC radio interview (hard act to follow, a sasquatch) and the extraordinary number of hits my blog is getting as a result, I thought I’d post the full story of my journey to publication. (This will also be a guest blog on the U.S. blog, Killer Chicks, next week.)
Killer Chicks asked me to blog about how someone whose manuscript was repeatedly turned down ended up with a two book deal with Penguin Canada and foreign deals in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.
Well, a lot of what happened around The Beggar’s Opera (to be published sometime between the fall of 2011 and the spring of 2012) involves sheer luck. Not to mention timing. But also persistence.
Honestly, I was ready to trunk the entire manuscript. Tired of the eye-rolling of friends who thought I’d lost my mind, and those who said ‘well, at least you’re having fun.’
Fun? They’ve obviously never written a novel. It’s hard work. And being rejected is definitely not fun. Plus I was doing it as someone who was unemployed and hoping for a new career, or at least some income.
I finally decided to put the manuscript into a few international competitions. If it didn’t get any traction, I was done. Time to get back to being a lawyer. Or at least finish the realtor exams I’d started but stalled.
I entered The Beggar’s Opera in the St. Martin’s/Minotaur contest in the U.S. I also entered it in the Unhanged Arthur Ellis competition in Canada, run by the Crime Writers of Canada. I’m Canadian. I thought I might have a shot at the Ellis, since I had sat as judge on the CWC non-fiction panel. The third, and least likely, was also the most prestigious: the Debut Dagger Award of the UK Crime Writers Association.
Canadians had done well in the past, but a Canadian had won the Debut Dagger the year before, another, three years before that. I thought it was unlikely that I’d get too far.
Well, St. Martin’s was a wash. I didn’t even get a ‘thank you for your entry.’ The Unhanged Arthur Ellis short list was long, but I wasn’t on it. And then, the deadline for hearing about the Debut Dagger passed with no news.
I finished my real estate exams and started looking for a brokerage to work with. A few weeks later, when I got a letter postmarked from England, I actually wondered who the heck I knew there.
‘I am delighted to inform you that The Beggar’s Opera has been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award,’ it began.
And right then, I knew everything had changed.
Once the shortlist was announced, several agents from top U.K. literary agencies contacted me, asking for my manuscript. Was I coming to Harrogate, one asked, where the award would be announced?
I hadn’t thought about it.
Since I was still unemployed, my friends raised the money for me to fly to Yorkshire. I hoped like hell I would win: after all, that would almost guarantee publication.
But I didn’t. The Debut Dagger was awarded to a UK writer. I admit; I was pretty disappointed. And then, one of the agents I was supposed to meet didn’t show up. The other managed to avoid my eyes like a waiter in a snooty French restaurant.
I’d spent a lot of other people’s money and was no further ahead. Okay, I thought. I guess it’s real estate.
On my last night in England, I went to the bar for a last glass of wine before I returned to the hotel to pack for my red-eye flight back to Canada. The bar was empty. There were sessions going on that I couldn’t afford, and that’s where almost everyone else was.
Which was why I was the only person at the bar when the Scottish author, Ian Rankin, walked by. Now normally, if I see a celebrity, I leave them alone. But I’d promised the Crime Writers of Canada that I’d take photographs.
“Mr. Rankin,” I called out. “Can I take your picture for the Crime Writers of Canada’s website?”
“Of course,” he said.
He asked me where I was from. It turned out he had just returned from Ottawa’s Bluefest the week before. He’d gone there with his son..
If we hadn’t had that five minute chat about the crazy 40 degree heat he’d experienced in my city, I doubt he would have asked me why I was in Harrogate, or if I had an agent or a publisher.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” he said. “Have you contacted my Canadian publisher?” He named her.
“Well, no,” I said. “But I doubt she’d accept an unsolicited manuscript. They usually only deal with agents.”
“I think she will if you use my name,” he replied.
I almost fell over. He hadn’t read a word of my work. “Really?” I said. “You’d let me do that. Are you sure?”
When I got back to Canada, I contacted the publisher. “Well, of course, I’ll take a look at it if Ian is recommending it. Do you have an agent?” she asked. “Have you contacted Ian’s agent, Peter Robinson? ”
I found Peter’s email address online and emailed him. I included the entire thread, so he’d know that I’d met Ian Rankin only briefly.
“I’d love to read your manuscript if Ian’s recommending it,” he replied minutes later. “But I can’t get to it for several weeks. We’re busy, getting ready for the Frankfurt Book Fair.”
Weeks? I’d waited to hear from some agents for months. That was early Friday morning. On Monday morning, I came downstairs to find an email from Peter:
‘I read the novel over the weekend and quite literally couldn’t put it down. I love it and on the strength of this would love to represent the book and you.’
Three weeks later, The Beggar’s Opera was on the hot list at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Germany made a pre-emptive offer, followed by Holland, then Norway. And then Penguin Canada purchased the world English language rights.
‘I worked so hard that I got lucky,’ is the phrase that comes to mind. But Lady Luck has been very kind indeed. My full interview with CBC Radio is here (scroll down Past Episodes to ‘finally published author.” No kidding.