Before XX found its perfect publishing home with Dialogue Books, I’d experienced a lot of rejection, for this book and all the manuscripts that came before it. There were three of them, of varying quality, and now that a decent amount of time has elapsed, I know that they represent my apprenticeship as a writer..
In publishing rejection is often impersonal. There are clear reasons for form emails being a necessity, but when you’re on the receiving end it feels like a cold barrage of no, no, no. When I first started sending XX out to agents, I was shocked and delighted that full requests started to come in alongside these form rejections. So desperate was I to climb that first stair to publication that I felt ready and willing to change anything, to rewrite the whole book if necessary. I had the attention of people who could get me published. If they were interested in representing me, I would do whatever they asked. No way was I going to let this opportunity slide.
The fact that eight agents requested the manuscript following my initial submission told me that I was definitely on to something with XX. Interest in the premise was strong, yet when agent comments started to trickle in I felt deeply uneasy. So much of what was suggested jarred with my vision for the book. For instance – a number of agents questioned my protagonist Jules’ working class background. Did it have to be – as one agent put it – so grim? Yet for me, this very ‘grimness’ made Jules who she was. It was fundamental to the way she saw the world and how she interacted with others. If I were to attempt to edit her background into something more palatable, then I’d be taking away her beating heart.
Other agents advocated a more thriller-like structure. Yet I hadn’t conceived the book as a thriller at all and to re-write it that way would have stymied my ability to explore gender politics and the other themes in the nuanced way I’d intended. I really did start to despair. It felt as though my chance of publication – my one chance – was dependent on me making changes that I didn’t believe in, into crafting the book into something I no longer felt so passionate about.
I like to think that I would have resisted. That I would have stayed true to my vision for the book, even at the cost of representation. But fortunately that wasn’t a choice I had to make, because I was invited to discuss representation with an agent who liked the book as it was. An agent who intrinsically seemed to ‘get’ what I was trying to do with the book. She did have editorial suggestions, but when I heard what they were I agreed with each and every one. Her changes bought my book closer to my vision for it, rather than further away.
It was a reprieve – preventing me from taking a path I would have been uncomfortable with. Don’t get me wrong – listening and applying feedback is essential for writers. But it’s important that you are honest with yourself about your own conception of the book. An agent will want to shape it into something that she can sell, but what she sees herself selling might not be the book you want to write. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’ve missed your one shot. Publishing is such a subjective business, you just need to find the agent whose taste matches your own.
I can’t help thinking that if I had reworked XX into a thriller, if I had given my protagonist a nice middleclass upbringing, I would have fallen out of love with my own story.