Hannah Tovey: My Journey to Publication

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the publication journey, no foolproof plan to help you get your novel on the shelves. For me, it was five months of rejections, one very hefty re-write, one offer, a long wait, then another offer. It was almost eleven months from when I signed up with my agent to the time I signed my two-book deal with Little, Brown. There were lots of tears, many tantrums, but always hope. This is the story of my publication process, in all its messy glory. 

When I signed with my (first) agent in July 2018, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I naively thought that getting an agent would be the hard bit, and that a lovely, perfectly packaged publishing deal would be waiting for me just around the corner. The manuscript was immediately sent out to a select group of editors; it took three weeks to get my first response, and by the end of August, I was three rejections down. I have never been good with rejection (is anyone?) but those three emails felt like a punch in the gut.

“I really enjoyed this, but I didn’t connect with the character.”

“Of course, my views are entirely subjective and I’m sure you’ll find an editor who feels differently.”

“I thought there was something really interesting about it, but it’s not quite the right project for me.”

More rejections came flooding in. After number twelve, I asked my agent to send me everything and I forced myself to read them all. Whilst they were mostly unified in their criticism, many had taken the time to offer positive and constructive feedback. In hindsight, I realise I should have listened to my inner voice at that point, because it was telling me that something about the manuscript wasn’t right and that I should make changes. But I was so obsessed with getting a publication deal that I lost sight of what mattered: the words. It took me until December of that year, a whole five months after securing an agent, and a total of 23 rejections later, to finally listen to that voice. I asked my agent to put a pause on submissions, and I did a massive re-write.

I printed off every rejection email I had, highlighting all the positive comments, as well as the negative ones, and made a long list of action points for the new draft. Then I went on holiday and tried my very best not to think about it. When I got back home, I got to work; I went back to basics and tried to forget about the publishing deal, instead focusing on writing the best book I could write.

I sent the new manuscript to my agent in March 2019, and a couple of weeks later, I had an offer. I didn’t take it, I wanted to wait. We sent the manuscript out to more editors. A month passed, then another. Then, in May, a day after my agent emailed several editors to note that we would need final offers by the end of the week, I received this email:

“Just to let you know that I got up at 4:30am to finish this today, having started yesterday pm. I absolutely LOVE it – so fresh and current and just gorgeous in every way – and I’m going to be taking it to acquisitions today.”

I was at a work event, and I was too frightened to tell any of my colleagues what was happening, so I took myself off to a quiet corner, cried, re-applied my mascara, then tried to carry on with my day. 

True to their word, the manuscript was taken to acquisitions that day, and less than 48 hours later, a two-book deal was on the table. A week of negotiations passed before I had confirmation of the advance and pay-out structure. That was Friday 24th May 2019, a little over ten months since signing with my agent. 

So, what have I learnt? Above all, that everyone’s publication journey is different. Mine was long and painful and ridden with anxiety, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Nothing good in life comes easy; it was always going to be a challenge because getting my book on the shelves is all I’ve ever wanted in my life. Like me, a dear writer friend of mine secured an agent within a week of submissions, but unlike me, they then spent a year perfecting the novel before it was submitted to any editors. I know how challenging those twelve months were for them, but it was worth it, because when the manuscript was finally ready to send it, they had multiple offers from publishers in both UK and America within a matter of days. 

Don’t lose sight of what matters – the words on the page. Trust your gut. Seek advice; it’s so easy as a debut author to get overwhelmed with the publication process, and I am so grateful to have had the support and friendship of my Faber Academy classmates during that time. Being able to have such open and honest conversations with them about the challenges I was facing was invaluable. So be open to feedback. Don’t take no for an answer. Knock down all the doors. It’s worth it, I promise. 

Copyright // Photography by Krishanthi 2019

 

Hannah’s debut novel, The Education of Ivy Edwards, is out May 7th 2020. Hannah is represented by the Madeleine Milburn Agency. She is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website.

Getting to Know You: The Ultimate Character Questionnaire

Last week, we were thrilled to welcome our new cohort of Writing a Novel students, who are beginning their six month course with us. One of the first things they’ll be looking at in the coming weeks is character. Where do characters come from and what makes a good one? How can you build a character who lives and breathes on the page; who isn’t just an agent for your plot but a realistic, compelling personality for a reader to spend hundreds of pages with?

Character questionnaires are one of my favourite ways to procrastinate when I’m about to start writing a new novel and, unlike some of my others (baby name generators on the internet, Google Street View-ing possible locations, making writing playlists on Spotify), it’s actually a crucial part of the process for me. 

With that in mind, here’s a really intense one – just for you. 

First, head inwards

As Richard Skinner, Director of our Fiction Programme, says, when it comes to creating a character, ‘one ruse is to start from the “outside in”’. You can begin by listing the simplest biographical details of your character – age, date and place of birth, occupation. Their height, their distinguishing features. But as you explore the further details that come from these basic facts – their daily routine, their personal relationships, their views – your character will take on a new dimension. 

So:

  • What’s their star sign? Do they care?
  • Did they vote in the last election? Who for?
  • What’s their most visited website?
  • What do they eat for breakfast?
  • What would they choose for their last meal?
  • What is the one thing that can happen in the morning to make your character’s day? And what’s the one thing that can ruin it?
  • What do they buy/do if they want to treat themselves at the end of a hard day?
  • What’s their favourite song? Film? Book?
  • Who is the first person they would call if they received good news? And what about if the news was bad?
  • Who was the last person they had an argument with? What was it about?
  • Who are they most jealous of? 
  • Who would they list as their ‘In Case of Emergency’ contact?

Now look back

When explaining object relations theory, the tutor on our Getting Into Character course, psychotherapist Arabel Charlaff, describes an internal relational map that we all develop as a child in order to navigate the world and how we understand it; how to behave and what to expect from others around us. This internal map and the ‘objects’ we base our relationships on – a supportive mother, or an unreliable friend, for example – will depend entirely on our early experiences and will not always reflect the world as we actually find it. 

No matter where your character is in their life when your novel opens – or how much of their backstory you intend to share with the reader – it’s important that you understand how their experiences before this point have shaped them as a person.  

  • What is your character’s earliest memory?
  • What was their favourite toy as a child?
  • Who was their hero when they were young? And who is it now?
  • If your character was asked to describe their family life in three words, what would they choose?
  • Who was their best friend as a child? Did that change?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had let them down?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had protected them from harm?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone was proud of them?
  • Who was their first romantic love?
  • When looking for a partner, would they say they have a type? What is it?
  • Which adult relationship do they most admire? Why?

It’s all in the doing

All of this is good knowledge to have about the character you’re building, but the next step is to think about how you impart this to your reader. You know them pretty well now, but copy-and-pasting your answers to the above isn’t going to make for much of a novel – so now it’s time to consider how these facets of their personality affect the way they think and behave, and how your reader can get to know them that way. As Richard Skinner says, ‘what your characters do in your story is far more revealing than what they say’. It’s much more useful for your plot as well.

Time to play a game of ‘What Would Your Character Do?’…

  • Your character finds a fifty pound note on the floor outside a train station. What do they do with it?
  • They’re the first person on the scene of an accident; how do they react?
  • They witness someone shoplifting in a major supermarket – do they take action?
  • They overhear gossip about someone they work with; gossip which could have potentially negative consequences for that colleague – and possibly positive ones for themselves. Do they make use of it?
  • They’re overlooked for a promotion – how do they react?
  • Their significant other admits to having feelings for someone else; what’s the first thing they do?
  • They wake up to discover that for some reason – trains cancelled because of snow; a flood in the office; a power-cut across the city – they can’t go to work or run the errands they’d planned today. What do they do with their unexpected day off?
  • They help a witch or wizard in trouble and are granted a single wish in return. What would they choose?
  • The same witch has an alternative offer: your character has the chance to experience a single day from their past again. Which day would they pick?

Let desire drive – and head for change

Our helpful magical friend has brought us to an important point: desire. Or, as Richard puts it, ‘the difference between what a character has and what they want. ’Think about what motivates your character, what you’d describe as their goals.  While you can use outside forces to drive your plot – the things that happen to your character – the things they want will always form the most compelling engine for a narrative, especially if it’s difficult for them to achieve that goal. 

  • When your character was a child, what did they say they wanted to be when they grew up?
  • What is the best present they’ve ever received?
  • What is their darkest secret? The one they’d most hate someone to find out? 
  • Would they rather be rich or happy – and what does either term mean to them?
  • What is their worst nightmare?
  • If they won a million pounds, what’s the first thing they’d do with the money?
  • And if they won a hundred?
  • Where in the world would they live if they had no commitments and an unlimited budget? 
  • Where do they see themselves in one year? Five? Ten?
  • If you asked them today what the most important thing in their life is, what would they say? Would the answer have been different if you’d asked them a year ago?

Beginning your novel, you should know who your character is, and how that relates to who they have been. You should understand what drives them and why they behave the way they do. The important thing to consider now is who they will be when you leave them – because that’s really the most interesting journey to take your reader on.