Saturday, 3 April 2010


I bring you happy news, though it won't be news to some of you. Tomorrow is the long-awaited first publication day of Hope Against Hope, the debut novel of one of my most lovely and intelligent blog-readers, Sally Zigmond. I wanted to interview Sally because she has so much to teach us about perseverance, focus on craft, and the roller-coaster ride from idea to publication. This is a story of frequent heart-ache but ultimate triumph. Sally is also incredibly modest and in my opinion she needs people like me to give her a big shout-out. I have had her book on order for eleventymillion months from Amazon and I can't wait!

Sally also has a blog especially for her book, as well as The Elephant in the Writing-Room, her other blog about writing.  

NM: First, can you give us a sense of the book, in a nutshell? If you were going to pitch it now, what would your pitch be??
Gulp. I’m not very good at this. It’s a big novel—about 130,000 words—so we’re talking coconuts rather than hazelnuts. But here goes…

Hope against Hope is an historical romance. It’s the story of two young sisters, Carrie and May. Having been forced to leave their home in Leeds they travel to Harrogate where Carrie is sure they'll find work. Once there, they are deceived into parting company. Carrie remains in Harrogate but May ends up in Paris. Both believe the other is at fault, each is determined to erase the other from her memory. Both achieve success but it comes at a price. Neither can be totally happy until they find each other again--but fierce pride and hurt stand in the way.

It's also about two friends. Alex is a happy-go-lucky engineer, too busy in the boom years of Railway Mania to dwell on the past or worry about his future. Charles is a doctor but with no love or aptitude for the profession, He despises himself.

The relationship between these four people and the way their lives interconnect is at the heart of the novel. But life isn't just about love. The novel is also about Harrogate's rise from an eccentric collection of bathhouses, inns and wells into a highly-respected Victorian Spa. It's about the railway-mania of the 1840s, the development of the nineteenth century from debauchery to Victorian Values. It's about Paris in February 1848, a city trembling on the verge of yet another revolution.
N: Can you tell us about your journey towards acceptance by a publisher?
I’ll start with a warning. Don’t try this at home. I did everything wrong from start to finish. I wasted far too much time. I spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing. I went up far too many blind alleys.

Basically, after about 10 rejections, I had a phone call from an agent who said she ‘loved it’ but could I shorten it? This I did and she still ‘loved it’ but her boss didn’t, so she asked me to write a completely different novel set in the 1920s (because she said they were more popular than nineteenth century novels.) Not knowing better, I did as I was told. [I think we all would - NM] After all, it was a very prestigious agency. The new novel took me about a year. This she also ‘loved’—after a major rewrite because my heroine married the ‘wrong’ man. [As many have before... NM] She submitted it to various editors—which I now realise were the wrong ones. Being na├»ve and inexperienced, I hadn’t realised that the agency only dealt with very commercial fiction and that the agent had sent it out to popular saga editors even though she agreed I didn’t write sagas. ‘You’re much better,’ she said! Naturally, the saga editors rejected it on the grounds that it wasn’t ‘gritty’ enough and they were waiting for the drunken stepfather or the rape. I heard no more from the agent and I didn’t pursue the matter.

So now I had two unsold novels. I started to write a third, got despondent and lost confidence; then after a year or more decided to send the first novel to an editorial consultancy.

It so happened that the reader they sent it to was a top-notch editor at a big publishing company. Her appraisal was wonderfully enthusiastic and detailed and what’s more she said she would read it with a view to publication if I made the changes she suggested. Which I did. I’m not daft. However, this took me far too long. By the time it was ready, time had moved on and she was no longer able to publish it because she had taken on her full quota of ‘new authors’ that financial year and she wouldn’t be allowed another. [Yep, I'm afraid that's how it works - NM] Yes, she could have been lying to avoid having to tell me my rewrite was crap or she’d gone off it, but I don’t think so. She talked to me on the phone for over an hour ending up with the promise to read anything I wanted to send her in the future. (But again, I realise she was looking for saga-type novels and although I wouldn’t dream of knocking the genre, I just can’t write them.)

I then collared another top editor at a writers’ event and she agreed to read the full manuscript. She, too, was very encouraging, asked for a rewrite—but still rejected it. [Gah!]
Over five years of my life came and went during all these rewrites. So, by then, I was thoroughly disheartened. I told myself it was time to forget the whole damn thing and write something totally different, when I heard about an exciting,  new,  independent publisher and thought I’d give it one last go…after all, what had I to lose?  But I wasn’t hopeful.

Guess what? He said he loved it and offered me a contract! And an advance—small—but still an advance. [Hooray!]
NM: I gather that from that point to publication was not, erm, exactly a smooth ride - can you tell us what happened?
I signed the contract in early 2008 and publication was pencilled in for early 2009. When, wham! The credit crunch hit. My publisher made the brave decision to put the brakes on for 2009 and not publish anything new. I was given the option to pull out of the contract—but as things were so close to the finishing tape (cover design, edits and proof reading) and I liked the publisher and the way he worked, I decided to sit it out. So here we are. [A statement that makes it seem so simple...]
NM: I have a journey of emotions during the writing and pre-publication stages of a book – do you know what I mean? And if so, tell us what range of emotions you have gone through and where are you now?!
I do know what you mean. I’ve told you the sorry saga and even now I change hourly from total euphoria to awful black thoughts that everybody will laugh at it and think it’s total rubbish; that it’ll be stuffed full of typos or continuity errors, even though it’s been scrupulously edited and copy-edited by professionals. I fear no-one will buy it, wish I’d never bothered. Then I pick up one of the glossy bookmarks and flyers with the lovely cover and name on them and have to pinch myself because I can’t believe that very soon, too soon, my novel just might spend a short time stocked by a bookshop somewhere. And then I think of the days I used to spend when I worked in a bookshop grabbing tatty old copies of languishing unsold books that had been designated for return to the publisher…and so on and so forth.
NM: Has anything surprised you so far about being published (almost?!) Is there anything you wish you'd known earlier?
I wish I’d not let myself be steamrollered by an agent that wasn’t right for me, lovely as she was. I wish I’d had more confidence in myself and more courage to stick to what I believed in. I wish I hadn’t been slow. Taking too long probably lost me a publishing deal with one of the biggest publishers in the world. But then again, I am more than happy with my current publisher—who says he’ll publish my WIP if it’s as good as the first two chapters he’s already seen! There’s something to be said for a small, independent publisher. It’s good to be a big fish in a small pond rather than the reverse.
NM: What is your main advice for those still striving for their first contract?
Keep striving. Never give up. Believe in yourself but never get big-headed. And never stop trying to write better.
NM: And what are you planning to do on publication day / week?
Enjoy every single moment. After all, it may never happen again.
NM: Is the wrong answer, Sally - you're supposed to drink sparkly stuff and eat chocolate, Everyone knows that.

Now, there's so much to learn from that. And I'm sure lots of you will have different reactions, different things that chime with you. In some ways, this story illustrates the vagaries and nonsense of publishing. On the other hand, it also shows that quality will win. But all the stuff about Sally having an inappropriate agent, through no fault of her own, and often missing the boat through no fault of her own, tells you one other very important thing: you've got to be in it to win it - you have to keep sending, keep learning, keep writing and keep improving. Sitting around whingeing about life being unfair will get you absolutely zilchwhere.

Go, Sally, go!! I wish you all the luck in the world. I know you deserve it.



Douglas Bruton said...

There's a novel in the story of this book's publication! Well done to Sally for sticking with it and showing the way to others.

Best of luck with the novel.


Hodmandod said...

There are many similarities with my publishing experience, only mine took fifteen years with many gaps and holes and false starts. Sally interviewed me in her blog, and I really enjoyed the experience. Go Sally, and good luck. Josa

Amie McCracken said...

Good luck Sally, I can't wait to read it.

Cathie said...

And such an appropriate book title!
Well done, Sally. I hope you sell loads.

Suzanne Jones said...

Congratulations, Sally. Can't wait to read it.

Kate said...

Congratulations Sally, and the book looks fab!

Old Kitty said...


Wonderful interview and very inspiring! Well done Sally Zigmond - great to see all that hard work pay off even with the credit crunch crunching! Wishing you all the success with your book!! Yay!

Take care

JaneF said...

Congratulations, Sally. I have just bought a copy and, after reading the extract on your site, can’t wait to immerse myself in it.

I can identify with your rewrite hell as I have had similar experiences. With my first attempt at a novel, I tried to make it into what the agent wanted – a grittier book than I had intended – and ended up with a mess. That first manuscript needed a lot of fixing, but I ended up focusing on the wrong things because I was trying too hard to please the agent. Also, I don’t think I had the skills to identify and fix the many plot problems – or not without a lot of help, and agents obviously can’t devote that sort of time to ‘maybe’ writers.

This time round – manuscript no. 2 – I am rewriting in the light of another agent’s comments, but this time I feel much more comfortable about it because what she said chimed with what I had already suspected was wrong. It's still hard, though - when you know that the person who suggested rewrites is going to be reading the thing again, it's like having someone looking over your shoulder the whole time. In complete silence. Disapproving silence, mainly.

If I ever get to where you are, I will be ecstatic! Hope you are able to enjoy the moment and not worry too much.

Talli Roland said...

Massive congrats to Sally! So glad to hear her perseverance has paid off. I can't wait to read her novel.

charlotteotter said...

Wow, what a journey, and well done Sally for stikcing with it. Nicola, thanks for posting this lovely interview. Sally's story is an inspiration to all us hopefuls!

I can't wait to read Hope Against Hope.

Ellen Brickley said...

Thanks for a great interview, guys!

Sally, I wish you every success with your book. You must be one hell of a writer to have interested all those people :) I'm looking forward to reading it and I'm glad you found a publisher that suits you.

Nicola, thanks for running this interview to remind those of us starting out that every agent is not necessarily the right one. A good lesson!


Liz Harris said...

What a really interesting and encouraging account of Sally's road to publication. She must be a terrific writer and I'm looking forward to reading her aptly named book.

Thank you, Nicola, for asking her such good questions, and for posting the whole of the interview.

Liz X

Lizzie said...

What a journey!

With her perseverance and hard work, Sally is an inspiration to all of us writers hoping to be published.

Great interview, Nicola. And good luck Sally, I hope that seeing your book in print is as wonderful as you thought it would be.


Spider Griffin said...

Marvellous; Sally Zigmond must be understandably thrilled! Mighty congrats.

I so admire her determination after being "hung on a piece of string" so many times: 1st one liked but then not accepted; writing the second and still no joy after an agent's encouragement. Excellent that she found confidence to try the first novel again.

Let's hope it's very popular and a strong start to a full writing career!


PS I told myself not to write the following but had to get it out of my system: rejected again this morning. Woe is me! Now sorting six submissions at the same time; don't care, me!

Julie P said...

Can't wait to buy a copy and read it. Congratulations, Sally! You're an inspiration and show that determination and perseverence are all part of the game


Marisa Birns said...

Thank you for sharing your story, with all its lows and highs.

Congratulations, and best of luck with your future ventures!

Katherine Roberts said...

Many many congratulations to Sally! She is an excellent writer, and I can still remember her short stories from our small press days when - it seemed to me - Sally won nearly every prize going.

So it is doubly crazy that publication of this novel took so long, and illustrates perfectly that perseverence, self belief, and most of all getting the right agent and the right publisher behind you is an important part of starting and maintaining a writing career.

Wishing "Hope" lots of luck, and three cheers for enthusiastic independent publishers!

Jane Smith said...

I'm lucky enough to be able to call Sally Zigmond a friend, and am SO looking forward to reading Hope Against Hope (and while I have everyone's attention, I'd like to point you all towards Sally's novella, Chasing Angels, which is a gorgeous read).

Sally is an inspiration to me: she's a wonderful writer (her short stories are clear and perfect and beautiful), a gifted editor, and a generous friend. I wish her only the best, and send her much love and congratulations.

Sarah said...

Wonderful, wonderful news! Sally, your perseverance is such an example.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you, Nicola and everyone who has taken the time to comment here. Can you see me blushing from where you are? (It's good to see so many friends--both old and new.) That's not the setting sun somewhere up north. It's my burning face!

I hope those of you who have ordered a copy won't be disappointed. It was fun to write and, I hope, fun to read.

KarenG said...

Congratulations Sally! I found this interview fascinating. Now I need to go follow her blog because I'm excited about what happens next! Especially since I too pubbed with a small publisher, and have found it an excellent & rewarding experience. Go Sally!

Suzie F. said...

Wonderful, Sally!

Thank you for sharing your story with us.

Debs said...

Thanks for the interview and congratulations to Sally.

My copy arrived in the post yesterday (Sat) and I can't wait to read it.

Helena Halme said...

This is so similar to my own experience. Rewrites, time passing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm not quite there yet with a publishing contract, but have not given up hope (fool..).

Thank you for sharing this tale, it certainly helps, and good luck with the book.

*Logs onto Amazon to buy a copy*

Elizabeth West said...

Yay for Sally! I don't know if I can get hold of the book here but it sounds pretty darn good.

Christine Coleman said...

Oh, WELL DONE, Sally! It's wonderful to read about a proper success story with a small publsiher who actually takes on un-agented books!
Like so many others, I can identify with the 'agent' problem, but in a funny way, mine was a positive experience, in spite of the fact that I was never promised to be (and never got to be)represented by him.He gave me some sound advice regarding an extraneous plot-line and all the subsequent ruthless cutting made my book much stronger. This put me in the right place at the right time when, via at least 40 rejections and various circuitous routes, I heard about a new publisher starting a few months ahead, and they turned me into that magical person: 'a published novelist'.

It's a WONDERFUL feeling, so relish it for all it's worth, Sally!!
I won't go into my next novel right now as that's another story

Clare said...

Congratulations,Sally - so glad you persevered and thanks for sharing your experiences with us. Hope you enjoy every minute of your publication day/week.

Derek said...

Well done Sally! It sounds like you've had a masterclass in how to find your way through the publishing industry! This is the sort of tale we need to hear at writing conferences (and the London book Fair).

sanjeet said...

Well done to Sally for sticking with it and showing the way to others.
data entry work from home

womagwriter said...

Great interview, thanks both. I'm already stuck into Sally's novel and am loving it. Well done for sticking at it. I agree that tenacity has to be the number two requirement of a writer (after ability to writer, of course).