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…N: Can you tell us about your journey towards acceptance by a publisher?
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.
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.NM: I gather that from that point to publication was not, erm, exactly a smooth ride - can you tell us what happened?
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 naïve 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!]
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.