The research is the easy part!

The research and writing  are the easy parts!

In 2011 I completed  a narrative non-fiction book on a controversial, 19th century criminal case. The events in The Water Doctor’s Daughters take place in France and England, and as an opening gambit I aim high and email a query letter to one of London’s foremost literary agencies. Somewhat to my astonishment there is a response within a few days from associate agent Zara (not her real name). She asks to see a synopsis and the first three chapters. I am even more shocked when, two weeks later, she asks to see the entire manuscript.

Feeling it would be wise to find out a little more about Zara I do a quick search and find myself reading a list of her recent tweets. My heart sinks when I discover she is an edgy young ‘20 something’. My query letter contained few biographical details, so thankfully she has no idea I am nearly thrice her age. If it has to be revealed, I hope her grandmother has told her that 61 is the new 39.

I also lack what is known in the publishing industry as a ‘platform’, ie; youth, beauty, international fame or (better still) infamy. Given the state of traditional book publishing, I am relieved that at this stage Zara seems willing to judge my work on its own merits.

However, her tweets to an in-group of young publishers and rival agents reveal an acerbic wit; mostly directed against aspiring authors. In the stress of the submission process someone has made the cardinal sin of misspelling her name, prompting, ‘So I spelt his name R-E-C-Y-C-L-I-N-G- B-I-N.’ Someone else has incurred her wrath by submitting a 30 page synopsis. Naturally clichés are often in her sights; ‘I swear I’ll kill the next person who writes ‘He nursed his drink.’ By sheer luck the only drinking in my book involves poison, not a substance one is inclined to ‘nurse, but a few tweets later, ‘ How I detest the word ‘poignant’ . Now I know I have used this word, because the situation of my protagonists is poignant to the core.

There was a lot of poignancy in my book!

Oh dear, there is a lot of poignancy in my book!

At one point there is a discussion between Zara and her peers about whether it would be kinder to dispense with rejection platitudes such as, ‘Sadly I didn’t fall in love with your book’, and simple tell people they can’t write. Someone suggests that by the age of thirty four there is little chance of improvement.

Age comes up again when Zara jokes that none of her older colleagues know the meaning of the slang term ‘touching cloth’. I have no idea either, and almost choke on my coffee when I Google it and read, ‘To break wind with more force than expected, and to cause fecal matter to come into contact with one’s underpants before being able to suck it back in; for example, ‘I floated an air biscuit and touched cloth.’ Good grief!   My shock is intensified due to having been immersed in the prudish Victorian era for the previous two years.  Would I have enough bravado  to nonchalantly  drop the expression into the conversation if should ever meet?

Every morning I check my emails, but several weeks go by without a decision from Zara on my manuscript. I continue to follow her tweets, feeling increasingly like a cyber-space stalker.  Some of the more graphic postings are on her love life, and send a post-menopausal flush to my cheeks. I worried like a mother when she caught a bus home in the midst of the London riots. I long for her to tweet, ‘Awake all night; no, not   great sex… reading a fantastic manuscript from down-under’. However, writer’s paranoia makes me fear reading, ‘Ploughed through dreadful 19thC true crime ms. OMG…why didn’t someone knock this author off before she began?’ Of course in reality she makes no reference to me whatsoever. I take comfort in her tweet, ‘Only the shockers [submissions] get discussed…we keep the good ones to ourselves.’

But I still haven’t had a response to my manuscript. Zara seems so busy arranging boozy lunches that I’m tempted to message her saying, ‘For goodness sake, can’t you just grab a sandwich and read my bloody book?

Submitting to multiple agents is considered bad form. However, as there is no word after two months (to prompt Zara would be viewed as unforgivable hectoring) I decide it’s time to hedge my bets. Yes, I know that’s a cliché. This time my choice is more selective; an agency headed by a man I’ll call David, who appears to be middle aged and is described by existing clients as ‘absolutely charming and unfailingly courteous’. It is a much needed boost to my confidence when he responds to my emailed query within hours, ‘Thanks Pauline, do please send me the full manuscript’. (How attractively decisive…I’m beginning to have visions of trips to London and an extramarital fling.). David does not tweet, and I am almost certain he would not know the meaning of ‘touching cloth’.

FOOTNOTE – I later met David in London over lunch at Soho’s Groucho Literary Club. He did not become my agent, but generously introduced to the publishers who subsequently published The Water Doctor’s Daughters. I suppose you could call him my Claytons agent*!

The Groucho Club. Could that be Zara in the little black dress?

The Groucho Club. Could that be Zara in the little black dress?

* CLAYTON’S AGENT – In the 1970’s a substitute for alcohol was introduced to Australia with the brand name Claytons. It was an ‘adult’ soft drink made from Kola nuts and citrus flavours. The punch line in the advertising campaign was; ‘The drink you have when you’re not having a drink!’  The word entered the lexicon as meaning something which is not real, but has all the appearance of being so.

The Water Doctor’s Daughters was launched in Great Malvern, Worcestershire In March 2013, with an Australian launch a few months later. Click here for an account.


Launch of The Water Doctor's Daughters

Sydney Launch of The Water Doctor’s Daughter, July 2013.s

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  1. I’m laughing, but I can imagine your reactions at the time – you weren’t stalking, Pauline, just cleverly doing your research! Thank heavens she didn’t snap you up at once – imagine what she might have done to your wonderful book…

    • Pauline

      Yes Ann, even my lovely Claytons agent suggested I make the Dr and Mlle Doudet more horrible, but I thought they were ghastly enough without being ‘sexed’ up!

  2. I love your description of the undetectable Zara, and the cliche occurred to me ‘those who can,do, those who can’t become agents!’

    • Pauline

      Literary agents will soon be a threatened species, what with all the self-publishing. I doubt even most traditionally published authors would earn enough to afford one!

  3. Such an entertaining post. I am definitely putting your books on my to read this year list.

    • Pauline

      Hi June, glad you enjoyed the piece. Hope you will enjoy the books too. The Water Doctor’s Daughters is a fascinating story, but rather serious and dark. All Along the River has a lot of humour.

  4. Great Story. Mad me laugh. That Zara sounded pretty scary so I was glad you didn’t wind up going with her.

  5. You make it sound so funny Pauline but I can imagine it must have been quite stressful at the time.

  6. Loved this. Laughed aloud. I too am a woman of a certain age. I’ve seen tweets and FB posts by agents that are downright unkind. Approached a publisher direct with my novel and glad I did.

    • Pauline

      Thanks for taking the trouble to leave a comment, Barbara. And bravo to you for taking matters into your own hands!

  7. I enjoyed this. I shall always be alert to the possibility of a Zara sighting.

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