Back in 1995, I accompanied my husband James when he took up a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan. For years, I’d been yearning to write fiction, and I’d been writing in spare moments. This was my chance. I resolved to write a novel in a year. If it was not published at the end of that year then I had clearly made a mistake, and I would abandon fiction forever.
I did complete a manuscript, a crime novel set in Beijing, and I sent it off to a dozen publishers, all of whom rejected it. One agent called me back to tell me how bad she thought it was.
(The same year James wrote The Legacy of Tiananmen, China in Disarray, an analysis of factors for instability in China, which he’d been covering as a journalist since 1986. It was published by the University of Michigan Press.)
I’d resolved, of course, to give up fiction if that year didn’t yield a publishing contract. Instead, while I freelanced half-heartedly in Hong Kong, and then when we moved to London and I had no job but first one, then two, then three tiny children, and then a part-time job, I kept on writing.
I didn’t attend a writing group, but I did read everything I could find about writing. I felt, as many unpublished writers do, deeply embarrassed that I was devoting myself to what was clearly a hopeless task. I turned down a perfectly decent full time job and knew that I had no good reason to do so except that I wanted to carry on writing. I couldn’t justify the decision, financially it made really bad sense.
I had discovered, during our time in Hong Kong, a wonderful reader in my friend, Martha Huang. Even after we left Hong Kong, Martha made her way through draft after draft of my writing by email. Martha is a writer herself. She didn’t shrink from criticising when she didn’t like what she read, and she asked pointed questions, which was exactly what I needed. But having an enthusiastic reader, and a friend with whom to discuss writing, is a truly wonderful thing. It was the support of Martha, and of James, that kept me going.
We moved back to Beijing with James’s job, and in 2003 I decided that Falling Off Air was ready to be sent out. This time I decided that I would approach only agents, and that I would not give up after a measly dozen rejections – I would work my way through every agency that considered crime fiction in The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook. I sent out three chapters and a covering letter to two agents at a time. Every time I had a rejection letter, I sent out another. All in all, I sent the first three chapters to eighteen agents, four of whom wanted to read the whole thing. The process took months.
It was worth it. I found Amanda Preston, now at Luigi Bonomi Associates. Within two weeks Sarah Turner at Macmillan had taken Falling Off Air, and I had a two book contract. A week later, I had a two-book contract with Time Warner in the United States, and several foreign translation rights had been sold.
In order to find a publisher you need an up to date edition of The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, and you should do exactly as it says in terms of approaching agents. Just one tip: a big agency may say it considers crime, but if it lists several agents it may not be clear which of the agents specializes in crime. It’s worth ringing the agency to ask which agent is most interested in crime fiction before you send off your three chapters. Otherwise you risk your envelope landing on the desk of the agent who specializes in cookery books.
I heard, time and again, that the whole process was subjective. I thought that this was not true, and that rejection meant that the book was simply, objectively, not good enough. But when I found my agent, and then my editor, I discovered that book publishing really is about very personal enthusiasms. As a writer, you need the stamina to write the book in the first place, and the determination not to give up at the first rejection, and then you need the great good luck to find the right person in the right place at the right time.