Last night, I attended the New Writers’ Evening event at Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road. It was an evening of discussion with three debut UK authors: Jesse Armstrong (Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals), Anna Whitwham (Boxer Handsome), and Antonia Honeywell (The Ship). Because I’m a lazy bum, I’m going to copy and paste the descriptions of these authors and their works from the Foyles website:
Jesse Armstrong: The co-creator and writer of the BAFTA Award-winning Peep Show, as well as Fresh Meat, Bad Sugar, Babylon and, with Chris Morris, Four Lions presents his first novel, Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals. Set in 1994 between the former Yugoslavia and England, Armstrong tells the tale of a gang of good-hearted young people about to set off in a Ford Transit van armed with several sacks of rice and a half-written play — a play which will light a beacon of peace across the Balkans and, very probably, stop the war.
Anna Whitwham: Boxer Handsome is the debut from native Londoner Whitwham, in which protagonist Bobby pits himself against the streets of a largely overlooked capital. Inspired by the author’s pugilist grandfather, John Poppy, Boxer Handsome is about growing up tough in East London, and finding opponents both in and out of the ring, as Bobby fights for the heart of traveller girl Theresa.
Antonia Honeywell: Returning to Foyles after the launch of her first novel The Ship, Curtis Brown student Honeywell offers an insider’s view into the publication process and how she went from being a teacher of ten years to the successful author of this, her dystopian debut. From an apocalyptic London in which survivors shelter in the British Museum and identity card checks abound, sixteen-year-old Lalla follows her visionary father on an ark to salvation — or something else…
No matter how many events like this I attend, it’s always interesting to hear what each writer has to say about the publishing process, what inspired their work, and what advice they’d impart to aspiring authors. This event was especially interesting to me because it was my first exclusively featuring authors from the UK. I was curious about their process and road to publication versus an American authors’ process. Happily (or unhappily), I found that it’s largely the same. The main bullet point of the evening was “Getting published is hard.” Hahaha. I’ve certainly learned that for myself already, but thanks to Armstrong, Whitwham, and Honeywell, I have a greater appreciation for the truth of it and for what I’ve already accomplished.
Antonia Honeywell told us that The Ship isn’t the first novel she’s written, only the first to make it this far. She wrote two other novels that were roundly rejected by agents and publishers. But she kept working, and eventually she wrote a story that captured the imagination of her dream agent. Whitwham’s road to publication was long, too; now here she is, one novel published and another under construction. Armstrong’s story was a bit different, as he’s already a successful screenwriter (Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is his first novel), but the joy of publication still wasn’t lost on him. I have the awful habit of looking up an author’s age and seeing how much time I have left to reach the level of success they’ve reached. But the authors I listened to last night reminded me that: 1) everyone’s work is different, 2) there’s a “right time” for certain work to be published, and 3) there are SO MANY PEOPLE trying to get published these days that, in a way, getting a lot of rejections only makes sense. So instead of berating myself for not having more accomplished, I should be happy and grateful to have the publications I’ve had.
One of my favorite soundbites was from Antonia Honeywell (who had a lot of great things to say throughout the evening). She said that every rejection is a baby step towards success. I’m sure all of you have heard that adage in some form before, but the way she contextualized it really made it hit home for me. The majority of the agents she queried about The Ship were agents she had actually sent previously completed novels to. But their past rejections gave her an opening (“Hi. I sent you a manuscript entitled _____ a few years back, and while you did not accept it, you did have kind things to say. I think I have something more in line with what you are looking for with this manuscript”). When she made her point, it dawned on me that just because someone rejects your work for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean they’ll forget it (or you).
Jesse Armstrong gave another great piece of advice: always take yourself seriously if you want others to do the same. He mentioned that sometimes, people unintentionally half-ass the way they present themselves to others. For example, you may not want to seem over-eager, but instead of coming across as relaxed and confident, you come across as silly or incompetent. Armstrong particularly stressed his point with regard to querying agents. “No grammatical or syntactical mistakes. No misspellings,” etc. Make it as perfect as you can. And mention how you know of them or why you chose to contact them in the first place (a point that goes hand in hand with Honeywell’s). Did you read an article or essay they wrote? Did you attend a talk they gave that you really enjoyed? Have they published an author whose work parallels your own somehow? Take note of these things and use them. Show the people you reach out to that you take your business — and their’s — seriously.
I felt buoyed beyond belief after last night. Now I feel even more motivated to get this manuscript finished and out into the world.
I’d highly recommend taking a look at these authors if you’re looking for something new to read! Boxer Handsome is full of beautifully sharp, spare language that perfectly fits the rough and tumble setting and the single-minded protagonist. The Ship is thoughtfully written and hints at a reality not too far from our own. Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals is a comedic romp set against the historical backdrop of war. Check them out 🙂