I started writing The King's Pawn 8.5 years ago. when my daughter was a baby. Every time I look at her I am reminded of what a long time ago that was. We were living in a jungle camp in Gabon, I had a baby and a 2 year old and no job and needed something to keep my brain from dripping out of my ear. So I decided to write a book. I thought I would know how to write a book because I read a lot of books. I soon came to realise this was like thinking you could make a good chair because you’ve sat in a lot of them. I knew nothing.
I was lucky enough to have access to support from Laurence Daren King at Jericho Writers who held my hand through the first drafts taking it from terrible to something that other people might want to read. After the first few drafts were complete, Laurence wanted to show it to Harry Bingham who agreed it should go before agents.
He picked out there was something atypical for the genre and that might help or hinder it. In his inimitable words: Agents may interpret that as a “God, no!” signal or a “Wow, how
exciting one!”. Either way, I think we need to let them make that call
Jericho writers agreed to send it to two agents to test the waters. The first came back extremely quickly asking for the full. Then almost as quickly with a decline - she ‘wasn’t sure where it fits on the shelf’. A line that would come to haunt me.
The second agent also immediately asked for the full, then took 9 months to come back with a no! She said she wasn’t sufficiently excited about the book to take it on - I think I’d worked that out by then
I did a course with Curtis Brown Creative to get some feedback - I just wanted someone to say yes, keep going or no, forget it.
Through the course, I won a chat with a Curtis Brown agent, got a huge case of imposter syndrome (there were some amazing writers on the course), and had a lovely chat with an agent who didn’t want to take it on.
But I loved the community that came from the course and meeting other people engaged in the same mad, lonely activity. So I did another Curtis Brown Creative online course and met more wonderful writers and through them joined the wonderful 'Virtual Writers Group' on Twitter - @virtwriting.
I tried again with contacting agents, sent off various subs, got form rejections, or no answer at all or the odd encouraging response but with the same vague feedback - the bloody shelf problem, ‘not a fit with the agent’s sensibilities’ etc etc
Just at the moment I was about to give up I got a long listing from the Caledonia Novel Award - I’d entered late at night and then forgot about it so had to read the email several times before I could believe it was real.
A contact from one of the writing courses put me in touch with Tom Cull - we had very similar tastes in books and a love for classic espionage fiction. He was very new as an agent but he answered his emails and was enthusiastic and that was a breath of fresh air after the misery of the slush pile.
So I signed with Tom, did a final round of edits and out it went into the world. I was through the agent gate that I had seen as the ultimate in club you had to join. From then on it was easy, right? That was summer 2019...
Tom got interest from a top editor at Penguin Random House - we had a meeting in marble art deco splendour of offices on the Strand, John Le Carre books prominently displayed in the foyer. It was all amazingly exciting but also disappointing - the editor loved the writing and the character but wanted a contemporary book. I had written a story about a real historical event in 2005. We agreed to send her the opening chapters of book 3 that had yet to be written and could be given a contemporary setting.
Just as I was ready to send the opening chapter to the PRH editor, she turned down the series - “the team as a whole felt it would still be too hard to break out as a series right now. She thinks you are on the way to a winning formula.” This was deep in the first lockdown and all looked a bit bleak.
But not wanting to give up, Tom and I decided to repackage The Head of the Snake (book 2) as the first in the series and send it out on submission. By now it was summer 2020, the publishing world was in full pandemic uncertainty and no one wanted to take chances on the unknown.
Tom introduced me to a fabulous actress and a big-name director and we had a brilliant time writing a script for a Netflix series that never got made.
The odd rumble of excitement as an enthusiastic editor would take it to an acquisitions meeting but it never got further than that.
I decided it was time to get some fresh eyes on it so sent it to a development editor called Rebecca Millar. Editorial services are very expensive and I couldn't afford a full edit, but she came up with a more affordable option of an editorial letter with recommended feedback. She made some great suggestions for things the book needed to take it up a gear. But by this time I was focusing on The Fool's Mate (book 3) and homeschooling in Dutch so didn’t do anything with it.
In August 2021 we moved to Namibia to grow giant kelp. In amongst the excitement of the move - a small independent publisher was interested in The Head of the Snake. I suddenly decided I wasn’t ready to give up on The King's Pawn - the opening act of the series and my love song to Georgia.
So I rewrote it all.
I had a zoom call with the lovely team at Burning Chair Publishing and they came back interested in the whole series. I sent them the newly revised manuscript of The King's Pawn and they loved it. Hooray! And phew!
Throughout this long journey, I often thought of self-publishing, but knew I’d be no good at the marketing side and would lose confidence at the first knockbacks. Having a team of people on your side who love the book gives incredible validation.
The King’s Pawn will be out on 17th November and I can’t wait to share it with the world and have a real copy in my hands - if it ever makes it to Luderitz!
The most important lessons I have learnt are:
1. The only way of getting to the end of a really long race is to keep going.
2. You need to find your writing tribe - people who can share your successes and disappointments and remind you of the joy in writing itself. That joy has to be enough, then anything else that comes is an added bonus.