Today in #SetbackComeback I’m joined by Philippa East, a clinical psychologist who writes psychological fiction. Her debut novel LITTLE WHITE LIES, which was long-listed for The Guardian’s Not-The-Booker Prize and shortlisted for the CWA “New Blood” Award 2020. Her next book, SAFE AND SOUND, is another twisty and compelling tale that’s out on 18 February. Philippa, over to you…!
I had been a writer – mainly of short stories – for about five years when I set out to write my debut novel LITTLE WHITE LIES. I quit my job in the NHS and took the leap to set up my own (part-time) psychology practice. I was giving myself more space to write, with an idea for a novel that had been brewing for a while…
It was a premise that wouldn’t leave me alone: a family trying to cope with the return of their missing daughter, seven years after her abduction. So, off I set, blithely banging out 1,000 words a day of whatever scenes happened to pop into my brain. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t know what I was doing, but my characters were wholly alive to me and I had faith in my ‘hook’. So I wrote and wrote and ended up with 80,000 words of… something.
In September 2016, I went to the Jericho Writer’s York Festival for the first time and was blown away to get a full MS request. It was the hint of validation I’d hoped for: that I was onto something here. But the manuscript was nowhere near ready – following some beta-reader feedback, I was in the throws of a serious re-write.
In December 2016, I was awarded an invaluable mentorship with Writing East Midlands. Over the next six months, I worked with the lovely author Judith Allnatt. We revised voice, plot, pacing, prose, characters – the lot. Every time I thought I was there, I wasn’t (false summits, anyone?), BUT I felt my manuscript getting stronger and tighter each time.
With some further help from the Self Edit Your Novel course from Jericho Writers, I finished the MS as best I could and it was finally ready. By now, the York Festival was coming round again. The manuscript was on draft 12 (yup, twelve). I sent the full to the agent that had requested it a year ago, sent cold subs to two other agents, and booked two more one-to-ones for York.
At the York Festival, I got ANOTHER full request. I was undoubtedly thrilled, but… I could also tell straight off that this second agent had got the wrong idea about my book. She thought it was a pacey thriller; I knew that it wasn’t. This was going to be embarrassing. I sent it to her anyway.
On the train home from the Festival I emailed the first agent (who had my MS still sitting in her inbox) and told her I’d had another request for the full. She emailed back to say she’s started reading last week, and would let me know her thoughts once she had finished.
My confidence wobbled. She wasn’t gushing, she wasn’t rushing to finish my book THAT NIGHT, she’d started last week and put it down, so clearly not gripped, etc. etc. Would her email end up clearly a kindly precursor to a ‘no’? It felt as though I was close, and yet still so far.
Agents are like buses. After two weeks of radio silence since York, the second agent passed. The next day I received an email from the first agent. It said:
There is a lot I like here but I think at the moment it isn’t twisty enough for me to offer representation. I would love a call with you though to discuss some of my editorial thoughts as I do think it has real potential.
Well, at that, I felt as though I had my foot right in the door after all. I was going to speak to an ACTUAL AGENT who had READ MY BOOK and used the words REAL POTENTIAL, LOVE and REPRESENTATION in her email. I was buzzing. I was ready. I got on the phone, all ears. Tell me, tell me – what did I need to do?!
Okay. Well. First the plot needed a big twist. Secondly, the agent felt the whole thing would work better written from two alternating POVs. Taken together, I would effectively need to do a page-one re-write.
Was this a set back? Bloody hell, it sure felt like one.
The worst thing was, I knew she was right. I knew I couldn’t ignore her comments and just sail on with what I had. The other agent (the one that had passed) had put her finger on something important: my ‘hook’ had the flavour of a thriller, but the book – as it stood – wasn’t living up to this promise. I had written (12 times) a book that was for me – a sort of coming-of-age thing reflecting my own niche concerns and experiences. But it wasn’t right. It wasn’t sellable. I needed to do better.
I told the agent that I would give it a go. Nothing was guaranteed on either side. Meanwhile, one of the cold-sub agents passed. It wasn’t for them, they said, but they were sure another agent would ‘jump on it’. Sure! Someone already almost had! I just had to come up with a GREAT TWIST IDEA and start ALL OVER AGAIN.
The next couple of months were agonising. Coming up with a brand new twist idea, and re-drafting the book into dual POV were two of the biggest challenges I have faced as a writer. I rewrote and rewrote my synopsis and sent it to critique partners who weren’t at all convinced. And I’d never written anything with multiple POVs before, and this one change turned out to affect EVERYTHING. I’d have to change character profiles, create new scenes, drop whole plot-lines, restructure story-arcs, and tweak almost every line of prose to create distinct voices.
I was SO CLOSE but I was frozen: I feared I just didn’t have the writing skills for this, and yet there was so much at stake: agent representation, a potential publishing deal, etc. etc. I cried and had anxiety attacks and felt like I was completely losing myself. I had got so near, but now it felt as though I was going to fail catastrophically. I’d done my best – my very best – and still it wasn’t enough.
But – I kept trying. I wanted this so badly. I read everything I could about writing from alternating POVs. I worked 6-7 hours a day on my days off. I kept plugging away and plugging away, inching my way there. I was consumed, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t give up on my goal.
There was no operatic moment of breakthrough. My comeback wouldn’t have made exciting telly. It was just graft and doggedness and “failing better” each time. Finally, the flickering ideas fell into place. Finally, I tunnelled my way to the light.
So was it worth it for me, in the end?
On the 25th January 2018, I sent my work to Sarah Hornsley, the agent. She emailed back within a few hours. She loved what I’d done and wanted to represent me.
I jumped for joy, all about my house.
By October 2018 – after at least another 4 relentless drafts – I finally had a manuscript that Sarah was happy with. She talked me through her submission plan, advising that it would be about a month before we had any firm offers. By the end of the week, I was ‘on sub’. Six days later, we had our first offer and a couple of weeks after that, LITTLE WHITE LIES sold at auction to HQ/HarperCollins.
The setback was brutal, but the comeback was pretty sweet. J
Perhaps the strangest thing about all this, is that I have gone through pretty much the same process with the two books I’ve written after that. Both my new release, SAFE AND SOUND, and the novel I’m currently grappling with have required complete re-writes. I’m coming to believe that this is simply the way I create my books. There seems to be no short cut I can take.
So maybe these setbacks are just par for the course, part of the process? If so, I’m trying to teach myself not to be scared of them. I’ve survived them before; they weren’t my undoing. Just because I’m in the dark tunnel right now, I can still believe in my comeback. I can still have faith in the light at the end.
THANKS SO MUCH, PHILIPPA, FOR TAKING PART IN #SETBACKCOMEBACK! I FOUND IT REALLY INSPIRING!
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED IN BUYING PHILIPPA’S LATEST BOOK? HERE ARE THE LINKS!