Standing at the career crossroads

Earlier this year my writing buddy Mark West, who writes chillers and thrillers, invited me onto his blog, Strange Tales, to talk about a crossroads I once hit in my writing career and what I did about it. It got so much attention that I then wrote a ‘what happened next’ part two.

With Mark’s permission, I’m reproducing the posts here, making them into one and updating where necessary.

In Summer on a Sunny Island, to be published summer 2020, several of the characters stand at crossroads in their lives. From a writing point of view it provides conflict and personal goals, both of which drive the narrative. One afternoon, Rosa and Zach sit up on the roof terrace and try to coach each other into deciding what it is they want next in their lives. It’s not a spectacularly successful coaching session because although they agree they should be looking forward they look back. They wonder whether they should change and, if so, how?

A few years ago I felt at a crossroads too. I wasn’t on a Maltese roof terrace gazing out at the blue Mediterranean and drinking beer with a friend so I coached myself. It had a profound effect on my career as an author.

I’d published about nine novels and a raft of short stories, serials, courses and columns; I was a creative writing tutor and judged writing competitions. It was what’s politely referred to as ‘a portfolio career’. Translation: I would take on most paid tasks if they were connected with writing and some that were unpaid if they might prove useful to my career. This situation had come about after my husband’s career hit a bump in the road and I either had to become more fee aware or get a day job. (I often refer to this as ‘a proper job’. I shouldn’t. Writing is a proper job.)

I wasn’t in a happy place personally and felt over-stressed and underpaid. You could term it a crisis of the spirit or a pity party. Whatever, I assessed everything writing-connected under three headings, each subdivided into good or bad.

I can’t remember all the items I analysed but two things went into all three right-hand columns: being a committee member and vice chair of a writing organisation and writing a column for a Formula 1 online magazine. I was shocked to see the former in all the wrong columns but it was true that an organisation that has brought me a lot of joy and helped me professionally was also sucking up hundreds of hours each year. There was also discord, which brought anxiety. I emailed the chair, who’s one of my best friends, and said, ‘I don’t think I can be vice chair any more.’ To her huge credit, she supported my decision and had me replaced without one word of reproach, though she could easily have felt immensely let down. After that, it was comparatively easy to email the e-zine and gracefully retire from their writing staff.

I felt tonnes lighter when these two items were out of the way. I could read what I chose instead of reading writing that needed appraising for awards! I could watch Formula 1 races without making notes or worrying about the angle my column would take! I think my son encapsulated the situation perfectly when he said, ‘You took two of your greatest pleasures and made them into jobs.’

Spurred by this success I began to cut things that appeared in two of the right-hand columns. They earned me some money but not that much: appraising manuscripts and the least remunerative of my work with creative writing students. The students never made me personally unhappy but the constant flow of work that piled up if I were ill or on holiday did definitely cheese me off. Worse, it kept me from writing my own stuff and the workflow was not within my control. I also began to refuse invitations to judge writing competitions, especially when a writing group ‘forgot’ to pay me a fee that was only ever nominal, even after three polite reminders. These measures gave me significant time for my own writing without losing me much money.

Feeling a lot better, I looked at the other side of the coin. I now knew what I didn’t want – so what was it that I did want?

It was a question I found easier to answer than either Rosa or Zach did. It hadn’t really changed since the early nineties when I began to try and get published.

I wanted to earn a living from writing novels.

How could I achieve it? I needed a publisher who would get right behind me and also get my books into supermarkets.

I thought the best route there was to get a great agent, one who would love my books and be ambitious for me. And, guess what? It worked!

I emailed the late Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. I knew her slightly from writing conferences and social media. The email began, ‘I know you’re not taking anybody on but I’m going to ask you anyway.’ The short version of what happened next was that I was right – she wasn’t taking anybody on. But, happily for me, she showed my work to the wonderful Juliet Pickering at the same agency and she wanted to talk to me. She was looking for some authors writing commercial fiction and I won’t pretend that you don’t need some good fortune.

I met Juliet in London for lunch and we got on well. I was transparent about what I wanted, which was a publisher who would get behind me and get my books into supermarkets. She was equally transparent that that was her job but she couldn’t issue any guarantees. She asked about ideas for future books and I gave her three. She told me which she’d feel most confident in presenting to publishers and I had that happy feeling you get when something clicks into place. It was the one I most wanted to write. It was an idea that I’d already received a green light on from my old publisher, but they’d wanted a novella. I thought the idea had enough meat for a novel.

Disappointingly, Juliet didn’t agree to represent me. She asked me to write the book first. The snag with that was by the time I’d spent a year on the book my old publisher would be expecting it. It would be … awkward. I asked if I could send Juliet the traditional three-chapters and outline instead. Would she make a decision at that point? She agreed. She told me later she’d already made up her mind to offer to represent me but wanted to go through the process in the right way.

Takeaways from this meeting: honesty and transparency on both sides. Accepting the commercial realities of publishing. Listening to what was on offer. Putting forward alternatives. Taking disappointment on the chin because, let’s face it, a writer’s life is full of it.

Telling my old publishers that I was working with an agent effectively changed our relationship because they didn’t work with agents. They would continue to publish my backlist; inevitably, they’d concentrate on their front list authors.

I wrote the first few chapters of what became The Christmas Promise. I roughed out a few other things I thought would happen – more of a vision than an outline. Juliet offered to represent me and formalities were quickly concluded. Delighted, all I had to do was write the rest of the book, continuing to write short stories and run workshops for income to add to royalties from backlist titles. A note here: relaunching my career eventuated in a distinct dip in income for about two years. To have a spouse with a steady income and supportive attitude helped a lot. I also got the opportunity to convert my writing guide, Love Writing, into an online course. That helped too.

After I sent the novel to Juliet, the editing process began. And it was rigorous. I think I did three structural edits, influenced by comments from other people in the agency who read the book too. For anyone who thinks of editing as someone interfering or instructing, I should point out that a process like this is something likely to happen to any book in any publishing house. I think of this as writing the best book I can. I listen. I negotiate. I talk through.

Takeaways from this process: this is not for wimps. It feels like a lot of structural work yet, in the end, the changes are fairly subtle. The book is a lot better. I probably didn’t known as much as I thought I did. My agent is on my side.

When the book went out to editors we got a lot of interest, only one flat ‘no’ and some meetings to go to. As an aside, just to let you know how character building the process was, some major interest led nowhere because the editor was going on maternity leave and guess who was coming from another publishing house to cover? The one person who’d given the flat ‘no’. But I wouldn’t want an editor who wasn’t wowed by my writing, so I was philosophical.

The exciting day dawned and I turned up in London for meetings. The first was with Avon Books UK, HarperCollins. Once again, everything clicked. We got on well, we shared similar visions. Another stroke of good fortune: a slot for an author who would write a winter book and a summer book had opened up on their list, just as my agent rocked up with a winter book and a summer book! The winter book was ready and the summer book not so that played into there being a longer dip in income than might otherwise have been the case but still, outside I said to my agent, ‘I think it’s going to be Avon.’ I never wavered from that and Juliet got down to terms with them for a two-book contract.

The Christmas Promise went into production. I finished writing Just for the Holidays.  The Christmas Promise came out. Supermarkets took the paperback, although Tesco was a little late to the party and only took it for the last couple of weeks before Christmas because of the performance of the ebook.

The ebook was going crazy. It went to number one on Kindle UK for five days in the run-up to Christmas 2016. I’d sold my first short story to a national newsstand magazine in 1996 so it had taken me twenty years to be an overnight success! It’s hard to describe the joy and euphoria, the sense of disbelief. I laughed and cried. Twitter went mad with big-hearted compliments from other authors, from my agent and editor jumping in with their own cries of joy. My book had outsold every other ebook on sale in the UK. I had to pinch myself.

I won’t take you through every other rung on the ladder because I have edits to do but the milestones continue. Just for the Holidays was nominated for a Romantic Novel Award. A new contract was offered and my editor stated her next goal as to make me a Sunday Times bestseller. I laughed out loud and said, ‘Well, good luck with that!’ The very next book, The Little Village Christmas, was a Sunday Times bestseller. The Christmas Promise was a bestseller in Germany. The rights team at Blake Friedmann sold my books into translation. Books charted in the Top Fifty and even the Top Twenty. Avon extended the scope of my contract to include Canada and the US. A Summer to Remember won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award 2020 and One Summer in Italy scored me my first Top 100 position in the Amazon Kindle US chart. Research has taken me to France, Italy, Malta, Sweden and Switzerland.

It’s A LOT of hard work, not just from me but from everyone at Blake Friedmann and Avon, but it’s wonderful. I set out to earn my living from writing novels and I do. Summer on a Sunny Island is my eighth book with Avon and Christmas Wishes will come out later this year. A further two books are contracted.

Takeaways: work hard … and work with the right people.

9 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft

9 responses to “Standing at the career crossroads

  1. Wonderful, wonderful post – I knew most of it but it was lovely and very interesting to read it all in one place. Nikki xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Writing, Work and Wine and commented:
    Sue Moorcroft has shared an honest account of ‘pivoting’ in her writing career to pursue her dream of being a full-time writer. An interesting and inspirational read 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue McDonagh

    This is such an interesting and supremely honest post, Sue, and it’s so inspirational for writers who are trying to actually earn from their writing.
    Thanks for posting XX

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow Sue!! That’s SO interesting and inspirational!! There seems to be this attitude that all you have to do is ‘sit down and write’ – if only!! You’ve worked so hard, write fabulous books, and deserve your continued success! I’m sure that some of the decisions you had to make were difficult – but you stayed true to yourself, which is all-important, I think. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A lot of this sounds very familiar, Sue. We’ve taken different paths through the maze but now that I’m with Avon Books, it feels kinda like we’ve pitched up together. Onward and upward, always, Jane x

    Liked by 1 person

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