My hubby and I wanted to escape it all after a bit of a tough time. The Exmoor Cottages in Martinhoe were ideal: secluded, no mobile phone reception and sweeping views of the gorgeous Exmoor National Park. And even better, just a ten minute walk to the local pub!
One day, during a visit to that local pub, I saw three farmers standing around a table outside dressed in wellies and wax jackets, their wild-looking dogs skulking around them. One of the men turned towards us, his dark hair lifting in the breeze, and that was it: Milo from The Atlas of Us (The Lost Mother is the US) burst to life inside my head.
As soon as we got back to our cottage, I grabbed my notepad and started sketching out the noveLove, using my experiences with infertility to map out another character Claire’s character and the travels I enjoyed as a magazine editor to dream up settings, including the scars still left behind by the 2004 tsunami that I’d witnessed in places like Thailand and the Maldives.
Thing is, I had no plans to write a novel. I’d been burnt by a rubbish experience trying to get an agent with a novel I’d written the year before and combined with the fact I'd endured two failed rounds of IVF, I just couldn’t face yet more disappointment.
But this idea was there, it had to be written. So I decided I’d write it for me and my friends and nothing else: no agents, no publishers, just a selfish project.
Making that decision felt liberating. As soon as I returned home after my inspiring trip to Exmoor, I started writing in earnest.
Those paragraphs Friends asked to read it so I sent it to them. They loved it and urged me to try to get it published. As I’d queried my last novel after parting ways with my first agent, but just couldn’t strike gold. Came close, but not close enough.
I realised if I was going to send it out, I needed to give it the best possible chance. So I decided to hire a professional editor from the Hilary Johnson Authors’ Advisory Service and they did a fantastic job, highlighting elements that had never even occurred to me. What really gave me hope about this report was one of the closing statements: ‘I very much enjoyed reading this novel which has reached a high standard already and easily has the potential to be publishable’.
Has. The. Potential. To. Be. Publishable.
Those six words sent me into a revision frenzy and finally, I had a novel on my hands I really thought I could query out to agents. I started feeling that burst of excitement inside. Maybe this could happen. Maybe.
Within a couple of days of querying agents, hope grew even more. I was getting requests for fulls (you usually send out the first one to three chapters to agents then if they like what they read, they ask for more). I knew this was a good sign. But I’d been burnt before getting requests for fulls then nothing more. This time though, as agents were reading The Atlas of Us, they were emailing me to tell me they were loving it.
Momentum, that’s what fellow writer and friend Elizabeth Richards calls it. That feeling something good is on the horizon.
And then I noticed Caroline Hardman, an agent who I’d wanted to query but was closed to submissions, was tweeting about book titles. I had a nice chat with her and in the process, asked her when she was opening to submissions again. She told me to send my query along and just a few days later, she invited me in for a chat.
During that chat, we clicked straight away. First, she seemed to get what I was trying to convey with The Atlas of Us and her revision suggestions were spot on. Second, she was realistic. I’d had agents tell me to pack my bags as I’d be off to tour NY with my book soon (seriously). She was truthful: don’t give up the day job. Write for passion, not money. I needed that reality. I didn’t want BS, I wanted the truth and I wanted someone on my side who would always tell me the truth.
When she offered me representation, I wanted to say yes, yes, yes. But several agents were still reading The Atlas of Us. So out of courtesy to them, I didn’t. However, a few days later, despite phone calls with some very enthusiastic agents, I said yes to Caroline. I’d known right from the start she was The One. I suppose it’s like choosing a wedding dress. You just know.
And I’ve never regretted that decision: a super quick reader, fabulous communicator and hard-as-nails negotiator, she’s wonderful, something you see in how enthusiastically her clients talk about her. The brilliant agent she set up her business with, Jo Swainson, has also been a star while Caroline has been on maternity leave, they’re a proper dynamic duo (pic of them above).
I’d like the say the story ended there and a week later, we got a book deal. But Caroline only sends novels out to editors that are as perfect as she can make them. And The Atlas of Us wasn’t perfect yet, even with all my revisions. So we spent some time revising it until it was finally ready to send out.
And that’s when, right in the middle of caring for my newborn baby girl, I got the news of my book deal with Avon Books!
For many years, I dreamt of having the two Bs: a book deal and a baby. Little did I know the two would come along within a matter of weeks of each other. On the day I heard I’d got a deal with Avon, my daughter Scarlett was just a couple of months old. It was a stupidly hot day, the kind where all you can do is sit indoors with a fan directed at your face. Just like Louise in the first chapter of The Atlas of Us, I was dreaming of being somewhere like Exmoor, the westerly wind cool on my face.
Just as I was starting to cool down, Scarlett decided to have a nappy explosion. Yep, I’m sure you’ve visited my blog to read about joyful occurrences such at that! As I was changing her, she also decided to do a wee, the combining result dripping down into my bag. Lovely!
As I was frantically trying to clear it up, holding her under the hose in the garden (bad mummy!), I heard my email ping. I knew my agent, Caroline, was waiting to hear back from Eli Dryden at Avon about The Atlas of Us. So there was a small question in my mind: is this an update?
So I quickly grabbed my phone and checked it as I dried my daughter off. And there it was, an offer from Eli! I don’t know how I managed to remain so calm but as my daughter was starting to fall asleep, I had to be quiet. So I gently lay her in her moses basket then I ran out into the garden and screamed in excitement. This was it, the moment I’d been waiting for: the confirmation my novel – the novel of my heart – was going to be read by more than just friends, family, my agent and some editors.
I was ecstatic. I’d already met Eli at a party my agent held and we’d clicked straight away. She was SO passionate about The Atlas of Us, it just exuded off her, so I was excited to be working with her.
But after the ecstasy came even more hard work: more revisions. Eli is an amazing editor, able to bring out the absolute heart of any story and make it the best it can possibly be. It was hard work with a baby to look after, but luckily I was on maternity leave so I was able to snatch hours here and there as my daughter napped, plus my husband and family were amazing with their support.
Once those revisions were out of the way, I was really excited to visit the HarperCollins office and meet the fabulous Avon team. Here’s a photo of the reception area with its wonderful tree made out of pages from a book! I think it’s so important for writers to do this if they can. So often, we’re stuck inside our own minds, writing and revising, the true wonder of getting a book deal can be difficult to grasp, especially with a baby to look after. Visiting the offices of such an iconic publisher allowed me to stop and really take it in: my dreams were really coming true!
Then reality again: next came copy-edits. These are just how they sound, a clever person sits and reads my copy for any errors, inconsistencies, repetition and so on. It was amazing to see the little things I’d missed, the biggest being dates. I’d done a timeline in Excel including birthdays and key events. But somewhere along the way, I’d gone off course and things just weren’t matching up. Thank God for copy-editors!
Around this time, one of the most exciting parts of the process happened. I got to see my cover! When Eli emailed it through, I just sat and stared at it. It was so beautiful! Completely different from what I imagined (and yet I can’t even tell you what I imagined). But perfect. So many people presume an author decides their front cover. But this is left to the experts. And just as well, because Lord knows what I’d have come up with.
And then I got proofs, which is just as exciting. These are print outs of how the novel itself will look and I was lucky enough to get a copy of an uncorrected proof, printed and bound, a chance to finally check the version readers would see. It costs money to make any changes at the proof stage, so any changes had to be absolutely essential.
Luckily, all I noticed were a couple of tense issues (so at one point, Louise’s story which is told in first person present tense reverted into past tense) and accent issues. You’d think we’d notice things like this in earlier revisions but honestly, it isn’t until you see it printed out and in the format readers will see it that you notice some things.
And then that was it, my final copy. Any author will tell you if they could, they’d revise forever and ever. But there comes a point when you have to STOP and accept, this is the final version.
And the rest, as they say, is history!