May 31 2010
Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Days of Grace is Catherine Hall's debut novel: “an emotional coming-of-age story woven with a rich historical World War II tapestry and Hall's own blend of sepia-tinged nostalgia.” Sounds like a book our own Jayne would like.
Well, in the best tradition, it was a long time coming-
I announced my intention to be a published author aged 11, to my grandmother. In adolescence I wrote short stories (thank heavens, no poetry) and read everything I could get my hands on. Aged 18, I arrived at Cambridge University to study English literature, dreaming of following in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf.
Those dreams were soon shattered. Three years of studying the best writing in the English language taught me two things. First, that there was no way I could ever measure up. Second, that critics can rip you to shreds in a second. I never wrote anything creative at Cambridge – I didn't dare.
Aged 21, I was hopelessly equipped for the outside world. I could read medieval poetry in the original but had no idea how to use a computer. My confidence at an all-time low, I moved to London.
For a year, I drifted. I got a job in a bar at night and spent my days in the local library, discovering writers who weren't included in my university syllabus, writers from Africa, India, the Caribbean. But still, I didn't dare write fiction.
Eventually, I got a job in a documentary production company that made films about development issues for the BBC. My boss was good to me, and I ended up staying ten years. It was great training in how to tell a story as simply as possible, to show not tell, to let the characters speak for themselves.
My boss let me go freelance. I moved to the south coast and began to write a novel, inspired by my time spent working for a medical charity in Calcutta, India.
Soon I ran out of money and my partner left. I needed a full-time job, and to move back to London. I applied for a job in communications for an international peacebuilding organization. To my amazement, I got it.
After two years, I was shattered. Colleagues would come back from war zones and take out their stress on those of us left behind. I took trips to the Congo and Rwanda and understood why.
After a drunken night of despair in the bar next to the office, a colleague put me in touch with a friend who worked as a literary agent. We met in a little French bar in Soho. We had onion soup and white wine, and I was dizzy with excitement.
"You can write,' she said. "But this book won't get published. Go away and write another one, then come back.'
I walked away from our meeting feeling exhilarated. I didn't mind that my novel wouldn't be published. I didn't even think of questioning her judgement. I just held onto the thought that I could write.
My grandmother, a very practical woman, invited me round for tea. "I was going to leave you some money when I died,' she said. "But I think you need it now.'
The next day I resigned from my job. I had enough money to keep me going for about six months, I thought, which I could supplement by doing freelance editing work.
I took possession of a desk in the British Library every day from 9.30 to 5.30. It was my way of making myself feel legitimate, although I still didn't dare call myself a writer.
Two years later, I phoned the agent to tell her I'd finished my novel.
"I'm sorry,' she said. "I'm just about to go on maternity leave. I'll have time to read it in about six months. Or you might want to look for somebody else to represent you.'
I swallowed back my tears and looked for somebody else. A friend recommended an agent in Oxford. I sent her the manuscript. She thought it was a difficult book, and might be hard to sell, but she was willing to try.
We spent the next year editing the book together, word by word. Finally she sent it off to publishers and we waited for a response.
They all said no, apart from one. "Your heroine's not likable enough,' she said. "But if you could make a few changes I'll look at it again.'
I made the changes. She looked at it again. She didn't want it.
My agent sent it off to another five publishers. I took on more freelance work, this time for a charity that works with refugees. It taught me to be thankful for the life that I had.
One day at work I saw that my agent was calling. I managed to sneak my phone to the toilet and listen to her message. She told me I had a publisher. When I put down the phone I was in tears. It had taken 23 years.
Note: You can see a list of all the authors who have contributed a First Sale here.