119 years of Trust THE TRIBUNE

Sunday, June 20, 1999
Bollywood Bhelpuri


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How I became a much-sought-after writer
By Jenny Colgan

I was bored. Bored bored bored bored bored. I had a good job - well, hooray.

As a manager for a health policy think-tank: even my mother’s eyes glazed over when I tried to explain what I did for a living. I was doing stand-up on the outer fringes of London’s comedy circuit, and while it wasn’t actually going badly I wasn’t setting anything alight either - and had a regular spot coming fourth in amateur competitions.

Illustration by Rajiv KaulSo, last spring, I started writing a novel to see what would happen. The longest thing I’d ever written was 20 pages, so once I got that far I felt like I’d actually achieved something. I started Hoovering up every single piece of information I could find about writing a book.

This ranged from the saddening - ``a writer must have peace. My children know that if I am in the arms of the muse. I cannot be disturbed’’ - to the excellent: ``Never write in your pyjamas.’’ Constantly repeated was one mantra:``Write every day; write every day.’’

When it came to advice on how to approach publishers, the authorities were divided. ``Finish three chapters and send them off, then if you’re rubbish you haven’t wasted too much time,’’ counselled one. ``Always finish the book to prove you can before you send anything out,’’ cautioned another. The first sounded easiest, so in August 1998 I took the first three chapters and sent them out to a small agency plucked from the Writers And Artists Yearbook.

Up until then, three people had read it: my boyfriend Andy, who was cautiously supportive and spent a lot of time counselling me for the inevitable 1000 rejections; a mentor in Seattle who, as a 50-year-old feminist, was exactly the wrong person to read it (she hated it and wrote back that she preferred books about eskimo detectives); and my brother, who loved it, but would have been in big trouble otherwise. The first rejection slip appeared, but with some kind hand-written comments on the margin, and no one was too disheartened.

The second time, I took more advice - go to a bookshop, find a book like yours and read the acknowledgements to see who their agents are. Incidentally, within this time period, I had opted for voluntary redundancy and gave three months’ notice.

Curtis Brown were the agents I chose. Knowing nothing about nothing, I ran down the checklist for ``not appearing bonkers when writing to agents or publishers’’, which included such helpful advice as: ``no coloured inks, no wacky fonts, don’t tie it up with a ribbon, and don’t write COPYRIGHT JENNY COLGAN as if you thought anyone wants to steal your stupid idea’’.

Those all checked off, I tried to forget about it and set about applying for jobs even more boring than the one I already had. Two weeks later, a letter arrived - second-class post. I opened the envelope and, before I’d even unfolded the letter, I could tell it just had three lines in it, and we all know what that means.

I popped some toast on and unfolded it ruefully, noting the lack of handwritten remarks. ``The manuscript has potential,’’ it said. ``I am going away on holiday, but please ring me when I get back and we can arrange a time to meet.’’ It was signed Ali Gunn, Literary Agent, Curtis Brown.

I stared at it until a smell of burning filled the air and I realised I had set the kitchen on fire. That letter was carried around in my wallet for two months, creased, beer- and tear-stained as the job interviews got progressively less encouraging.

Job interviewer: ``So, why do you want to work for this brilliant organisation?’’ Me (internally): ``I don’t! I hate you all! I want to write a book! My life is bad!’’ Me (externally): ``Well, ehm, urr, I really admire the advances you’ve made in the healthcare arena.’’ Job interviewer: ``Next!’’

The book progressed faster and faster. The websites - MiscWriting FAQ, www.scalar.com/mw and www.purefiction.co.uk - suggested that the best length for a novel was 80,000 words, so I wrote to that length then simply stopped, not in the middle of a word, but not far off it.

The Writers And Artists Yearbook tells you not to apply to more than one agent at a time. It wastes people’s time and is potentially embarrassing. I told a friend this over lunch.

``Bollocks,’’ she said. ``What are the chances of two people picking you up? You’ve got to maximise your chances. Who cares if they all have to read it? Send it to ...’’ and she named an extremely famous agent at another large agency.

``You have to,’’ she said. ``After all, how’s the job search going?’’ She had a point. Then came the weird bit. I sent a polite letter to the second agency requesting permission to submit the manuscript, mentioning that it was already being read. Two days later, I received another one-page, three-line letter. Checking the toaster was turned off at the wall, I opened it.

``We don’t normally read manuscripts in competition,’’ it said. ``However, I like the sound of yours. Send me the first three chapters.’’ Andy, a stand-up comic, was in bed at the time and not overjoyed to be woken up by his girlfriend doing a strange elephant dance to Wham’s greatest hits at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning.

I sent the manuscript off again. The letter I’d received was written in courier font, so I changed the entire text to the same font, reasoning that if that was what someone preferred to write in, they’d prefer to read in it, too.

Two days later, I got two phone calls, the first from Agent Two, requesting the rest of the book immediately, and one from Agent One requesting I come in and see her. Concerned administrative staff in my office had to pop their heads round the door to find out what the yelping was.

Ali Gunn at Curtis Brown was blonde, glamorous and completely terrifying.

``What’s your stand-up comedy about?’’ she asked. I repeated some weak jokes about It girl Tamara Beckwith. ``Oh, I know her,’’ she said. I cringed. Ali pondered. ``She is a bit thick, though.’’

A bond began to form. She talked positively about the book, while I sat there with my mouth hanging open, drool forming. And at the end of half an hour she said the magic words: ``I’d like to be your agent.’’ ``Guh,’’ I believe was my incisive reply.
She looked at me curiously. ``Do you have any questions?’’ I couldn’t think straight, so I gave my standard bad job interview answer: ``No, you’ve covered everything quite ... very ...’’ She fixed her eyes on me. ``Do you understand anything about how this business works?’’ ``Nooooo!’
That night was celebratory, but the next week was tense. Agent Number Two had made it known that her film guy was also interested in the manuscript, but hadn’t finished reading it. Ali Gunn, on the other hand, phoned me up and said she was having lunch with the editorial director of Random House the following day, and did I want her to pitch my book or not?

I looked around for advice from all my great friends in the book trade before remembering that I was a health service manager and didn’t have any. Not even my how-to books could help me out with this one, as they were better on advice along the lines of: ``What to do when your 64th manuscript gets rejected and your wife leaves you - paracetemol or gas oven?’’ of a friend, Ben Moor, who writes and performs wonderful one-man shows at the Edinburgh Festival. After his last run, he’d been approached by three agents and two publishing houses, and liked Curtis Brown the best.

That was good enough for me. With shaking hands, I sealed a withdrawal letter to Agent Number Two and put it in the post, wishing I believed in God, or even chance.

Christmas was difficult. I hadn’t even told my parents I was writing a book. In their eyes, I was unemployed, and if not exactly heading for the gutter, certainly not focusing myself career-wise. I had asked them not to ask me what I was up to, and they were absolutely true to their word - which didn’t stop my poor brother, sworn to secrecy, being pestered non-stop about what my plans were. We came very close to cracking - but it was worth it.

Amanda’s Wedding went to eight publishers for auction on Friday, January 8.

They all had 10 days to make an offer. Gunn phoned me at 9.30am the following Tuesday.

``Are you sitting down?’’ she said.

``Mm, hmm.’’ ``What, in your wildest dreams, were you hoping for?’’ I’d thought long and hard about this. An average advance for a first time novelist was pounds 10,000 (US $16,000), but I’d decided that if I even got pounds 2,000 (US $3,200) I was going to stop the job hunting, put my redundancy into my mortgage and temp whilst writing the second.

What I would have loved, though, was pounds 30,000 (US $48,000) - a full year’s salary, so I could take the time, write the second and be a ``writer’’.

``A million,’’ I said (I didn’t really, but it would have been funny).

``Thirty thousand (US $ 48,000),’’ I said. ``Hmm,’’ she said. ``Well, it’s a bit more than that.’’

Nothing in my life will ever compare to that precise sentence, or moment. The opening bid was pounds 110,000 (US $ 176,000). Eight publishers received the manuscript; seven made an offer. I phoned my mother at the school where she teaches and tried to explain it, but it couldn’t sink in. Her first inclination was to be cross at my not telling her what I was up to, then she realised the statistical likelihood of what had actually happened and decided to be over the moon for me instead.

I phoned Andy. He took a sharp intake of breath, then asked me if I was going to chuck him. And I simply downed tools and walked out the office to go and reassure him, convinced that in an attack of fantastic irony I was about to be run down by a double-decker bus.

That was five weeks ago and since then everything has gone completely mad. We settled in the end with HarperCollins in the UK, for nearly pounds 200,000 (US $ 320,000) for a two-book deal. Then the US companies bid and we ended up with Warner for $200,000 (about pounds 120,000).

Then the film companies came in and we ended up with nearly $750,000 (pounds 400,000) from Warner Bros, working with Barry ``Rain Man’’ Levinson’s company -that’s if they make it. If they don’t make the film - ie, if nothing happens - I still get pounds 250,000 (US $380,000). Germany jumped in for pounds 60,000. Japan is currently revving up, as is Holland.

Friends and family have been wonderful. People keep bursting into tears. I’ve had letters and flowers from people I haven’t seen in years. People I scarcely know ask me if they’re in the book (Me: ``I don’t know - who are you?’’).

Everything is being set up for me to leave work and become something I’d always filed away in the Oscar/Olympic gymnast/pop star department - a writer; a Proper Writer.

While the bidding war was going on, Ali phoned to remind me we were about to go and meet the publishers and that I should dress smartly.

``Is it like an interview?’’ I asked.

``Yes.’’ ``Oh God, I hate interviews. I’m crap at them.’’ She laughed.

``Sweetie,’’ she said. ``You’re interviewing them.’’


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