Alumnus Alex Christofi (English, 2005) published his debut novel Glass to critical acclaim this year. He is already working on his second book, set in a Parisian bookshop.
I had been working as an assistant in a literary agency for a few years, filtering submissions and passing on promising manuscripts for closer attention, when I allowed myself to admit my dirty secret: I too wanted to write a novel. This, despite knowing that the agency received eighty to a hundred manuscripts a week, and that, most weeks, we sent a polite but unequivocal rejection to every single one of them. Out of the ten thousand we received in a year, the agency would take on a handful, of which we would aim to sell over half. Still, like most people working in publishing, I was an optimist, and I wasn’t going to let anything as banal as statistical probability get in my way.
First, I had to finish my novel. A raft of anecdotal evidence led me to believe that a great many people were currently ‘working on a novel idea’, but that very few had finished one. If I could accomplish that, I would already be comfortably in the top 1% (in a meritocratic way, not in an Occupy way).
I had heard it said that you only had one chance at a debut, meaning that a lot of media attention and prizes are focussed towards first novels and ‘emerging’ writers (a bizarre turn of phrase – what kind of horrifying, deformed creature ‘emerged’?). I had an inkling that the book I had written might be pretentious. Each chapter was based on one of Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms and the epigraph was a Latin palindrome. It was a sort of Oulipan existentialist nightmare. At one point someone cried spiders.
I desperately wanted to avoid starting again. I was hardly on course to be an enfant terrible of British letters; by the time I had managed to get anything published, I would no longer be an enfant, although looking at what I had produced, I might have been allowed to keep the terrible. In the agency, we had one piece of advice for someone whose writing showed promise, but whose book was unpublishable: write another one. I could do what most people did, and try to weasel my way out of it by making cosmetic changes. Some people even tried the old trick of sending it back in unchanged. But you can’t trick someone into enjoying themselves.
So I started again. Just like the first time, I got about two-thirds of the way through before deciding that it was a hateful use of my time, but I forced myself to finish it. I redrafted this one to within an inch of its life. After that, I had to send it out to agencies – to people like me. I tried to think what impressed me in a submission: I wrote a courteous, professional letter, giving the basic pitch of the book, but keeping it brief; I gave some idea of the kind of book it was going to be; I wrote up a one-page synopsis, describing the plot.
I realised the instructions we give as to fonts, pagination and line-spacing might seem bafflingly precise, but I knew that it was a case of stripping away the window-dressing to allow the reader to engage with the text itself. Perhaps that’s what we’re all afraid of. I did my research and picked four or five agents who seemed receptive to the book I’d written (a good trick is to look in the acknowledgments of books you admire, and find out who their agent is). I sent it off.
I heard nothing for a few days. I began to imagine that I was being whispered about in other agencies. Alex, that terrible infant. What swamp did he ‘emerge’ from? Then I saw a reply land in my inbox. I opened it. It was a polite but unequivocal rejection. I winced and waited. A few days later, another one. Then a third email from an agent, this time inviting me to lunch. Did he want to insult me in person? But he thought my novel was good, and he wanted to represent me. I had an agent! It had taken me a few years and a number of false starts, but I finally had representation. Now all we had to do was get a publishing deal…
Images © Alex Christofi/ Will Ablett