Five tips for would-be writers – No 1: if you want to shine, you have to polish

The road to publication is often paved with rejection, says blogger Caroline Madden, where she interviews authors such as Donal Ryan about their struggle to get into print

“I received 47 rejections spread across a few years.”

“I sent the book off to around a dozen publishers and a dozen agents. I got 14 rejections and the rest didn’t bother answering.”

“It got rejected left, right and centre.”

The first two quotes are from Booker Prize-nominated authors Donal Ryan and Ed O’Loughlin, and the third is from the award-winning novelist Liz Nugent. Even for the most prodigiously talented of writers, the road to publication is often paved with rejection. So how did these authors finally get their big break after so many knock-backs?


It was with this question in mind that I recently launched the blog, where I post interviews with writers on how they surmounted the slush pile and got their first novel published. What quickly became clear from these interviews is that while talent is a necessity, it is not always enough to crack the world of publishing, so here are some of the top tips I've gleaned from successful authors:

1. Become obsessed with your book

Of all the possible endeavours to choose from, writing a novel has to be one of the most quixotic. Prepare to sacrifice lie-ins, holidays, and your social life in favour of sitting alone in a room making things up and writing them down, until you have crushed somewhere in the region of 100,000 words into submission, all in the knowledge that the odds of publication are stacked against you.

Louise O’Neill, author of the feminist-dystopian young adult novel Only Ever Yours told me she became obsessed with her book. “I couldn’t think of anything else. I didn’t have a life. I didn’t go out. I didn’t drink. I got up at 5.30 every morning and was at my desk at 6.”

And in his interview for the blog, former Irish Times arts editor Shane Hegarty recounted that just before Christmas 2012, he was in Holles Street hospital with his wife, who was having twins, when he got an email from uber-agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor saying she really liked the partial submission of his children’s fantasy novel Darkmouth. She wanted to know when he could have it finished. “I told her Easter, then thought, ‘What have I done? This is a ridiculous promise to make.’”

But he wrote every chance he got: on the train from Skerries into The Irish Times every day, on his lunch break, in the evenings, on annual leave. A few weeks before Easter he got enough material to Marianne that she was able to secure him a high six-figure deal at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

2. Write for yourself

Resist the urge to try and write the next Gone Girl, and instead write the story that only you can tell.

“You’ve got to start from the point of telling a story because you need to tell it,” Shane Hegarty advised. “Just write what you want to write and like nobody will ever see it.”

Ian Flitcroft, a Dublin eye surgeon whose novel The Reluctant Cannibals was published in 2013, advised emerging writers not to write for the market. “Write what you like,” he said. “It makes it more enjoyable and you end up with a book that you’d love to read.”

However, Ian suggested that before you actually start writing, take a little time to ask yourself how you’re going to sell the book once it’s finished. “Are you going to be able to give it an interesting, compelling tagline? If not, then maybe that’s the point to re-jig what you’re writing into something you could sell more easily,” he said. “Having said that, the art is in the rewriting.”

3. If you want to shine, you have to polish

It’s easy to get carried away by that first flush of creative pride and send a partially completed manuscript out into the world but it’s generally a mistake. Before you press the send button, ask yourself if you would be happy for the book to be published in its current state. If the answer is no, then keep polishing.

The Wexford writer Andrew Hughes recalled how he jumped the gun and sent his novel The Convictions of John Delahunt to an agent when it was only half-finished. The agent liked the first 10,000 words and wanted the full manuscript but the book wasn’t ready. “It was a mistake because then I had to put her off.”

Orange Prize-nominated author Aifric Campbell never lets work go until she feels she’s done as much as she possibly can. “With a first novel you have one shot of somebody reading it, so it’s got to be your best shot,” she said. “Sometimes people get tired and send out extracts too early. I would advise people to re-draft endlessly.”

4. Explore all your options

If a brilliant cover letter and three chapters of sparkling prose fails to hook you an agent or publisher, wrack your brains for any contacts you may have in the publishing world, however tenuous. No one’s going to publish your book because you’re a friend of a friend, but it might just help you to bypass the slush pile.

Ed O’Loughlin, former Africa correspondent for The Irish Times, told me his lucky break came when he happened to read in the newspaper that someone he once worked with had got a job with a publisher – it was the former journalist Patricia Deevy, now an editor at Penguin Ireland.

“I emailed Patricia,” Ed said. “Her remit wasn’t literary fiction, so she said to send it to her colleague Brendan Barrington.” Brendan worked on some changes to the manuscript with Ed and then they signed a one-book deal. Ed, naturally, was delighted. “It meant I was going to fulfil the ambition and shift the 110,000 words that I’d been working on for the past seven years.”

Also, consider entering competitions like the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. Niamh Boyce, author of the bestselling novel The Herbalist, was selected as one of 20 winners of the IWC Novel Fair in 2012. She got the chance to pitch her book to top publishers and agents at the Fair, and very shortly afterwards her book was picked up by Penguin Ireland.

5. Don’t give up – you never know how close you are

Consider Liz Nugent. Her agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor said she never had so many “near hits” as with Liz’s debut novel Unravelling Oliver. “I think she stopped telling me after the 19th rejection. Nobody wanted it. They all had the same criticism about the ending – they didn’t like it,” Liz said. But Marianne didn’t give up on the book – instead, she appointed an editor to Liz to see if there was something they could do about the ending. “I rewrote the entire latter half of the book within about a month,” Liz told me. Marianne sent it out again and this time around, it was bought by Penguin Ireland.

And then, of course, there’s Donal Ryan, whose remarkable tale of being discovered and championed by an intern at The Lilliput Press, after 47 rejections, has strengthened the resolve of many a despairing writer. “I can say with pride that the first publisher I ever wrote to, Antony Farrell of The Lilliput Press, accepted me,” Donal said. “There was just a bit of a gap between his receipt of my manuscript and our first meeting, during which time I’d asked everybody else in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook who looked vaguely promising to represent or publish me.”

Still, it’s hard to keep the faith when the rejections start coming, but try to keep in mind the words of the American writer Joe Konrath who once said: “There’s a word for a writer who doesn’t give up – published.”