Shane Hegarty, the former arts editor of The Irish Times, made headlines in 2013 when he signed a substantial six-figure four-book deal with HarperCollins for his Darkmouth series of children’s fantasy books. In January 2015, the film rights for the Darkmouth series were sold in a high six-figure deal.
I really wanted Marianne Gunn O’Connor as my agent… I had written about 5,000 words and needed to know if it was any good or not. I thought ‘If she thinks it’s worth something, then it’s definitely worth pursuing. If she doesn’t, then I have to take it on the chin.’ So I sent her 5,000 words and she got back very quickly to say she wanted to see more. I came back with 15,000 words.
We were expecting twins… when I really started working on Darkmouth properly. I remember being in Holles Street just before Christmas 2012 – the twins were being induced – and reading an email from Marianne saying she really liked it and asking when I could have it finished. I told her Easter, then thought ‘What have I done? This is a ridiculous promise to make.’
Niamh Boyce, author of the bestselling The Herbalist, on how the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair led to her first book deal
It didn’t occur to me to be a “writer”… I’d always written poems, but for myself. When I moved from Galway to Laois I was looking for something creative to do, so I did a short story workshop in Athy’s town hall. When I started writing short stories, I realised how much I loved it.
The character of the herbalist appeared in my writing… because of research I had done 20 years before on a Fás summer scheme when I was 19. I was archiving old editions of the Leinster Leader in the same town hall in Athy and an article about a herbalist caught my eye because of his exotic Indian name and the mention of his crimes. My immediate assumption was that he was a scapegoat for somebody else. I was intrigued but didn’t think any more about it.
Liz Nugent, author of the award-winning Unravelling Oliver, on landing her first book deal with Penguin Ireland
The writing has to come out somewhere… I was working in RTÉ’s Fair City office but on the administration side of the stories. When I started out in that job it was much more creative and I was doing a lot more writing, but the job evolved and things gradually got worse and worse until eventually I was just doing pure administration. But I was writing bits and pieces while I was doing that – a six-part series for TG4, a radio play and a TV play.
There’s nothing to stop anybody from writing a book… I got four weeks’ annual leave on that RTÉ job. Two of those weeks I would go to the artists’ retreat at Annaghmakerrig to write my book. I wrote it over five or six years during those two solid weeks at Annamakerrig each year, and in the evenings and at weekends.
Booker-nominated author Donal Ryan on getting published after 47 rejections
Where did the inspiration for The Spinning Heart come from?
I’d been thinking for years about writing a novel in the polyphonic form, thinking that if I ever did, it’d be burnt or shredded like nearly everything else I’d ever written. I started once, years ago, to write a novel set in an apartment complex, where an overarching narrative was to be constructed from a chorus of voices. But it was terrible. A few pages in I started to hate it, and to hate myself for not being able to do this one thing for which I knew I had some bit of talent.
In early 2009, I finished a novel called The Thing About December, my wife having dragged it out of me, and I was imbued with a confidence that I knew wouldn’t last, and so I thought I’d better convert this evanescent confidence into solid words: The Spinning Heart was an exercise in sustenance.
Cork writer Louise O’Neill, whose feminist-dystopian YA debut Only Ever Yours was released in 2014 to rave reviews, on attracting agents and publishers
I floundered a bit when I came home from New York in 2011… I had done a post-graduate in fashion buying and spent a year with Elle magazine but I wasn’t completely enamoured of the fashion industry. I just wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
I decided I was going to take a year off and write my first novel… but then I didn’t really think that much about it. On the morning of my birthday, I opened up my present from my parents and it was a laptop. My mom said I could write my novel on it. I thought ‘Oh my God, they really expect me to do this.’
Struggling to get an agent? You’re not alone. An Irish literary agent once told me she gets between 60 and 70 submissions every week, but usually only takes on one new author a year. So in order to get noticed, your submission has to really stand out from the crowd… but not for all the wrong reasons.
Here are some tips gleaned from agents I’ve interviewed over the years:
Orange Prize-nominated author Aifric Campbell explains how the tenacity she learned as a bond trader helped her to break into the world of publishing
The idea for my first novel… started way back. I came across this natural language theorist who had been murdered in 1971. I was absolutely fascinated by the idea that someone so brilliant had been killed and the murder hadn’t been solved. I knew somehow I had to find a way of writing his story. It took years to write The Semantics of Murder. Sometimes you have to put it aside. You can ruin a good idea if it’s not ready.
I knew exactly who the publisher should be… It was an independent publisher, Serpent’s Tail (now part of Profile Books). Having been a reader of theirs for years, I saw the kind of writer they took on – the marginal outlier voice writing difficult material. They published books that the big mainstream publishers wouldn’t bring out. My book was edgy and unusual, had no autobiographical traits and contained some explicit gay sex scenes. They had to be prepared to take risks. Continue reading
Booker-nominated author Ed O’Loughlin on his lucky break
It took a long time to write my first novel… because I had to fit it in around the job I had, which was Middle East correspondent. I was always on the call. I would go on the road for weeks at a time. And even when you’re at home, you’re not always in the mood to do side projects. You’re producing an awful lot of words for your newspaper. It takes up the same kind of mental energy, so it was hard.
I knew nobody at all in publishing… My journalist background was entirely in news. There was no crossover. I think arts journalists tend to do pretty well launching themselves as writers because they know who to talk to.
Wexford novelist Andrew Hughes on how his agent secured a two-book deal with Transworld
It took two years to get my first novel finished and honed… I wrote pretty much all of The Convictions of John Delahunt through an historical fiction workshop with John Givens. John’s brother David runs Liffey Press and had published my social history of Dublin, Lives Less Ordinary.
The book has to be as polished as possible before sending it out… I jumped the gun with one agent and sent it out when it was half-done. She 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. There was a sense that I was wasting her time. You have to make sure the book is finished, edited and fully complete before you start looking.
California native John Givens talks agents, advances and publishing massacres.
I started my first novel at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop… One of the requirements to graduate from the Master of Fine Arts programme was to produce a novella-length manuscript. After graduating, I worked on it for another year or two while teaching in Chinatown in San Francisco, and it became Sons of the Pioneers.
One of the teachers at Iowa recommended me to his agent… in New York, Tim Seldes of Russell & Volkening. He saw part of my novel and said to send it to him when I had it totally finished and he would decide then if he would represent me. When I did that, he said ‘Fine, I’ll take you on’. I didn’t realise then how hard it was get an agent. Looking back at it now, I realise how lucky I was. He placed the book with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ).