I began writing seriously in the late nineties. I tried different forms of writing. You should too until you find the one that suits you best. Struggling to write prose, I turned my hand to screenwriting. I wrote a little each day, building a body of work to send to the BBC in the hope of getting a foot in the door. I had some cracking feedback too – comments that made me keep the faith – but my first break was a long time coming. In 2005, I was accepted on a scheme to write a feature film. I chose to write a romantic comedy. Yes, I know I’m a crime writer but that’s another story. Working on the film was a fantastic experience. It taught me the process of editing, critiquing the work of other writers and taking notes on my own, collaborating in the development process, all of which served me well when it came to editing my debut, The Murder Wall, and getting my book out there.
I decided to keep writing both prose and TV scripts so long as something good happened each year to show I was on the right track. In 2006, I met NJ Cooper at Hexham Book Festival. She told me about the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and mentioned Creative Thursday, a day of workshops and talks with writers, agents and publishers. It was a hundred pounds for the day but it turned out to be worth every penny, an inspirational event that made me keep writing. That year, delegates of Creative Thursday were asked to submit ‘Opening Lines’ and mine were read out by Val McDermid. I was SO proud . . . until Val said, “Either this writer doesn’t know what a paragraph is or he/she doesn’t think the rules apply.” Was I pleased the lines were submitted anonymously? You bet! Then an American guy shouted from the back that the writing was very strong and Val agreed. Phew! There’s a lesson here: don’t try to be too clever or break some rules, I’m not sure which.
In 2008, I was chosen for a BBC Drama Development Scheme and my debut novel was consigned to the backburner once more. I seemed to be making more headway with the TV stuff. Be warned. The whole time I was trying to get into television was unpaid, apart from a small bursary from the BBC – an option to produce The Murder Wall for the small screen. Working with the BBC was thoroughly enjoyable – let’s call it my apprenticeship. So, I found my niche. What next? For those trying to break into television, it’s a hard road. Even though I was a graduate of the drama development scheme, I soon learned that to get an original piece of work commissioned was almost unheard of. I wrote to every producer whose name I could get hold of and spent thousands of pounds attending writing events in order to meet other writers and network my head off. The way into TV is either through soaps or on shadow schemes both of which are very hard to come by. I ended up with a number of finished pieces of work: a feature film, several original TV pilot episodes, radio plays, short films – enough to make your eyes bleed.
Quit while you’re ahead? Not my style – time to go back to the book. When it was finished, I sent it out. A top London agent rang and said she loved it. Hooray! She asked for exclusivity of the material and gave me notes (double hooray!) a good sign she was interested. She gave me criticism too: also good because writing is constantly learning and re-evaluating. Three drafts later, she bowed out. Her verdict: she didn’t know if I had it in me to give what was required. That made two of us. We parted company but I’m so grateful to her because by then I knew then I had something. Gutted but undeterred, I sent the manuscript out again to no avail. Rejection after rejection followed. Rejection: get used to it. Some just say no but if an agent takes the trouble to write anything positive, seize the moment. Some rejections are dire. The worst one I received, this message was scrawled across the top: Not interested in the plot, much less the writer. I’m sure it wasn’t supposed to reach me. I can’t believe any agent would be that hurtful – he/she was treading on my dreams after all. I chose to believe it just slipped through the net by mistake, tore it up and carried on. Back then, I couldn’t get an agent or publisher for love or money. One day, I saw an article in my newspaper about a local publisher. I got in touch and he offered to publish my book. By now it was August 2008.
Yay! I’d made it . . . Wrong! I did more work on the book. That was okay. I was living on the adrenalin of being published. But at the point of writing acknowledgements I realised that something was very wrong. I tackled the publisher and found out that he couldn’t publish in the contracted time. What made matters worse was that my regional writing agency New Writing North (NWN) had already chosen my book as one of their Read Regional titles which would have afforded me a publicity campaign right across the north. I had to pull out because no book would be in print. I was desperate. Then a glimmer of hope arrived: NWN offered to publish a limited print run of my book. But after due consideration, I declined. As desperate as I was, I just didn’t think that it would be a good move. I wrote a thank you email to the director. The next day she rang me up and asked if I’d like to go to London to their annual summer party where recipients of the Northern Writers’ Awards get to pitch to agents and publishers, a kind of speed-dating for writers. I hadn’t won an award but I think she felt sorry for me. It was the perfect networking event. I had twenty-four hours to practice my pitch and research the people who’d be there. I can’t stress how important research is in those situations.
That thank you email and that ‘party’ turned out to be the most important events in my writing life up to that point. It was where I met agent, Oli Munson, who asked to read my manuscript. He was really enthusiastic but said it was a book of two halves. Remember the agent who didn’t think I had it in me? She’d asked me to delete a lot of scenes containing the internal dialogue of my antagonist. This new agent was asking me to put them back in! Fortunately, I still had them. But I was in a quandary, unsure that I had it in me to face the same thing all over again. I was prepared to do the work but not without a contract. I just couldn’t go there again. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Oli had already made up his mind to offer representation – this was August 2009.
So, I found my kick-ass agent: what next? Time to start over . . . I revised my book and just kept on writing my Kate Daniels series as my agent submitted The Murder Wall both here and abroad. Then, in March 2010, there was a mini auction in Germany and I was offered a two-book translation deal. A few months on, Pan Macmillan became interested. I was told the publishing director really ‘got’ the book which landed on his desk in the same month as I won the Northern Writers’ Award for my second novel Settled Blood…
A few tips here if I may. Have the confidence to show your work to others. I know that’s easier said than done but it’s a necessary hurdle. Do enter competitions. Even if you don’t win, you‘ll enjoy the experience. Look out for agencies like New Writing North. They run competitions and awards which make such a difference to your CV if you win as I did – I very nearly didn’t send my entry in! If like me you write crime, enter the CWA Debut Dagger. It makes you work really hard to get your material in good shape. It’s not easy getting over the initial embarrassment of sending your work out with a little voice inside your head telling you it’s not good enough. But logically, you can only move forward if it stands up to independent scrutiny. Network your head off, attend festivals, take every opportunity you can to meet agents, publishers, and/or producers if it’s screenwriting you’re into. You may be nervous – in fact you WILL be nervous – but remember you only have a few minutes to impress: so practice your pitch. Don’t sell yourself short. If you have an interesting background put it in your submission letter and always read the submission guidelines or your hard work will hit the bin. And study the industry. You wouldn’t try joining the police without knowing what they do. It’s the same in publishing. If that ‘hobby’ is ever to become your profession you need to know what it is you are entering and how it works. Above all, be patient: the wheels turn very slowly in publishing. There is no quick fix, no easy way in. Waiting and taking advice is all part of the process.
The day I learned that Pan Macmillan wanted to sign me was a cause for celebration after years of hard work. There was an anxious wait for the nod from sales and marketing and then for export figures to come in to support the deal. In the end, I got a three-book deal. Forgive me if you know this already but, for those who don’t, when a publisher takes you on it’s usually two years before a book sees the light of day. This isn’t the end of the journey, it’s just the beginning – it’s where the real collaboration begins. The Murder Wall was published in April 2012 and was launched at Hexham Book Festival two weeks later. It has since made the Read Regional 2012 campaign which means I’m booked for a series of events at libraries and festivals right across the north of England. In under three weeks, my second novel Settled Blood is due to be published. In July I took part in Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival’s ‘Crime on Tour’ and returned to the Crime Writing Festival to share my journey to a packed room at Creative Thursday along with writers whose journey was very different to mine. I took the scenic route but I got there in the end. Perseverance is the key. Best of luck with your writing – I wish you every success.
You can find out more about Mari Hannah and her work, and get in touch, via the following…