How I got a book deal in a week

New author, Poppy Gee.

New author, Poppy Gee.

Anyone who has ever lived in a share house knows it's hard to keep secrets - especially if you write them down in a personal diary.

When I was a 21-year-old university student, living away from home, my boyfriend snooped through my bedroom and found my diary hidden at the back of my wardrobe.

He read it.

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I've written in a journal regularly since I was eight. My very first entry lists what I received for my birthday that day – a scooter, some clothes, and a little blue floral notebook that would be my diary.

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Later in primary school an entry reveals: “Everyone in my family tries to make me cry before I go to school so the kids will laugh at me.”

The self-absorbed angst increased in my teens when I wrote in the diary almost every day, mainly tales of rifts with girlfriends, descriptions of boys I liked and speculation on what they thought of me, details of drunken parties my sisters and I held secretly in our family's old shack on Tasmania's east coast, and who was having sex and how and where.

During my university years the diary covered increasingly colourful topics. When my boyfriend read it I was shocked and furious, but mostly terribly embarrassed by the graphic nature of the content, and I vowed never to write in the diary again. Instead, I focused my compulsion to write on creative writing.

This week my debut novel, Bay of Fires, a murder-mystery set in Tasmania, hits bookstore shelves in Australia. Next month it will be published in the US and Britain.

I always dreamed of being a published author, but I never seriously thought it would happen. In my career I've worked as a journalist, a subeditor and a book reviewer, and I've taught journalism at university, all the time chipping away at novels, stories and screenplays at night.

The turning point for me was when I enrolled in the creative writing masters program at the University of Queensland. I was fortunate to meet four gifted writing students and we met monthly in cafes for the mutual pleasure of tearing apart one another's work.

I set my novel in a fictional sleepy Tasmanian east coast village, in the area where my family spent many summers.

When I was a teenager, there was reason to believe that a violent criminal was lurking somewhere on the coast. The fear experienced by the community provided an early seed for my book.

In my novel, the villagers turn on each other following two mysterious events: the disappearance of a young girl, and a woman's body washing up on the beach. The characters respond with macabre voyeurism to these alleged crimes, tensions heighten and eventually everyone's darkest secrets are revealed.

I wrote the novel on my laptop at the kitchen table while my two small children slept.

One of my most satisfying achievements as a mother was synchronising the babies' sleep times so I could continue my writing obsession. I would write and write until I heard the demanding squawk that forced me to stop. I can honestly say I never got writer's block because I never had enough time.

I read somewhere that only three out of every thousand creative writing students in Australia find a home for their novel manuscript. Believing that my novel would end up piled on top of the rest of my unpublished work, I decided to see if anyone in the US would be curious about a murder-mystery set on a tiny island at the end of the earth.

Light heartedly, I typed "literary agent new york" into Google and sent my first query to Julia Kenny, at Markson Thoma Literary Agency.

I was amazed when Julia loved my manuscript and offered her representation. Everything happened really quickly from that point. Julia gave the novel a vigorous edit and sent it to publishers with the news that she would be holding a book auction in seven days' time.

Later that week I set my alarm clock and woke up early to speak on the phone with a handful of editors from various publishing houses. They wanted to chat with me, and see if I was happy to make some small changes. Of course I was!

That day, only four days after she had sent the novel out, Julia accepted an offer prior to auction, in what they call a pre-empt. The world English rights to Bay of Fires were acquired by Reagan Arthur Books (Little, Brown) in the US, Headline in Britain and Hachette in Australia.

It's a wonderful feeling to hold a novel that you wrote yourself. I know I am lucky. Some people say they don't believe in luck, but I do. I've got lots of writer friends with great manuscripts: they just need to find that one person who will love it.

And what happened to the sticky-beak boyfriend who indirectly sent me on this path? He was lucky too - he is now my husband. I'm pretty sure he has never snooped again.

He still likes to read my writing, under my supervision of course, and these days I am happy to listen to his feedback on my portrayal of male characters.

Bay of Fires, Hachette, $29.99, is available at all good bookstores.

8 comments

  • Wow good on you.

    I'm currently writing my first novel and just enrolled in the Masters of Creative Writing at USYD for the exact purposes of getting some outsider input on it.

    its a tough world to get published but reading this article has given me some hope that it could happen to me!

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 06, 2013, 10:44AM
    • Congratulations! I had no luck with agents or publishers so decided to self-publish my books as ebooks and have been pleasantly surprised. Two of my books have made it to the top 10 on the iBookstore in their category (both here and in the US, and top 40 in the UK), sales are picking up at Amazon and dribbling in through other ebook retailers. I'm not making a living from this (yet) but what I love about it is the reader feedback in the form of ratings and reviews. The good reviews have inspired me to continue on this path, and the not-so-good ones have pushed me to re-read my work, improve it and upload new versions - no expense involved. You can also experiment with covers, book blurbs and titles even, to see what appeals to the market. That simply is not possible with hard-copy books. I'd encourage any writers who have had no luck with publishers or agents to try this.

      Commenter
      Astra Niedra
      Date and time
      February 06, 2013, 11:21AM
      • Congratulations Poppy and thanks so much for this inspiring article. I too am an aspiring novelist and fit my writing in around my number one priority, my two small children. I appreciate how hard you must have worked to get to this point. Sure, there is some luck involved...but I believe you can make your own luck. You are obviously very talented and what nouse seeking an agent in New York! I look forward to reading Bay of Fires.

        Commenter
        Claire
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 06, 2013, 1:42PM
        • Well done, Poppy and congratulations. I look forward to reading your book. I'm currently writing my first novel, which I intend self-publishing as an e-book (reading Astra comments above is very encouraging). I would love to find an agent and publisher one day but know this is as much a lottery as anything else.

          Commenter
          ArkM
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 06, 2013, 2:08PM
          • Congrats on the book deal! And I grew up in St Helens during those times. Can't wait to read it ;)

            Commenter
            luke
            Location
            Melb
            Date and time
            February 06, 2013, 2:43PM
            • big ups poppy, congrats!

              Commenter
              gil
              Location
              melbourne
              Date and time
              February 06, 2013, 3:26PM
              • Yes, good on you.
                There's no doubt that crime thriller/mysteries sell better than just about any other genres. There are occasional blips when biographies and history outranks but overall, the crime thriller trumps the lot.

                I've seen publishers calling for manuscripts in the crime/mystery/thriller fields (no agent required) over the years and a few years back there was that statistic that showed they are the most stolen from books from book stores.

                # If you want to get published, write for the masses.

                Commenter
                Alex
                Location
                Finley
                Date and time
                February 06, 2013, 3:30PM
                • YAY POPPY!!!
                  Can't wait to read your book and so excited to say I know the "girl next door". Such an awesome achievement. xxxxxxxx

                  Commenter
                  Mel
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  February 06, 2013, 3:35PM
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