From our longlist to Ampersand Agency’s list; how Joanne Sefton found agent representation

“Being longlisted was hugely important. It gave me a legitimate reason to believe in myself.”  Joanne Sefton on signing with Peter Buckman at the Ampersand Agency.

Congratulations, Joanne! Tell us how and why you submitted to Peter…

Thank you. It’s very exciting.  I didn’t have any previous connection to the Ampersand Agency, I just liked the look of their website and profile, so I submitted online following their guidelines. The response time was incredible – I sent my first three chapters about 2pm on a Friday, Peter emailed to ask for the full manuscript about 4pm, and then emailed me at 9.45am on Saturday saying he wanted to sign me up. I then ran downstairs waving my phone around and shrieking.

What did he say it was it about your book that made him know he had to sign you?

Barbara. She’s the character the book revolves around, and she’s got a lot of secrets. Peter also liked the pace of the story and the issues it throws up. I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers.

Few writers are lucky enough to  land the perfect agent for their book in the first round of subs. How have you dealt with any inevitable stings along the way?

I was lucky to attract attention with this book fairly easily. I did two rounds of submissions on my previous manuscript, probably covering about twenty agents in all.

Alongside the rejections, I got quite a lot of positive feedback, which made it a bit easier. I know that if agents take the time to say anything personal in a response you have to try to take it as a positive. The unfortunate thing was that the feedback was contradictory. I did try to make sense of it and make changes – hence the second round of submissions – but ultimately I think I did the right thing by starting again with a blank piece of paper and a new idea.

Being longlisted for the BNA was also hugely important. It gave me a legitimate reason to open the fizz and believe in myself – you need to seize those moments!

My worst rejection moment was probably getting a (very nice!) rejection from an agent I’d not actually sent my book to! I assume it had been passed on by someone else who thought it might be right for her, but she didn’t mention that. I’d already thanked her for her feedback by the time I realised, so there didn’t seem much point in going back to try to clear up the mystery.

Any advice for writers in the querying trenches?

There is loads of great advice out there from people better qualified than me about how to craft your submission, when to send it, and who to send it to. Rather than add to that, I’d say remember to be kind to yourself. Rejections can be really demoralising, and none of us are doing this to feel miserable! Try the reverse psychology thing and promise yourself a treat for every ten rejections you can notch up, rather than when you get a full manuscript request or short-listed in a completion – those high points provide their own reward.

You were longlisted twice with us – firstly for The Girl the Tide Brought In and then more recently with The Half-Life of Barbara Kipling. Was this a help for you?

The longlistings were a great morale booster. The Girl the Tide Brought In was longlisted between my first and second round of submissions. I got lots more full manuscript requests the second time around and I’m sure the fact that I was able to mention the longlisting in the covering letter really helped.

It also made me get onto Twitter, and I ‘met’ lots of other longlistees and am still in touch with some. Of course there can be moments of jealousy when you see other people doing well, but I also believe that watching others doing great things makes it feel more achievable for me.

With The Half-Life of Barbara Kipling I wasn’t yet at the stage of approaching agents when I entered the competition. Although I had a completed draft I had a plan of edits to do, including changing large sections from first to third person, and from present to past tense. I did all that over the long weekend between finding out I was shortlisted and having to submit the full draft. There were bigger structural changes that I still had to do before I was ready to submit to agents, but being involved in the competition really kick-started my editing. If I’d not had that deadline I might well still be fiddling with the tenses!

Describe The Half-Life of Barbara Kipling…

Well, according to my agent it’s a “tense and action-packed psychological thriller in which a fifty-year old secret threatens to tear a family apart”. I reckon he’s summed it up rather well!

The book centres around the relationship between Barbara Kipling, and her daughter, Helen Marsden. When the book opens Barbara has been diagnosed with cancer and Helen’s husband has just left her. Then things really start to go wrong…

The alternate chapters regress chronologically back to the early 1960s, gradually revealing Barbara’s secrets, whilst, in the contemporary strand of the story, the devastating repercussions of her actions play out in both their lives.

Tell us more about you.

I’m an exiled Scot who is lucky enough to live in the wonderful city of Bath – there are actually a surprising number of us about if you look hard enough. I always dreamed of being a writer but studied law because it seemed like a safer bet. My agent was excited to hear that I’m a barrister but I specialise in employment law which sadly isn’t such a rich source of material for fiction – it would take some real creative magic to write a page-turner based on the Agency Worker Regulations! I do get to meet lots of nice people, though, and find out how different industries and organisations work, which is something I’ve always enjoyed.

Outside work, I’ve got two children and we’re thinking about taking the plunge and getting a dog. So things are pretty busy…

Is that first novel going to come back to life or stay in the bottom drawer?

Bottom drawer for now. I still love lots of it, and I wouldn’t rule out publishing it one day, but it would need to be a drastically edited version. For the moment, I’m more excited about fresh ideas and projects.

You did an MA in Creative Writing. Do you think it was a factor in you getting signed or do you think Peter would have signed you regardless?

I did the MA at Bath Spa, and I think it’s a fantastic course with some great tutors. For anyone thinking of an MA, I would really recommend having a look at it. Personally, I don’t think you can teach creative writing, but I do think you can learn it. That means you have to take the responsibility for your own craft and practice. An MA provides a great environment to do that in, but it’s certainly not the only way.

I know that the MA was a factor in getting my work noticed as a few agents, including Peter, mentioned that they rate Bath Spa students. Ultimately, though, the work has to stand up for itself.

How, when and where do you write?

I have an office in the attic with wonderful views out over the Cotswold Way, towards Kelston Round Hill. Unfortunately it’s the same desk I use for work so it’s generally covered in legal files and five or six cups of cold tea.

When I’m writing, I try to do 500-1000 words a day, which takes an hour or so, or an hour a day if I’m editing. I get words down quite quickly but then I have to let things sit for a bit, so I do have weeks and even months when I don’t write at all. It also depends on what else life is throwing at me!

What’s next for you – any more edits to do before Peter starts submitting your manuscript to publishers?

Yes, Peter has suggested some changes and I know that he’s right so I definitely want to make those before if goes out on submission to publishers. Thankfully, there is nothing too major, so we’re hoping to get it out in the next month or so.

I’ve made a tentative start on the next project, so it’ll be back to that whilst Barbara is out on submission. Think urban decay, societal fragmentation and something nasty in the woodshed…

Follow Joanne Sefton on Twitter @Joanne_Sefton