It’s a big year for Verulam Writers’ Circle member Jenny Barden. 2012 sees the publication of her first novel, Mistress of the Seas. The path to success has been long and Jenny has worked hard to get her writing noticed. I asked her about the two journeys – the one in her epic adventure story, and her own path from first draft to publication.
When did you start/finish writing the book?
I started researching Mistress of the Sea five years ago and actually writing it about a year later, though the story in its early genesis was very different from the one now being published. The book took me a year to write, but was then substantially revised in response to feedback after it was first presented to editors. I finished the changes, and the book was resubmitted to Ebury Press, Random House, in September last year.
What is the novel about?
Mistress of the Sea is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure. It’s historical fiction set against the backdrop of Francis Drake’s first great escapade in the Caribbean: an attack on the Spanish bullion supply as it was carried across Panama. But the main focus of the novel is on fictional characters and what happens to them rather than on retelling the history (accurate though the background is). There’s a terrific love story at the heart of Mistress of the Sea, thrilling action, and an ultimate triumph against the odds. To put it another way: When a quest for vengeance is transformed, a hunt for treasure becomes a search for love
Was this your first foray into novel writing?
Oh, no! I first began writing a little over ten years ago, and I’ve got several novels and a novella tucked away in bottom drawers, plus a good chunk of the book which I began writing before Mistress of the Sea was sold. The chances are that most of these drafts will remain firmly out of sight. (As far as my early efforts at writing are concerned, I’d say that’s just as well!)
When and how did you first get interest in the book – or another book?
I had interest in my writing quite early on (somewhat to my amazement, looking back, because I made all the classic ‘new writer’ mistakes!). But it took many years to move from that to securing an offer from a mainstream publisher. My passion for writing developed relatively late, quite by chance, after my love of art led me to try and find out more about a relatively little known seventeenth century Dutch artist (Carel Fabritius, who worked with Rembrandt and Vermeer). The paucity of information about him led me from enquiry to research, and the results were so fascinating I thought they’d make a wonderful novel – one which I wrote largely in secret because I didn’t believe I could ever actually complete a book, never mind a book that publishers might take notice of. Once I’d finished, I approached agents (since that was about all I knew about what writers needed to do). I began with those under ‘A’ in the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook, thinking that by the time I got to ‘Z’ I might actually have found someone! After three approaches I had a request for the full script from one agent, and a handwritten rejection from another which was so heartening that I telephoned in response and offered to re-write the draft. That eventually led to representation from this agent who, as luck would have it, was really very good, and the beginning of a long saga of submissions to publishers, and declines which were more or less encouraging. Mid way through this, I transferred agents and signed up with the wonderful agent I have now: Jonathan Pegg, who was then with Curtis Brown. Jonny has since set up on his own (running the Jonathan Pegg Literary Agency), so in total I’ve been represented by three agencies, whilst interest in my writing has gradually snowballed (even if the roll has been very bumpy, as well as very slow!)
The first publisher interest I had in Mistress of the Sea actually came from Gillian Green at Ebury Press, the editor who, in the end, bought the book – but only after it had been overhauled belt and braces and pretty comprehensively reworked.
How were your hopes dashed? What were your moments of doubt and despair? Did you receive the usual spate of rejections?
I’ve had so many rejections and setbacks I’ve rather lost track! But there have also been plenty of highs along the way which have kept me going, and I’m essentially an optimist and not easily deterred, so the downs have been terrible, but fortunately not terminal! I think the worst moments have come when there’s been a shared expectation of success which has amounted to nothing after a protracted wait, because then you’re feeling a mutual hurt and that makes the eventual blow all the harder to take. I’ve had my hopes raised and dashed a number of times in terms of getting my work to the stage of acquisition meeting (which is about as close as it’s possible to get to a mainstream publishing deal without actually clinching one), and there have been several occasions when I know my agent and a supportive editor have also been left disappointed. Probably the most gut-wrenching of these concerned an editor who had been encouraging me for years, in fact he gave me hope with his comments on my very first book (I still have his rejection; one day I’ll frame it!) ‘I’ve had some nice reads on Jenny Barden’s classy novel,’ he said, ‘she can really write…’ (You can imagine how chuffed I was!) ‘…Do please keep me posted on how things go with this author. She’s a talent worth keeping an eye on…’ Well, he did keep an eye on me, and praised the next book he saw, and the one after that (which was Mistress of the Sea under another title: ‘thrillingly told, beautifully written, brilliantly evoked and winningly romantic,’ he said – I should frame that too!). But after getting revisions from me, then saying he loved the book (describing it as, ‘a rip-roaringly good story told outstandingly well’), and preparing to go to acquisition meeting, he wasn’t, in the end, able to secure the unanimous sales support needed to take the book any further. The news of that was a very low moment. But I’d have said that my darkest time came just before the Ebury offer that transformed my outlook completely. It seemed then, after more than ten years of trying, as if I really was banging my head against a brick wall.
And then at last…how did the deal come about?
My agent resubmitted to Gillian Green; it was as simple as that. As I said earlier, Jonny Pegg had submitted the book to her before and she’d turned it down. The manuscript was later substantially revised, partly as a result of the comments Gillian made, partly on the basis of reader critiques under the New Writers’ Scheme of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, partly on the basis of other feedback received. Then Gillian and I came into contact again through Get Writing and the inaugural Festival of Romance which coincided with the launch of Rouge, Ebury’s new straight-to-digital romance list. Initially Jonny thought that Mistress of the Sea might be appropriate for this list, and I mentioned to Gillian that the novel was still available, much improved. Her response was to say that my book wouldn’t suit, though she’d be prepared to reconsider for Ebury Press if Jonny would resubmit. The long and short was that, well over a year after Jonny’s initial pitch, Gillian had a book which she really liked, and it was different enough for her to be able to take it back to her colleagues, and then drum up their support for getting the book through acquisition meeting. This she did, and next called Jonny to say that she’d be making an offer. But by then I’d got so used to being knocked back at the last hurdle that I just couldn’t believe it, and there followed a period of quite a few weeks during which the contract was finalized, and I couldn’t say anything publicly, in which I was in denial about the breakthrough. It was only after seeing the contract that I finally began to accept that maybe I would be published by Random House after all. (I still find it hard to take on board!)
What is the deal?
The deal is for two books, the first: Mistress of the Sea, to be published this September; the second: another epic Elizabethan romantic adventure, this time about the ‘lost colony’ of Roanoke, to be submitted by the summer of 2013 and published thereafter.
What about the title? It’s changed a few times! I like and understand the new title incidentally – whose idea was it?
I’m so glad you like the title, for which I’d be happy to take credit but can’t. It was Gillian’s suggestion, along with Mistress of the Swan, both of which were put forward as ‘strong’ titles preferred by Ebury to my working title: To the Ends of the World. After some discussion, we decided on Mistress of the Sea, and I’ve come round to agreeing that this title is by far and away the best (in fact I love it!).
What next? The second book? Traveling the world as a literary figure? A cold bath and a holiday?
I’ll opt for a hot bath and a holiday, thanks! Yes, the second book comes next, definitely. I’ve already finished the refinements Gillian wanted to Mistress of the Sea, and that’s now in my agent’s hands (I just hope he approves – and she does!). Then I must draw up a detailed outline for The Lost Colony (the working title of book two), and begin the research in earnest which will necessarily involve a trip to North Carolina (‘Virginia’ as it was in Elizabethan times). Fortunately I’ve already got a rough outline for the story worked out, and I know a fair bit about the historical background, but there’ll be masses of textbook reading to do, sources to refer to, experts to consult – and ground to cover when I get over there! On top of that I have the Historical Novel Society Conference to organize, since I’m the Coordinator for the event to be held in London later this year, and at which, incidentally, Mistress of the Sea will be launched. (29/30 September at the University of Westminster, Regent Street – Many of the biggest names in historical fiction today will be there: www.historicalnovelsociety.org – Do join us!) Then I’ll also have Mistress of the Sea to promote; there’ll be book-signings and talks, interviews and blogs, trips up and down the country, and a lot to do in terms of publicity. In fact, in a nutshell, I’ve got my work cut out! But I love all of it!
And of course…any advice for others on writing/finding an agent/getting published?
Write and keep on writing. Never give up. Never lose heart. Be humble in receiving feedback and strong in making changes. Always look for ways in which your writing can be improved. Read extensively, particularly in your chosen genre. Treasure recommendations from editors and agents and act on them wisely. Hang on in there! Come to Get Writing and network! If you live anywhere near St Albans, join the Verulam Writers’ Circle …and write
More about Jenny and Mistress of the Sea can be found at: www.jennybarden.com