The Magic Phone Call by Joanne Sefton

As an unpublished writer, one of the things I loved to do (usually to avoid doing something productive like – you know – actually writing stuff) was read blogs and articles in which real authors told the tale of their journey to publication. Most contained encouraging messages (‘Armfuls of rejections are a rite of passage!’; ‘Self-editing is meant to feel like you’re extracting your own teeth with rusty pliers!’; ‘Of course eating ALL the Jaffa Cakes is essential to the creative process!’) all of which helped motivate me to keep on with the story-telling stuff and ignore the voice in my head saying it was just for junior school kids and deluded green-biro wielding fantasists.

One of the themes I picked up from my exhaustive consumption of these pieces was that Good News would inevitably come via a phone call. No agent calls an author to say they don’t want to offer representation, right? No agent calls their client to say the dream publisher has passed. So, I fantasised about the Magic Phone Call and my heart fluttered each time an unknown number flashed on my screen. Even when I wasn’t on submission. Even when the PPI spam-merchants had already called me three times from that 0300 number – because they might just share an office with a literary agency! Every time I heard or read about someone else’s Magic Phone Call I rehearsed my own in my head. Because one day, one day, that Magic Phone Call would be miiiiine.

I emailed the first three chapters of my debut novel (the one which would become If They Knew) to Peter Buckman at the Ampersand Agency at 14.21 on a Friday afternoon. He replied at 16.00 asking to see the full manuscript. I sent it back 12 minutes later (casual, I know… I won’t divulge how many Jaffa Cakes were eaten in the 11 minutes 54 seconds I made myself wait in order to feign such nonchalance). And he offered to represent me at 9.45 the next morning.

By email.

On a Saturday.

Complete curveball.

I spat out my Weetabix and jumped up and down in front of CBeebies, promptly embedding a Lego brick in my left heel. Perhaps it was just as well that he hadn’t tried to call me after all.

After working on the book with Peter (professional editing input is more like tooth extraction at the nicest dentist in town where they give you fancy herbal tea and high-grade anaesthesia, but you are still ultimately there to have bits of your body ripped out) he put it out on submission and kept me informed of progress by email.

As the good news crept in from Avon – one editor loves it, she’s going to show it to a colleague, she loves it too, they want to know what you’re writing now, they wonder if a different title might work better – it made sense for it to come in emails. Momentum built over a couple of weeks and Peter was convinced we were on the brink of a deal. Then, at five o’clock on a Tuesday, with the pasta boiling over and my 10 year-old verging on tears over her adverbial clauses homework, I get another email from him.

This one starts ‘Don’t panic…’ which, predictably, causes me to do the exact opposite. ‘Have a glass of wine,’ he continues, ‘let it sit with you for a few days and you’ll feel better.’ Beneath that advice was a forwarded email from Avon. Except, there wasn’t. I’d updated my device overnight and it was now displaying emails in an ‘improved’ format which involved not actually showing me any previous messages in the chain. I jabbed at the screen in rising panic as my children smirked at my inventive swears.

It turned out the editors weren’t sure that the book I was working on was close enough to If They Knew to build a consistent author brand. They wanted to offer a two-book deal, but with a different book to follow on. Let me repeat that – they wanted to offer a two-book deal!!! When, thanks to blooming iOS10.8 or whatever update it was, I’d been thinking the sky had fallen in on my literary ambitions. Believe me, it took several Jaffa Cakes to get over the shock.

Perhaps it’s a good job I had to abandon that book – it opened with a tower block fire written two months before Grenfell, and also featured (in what I thought was one of my wilder flights of fancy) Russian assassins using poison on British soil. I’m not sure it could have been edited sensitively enough to still work once real life events had taken over. Actually, thinking about that spooky prescience, maybe I need to go back and add another chapter where the narrator pens a debut novel and instantly scores a huge bestseller.

So now I find myself about to launch my debut, whilst working on a less problematic second novel that myself, Peter, and Molly, my editor, are all equally excited about. It occurs to me that perhaps it’s fitting that my Magic Phone Call never came. If They Knew opens with a phone call – hardly a good one as Helen, my lead character, learns her mother has cancer. But the key to the novel isn’t the phone call. Instead, it’s a mysterious green envelope hand-delivered to her mother’s house. The contents of that note will change both their lives irrevocably. A bit like those emails from Peter have changed mine.


By Joanne Sefton

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