Joanna Nell: How I Got An Agent

An interview with Joanna Nell on how to get a literary agent and two-book publishing deal in Australia

I’m really excited to bring you the next interview in this series. This month I’m chatting with Joanna Nell, debut author of The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village (due for release in October 2018).

It was almost two years ago when I met Jo in a Kate Forsyth editing workshop at the NSW Writer’s Centre. I sat next to Jo and was pleased to find both of our writing projects were heavily influenced by our work as health professionals. We stared down at the stack of papers that made up our manuscripts and got to work with a red pen. Nearly two years on, and Jo’s about to see her words in print. I am thrilled for her!

Joanna Nell is a UK born writer and doctor. Her short fiction has won several awards and has been published in various journals and literary anthologies. As a GP with a passion for women’s health and care of the elderly, Joanna is drawn to writing character-driven stories for women in their prime, creating young-at-heart characters who are not afraid to break the rules and defy society’s expectations of ageing. Joanna lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband, two teenage children and slightly smelly canine muse.

joanna nell interview

Q. Tell us about the book that landed you a literary agent.

The book is The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, out 25th September 2018, published by Hachette. I first pitched the novel in July 2017 under the working title The Unmentionables. It’s quite common for the publisher to change the title, and I have to agree that the new one is perfect for the genre of “uplit” fiction.

Q. I LOVE the new title! What steps did you take to refine the manuscript once you completed your first draft?

The first draft was very rough indeed but I knew from a previous manuscript I had written that I had to get the words down while the ideas were flowing. Experience had taught me that if I went back to change or edit things, I’d lose that all-important first draft momentum. Eager as I was to jump straight into a rewrite, I needed some objectivity and so put the manuscript aside for four weeks.

Next came my favourite part of the writing process: printing out the entire manuscript at Officeworks (single sided, unbound, so I could recycle the paper afterwards!) and doing a read-through, purely as a reader, to get the overall feel of pacing and voice. When I reread it, I attacked the thing with a pen, highlighters and Post-it notes and marking up all the changes I wanted to make in the next draft.

After a complete rewrite, I did a structural edit using 13 scene cards based on Ebony Mckenna’s ‘Writing With Scene Cards’ approach. Although designed for romance novels, it works equally well for pretty much any genre.

A couple more ruthless edits, a final polish (during which my protagonist Peggy Smart developed her characteristic malapropisms) and I knew I’d taken the manuscript as far as I could.

Q. Just went to google malapropisms… Might have to suggest that one for the AWC’s word of the week 🙂 How did you approach writing the synopsis and blurb?

Ah, writing the dreaded synopsis… Most authors find this an onerous and painful task, reducing all those beautiful words to little more than a string of bullet points. To get around this mental hurdle, I told myself that the synopsis and blurb were part of the craft of writing, and tried to narrate the plot using my protagonist’s voice. Attending Kate Forsyth’s ‘Story Doctor’ workshop at the NSW Writers’ Centre (where I sat next to a wonderful writer named Lauren Keegan!) certainly helped me. I remember our homework was to write a breakdown of each chapter and name it. Not only was this a great exercise, but those summaries later formed the scaffold for the synopsis. In fact, I loved the chapter names so much that I kept them in the final manuscript.

As a self-confessed workshop junkie I might be biased, but I would say that getting feedback from professionally run courses or workshops (eg The Pitch Perfect workshop run by the ASA, or the RWA’s online OWL modules) is a great investment.

Q. I had no idea how to edit until I attended Kate’s workshop! What is your elevator pitch?

A chance encounter with a glamorous woman from her past sets seventy-nine year old widow Peggy Smart on an unexpected journey of self-discovery.

The publisher describes it as “A moving, funny, heartwarming tale of love and community.”

Single Ladies cover

Q. How did you get an offer of representation from a literary agent?

I met my agent Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency at the ASA’s Literary Speed Dating event in Sydney in 2017. As an introvert, it was a terrifying prospect, but I decided to put on my big-girl pants and simply give it my best shot. In the end, the day was great fun, with everybody on both sides of the table apparently equally nervous and anxious to make a good impression. I briefly outlined where I saw the book in the market (target readership, similar works) and garbled a potted writing CV (short story awards, etc). The three minutes went very quickly and I think I did the whole pitch in a single breath.

I am terrible procrastinator, and by the time I emailed my manuscript to Haylee Nash a few weeks later, I’d managed to tie myself in a knot, with three publishers I’d previously submitted to directly, all expressing interest. In the end, it was a huge relief to hand over negotiations to Haylee who subsequently introduced me to Rebecca Saunders at Hachette.

Q. You’re a debut author and you got a two-book deal with Hachette. Tell us about that!

Whilst it sounds like a dream come true (and believe me, it absolutely is!), it’s not uncommon to be offered a two-book deal for a debut novel. It makes commercial sense for a publisher to take a long-term view when signing a new author, in order to see a return on their investment. Equally, it was important to me to find a publisher prepared to nurture my writing career. As second books are notoriously tricky beasts, it’s fantastic to have the advantage of editorial support and a firm deadline for submission.

Q. What did you do right?

You’d have to ask Haylee that question! There was certainly an element of luck involved, but I did have a clear idea of what the book was about and how it fitted into the market. In the case of The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village, it meant identifying a social trend in positive ageing and a gap in the market for novels featuring older women. It possibly helped that the manuscript had won the RWA’s Valerie Parv award.

Q. What would you have liked to have done differently?

There is a perceived wisdom in Australia that it is harder to find an agent than a publisher. With that in mind, I chose to hedge my bets and query both simultaneously. With hindsight I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this. It would have been better to be patient, do some research and approach agents in a more systematic fashion. When submitting to a publisher, you only get one shot, so it’s important to have the package in the best possible shape before you send it out. It’s true that many successful authors are unrepresented but an agent, with their in-depth knowledge and contacts in the industry, is well-placed to negotiate the best deal, and more importantly, find the right home for a particular author and book.

Q. What has been surprising about the negotiation or publishing process?

The biggest surprise was how warm, friendly and supportive everybody was. We tend to imagine publishers and agents as unapproachable, tucked away in ivory towers, deliberately ignoring their slush-piles! In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, they are extremely busy people, but human too, which is why that personal, face-to-face interaction is such an advantage when pitching.

The other thing that shocked me was just how much work goes into producing the finished book. Although a year (to eighteen months) might sound like a long time from contract to publication, the numerous rounds of edits, cover design, marketing and publicity are very intensive and the process can sometimes feel like hurtling downhill on a rollercoaster!

Q. Writers are encouraged to build an author platform. You’re quite active on Facebook and Instagram, plus you have a great website. How do you manage these and what did you consider when you were starting out?

To be honest, I’m making it up as I go along! I am dabbling on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and discovering the unique personalities of each platform. I love the visual creativity of Instagram but enjoy being part of a conversation on Twitter. It’s a good idea to have a dedicated Facebook author page separate to your personal profile. A following has to grow organically, by engaging with other users, sharing content, commenting, or joining conversations. Personally, I don’t blog, but I know this works really well for other writers.

I do have a basic author website which I’ve developed over time. I think it’s really important to have something however simple, out there in cyberspace where prospective agents and publishers can find you; an electronic calling card if you like. I used a free Wix template and looked at the websites of authors I admired for inspiration.

Q. What is your advice for writers who seek a literary agent?

  • Try to meet face-to-face if possible. Remember to breathe when you do. There are plenty of pitching opportunities at conferences (RWA, Writers Unleashed, CYA etc) as well as the ASA speed dating events (they also have virtual sessions for regional or remote authors). Practice first.
  • Be patient. Don’t rush to pitch. Ask someone you trust if they think your work is ready.
  • Be aware that an agent may be looking for something very specific for their list, so it’s wise to do some research. Don’t be disheartened by rejections (I’ve had plenty too). It might not be right for a particular agent’s list, but there may be another wonderful opportunity waiting just around the corner. In publishing, persistence pays.
  • Put your marketing hat on and think an agent might sell your book. When pitching, bear in mind that old Hollywood adage “Give me the same, but different.” For instance, what books are similar to yours? What is your point of difference, and why is it unique or important?
  • Be professional. Don’t forget you are selling yourself too, in what could potentially be a lifelong partnership.

Q. What’s next for you?

I am working on my second book for Hachette, The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, due for publication in September 2019, which draws on my some of my own experiences as a ship’s doctor aboard a cruise ship.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Jo. I am very excited that I can read your book in full very soon!

Want to connect with Jo? You can find her at TwitterFacebook, Instagram and her website.

If you missed the other interviews in this series you can catch up on my chats with:

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