Author Spotlight: Mary Torjussen on Her Road to Publication (Gone Without A Trace)
I’d always written as a child, but once I became a teenager I became self-conscious of what I was writing and worried that someone else would see it. I think I knew even then that that first draft shouldn’t be seen by anyone! It was only when my children were in junior school that I decided I would take it seriously and write a novel. I aimed for 80,000 words and wrote 1,000 words a day over 80 days – just one long, hot summer and a book was born. We went camping in France in August that year and as the children cycled around with their new friends, I sat outside and edited the book.
My brother’s friend from university was an agent in a huge, prestigious agency in London and, knowing no shame, I sent it off immediately. I received a lovely letter in reply but the answer was a firm ‘No.’ It was at this point that I made the biggest mistake: I went into a major sulk and shoved the book into a cupboard. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d actually read what the agent said and taken it on board and immediately started to write another.
A few years later I was divorced and my children were in their teens. I was desperate to do something for myself, outside of work and family, and started an MA in Creative Writing. Those two years were fantastic – most weeks we’d have writing workshops where we’d read each other’s work and make editorial comments. I learned such a lot, not least that the type of book I wanted to write was a psychological suspense. So I wrote a novel and sent it out to agents, but though I received nice comments, again the answer was always ‘No’. So I wrote another and the same thing happened. I was devastated! I think I realised, though, that my writing was improving with each book I wrote and I knew how much I still had to learn.
Then I had the chance to take voluntary redundancy from my teaching job and once I realised I’d have enough to live on for a while, I made the decision to take a year to write a novel that would get me an agent. I don’t think I really thought much beyond that – as any aspiring writer will tell you, finding an agent to represent you is the biggest step. So I took the year out and panicked as I didn’t know what I was going to write about, and then one day I knew.
I was on a forum called Mumsnet and read a thread in the Relationships section about a woman who’d come home to find her boyfriend had disappeared. He’d moved out all his belongings, even the pickle he’d had in the fridge. As he wasn’t answering his phone, she had no idea what had happened to him or why he’d gone.
Now something similar had happened to my friend’s neighbour – she’d gone off to a conference abroad and returned to find her husband had packed up his things and gone. That hadn’t inspired me to write a book, but this case was different. I remember lying in bed that night and thinking about the boyfriend who’d disappeared and where he might be. It was clear nothing bad had happened to him; he’d obviously packed up his things himself, but I couldn’t work out why he’d taken the pickle. I was thinking of all the things you’d have to take – all your clothes, your books, your paperwork… Who on earth would pack up a half-empty jar of pickle? And it was that little thing that got me thinking: why would he go? Why would someone take literally everything with them? Then I thought of him rejecting her calls, and thought, “What if she couldn’t call him? What if she no longer had any contact details for him?”
I stayed awake for most of that night with those thoughts running around my head and by morning I knew I had my next novel.
As it turned out, the boyfriend had simply found a new partner and had gone to live with the lucky woman, pickle and all. By then, my story was very different.
When I sent this novel to agents, I noticed a distinct difference in their response. First of all I was getting replies a lot quicker than I had before. Writers are told to wait up to eight weeks before expecting a response, as agents are inundated with manuscripts, and in the past I had certainly waited several weeks before they told me they weren’t interested. When you send off a manuscript to an agent you usually send three chapters with a synopsis and a covering letter; if the agent is interested, they’ll ask to read the full manuscript. While occasionally agents had asked for the full manuscripts of my previous novels, mostly there was a deafening silence. This time nearly all of them asked to read the full novel.
And then I sent it to Kate Burke of Diane Banks Associates in London, and within a couple of days I had a reply asking for the full manuscript. And a couple of days after that, I received an email from her, asking if she could call me. Just a few hours later we’d agreed she would represent me. After so many years of wanting an agent, I had one and yes, it was the best feeling in the world.
I remember a friend asking how I knew I’d found the right agent for me. Kate had been an editor in several publishing houses for ten years before becoming an agent, so she assured me she could give me editorial support. Because she’d been an editor, she also knew who was the best person to approach with my novel. Within ten days of the final edits being submitted to her, she told me that Emily Griffin, an Editor at Headline in the UK wanted to buy Gone Without a Trace. The next day she told me there was a German auction for the novel, then just days later I was told that Danielle Perez, an editor with Penguin/Berkley in the US was interested. And then more offers came in for other languages: French, Russian, Polish, Czech and Slovak. And then a week later the TV and film rights were sold. So, yes, I think I do know I have the right agent!
But what made her the right agent, really, was helping me get it to a place where it could be submitted in the first place. She was ruthless, cutting paragraphs, pages, even a chapter if she felt it slowed down the action. Then she said, “Oh and we want 30,000 more words and more spooky things happening, please. Can you do it in two weeks?” That was when I knew I’d met my match!
To any aspiring writers, I hope my story shows the importance of never giving up your dream. It’s so easy to give up when you’re being rejected, but take on board what critics say, keep going, write another and another until one day an agent will call you and tell you she has faith in you.
No one ever disappears completely…
You leave for work one morning.
Another day in your normal life.
Until you come home to discover that your boyfriend has gone.
His belongings have disappeared.
He hasn’t been at work for weeks.
It’s as if he never existed.
But that’s not possible, is it?
And there is worse still to come.
Because just as you are searching for him
someone is also watching you.
About the author:
Mary lives on the Wirral, across the River Mersey from Liverpool and has lived there since moving to Liverpool to study Philosophy and Politics at the University. She taught for many years but grabbed the chance of voluntary redundancy to try to get a novel published. She loves to walk by the river, swim and meet up with friends. She’s currently reading pre-release copies by debut authors: Yesterday by Felicia Yap, Everything but the Truth by Gillian McAllister and The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett.