Holly Dawson goes viral

 In News & Features

Earlier this month, Creative Writing Programme tutor Holly Dawson unexpectedly found herself with a viral article, an agent and a book offer all in a fortnight…

Let me start by saying I am a very slow and steady kind of person. An organiser, a planner, who likes research, schedules, deadlines and a clear direction forward. But, when it comes to my own writing, I am also a huge self-sabotager. All my plans to submit to agents go out the window when I panic the writing isn’t ready, I’m not ready. I’ve spent ten years writing in a cave, helping other people write and edit their books. I was much happier being a ‘writer’, squeamish about becoming an ‘author’.

Then, a few weeks ago, I wrote a tweet about something nice in my village that accidentally went viral. The BBC commissioned an article that also did accidentally well. Within an hour of the article coming out, on a Sunday morning, the commercial fiction editor of a major world publisher emailed me asking for a meeting. Lesley Wood, New Writing South’s Chief Executive, said, ‘Well now you’d better get an agent.’

We all have our wishlist of agents, and I noticed that one of my top three had tweeted the article, saying it had made her cry. None of the advice you receive about pitching to agents suggests making them cry, sending them a Twitter message, then ringing them out of the blue saying you think you might have a book deal and can they help you to figure stuff out. Luckily she was on board. I also turned to an author who mentored me many years ago. He was extremely helpful and kept me calm and arranged meetings with some other agencies.

I met with the publisher and we spent two hours developing a new novel, drawing on themes from the article. It is currently being pushed through the acquisitions team before Christmas, then fingers crossed it’ll be a contract and time to get cracking.

After many meetings with agents, I ended up with a very painful decision to make between two I liked equally but for very different reasons – one big and commercial, one more traditional. I decided to sign with the agency where I felt instantly at home with the agent. I liked the language she used, her careful comments on my work, and her ideas for moving forward. We had lots of shared reference points (and I really liked her shoes).

It has been a bewildering couple of weeks, but I think I had to be shoved like this into BookLand, as I could have happily stayed in the writing cave forever. I would say to writers to try and meet as many agents as you can, at talks or agent days, as they really are all very different, and as much as we make lists of who they represent or how nice their website is, you can’t beat an old-fashioned good connection. Join organisations, attend workshops and build your black book of people in BookLand who can help. Apply to as many mentoring schemes as you can. And most of all, be open to everything and don’t spend as long in the cave as I have, thinking you’re not ready to come out.

Holly Dawson is a tutor on the Autobiography and Life Writing Programme – part of the Creative Writing Programme here at New Writing South. She also hosts literary events for Small Wonder Festival and Charleston.