The road to Penguin
Road sign: Penguins crossing

It’s widely assumed that getting published is all down to contacts, and that it’s easy for anyone with media profile to get a foot in the door.

It’s rather less easy for someone whose media profile is of a producer who had to leave Eastenders, whose only contacts are in television scripts and whose only way into publishing is by the Slushpile. It’s even harder when the book is essentially unmarketable – which back in January 2008 was exactly the position with Honour and the Sword.

I knew it was going to be difficult. I studied the essential Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, chose my target agents carefully, steeled myself for rejection, and entered the grim queue for the Slushpile.

Line of penguins walking up a beach


True to all my expectations, I received standard rejections from the first two agents to whom I submitted. No reason was given, but the Yearbook had warned me to expect that. Nothing daunted, I turned to the net to consult the submission guidelines for the next victim on my list – and that’s when I saw it:


Novels must be of marketable length, ie between 75,000 and 150,000 words.


Honour and the Sword was 514,000 words long.

I had excuses. The Yearbook had given only minimum rather than maximum word-counts for a novel, and I hadn’t found the information anywhere else. It had occurred to me my book seemed a little on the lengthy side, and I was already experiencing twinges of doubt at the realization that if anyone requested the full manuscript I’d need twelve jumbo jiffy bags and a forklift truck to deliver it. However, I had selected the two fattest historical epics on my bookshelves (a James Clavell and a Ken Follett) and my careful calculations of number of pages by average word count led me to believe I was comfortably within the ball-park.

I wasn’t even in the right city.

Solitary penguin on an ice floe

It’s hard to describe that kind of despair. Apart from the sense of bereavement at what I’d have to cut, the stark reality was that I’d spent three years and four drafts on the book, and now had to start all over again.

I scoured the net in the hope of finding an agent, any agent who’d accept a novel at the length of mine. I entered the question ‘maximum word length novel?’, and still remember the sweaty panic as I pressed ‘enter’.

The first Google entry gave me a site called The Writers’ Workshop.

Writers' workshop banner

Their website gave me all the information I needed as to desirable word length, and confirmed the horrible truth. Established writers may well produce books of 500,000 words, but the limit for an unknown was 200,000, and my book's only future was as an unsightly doorstop.

It frightens me now to think how close I came to deleting the entire novel from the computer and taking up knitting instead. Fortunately for the textile world my natural bolshiness made me contact the Writers' Workshop directly in the hope of inducing them to admit They Were Wrong. They didn't, but what they did do was telephone and talk me gently back down off the metaphorical window ledge. They helped me see it was possible to make the kind of cuts I needed, that it was just another rewrite. They got me back on my feet, and I will never forget them for it.

Line of penguins, from lying down to standing up

Nor did I then. I rewrote the book to less than half its original length and discovered to my chagrin it was actually better, but when I needed an objective eye to determine whether everything held together properly I remembered the Writers's Workshop was primarily a consultancy service. Determined to give them a try, I scraped together almost the last of my savings and sent the manuscript.

Cover of The Undrowned Child


They gave me the wonderful Michelle Lovric as my editor. Michelle is a fabulous writer in her own right - check out The Undrowned Child for children and The Book of Human Skin for adults.


She was also the perfect editor for this book, since she writes historical novels in the Renaissance period herself, and also favours the multiple first-person POV. I awaited her verdict in some trepidation.


Cover of The Book of Human Skin



She loved it (bless her!) She asked some very pertinent questions which helped me hugely in evaluating what was worrying me about the new ending, suggested a few small tweaks and a new title, then had me send the whole thing off to the Workshop Boss, Harry ‘The Man' Bingham himself. Harry read it (at no extra cost), liked it and (with my permission) approached an agent on my behalf. Less than a week later I had an agent, and a top one at that - I was a client of the fantastic Victoria Hobbs at A.M.Heath.

Penguin Books logo


Victoria looked after me. She had her own irritatingly good revisions to suggest, of course, but seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever in finding me a publisher, and I am now pathetically proud to call myself a Penguin author under the prestigious Michael Joseph imprint.


Parent penguin feeding chick

I still know how I got here. In television I've seen writers happily taking credit for lines and even wholesale story changes I know for a fact have been contributed by their editors - and I've never liked it much. The truth is that all writers need a hand sometimes, and I know nobody would ever have read a word of this book if it hadn't been for The Writers' Workshop.


Not that anyone will believe it. The taxi driver who took me to the meeting with my brand new editor was one I'd known in the old days, and he was most interested to hear I was going to be published. 'Ah, that's the television, isn't it?' he said wisely. ‘I always said it was all down to contacts.'




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Photographs of penguins are copyright iStockphoto and used with permission. The Penguin logo is copyright Penguin Books.

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