Superstition

Unless you’re a complete cynic, you probably have at least one element of superstitiousness in your day-to-day life. Not walking under ladders, encouraging birds to shit on your head so you’ll get that promotion, or hiding in your room for days because a black cat trotted in front of you on your way to the supermarket. Whatever it is, I bet you’ve got at least one.

In such a well-informed and increasingly science-driven society, how are we still engaging in these superstitious rituals? Most of us don’t go to church any more, and neither do our families, but our parents have passed down the cold, hard fact that if someone sneezes you must say ‘bless you’, lest the person’s soul leave their body forever. And if that person accidentally thanks you for blessing their sudden ejection of phlegm? Well, everyone knows that somewhere, somehow, a fairy is going to die.

Many things tell us that superstitions are illogical; they’re unfounded beliefs in our ability to control the universe and ward off bad vibes at the utterance of a word or the movement of a hand. Not least in the way of proving their ridiculousness is how vastly superstitions vary so greatly across countries and cultures. What people do in China varies from what people do in France, and as far as I’m aware, there’s the same distribution of good and bad luck in both countries. Drawing on my own experience, and on a country not too far in location or lifestyle from my own, I can tell you that Italians do things very differently to us Brits.

My boyfriend moved to England three years ago, and whilst I didn’t believe myself to be an overly superstitious individual, the non-British perspective really shone some light on how often I do engage in good-luck/no-bad-luck activities. He will come home from the shoe shop and recoil in terror as I launch myself across the room, screaming at him to take his new boots off the table. When we talk about something awful happening, I will say ‘touch wood’, and he will say ‘touch iron’. He mostly fares better in these situations – it’s easier to find a cast iron pole in the city centre than it is a flourishing silver birch.

When I’m alone on the bus, or in the street, and I find myself passing a lone magpie, I will scratch my eyebrow excessively. ‘He’ll know I’m saluting, won’t he?’ I think. ‘He’ll know I can’t do a full-on salute in public and will now fly home to his family and tell them to bring me good luck for the day.’ How weird is that? I work in science, I’m a rational human being, and there I am giving secretive undercover messages to a bird as it eats vomit from the gutter.

When we grow up, we believe our superstitions are the same as everybody else’s. I was shocked when I went to high school and discovered that nobody else puts the toilet lid down after every use in case all their money gets flushed away into the sewage system (I didn’t even have any money at 12 years old, but again – logic does not apply). I couldn’t believe that nobody else ran around the playground chasing those floating balls of fluff that roam through summer, so they could catch them and blow them away with a wish to send back to the elves and fairies.

We also stop engaging in certain superstitions as we grow older. Maybe we forget one day, and nothing terrible happens, or we realise that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just put our umbrella up before we left the house, and take the risk. I used to jump over every crack in the pavement, but time constraints and the overwhelming desire not to look like a complete twat in public have shaken that behaviour straight out of me. I step on fractured paving stones every single day and, so far, my mother has not fallen down the stairs and broken her back (touch wood).

Human beings are obsessed with control. We control our finances, our careers, our home lives, our eating schedules, our routes to work. What we can’t control are the things that happen to us. Nothing you can do will stop that plane from falling from the sky, or the fast-growing cancer in your best friend’s kidney, or that fire starting in your nan’s house thirty miles away. But the ease-of-use of superstitious behaviours, the nothing-to-lose gamble of them, means that somehow it makes sense to chuck the salt over your left shoulder if you spill it, rather than submitting to the minuscule chance that not doing so would result in plague and ruin.

Thirteen has always been my lucky number, and I consider myself to have had my fair share of both good and bad in life. Yet I still salute the magpie, because if I didn’t, and something terrible happened, the illogical part of my brain would tell me it was my fault. I say ‘safe journey’ to everyone I love as they leave the house, because if I didn’t, and they were involved in an accident, it would be my fault. Reason screams that it wouldn’t be, of course it wouldn’t, but at least I know I’ve made an attempt at exerting my future-changing powers. In a world where we control far less than we are led to believe, it comforts to know what we have tried.

 

 

My Agent-Finding Journey

Before I started querying agents, I read up on everything anyone had ever written on the subject. Stories from successful authors, articles written by agents themselves and blog posts from writers who’d just landed their dream representative.

It was addictive.

But it was also really, really inconsistent.

Nobody’s journey seemed to be the same! No one out there could say to me, ‘OK, Mary, here’s what will happen: you’ll send out queries, and exactly two weeks later you will hear back from every single agent and at least one of those responses will be positive.’

Why was nobody saying that? Why wasn’t there a clear-cut protocol? So frustrating, especially when you come from a science background and the majority of your life follows an a, b, c format.

I figured out pretty early on that the querying game is unique to every writer. We can read up on what to say, how to pitch, which details are best included in a synopsis – but what happens after we hit ‘send’? That’s anybody’s guess. It’s like a really unpredictable lottery – everyone will get something, but there’s no telling what or when.

For that reason, I made a vow that if and when I bagged an agent, I would write down exactly what happened to me, just to add some more data for those obsessive checkers of other people’s experiences like myself.

So here we go.

I started writing my novel in August 2017. In the beginning I was full-steam ahead, but as the months went on I started to doubt myself and my pace slowed drastically. I’d go months without writing a word, and the less I wrote, the more I questioned why I was even bothering. What was the point? It wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway, was it?

In September of this year, I was sat in the pub with my boyfriend one Friday night. He asked about my novel, and pushed me on why I hadn’t started querying. I hadn’t even finished the bloody thing, so naturally I freaked out and he had to buy me a pint to calm me down. It hit me that I’d been putting off finishing the book so I could put off the rejection I was sure was going to come with it. I told him exactly this. He laughed, bought me another pint, and said:

’14th October. That’s when you’re going to query.’

Four weeks away.

‘OK.’ I said, the alcohol loosening my inhibitions, and for the next four weeks I wrote more than I had done in the previous six months combined. With four chapters left to write, I crafted a synopsis, wrote a query letter and researched every agent in the country. On 14th October, I nervously queried 12 agents, with an unfinished manuscript sitting in my iCloud. I created a spreadsheet of every agent I’d reached out to, and set up a colour-coded key for when their responses came through (procrastination, you say? Never!).

I reasoned that the majority of people wait months to hear back. I’d have time to finish the book whilst I waited, wouldn’t I?

Ah, Mary. Didn’t you just say that reading all those author experiences taught you that nobody’s journey is the same?

The very next day, I had my first rejection. It stung bad. I cried a bit, and started searching for jobs abroad. Over the next ten days, I had three more rejections. They were coming in so quickly! This surely meant the whole thing was rubbish and I should never write again.

So I didn’t. I closed the laptop like a toddler in a tantrum and did other things instead. I considered taking a TEFL course, toyed with the idea of a trip around Asia and begged my boyfriend to let me get a puppy. Anything to take my mind off what a failure I was.

I’d waited ten days. Ten days and I was ready to give up. That’s how much those rejections knocked my spirit. Even though not one person I’d read about had had an offer that quickly anyway.

Twelve days after I’d sent my query letter out, I went to the cinema to watch Bohemian Rhapsody (great film by the way, highly recommend). When it ended, I stood outside waiting for my friend and checked my phone.

An email from one of the literary agencies.

knew it was going to be a rejection. I just knew it.

I read through the compliments, the praise of my book, waiting patiently for the ‘however…’ ‘in this current climate…’ ‘unfortunately…’

It never came.

It was a request for a full manuscript.

I just about died. Mainly because I didn’t have a full manuscript, and there was no way I was keeping this agent waiting. If she wanted to read my work, I was not going to let my own self-consciousness stand in her way.

I ran home, cried a bit, screamed a bit, and then wrote all night. I finished the book in three hours. I read it over and sent it off first thing the next morning, certain that my lack of preparation and ridiculous quitter’s attitude had ruined it all for me.

An agonising week went by. My thumb hurt from unlocking my phone so much, and every time Krispy Kreme sent me an email I promised I’d never eat another doughnut again.

And then she came back to me.

She wanted to represent me.

I’ll tell you this right now – there is no greater feeling. To have a professional read your work – the work you have shown to only two other human beings on the planet – and say, ‘I love this so much, I’m going to make you one of the tiny percentage of hopefuls who make it onto my client list’ is the most validating, incredible feeling in the world.

My immediate reaction was to reply screaming ‘yes, yes, yes, please have me, nobody else seems to want me’. But that wouldn’t have been very chill of me, and fortunately I had the more rational voice of my boyfriend to tell me I needed to think. Plus, she wanted to chat and make sure we were a good fit for each other first. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I needed to make sure this was right for me, too.

We arranged to speak the following week, and the agonising wait was only made more torturous by another agent’s email – she wanted the full manuscript too. I sent it off, my head spinning, and she came back the same day.

Offering representation.

This was too much for my insecure brain to comprehend. I almost felt upset – this was turning a joyous moment into a big decision, a decision that had the potential to affect my entire career.

But even with one offer, it was a big decision. I read everywhere that you shouldn’t accept an agent just because they’re the only person who wants to represent you. You have to do your homework. And I was in a very fortunate position – I’d have killed to have just one full manuscript request, never mind two offers.

I spoke to both agents. I told them both that I had received an offer elsewhere. They were both lovely, which made it even harder. How easy it would have been if one of them had been a real nasty piece of work. But they weren’t. They were great.

Personality assessment wasn’t going to illuminate the right choice for me. I had to put the book first. We discussed their editorial comments and I thought hard about who’s vision for the novel aligned most well with my own. Things were suddenly a lot clearer – they both had very different ideas – and my decision was made.

It’s been nearly a month since I signed that elusive, golden contract. I informed every other agent I’d queried that I had been offered representation, and let them know again when I’d signed.

The rejections are still coming through.

If I had put together all the data from my obsessive researching, and raked through it with a fine-toothed comb, I still wouldn’t have found a story like mine. It’s not better or worse than anyone else’s – and it certainly isn’t finished – but it’s individual to me, just like every manuscript is individual to its creator.

Your path to signing with an agent will take a different form to mine. And to hers, and his, and theirs. It won’t happen as you expect – you might be rejected by fifty agents, or one, or none – but keep the faith. Don’t let those rebuttals get you down. Agents are busy, your work is completely unique, and all it needs to do is land in that person’s inbox at that perfect time. 

KEEP ON WRITING. It’s what you love and it’s what you’re good at. Never doubt yourself. You’re smashing it and you deserve your own self-belief.

Good luck!