06 May 2022
Persistence pays off, says Rebecca Zahabi, debut author of The Collarbound
I wrote the very first version of The Collarbound when I was 17, studying in France. This version was, obviously, in French. I finished it, sent it off to editors, and for the first time in my life got a response. (There are very few literary agents in France, so I submitted directly to publishers.) The answer was one page, which gave me some feedback, what they didn’t like about the story, what they recommended changing. There was nothing else: no explanation as to whether they would be ready to consider the manuscript if I reworked it, or whether this was a kind refusal.
I didn’t understand that this might have been an offer, had I done the edits they asked of me. I knew nothing of the publishing industry and had no-one to teach me. My parents didn’t understand the letter either. They were proud I got a response, and they put it in a folder lovingly entitled 'Rebecca’s rejections', but that was all. I smiled, shrugged, and moved on to the next project.
And then I didn’t get anything published, nor any answers – not even nice refusals – from editors for the next seven years.
I felt stuck, like someone paddling upriver against a strong current. But I found out that the way to keep going, when the refusal letters pile up, when there’s no obvious way forward, is not only to keep trying, but to not be afraid to try new strategies.
I am lucky enough to be bilingual. When writing in French was getting me nowhere, I decided to change languages. When writing in English was still a struggle, I decided I needed some advice from industry professionals, and enrolled on an MA in Creative Writing. For me, that was the right choice: I learnt how to properly edit what I’d written, a skill which I honed thanks to peer feedback. I met like-minded writers who helped critique my work. I warmly urge aspiring authors to find a group of writers with similar interests, who can offer constructive feedback. Even giving feedback is a great exercise, as it trains us to spot weaknesses in our own writing.
I would also recommend not being afraid to change. There are many ways to write, and to find readers. I translated some of my own work from French to English, sent off my CVs to local indie presses, worked at translating other people’s work. I taught myself a bit of coding and managed to find a freelance job in gamewriting, which is where my first payment for my writing came from. I wrote short stories, sent them to competitions, got polite refusals. My second-ever cheque for a piece of writing was for a short story, written for a competition (which it failed to win) and then sent to a magazine (which, lo and behold, agreed to publish it!)
All the while, I chipped away at the novel-writing. After working on various projects, old characters came knocking at my door again. Whispering. The Muse had not told their story yet, she was not satisfied. She wanted to work on them again. I started what I expected to be one book. After writing continuously for about six months, I had one huge, monstrous thing, which was an unfinished, 150k-word beast.
A friend of mine, talking about her own project, voiced my problem and hers: 'How come I have so many words and it’s still not a novel?'
I had maybe two novels, I decided. I cut the monster in half. Like with the Hydra, however, this didn’t help. I now had a book and a half and, very soon, two books. And the story still wasn’t finished.
I polished and edited book 1 and sent it off to agents in the UK. I continued working at book 2 & 3 in the meantime. I was getting close to having a full trilogy (a finished story, at least) which might never see the light of day. I remember telling off the Muse, saying she’d made me work on something which no-one would ever read.
But that’s the thing with writing: it’s a calling. It’s a vocation. I couldn’t not write. I knew that there was a story I wanted to tell, that I wanted to include women, people of colour, conflicts around power, structural changes, in the sweeping narratives of magic and mystery which I’d read all my life. I wanted stories where people with mixed identities and loyalties, people who, like me, find it hard to belong, struggled together. So I kept at it.
Here’s some good news: it’s lucky to be writing in English. When I realised I’d covered most agencies in the UK which would accept epic fantasy, to no avail, I submitted the manuscript to agents in the US. If that hadn’t worked, maybe I would’ve continued on to Australia. I might have gone around the world, grimly determined, until I wrenched a positive answer from someone, somewhere.
With agents, it’s important not to send the manuscript to one or two people, then wait and agonise. I sent it to about 40 people and received only one positive answer, which took eight months to arrive. If I’d been counting the refusals, I might have given up. If I’d been counting the months, I might have given up. But I was busy writing for videogames, wondering where to submit the next short story – I was looking towards the future, which helped carry the writing forward.
As it was, I counted only the one answer I needed: the positive, enthusiastic response from my current agent.
After working with the agent on the manuscript, she sent it off to publishers in the UK and the US. At long last, the yearned-for answer landed in my inbox: a publisher was interested. I had been working on the trilogy for nearly three years at that stage, and it would be another year (with the pandemic slowing everyone down) before I had a contract and a date for the book coming out.
When I’m asked, I say I started working on The Collarbound in September 2018, because that is when I sat down at my desk, cracked my knuckles, and started the English version. But the truth would be that I had already written it once before, over ten years ago.
The truth would be that this story just wouldn’t leave me alone, that it wanted to be told – and that now, at last, it will be.
The Collarbound by Rebecca Zahabi is published by Gollancz
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