Julie Ma: Finding love in the write place


16 March 2021
There are parallels between looking for love and getting a book deal, says the debut comic novelist
Julie Ma: Finding love in the write place Images

On the long and rocky road to publication, I mentioned to a fellow traveller that getting an agent is like trying to find a partner. To which she replied, ‘It’s easier to find a husband than an agent.’

But is the process so very different? Can you take some of the principles of looking for the ideal spouse to looking for the ideal publishing deal?

Get out there and mingle.

Don’t restrict yourself to bars and clubs. Why not try an evening class? You may end up with more than conversational French!

Just like a knight in shining armour is unlikely to find you at home, no publisher is going to know you exist unless you get out there and tell them. This means doing all of the usual things like checking which agents are actively seeking submissions, looking into the digital publishers who accept work directly from writers, finding out how to self-publish.

Keep your options open but look at things from a different perspective too. Before I was a writer, I was a reader who went to book festivals. I loved being in the room with a real, live author who read from their book and explained how they came to write it.

Not everyone has a book festival nearby, but these have lately become online events anyway. Podcasts, too, are a good way of hearing about writers and their craft. Most podcasters love to engage with their listeners in a way that selfish pig, Stephen King, won’t do for the readers of On Writing.

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Why not try a dating app?

Sadly, there is no Tinder equivalent for writers and agents to make eyes at each other. Which is probably just as well.

But there are so many places writers can gather online – virtual meeting places, chatrooms, websites like this one. The entire experience of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’, which is the bedrock of writing classes, was made so much easier for me online. I’ve heard in the real-life equivalents, you have to stand up to read out what you’ve written and then listen as everyone else lays into you gives you their useful, sometimes painful, considered comments. It’s easier to take that with a cup of tea on your sofa than standing in a chilly community centre.

Don’t be too desperate. Potential partners/agents find it off-putting.

You get your opening chapters as close to perfect as possible, you put a hat on over the clumps of  hair you pulled out when working on your synopsis and you write a nice, personalised letter to your soon-to-be agent telling them how much you liked that book that one of their authors wrote.

I used to take that last one too seriously. I sent my submission only after finding out who else the agent represented and then buying and reading one of their books. Just so I could slip in a small personalised comment. It never made any difference to the outcome.

And if you do find that the agent didn’t ‘love’ your book enough, don’t go crawling back begging for another chance and you’ll change yourself for them. Have some dignity and try again with another agent. There are plenty more fish agents in the sea.

Be yourself. Don’t pretend to be the sort of person you think others want to date.

I wanted to be a serious writer who gets taken seriously, the next Donna Tartt or A S Byatt.
But then I realised that try as hard as I could, everything drifted towards being light, being funny. I ended up writing as I do.

You may wish to write historical fiction but find that a crime thriller is more your scene. Keep on writing and find the voice that’s right for you but be aware, it’s not necessarily exactly the one you want it to be.

As it turns out, I found my perfect partner/publisher by winning a competition. Please enter as many writing competitions as you possibly can. I entered lots and didn’t place anywhere. I got so used to it, I didn’t give them a second thought once I’d sent my entry off. So for me, publication did come just when I’d learnt not to expect it. I am very lucky.

‘Luck is a matter of preparation and opportunity’ – Seneca.

‘Be prepared!’ – Robert Baden-Powell.

Julie Ma won the Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller competition in conjunction with WHSmith and Welbeck Publishing in October 2020. Her debut novel, Happy Families, is now published by Welbeck ,
price £8.99 paperback original.



Read more about writing comic fiction with Hannah Rothschild, author of The House of Trelawney and The Improbability of Love.