To me, Philippa East is a big deal. Her thriller debut novel, Little White Lies, is one of those books with a cover that I’ve seen everywhere. Likewise, her new novel Safe And Sound is just as recognisable. But her writing has also been praised as “breathtaking”, “addictive” and “talented”, pushing her at the forefront of the psychological thriller genre. What is so interesting, refreshing and relatable about this interview, is the painstakingly slow process Philippa endured to get her books on the shelves. I love reading about the authors who had to keep ploughing away at their manuscript, trying to get it picked up, before finally making it. And Philippa’s story is just that. A story of dedication, passion and patience. Three attributes that become very apparent and necessary to writers when submitting to agents/publishers.
Philippa allows us into her world and offers many tips and tricks to writing the synopsis and cover letter. Her story reminds us about the time it takes, the ways of speeding up that process by taking part in writing conferences and one-to-one pitching opportunities. Ultimately this interview spells out what we all know and sometimes find it hard to believe: in the end, if you keep on trying and working hard you’ll get there.
How long have you been writing?
I began writing ‘seriously’ about 10 years ago, with a terrible novel that I never finished or showed anyone, but which made me fall in love with writing. I then wrote short stories for many years, which was a great way to practise my craft and learn what it takes to get published. I didn’t try my hand at another novel though until 2015, when I left my full-time job in the NHS to work part-time in my own practice. That novel – published five years later – became my debut, Little White Lies.
What led to your offer of representation with an agent (or contract with a publisher, if you went that way around first?)
Mine is probably a slightly weird journey, but then lots of people’s journeys are weird! In 2016, I attended the York Festival of Writing, run by Jericho Writers. As part of the ticket, I had two ten-minute “one-to-ones” with agents (and I’d had to send them a cover letter and first chapter in advance). I was absolutely thrilled when one of these agents requested the full manuscript (and the other asked to see a longer extract). HOWEVER, my manuscript wasn’t actually ready (the Festival came round first!); I still had TONNES of editing still to do. When I checked with her, the agent who had requested the full said to simply “send it when it’s ready”.
Believe it or not, it took me an entire YEAR to sort my MS out! By then (September 2017), the Jericho Writers Festival was coming round again, and my novel was on draft twelve (yes, 12). I sent the full manuscript to the first agent, a longer extract to the second (and never heard back), booked two brand new “one-to-ones” and sent out two additional “cold subs” to agents not linked to the Festival.
At this Festival, I got ANOTHER full request (which I was equally thrilled about). My full MS was also with the agent from the previous year – and I that afternoon I dropped her an email to let her know about the other request (and to say how much I’d like to work with her!). She emailed back within a couple of hours to say she’d started reading last week, was enjoying it, and would let me know her thoughts once she had finished. My heart sank. She wasn’t gushing, she wasn’t rushing to finish the MS THAT NIGHT, she’d started last week and put it down, so clearly not gripped, etc. etc. Her email was clearly a kindly precursor to a ‘no’. Arg.
How long did you have to wait to hear back and was it a partial or full request?
Regarding the festival agents, after two weeks of radio silence since the York Festival, the second agent who’d requested it passed on the full. The next day I received an email from the first agent saying she’d like to call me to discuss edits (this was probably about five weeks in total since I’d sent her my full. The agents I’d “cold-subbed” took between 6 and 12 weeks to get back to me). We had a phone call, and she suggested (essentially)…a massive rewrite. She felt the plot needed ” a big twist”. She also felt it would be better written from two points of view, rather than just one.
And she was totally right.
This was a really weird time for me! I had come so close to securing an agent (and potential publishing deal etc. etc.) but it was effectively conditional on my re-writing my entire novel (again). But there was no way I wasn’t going to give it a go (especially as I totally agreed with her suggestions). Over the next six months or so, I worked up a plan for the “new twist” (which I had spent many agonising weeks wracking my brain over) and rewrote the first 50 pages or so win the new dual POV structure (which was also a total nightmare for me). Based on this, in February 2018, the agent – Sarah Hornsley – offered me representation.
How many submissions did you make prior to gaining representation/publishing contract?
All told, I submitted to six agents, four via the Festivals and two as “cold subs”. Of that, I got two full MS requests, a couple of personalised “passes” and one offer. Subbing via Festival “one-to-ones” definitely helped me connect with agents – but I know Festivals aren’t an option for everyone I actually think I experienced most of my “rejections” during my time writing short stories. By the time I had an actual novel to submit to agents, I had learnt quite a lot about what worked and what didn’t in my writing – but even then, I still clearly had a massive way to go!
Any tips on cover letters/synopsis/pitches?
There is actually lots and lots of advice these days on writing cover letters, synopses, etc. online so I would say research, research, research until you feel you sort of know what you are doing. (Don’t just wing it.) For a synopsis, focus on the key overall “beats” of the story: the status quo (e.g. character and setting); the inciting incident; the complications, conflicts and obstacles; the crisis; the climax; and resolution. If you don’t know what these are in your story, go back and revisit your story! (Often the reason the synopsis isn’t “working” is because your story itself isn’t “working”.) For your cover letter, a handy tip I got was that if you aren’t totally sure of the genre (e.g. if it’s not obviously a crime book, or a love story, or a thriller or whatever) sum your book up with a succinct one-liner instead. For example, the first line of my cover letter for Little White Lies read: “I am delighted to send you the synopsis and opening chapters of Little White Lies, an 84k-word novel about a family whose missing child is found alive, seven years after her abduction.” You can still get a good sense of the sort of novel it is from that.
Your first reaction when they offered the representation/contract?
Great question! Perhaps the best and most honest way to answer this would be with a direct quote from my journal / blog at the time: “Since accepting representation yesterday, I’ve juggled a mixture of happiness, excitement, fear and grief. Happiness and excitement for the obvious reasons. Fear because I’ve been signed on a book which effectively I have yet to write (can I do it??? What if I can’t??? cue terror). And grief because this means saying goodbye to the part myself who could write with 100% creative freedom – any idea that came into my head, writing of any quality. Now I am accountable.” I think one thing I’ve learned about this journey, is that you don’t always react to events the way you think you might. Often the joy can be accompanied by overwhelm and anxiety too. But it was definitely an amazing moment in my career. I am still with the same agent now, and what a fantastic agent she has been. (Thank you, Sarah!)
What’s next for you?
So, Little White Lies (my debut) came out in 2020 and my second psychological suspense novel, Safe and Sound, was released in February 2021. I’m also thrilled to say that my publishers, HQ/HarperCollins, recently agreed another two-book contract with me. So the draft of my fourth novel (due for release in February 2022) is currently with my editor, awaiting her feedback (eek!). Currently untitled (suggestions welcome!), it’s about two neighbouring suburban families whose secrets are laid bare when a reality TV crew descend on their lives… Meanwhile, I’ve made a start on the sh*tty first draft of Book 4, plus I have some embryonic ideas for my fifth and sixth novels. So that should keep me going for the new few years!
This is the best interview, mainly because Philippa’s journey is so realistic and relatable. Most authors have to go through the drawn out process of submitting, rewriting, submitting and then rewriting to get the manuscript right for an agent (and that’s even before a publisher offers a contract). So for me, I really enjoyed reading about her story and the nature of the beast that we’re all working towards.
And thank you readers, for stopping by!