Lorena Goldsmith: Rowena, first of all, congratulations on being signed up by United Agents! Let’s start at the beginning. What made you think you could write a book and why did you give it a go?
Rowena Kitchen: I woke up on my 50th birthday and thought, if these are going to be my fabulous fifties, I had better get on with it! Put on my silver Hunter wellies and went for a walk with my golden retriever, Lola. By the time I got back, I had about 500 words in my head which I immediately typed up. I was off. Most of what I write is done on dog walks actually. This led to my novel, ‘Dress Code: Red’, which is how I linked up with you.
Lorena: Great! I sometimes wonder, what would writers do without dog walks? OK, here I should probably say that ‘Dress Code: Red’ is a novel about five high-school graduates starting a high-end party planning business. But of course, not everything goes to plan…
Rowena: That’s right.
Lorena: So tell us a bit about yourself. Why this subject?
Rowena: I teach beauty therapy to 13-18 year old girls and nearly every class someone would say something that was funny or tragic that I stored up thinking that one day I would put it all down in a book, which I now have! The burning desire to be a party planner was the ambition of so many, that I made it the core of the story, mix in a murder, sprinkle in some diamonds, give it all a good stir and you have a tale that is just waiting to be told.
Lorena: Did you have any writing experience before this?
Rowena: I already wrote a health and beauty column for a magazine based in Dartmouth, which was where my other book, ‘Mirror Mirror’, comes from. Each month I would also create a recipe of a home-made beauty treatment under the heading Beauty in the Kitchen.
Lorena: *goes slightly wide-eyed*
Rowena: That’s right. The layout artist at the magazine illustrates these recipes. I put them together in a book format and submitted to about 25 publishers and agencies with only one good response. So feeling despondent, I put it to one side. About a year later, I decided to give it another whirl but the artist from the magazine decided not to continue, which led to me discovering illustrator Lynette Yencho from Minnesota. We hit it off immediately.
Lorena: She’s amazing.
Rowena: She really is. Rewriting the book to be fairy-tale inspired and having Lynette’s wonderful illustrations was the key to the door at last. We put together a seven-page submission of text and illustration and using the Writer’s Blah sent it off to 15 literary agents. Within a week we had a response from The Agency Group in New York, who quickly got on the phone to discuss a way forward and how to create a proposal to submit to publishers. This was very exciting but after an initial flurry of communication, there was a long silence and me being keen to enjoy my fabulous fifties while I was still at the beginning of them, I submitted to two more literary agencies and literally within an hour had been contacted by Mildred Yuan at United Agents in London.
Lorena: This is very unusual!
Rowena: I met Mildred the following week and became a client. Mildred is extremely driven and smart and I am very lucky to be on her team. Lots of agencies state in their submissions page that they only get back to you if they are interested so being ignored is something you get used to. It turns out the agent in New York had suffered some personal losses and had merely taken her eye off the ball, was still interested and contacted me again nearly three months later, but having met and clicked with Mildred I was already set.
Lorena: What should new writers expect when they submit their work to a literary agency or publisher?
Rowena: Typical responses from both publishers and literary agents vary from total silence to ‘this is not for my list’, ‘we are not interested’, ‘we are not accepting any submissions at this time’, ‘it’s great but we only publish historical novels’ etc etc. Hmm, that is a lesson well learnt at the beginning of the submission process. Do your homework and read about each and every agent at the agency, see who is on their list of clients and what their books are about and only submit to those who will be interested. I targeted only the agencies that were going to be on the same page as me and it obviously paid off.
Lorena: How about your second book?
Rowena: As for ‘Dress Code: Red’, I submitted it to a handful of agencies and one of them replied suggesting I would benefit from having Lorena at Daniel Goldsmith Associates, read and critique and help me with issues the book had at that stage. After reading your report, I did exactly what you suggested – some of it being glaring obvious now pointed out. I also read your book, Self-editing Fiction that Sells, and Cathy Yardley’s Will Write for Shoes and used them as my bible to end up with a readable story using the correct… point of view!
Lorena (laughs): Oh, the jargon! How do you decide what to write and what to keep/delete?
Rowena: Everybody will have a different writing process. I had no idea what was going to happen at the end of ‘Dress Code: Red’ and was quite surprised when it showed up! Try not to be too attached to any character or any scene – while you may enjoy it consider carefully whether anyone else will! To start with I had no intention of any love interest being present as there are so, so many books where the only goal is to overcome the misunderstanding between the girl and the guy and then stumble towards a happy ending – after total misery of course! But when Sloane got to the police station I thought ‘why not?’ and made the Detective handsome and witty and although they end up in love, it’s in a way that does not make the book unsuitable for the younger reader. When I reached 40,000 words I thought I was done but slowly the rest emerged especially after you had pointed out where there was a lack of a scene or lack of emotion and I had to fill the gap – in actual fact it was great fun and Dorrie (Sloane’s sister) is only there thanks to you!
Lorena: I loved that new chapter with Dorrie in. Many readers will relate to the glamourous older sister the little sister is in total awe of. Great. So what next?
Rowena: I am very excited for the next stage in the process of getting a book onto the shelves – we are submitting to publishers in the New Year and sending out samples of the recipes from the book as a lure – I’ll let you know if it works!
Lorena: You absolutely must do! Many, many thanks for sharing your experience with our readers.
Rowena: It was a pleasure.
Read Rowena Kitchen’s column at www.bythedart.co.uk
See Lynette Yencho’s work at www.lynettestudio.com