Judith Cutler

How I got published

I first got published by accident, when I was seventeen. Our English teacher had a mound of marking and, to keep us quiet, told us to write a short story for the Critical Quarterly Competition, though none of us had a snowball's chance. I won. So I tried another story, and that got published in a magazine called Sixth Form Opinion. Easy-peasy. So when an agent got in touch with me and asked to represent me, I thought it was par for the course.

Cutler's novels have the happy knack of being effortlessly readable… engaging characters and clever mysteries Sherlock Magazine

It wasn't, of course, and the problem with early success was that I didn't understand how hard the real job was. When my new agent couldn't place a single story, I turned my mind to being an English lecturer and a wife and mother, and more or less gave up writing. But it didn't give up on me. In bed with chickenpox in my mid-thirties I had the idea for a whole novel, which I duly wrote by hand and then solemnly typed. My agent wrote back saying how nice it was to see my dear old typewriter again – but what had happened to my talent?

It could have been a kick in the teeth or a kick up the backside. I chose the latter. I happened to be teaching James Joyce's perfect collection of stories, Dubliners, so I knew he'd had full-length work rejected before turning to the shorter form. So with him as my inspiration, I set to work. I listened to the Radio Four short story slot when I could; I read other people's – from DH Lawrence to the back page of Bella. I signed up to classes. I joined a wonderful writers' group, small and intensely disciplined. If there was a remotely suitable competition in a writing magazine, I went in for it.

I learned about structure, pace, dialogue, meeting deadlines and the value of a word limit. Successes? Yes: several BBC broadcasts, and stories in a number of women's magazines. I had become a professional writer.

But I still hadn't made it as a novelist. Two more novels came, went to the (same) agent and came dejectedly back. At least by now the comments on the rejection slips were kinder. But then came the day when my agent took on a new associate, a vibrant energetic woman who told me to stop messing about and write what I knew.

'But I only know about Birmingham, further education and music,' I protested.

'That seems a good enough start,' she said, putting down the phone.

Within a week I had two themes – one college-based, one musical – which I could set against my beloved Birmingham background. But then – again – came the hard work of writing a novel, not so easy to undertake when you've had three failures. (I didn't realise then that that was par for the course – when novelists say that X is their first novel, it could well be their fifth!)

In addition to two or three evenings and early mornings at the weekend, I set aside half a day when I would do nothing but write – no phone calls, no answering the front door. Yes, I worked hard.

As soon as I'd finished Dying Fall, and sent it off to my agent, I started on Dying to Write: if there was a chance of a two book deal with a publisher, I'd have two books ready. The rest is history.


You must want to write more than anything else in the world because it involves so many sacrifices

Writing is a craft you have to learn: you wouldn't expect an apprentice bricklayer to build a mansion at the end of his first week, would you?