Monthly Archive: February 2015

PhD Viva Day

Today was the day of my PhD viva! For the last five years, I’ve been undertaking a part-time doctorate. Though there was a rush at the end because of confusion over whether I could have a writing-up year, I submitted at the end of October. And today was my viva, the examination in which two experts assess the thesis and decide whether it was good enough to earn me my doctorate. It was an absolutely exhausting experience, actually. And while it certainly could have gone a lot worse, it absolutely could have gone better as well. This thesis will be in my life for a good few months yet.
20150225 01

Looking appropriately petrified just before my viva, on possibly my final visit to Royal Holloway.

  I got up a little earlier than I’m used to and got to Royal Holloway in plenty of time. As it turned out, it was an open day today, so the place was quite lively. I found my way to the Moore Building – the first time I’d ever been in there! – and after a few minutes recognized my examiners walking past. I’d looked up what they look like on the Internet, though both were taller than expected. My external examiner, who we’ll call Dr. C., is an expert on my subject, while Dr. M., the internal examiner, is a historian. My supervisor soon appeared and we went into our little room and set the recording device going. For the first hour, perhaps ninety minutes, I thought things were going very well. I could field the questions they put to me, and it was all really quite enjoyable. Things switched a little after that when we talked about shortcomings. The historian thought that my overview was a bit too weak – I hadn’t discussed some names he considered key, and he wanted me to add some of their arguments, which I thought wouldn’t be a difficult task. But Dr. C. was also disappointed that I hadn’t been delving into archives he had used to write his biography last year. Now, by this stage I already felt like my result was edging away from what I wanted it to be. There are six possible outcomes for the viva at Royal Holloway: an outright pass with no corrections, which is extremely rare; a pass with minor corrections to be done over three months; a pass with major corrections to be done over nine months; a request to make major revisions and resubmit in 12-18 months; the decision that the PhD is not satisfactory and only an MPhil will be awarded; and an outright fail with no chance of resubmission, which is at least as rare as an immediate pass. From this, it may be obvious at once that only the fringe outcomes are dramatic. There’s the possibility of the absolute elation of an instant pass and the debilitating despair of outright failing, but both are extremely unlikely. So whatever happens, passing a viva is going to be anticlimactic. There’s going to be months of work no matter what. Well, the discussions went on like that, until I was asked to go outside while the examiners debated between themselves. This went on for a very long time, and then they got my supervisor in for an even longer chat. I was pacing up and down outside the room for almost half an hour. Then finally they called me in again, and told me their decision. I can’t call myself a doctor yet. And since Dr. C. wants me to go and do more research in the archives, I don’t even fit into how the 9-month revisions are decided. So it’s a bad outcome for me, really. In practical terms, there’s not a huge difference between the 9-month revision and the 12-month revision, but I would have much, much preferred 9 months. For one, it’s deemed a pass. For another, I don’t have to pay the admin fees that I have to when revising and resubmitting. But that was what they decided, in the end. A revise and resubmit outcome. Which many consider a fail.
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The picture gallery was finally open, so I had a visit despite my disappointment. Looking rather posh!

  It’s not failing, really. Before submission, I always intended to take another year to finish, until some issues with funding came up. And with this, I’ll have a detailed examiner’s report to tell me exactly what to do within that year. On the other hand, they’ve decided I don’t need a second viva, just to send in the completed version with the additional materials informing the argument. And if I tick all their boxes, I should be certain to get my doctorate. But...I don’t have it yet. It’s pretty unlikely I’ll have it this year. This is not the outcome I had hoped for. On the train on the way home, I read a lot of accounts online of other people who have been in my shoes. Almost all of whom – or possibly all of whom, as there were no anecdotes suggesting otherwise - resubmitted to receive their doctorate. There were a lot of people who felt the same negative things I did: sick of their thesis and feeling like just dropping it, that the examiners really could have just given them major corrections, that there are just more important things in life now than academia even if it’s taken a whole lot of work. Ultimately, I’m just back where I was before I got the idea to rush my submission. I’m going to pay a fraction of what I would have done otherwise for another year. I was always going to have to do revisions. As I don’t need another viva this is no big deal regarding plans to go to Japan, though I’ll need to try and get to the archives Dr. C. expects me to go to within the next month – and visit the library for history books. It’s just that...well, I could have been celebrating a pass right now, and I’m not. And I don’t know how exciting I’ll find the prospect in a year.
The Princes in the Tower by Millais - probably the most famous picture in the gallery

The Princes in the Tower by Millais - probably the most famous picture in the gallery

On the plus side, there was well-timed good news waiting for me at home. A silly extras job might be lined up for next week, but much better than that, my agent was in touch in good spirits – she’s had a very positive message from one of the editors we submitted to, who is taking my book to his publishing house’s acquisitions meeting. Plus another editor has sent a note to say she’s halfway through and loving it so far. So that’s hugely encouraging! Having a call on Friday to discuss ‘strategy’ – I’m not sure, but we might use this interest to hopefully drum up interest from our first choices. Yay!

Ten Cardinal Sins of Querying Agents and Why Not to Panic if You Have Committed Them

20150108My 'staying calm, totally no pent-up panic here' face

So at the moment I am out on submission. My agent has sent my manuscript to various editors, and all I can hope is that when New York thaws out, one of them will love it enough to want to take it on! One day, I’ll write a blog post about this time, but for now, I’m trying to work on the next project. But it’s tough to concentrate on it with my mind over in NYC. So instead, it’s time to write a silly blog post!

26068_667381031270_3871854_nHow I imagine New York looks at the moment

One thing people have been asking me lately was for tips on how to query an agent. Well, I’m by no means an authority, but I can at least help with what to avoid. There are some things – not necessarily intuitive – that are definitely bad ideas when approaching agents. Thus, here are what I would consider the cardinal sins of querying agents: -  
  1. Immediately submitting to absolutely all the agents you can think of
Chances are, your submissions process will also be a learning process. After a couple of months and a few rejections, you might go back through what you’ve been sending and realise that there’s room for improvement. I know I did. You might make big changes to your opening chapters, or realize your synopsis could be tighter. If you’ve submitted to every agent in the known universe already, where is there to go? Batches of 5-10 submissions are usually recommended.

 JackStawp!

  1. Not doing any research on agencies or particular agents
Sometimes a particular agent can be pretty inscrutable. Sometimes you’ll be submitting to a department rather than an individual. Sometimes you’ll address your manuscript to one agent and get a reply from another at the same agency. But as far as it’s possible, seek out someone you think would like your work, and that you would be thrilled to work with. Many are on Twitter. Others have done interviews online you can look up. If you know who they are, you’re more likely to connect with them. Which brings us to another sin...  
  1. Never personalizing your cover letter
To an extent, it can be hard to include a personal touch with some agencies. And that’s okay. But it’s certainly worth looking if there’s an author who you love and who influenced you on the agency’s list. Perhaps that’s how you found out about the agency in the first place. If you’ve met the agent, that’s probably worth mentioning. Definitely don’t just write one email and BCC dozens of agents into it. They will almost certainly know. Equally, if you prefer postal submissions, don’t print out numerous cover letters with a blank space for the name that you can fill in with a pen later. A bit of personalization can go a long way!  
  1. Not being careful with copy & paste
If you have personalized your cover letter, for the love of all that is good in this world make sure you don’t leave that in and send it to the wrong person. Don’t talk about the writer on their list you admire if they’re actually represented by the last person you queried. Don’t talk about sitting next to someone on a plane that you’ve never met on the way to a writing conference. And please, please make sure you don’t address someone with the name of the last person you wrote to, either.   Grandma

 Do this and Grandma will give you her look of disapproval

  1. Submitting before you are ready
If you’ve played the submissions game a few times with different books, you will probably start to think you can optimise the process a smidgen. After you get those first three chapters perfect, why not send them right away, then while you’re waiting months for some replies, work the rest of the book? Ah, but what if an agent loves your proposal, reads your sample in a day and asks for the full manuscript immediately? It certainly happens. And if you’re not ready, you could be put on the spot.  
  1. Ignoring the guidelines
If they don’t represent sci-fi or fantasy, don’t think they’ll make an exception for you. If they ask you to send just two chapters, don’t send three because that’s what you’ve got ready. Don’t send a section from the middle of the book because you think it’s more exciting than your first three chapters. Don’t use scented pink paper for a postal submission or substitute a clip of your dramatic recital instead of a Word document. If they ask you to submit using a form, don’t ignore it and use email. Your agent has to know you can be professional and do what a publisher asks of you.  
  1. Going overboard with the cover letter
Your letter is meant to do two things: sell your books as a product – and show that you are a person the agent would like to work with. And you should do this as snappily as possible. If your cover letter would need to be published in multiple volumes, you’re probably doing yourself no favours. Relevant things to include would be things like previous publications, whether you have an online platform for marketing and whether your life experience makes you an authority on your subject. The names of every pet you’ve ever owned can probably be excluded.  
  1. Mistaking a synopsis for a Hollywood movie trailer
The synopsis is meant to relate what happens in your book. Don’t give it a cliffhanger or fill it with mystery. Don’t try to show off your highly allusive narrative style, even if you’ve honed it to perfection over many long years like a gemcutter fashioning the most exquisite cabochon. Don’t try to turn the underappreciated genre of synopsis-writing on its head with a daring innovation. Keep it simple – but of course as gripping and intriguing as possible.  
  1. Taking rejections personally
Rejections happen. If you’re looking into getting an agent, I’m sure you’ve seen a list of how many hugely successful novels were rejected. Even if everything you’ve read about an agent makes you think you would be a perfect match for their tastes, you may still get rejected. The agent may have a similar book already, or feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough about your particular setting, or think they will have difficulty placing it with an editor. If you are knocked back, don’t take it too hard: keep trying until you find someone who falls in love with what you wrote!

soccerwrong5aw They misspelt 'rong'

  1. Giving up
The only time to give up on your manuscript is when you’ve finished another one and you’re certain that it’s far better than what you’ve been sending out. Even then, it’ll always be there waiting for you to revisit sometime in the future, so you’re not really giving up on it! There are many, many agents out there and sad to say, it may be the very last one you contact who falls in love and asks to see more. Of course, it might be the first, or indeed, there might be a bunch of them who all love it! So do your research, polish until you’re happy with how much everything shines and stay positive. That will maximize your chances, which is all you can do!   So there we have it. Ten deadly sins. But that’s not the end of the post – not yet! Because I promised something else in my title. I promised to say why you shouldn’t panic if you are a sinner. So why not? Well, because I have made every one of these mistakes, at one point or another. I’ve sent cover letters with the wrong name, and had full requests when I only had five chapters written, given up for months on end...and worse besides. But even after making these mistakes, I still found the right agent for me. So I urge you not to give up – and hopefully you’ll be able to find the right agent without having to search for quite as many years as I did!