Why do we keep writing?

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why do we write?

These are questions often asked with a roll of eyes and a deranged laugh. Sometimes they’re a response to disappointment or routes blocked. And God knows, there are many of them when it comes to writing.

So just why are we doing this when there are other more worthwhile tasks or pastimes we could be undertaking? Like making a start on the dandelions colonising our lawns….

Gardening works for my mum – her back garden is awash with colour and shape, and in darker times when she hasn’t been able to get outside, it’s a thing of beauty that reaches through the glass and whispers, ‘This is something good.’ Pink roses thread their way over an archway in the corner. There’s an old butler sink crammed with purple hyacinths. Only friends and family get to see it, an occasional neighbour sticking their nose over the fence. It’s never been sent out into the world by way of competition or through Facebook snaps. My mum doesn’t need to show off her garden to enjoy it, she just does.

But that’s not the way I feel about writing. I write to be read. Yes, there’s a part of me that’s pleased when I’ve written a heart-tugging line or a sentence with some kind of rhythm. But really, I’m writing so that someone else can read my work, feel my words. I’m not talking compliments, I’m talking connection. Like a lock of eyes or a certain conversation. The way my mum once reached her hand out and touched the arm of a crying stranger in a hospital elevator. They looked at each other, the woman and my mum. No one spoke, but for a few brief seconds there was no one there but them.

If a friend or a stranger, reads one of my stories or longer works and says, ‘God, but that was good.’ or ‘That character’s really stayed with me,’ I’ve done what I set out to do.

Of course, as in life, we can’t always connect. Words can miss their mark. The reader and writer might clear their throats and cough some withering laughter into the rolling tumbleweed. There might be an honest, ‘I didn’t really get it,’ but more likely no one will mention it at all.  And that’s just fine.

When readers feel that place you drew with your words though – the orange that the prisoner refused to eat because it gave such colour to the blank cell; the way the grandmother with brittle bones picked up her granddaughter and swung her around and around; the moment when a stranger laid a hand on someone in deep grief – well, that’s why I keep on with this tangle of upset and joy we call writing.

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

What NOT to Do When A Literary Agent asks for your Whole Novel

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Who wouldn’t be excited when a literary agent asks for a full manuscript? It’s likely to send you into a proof-reading frenzy (comma overdose,,,,,) your fingers wobbling over the keyboard as you finally hit Send. Then just after you do, you’ll spot a typo.

Things go oh-so-quiet after all that frenetic activity. And you wait, your imagination looping UPthe next time the phone rings, it’ll be her – and then whoosh – DOWNIf she rejects me, I’m never going to get another chance like this, never.

It’s going to be a nail-chewing, neck-tensing, grumpy-mood-inducing time, so here’s some tips:

1. Don’t start monitoring the literary agent.

Googling her name, looking up other people who she’s offered representation to. Sound familiar? Force yourself to look away from the screen, and stop logging onto Twitter every five minutes to see if she’s posted. Put your energy into starting something new. A short story. A new novel. Read or collect ideas for future work.

2. Don’t bombard the agent with emails.

Coo-ee, just wondering how you’re getting on with The Masterpiece? Then two days later: Me again. And, don’t phone. That’s the equivalent of repeatedly ding-donging someone’s doorbell when all the lights are on, but no one’s opening up. Reading a full takes time. Some agents take about three months to reply to an initial submission of three chapters and a synopsis, so how long is it going to take to read your 90,000 words? A few weeks ago I read an account by a published author that went something like this. I wrote to a literary agent and 24 hours later she offered me representation. Two days after that, she negotiated me a three book deal with Penguin. I lay my head on the desk and almost muttered the words, I’m unworthy. I ate a scone instead. Thing is, it doesn’t happen like that for most writers. Exercise patience, distract yourself, keep writing. Agents who’ve requested a full can take anything from one month to six to reply.

3. If an agent who requested a full hasn’t replied after three months, do email and say you’d welcome some feedback.

Sometimes when an agent requests a full they don’t reply at all. Yep, this happened to me with an early version of my first book. It’s happened to other writers I know too. Try not to take it personally, it’s more of a reflection on the agent than on your writing. So there!

4.When the agent turns your book down with feedback, don’t do anything apart from flaring your nostrils and swearing.

Don’t bash out an instant reply. ‘Thanks for your patronising comments, but…’ Step away. Go for a run. Punch that pillow. A rejection usually comes with pointers. ‘The narrative wasn’t taut enough,’ for instance. ‘The plot lost direction halfway through.’ File the email somewhere other than in your inbox, so it’s not staring out at you for the next few miserable mornings as your damp cornflakes slap onto your keyboard. When you’ve calmed down, read the email again, process it and adjust your manuscript accordingly. Send it to an editor too – you might think that’s a waste of money, but the fact that anyone has requested your full means that there’s some magic to it. An editor could be just the genie you need.

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5. When the reply doesn’t contain any feedback, write back saying you’d welcome some.

Most agents will be more than happy to give you their thoughts. Don’t expect compliments. Do expect constructive criticism.

6. When an agent reads a full, and asks for a second read once you’ve made changes, definitely send it back to her.

Once you’ve made changes, you could send out more submissions too – to up to eight agents at a time – after all, by the time your MS has risen to the top of the slush pile, your almost-agent might have signed or rejected you anyway. Alternatively, you could stop sending your book out. But remember, this is limbo land – an exciting yet anxiety-ridden place. Do whatever feels right for you. But whatever you do, eat scones, don’t cyber- stalk, and keep writing.

How to Stay Sane When Submitting Your Novel

How NOT to lose the plot when submitting your book

Recently literary agent Juliet Mushens suggested in a Tweet that it’s a good idea to submit to eight to ten agents at a time rather than blanket submitting. Brilliant advice, I reckon. If your book’s got some kind of magic to it, you might just get some agent feedback. Even if the book gets rejected, you could still come away more clued-up about what’s not right with it, bruised ego aside. You might then choose to rework it before submitting to other agents.

A few months ago, I got a request for the full manuscript of my second book. Ultimately the agent turned it down saying she didn’t find the characters likeable enough and she wasn’t sure what was driving the story. I’ve stopped sending it out and am halfway through a rewrite. I think the characters are more sympathetic now, with meatier back stories; I might just have a better book on my hands.

 

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That brings me back to my first book. I had some encouraging agent interest in it two months ago and ended up rewriting it. The book is stronger now and I’ve sent the first three chapters to several agents. So here’s how to hold onto your sanity while waiting for a reply.

1. Don’t refresh your email account every five minutes.

Turn it off. Turn off social media too. Do not allow yourself to look at the Twitter accounts of the eight agents on your list. God, she’s reading Goddamn Marlon James when she should be reading my MS…. Look away. Log off. Go and do something less boring instead.

2. Don’t be tempted to send out to more than ten agents at a time.

Remember, you might just learn something. So you’ve written the whole thing in patois and the agent who loved your concept absolutely hated the Gads instead of Gods, the me sandals instead of my sandals. Okay, admittedly there might be those of you who love that kind of thang (sic), but if more than one agent says it doesn’t work, it could be time to take notice. If after the first few submissions, you learn two things about how to improve your book, you’ll be well pleased you didn’t do multiple submissions.

3. Do not delete the rejection emails.

Your lips may bulge with that silent F, so let them, but do not let your fingers smash that delete box. It’s very useful to keep a log of who’s rejected you. That doesn’t mean you can’t contact them again when the book is better, or when you’ve penned your second masterpiece. And just because you’ve got a rejection from one person at a big agency doesn’t mean to say someone else at that agency won’t fall in love with your writing. Also, think about how much fun it’s going to be counting up all those rejection letters when you’re finally published. Yeah, put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mrs/Mr ‘I’m going to pass….’

4. When an agent asks to see the full manuscript, don’t stand in front of the mirror practising what you’re going to say if she/he offers you representation.

‘I’d just like to thank my husband for his attention to apostrophes, my friend Jill who was there from the start….’ Waste of time! Chances are you might have a long wait for representation, so instead of risking your family banging on the bathroom door – ‘Is everything alright in there?’ – just get back to writing, or reading, or thinking up new ideas. Preferably all three.

5. Do not put your writing on hold.

If anything write more. Discarding all of the above, this is one thing I have managed to do. I’ve always got a short story on the go. Just write something, anything, write rubbish then rework it, edit it, perfect it. For me, short stories silence the self-doubt. I love them. They’re a rejection letter quick fix. So keeeeeeep writing!

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6. Do not burn your book.

So you’ve now got 30 rejections in the bag, but don’t start carping. ‘That’s it, I’m finished.’ Last year an agent who I met at a literary event talked about how a novelist’s first novel often becomes her second or third published novel. And since I know a couple of best-selling authors, I can vouch for that. Keep searching for ideas, maybe even start book two. Keep trying. Things can only get better, right?

Is Your Novel Ready To Submit?

I thought I knew the answer to this question. I’d written and rewritten my first book, given the thing to friends to read, gone back to it and changed bits. And then I’d sent it off to agents, in full book deal fantasy mode.

I’ve probably submitted about 30 times in all, but each of those submissions was flawed. A central character lacked depth, another character wasn’t as funny as she should have been. You know the drill.

And so the rejection letters stacked up, sometimes with reasons: ‘it’s not enough to stand out in today’s overcrowded fiction market.’ Oh yeah? ‘I didn’t fall in love with it.’ Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then something fortuitous happened, a gem of a thing. An agent read through half of it. She loved my concept, my writing, but the characters’ voices just weren’t strong enough, she thought. I know it’s all subjective, but the thing is, I agreed. All my editing had turned the characters into papery beings, people on the wrong side of dull.

Me old novel!

Me old novel!

I started over. I didn’t write it chapter by chronological chapter. I wrote one character in her entirety in one file, another character in another file and so on – that helped me to discover each character and give them a distinct voice. I then fitted the novel back together with its brand new plot and a completely different ending.

I’ve edited it, and given it to one person to read – he loved it. Another friend has started reading and is two chapters in. As it stands, my book is the best it can be at this moment in time. The characters are strong (I think, but then I’ve thought that before), the plot line has drive, (but then I’ve thought that before too).

So is it ready to send out? One more proofread and yes, I think it is. Cue fantasy mode again.

But the beauty of starting over is this: I’m hoping that this new book has all the magic of the original draft of my first book before it got ironed flat by edits.

Writing Competitions – Why Bother?

It’s there in black and white, the longlist and your name’s not on it. The disappointment sinks you. That voice starts nagging at your ear. ‘You’re fooling yourself about this writing malarkey; you must be, else you’d be up there too.’

Somehow you manage to scrape your fried-egg-ego off the floor and force yourself to start typing something new.

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Why do we do it, eh? Why do we waste 8 quid, 10 quid, sometimes 25 quid when, with more and more people entering writing competitions, we stand such a miniscule chance of being one of the chosen few.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence – what writer hasn’t? – but getting placed in this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Competition was just the way to do it, I reckon. Enter the story then completely forget about the date that the results are revealed. I found out that my story Antelope had made the final 19 when another writer Tweeted me to tell me.

That’s so rarely the way it happens, right? I mean, how can you score through a date that’s so firmly etched into your brain?

So when the big day arrives and you discover your name’s not on the longlist, resist the urge to whack yourself over the head with a saucepan for not being quite good enough. Maybe you are, but if your work doesn’t strike a chord with the early readers in competitions, you’re out. Maybe you almost got through – who knows? – or maybe you just don’t have the same writing tastes as the judges.

Case in point – last year I was lucky enough to be in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist. Here’s a confession – I entered the same story, albeit a much shorter version, into the Yeovil Prize, and it wasn’t even placed. Even though, I like that story so much better than the one which Yeovil commended me for back in 2013.

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It’s all about your audience. So this year, right back at you, Yeovil; I’m hitting you with something new.

In fact, I’ve got that many short stories up my sleeve now, I’ve got one for every UK competition that’s going. Only I’m not going to enter everything – there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take.

So why bother entering anything at all – because being placed occasionally really does help to silence your own self-doubt, for a while at least. And it’s a small voice of encouragement that you might just be doing something right.

What NOT to do when a literary agent reads your book

Three years ago, I finished my first book, The Maid’s Room. I entered it into a competition and although it didn’t win, it was among the final three on the shortlist. A literary agent liked it enough to meet me and ran through the things I should change. One thing I needed to do was big up one of my main characters.

I patted and shaped, tore the book to pieces and put it back together again. And in the middle of all this, I ended up on the shortlist of another major competition. Yes, I clenched my fists and jumped up and down. This is it: signing with an agent, here I come. Except, it didn’t quite go like that.

The agent enjoyed the first half of The Maid’s Room, but didn’t fall in love with it. Oh I admit it, I snivelled.

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But not for long. The next day, I started my second novel and spent three months bashing away at the keyboard until it was finished. (It’s now in the polishing stages.)

Something unexpected happened then. I started to think about The Maid’s Room. I tried not to, I really did, but there it was – with its underground car parks, its jackfruit and its rambutans. There it was, with its slums and sand clogged with hair. I could see suddenly how everything in the story connected. I hadn’t seen it back then when I’d been so close to landing an agent. When she’d asked me to rewrite a third of the book and give that character new life, what I’d done was create someone flat and unbelievable, someone dull, not the feisty and clever and tactless woman she is now, not the woman with three dimensions instead of just two. Worse than that though, I’d written the whole damn soul out of the book.

Well, now, I’ve put the soul back in. I’m proud of it, really proud, in a way that I wasn’t before. Best make a start on sending it out then……

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Dusting Down

Time to regroup. I’ve written the first book, rewritten it, rewritten it again, and still don’t have an agent. I do, however, have several rejection letters – ranging from the nice, ‘You really are a talented writer,’ to the, actually-not-that-cutting, ‘I haven’t fallen in love with your book in the way that I wanted to.’

So do I carry on sending the first book out?  ‘Cooee, look at me – I’ve been shortlisted in a few things.’ ‘I can write, you know; I’m a journalist.’ Or do I give up searching for an agent and try to self-publish?

Perhaps I would, were it not for what takes hold after an agent tells me my book wasn’t for them. I kick harder, work harder and have a bloody good laugh at my friends’ indignation on my behalf.

And that approach seems to be working. I felt flat when a piece of my work wasn’t longlisted in a competition earlier this year. But I dusted myself down and poured thoughts into a new story about the tea industry in Africa.

The result? I’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize and my story is to be published in the anthology in October. Gulp. A real book, with an ISBN number and everything – that’ll also be available to buy on Kindle.

And my first novel? Well, self-publishing, finding an agent can wait. Because the fight is back in full force. I am deep into writing my second novel. 52,739 words in, to be precise. I’m using all that I learnt in writing the first book and this one’s flowing – the characters, the terrible central dilemma. I’ve made a deal with myself: The first draft by the end of December.

And maybe, just maybe, someone might fall in love.