Just been Rejected by a Literary Agent? Keep the Faith . . . #writing #novels

I just pulled Stephen King’s On Writing off my book shelf. The shelf that’s only for my best books – the ones that inspire me to write.

I opened it up  and looked down at all the sentences I’d underlined. Here’s one:

‘You should have an agent, and if your work is saleable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t saleable, as long as it shows promise.’

Er, really, Stephen? Yes, I suspect there are writers who haven’t even finished the first draft of their books, and have still managed to get signed by an agent, but King makes it sound like a breeze, and let’s face it, for most of us it’s not.

If you’ve just opened a rejection email from an agent, you’ll probably be feeling a bit bruised. And the likelihood is that you might just have to read a few more of these before you find an agent who’s right for you.

It’s been a year since my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton took me on. Thanks to her, my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, and rights have been sold in four other territories.

But it took me years to get signed by Rowan. YEARS. My heart used drop into my shoes every time an email from an agent landed in my inbox. I’d curl my lip and say ‘Oh God!’ very loudly indeed. And that was even before I’d read the ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Invariably that email would ruin my day.

But the thing about putting yourself through all of this, is that if you take note, it can make your book better – I don’t mean the bog standard email rejections (they don’t offer you anything) but the ones where an agent has taken the time to point out things they liked about your book, and the things that they didn’t. Mull over, chuck bits away, rewrite. Let other people read it. When it’s the best you think it can be, find a good editor if you can afford one. And know this – as the rejection letters stack up, there might just be a genie lurking among them.

Rowan rejected an early novel of mine a few years ago. (Yes reader I kept the email.) Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the first time and decided to go to the awards ceremony. (Do go,  2017 shortlisted writers; it’s fantastic.) Rowan was one of the judges that year and I ended up talking to her for quite a while. It was then that I realised that we got on really well, plus I loved her ideas about books. I could have chatted to her for hours.

So I kept on trying, kept changing and tweaking, and occasionally even got a bit hopeful. And finally, my biggest, happiest, most wonderful turning point arrived – and Rowan signed me. (Cue chin wobbling, and an enormous amount of gushy thank you’s). But that moment only arrived when the book was in a much more presentable state than it had ever been.

If you’ve had a rejection letter today, I hope this post might inspire you to keep going. Keep the faith and keep writing because getting your book published really can happen.

Have You Got More Than One Story in You? #writing

Suffering from a major book hangover after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I started a new book in a grouchy, this’ll-never-match-up kind of mood. My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t disappoint in the end, but it’s this line that has made a dent in me.

‘“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

Do you have only one story? I think I might be guilty…

All my short stories, my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, and my second novel have things in common. Overseas settings. Tick. Writing about outsiders. Tick. And something else – all of them are an examination of the relationship between mothers and their children. I don’t just mean between the woman who gives birth and her offspring; I write about women who can’t give birth, the women who don’t want to, the connections they forge with other people which are just as deep and unbreakable as the ones they might have had with sons and daughters. I write about absent mothers, about father figures, about any parental set-up that isn’t 2.4 kids.

I’ve got an idea for a third book and it will be extremely difficult to pull off. Indeed I’ve told a couple of friends about it, and they’ve advised me to steer clear. Yet it’s an idea that I can’t stop thinking about, so perhaps it’s the one to go with. And yes – that too is about a mother and child.

For me, Elizabeth Strout is dead on – I am writing my story in many different configurations.

I once wrote a novel (I can’t even bring myself to say the title now, it was that pretentious) about an oil rig worker. I spent about a year on it, reworking it, and telling myself that this was the one that was going to get me an agent. It didn’t. It did have it’s moments, but it was the most deluded piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was also the only time in the six and a half years that I’ve been writing fiction that I veered off my parental obsession. When I gave it to my husband to read, he fell asleep on the sofa with the pages fanned over his face. That will be the last time I write about oil rig workers.

So I’m going to stop berating myself about having a single story now. I feel like the brilliant Elizabeth Strout has given me permission.

Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.

Digging Deep for the Second Draft #novel #writing

This next bit’s going to be painful, but it’s my favourite part. I’ve written the first draft of my novel, and am about to embark on my second.

This is when the characters will take shape, but for that to happen, I’m going to have to get into their heads and feel what they’re feeling. Flinging yourself over a six-foot-high wall to save someone’s life? I’m in. Finding out your husband’s told you a huge lie? Yep – here I come.

Switch on FaceTime by mistake in the middle of this draft and I’ll see my own brow knitted, or my lip curled into a snarl. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s essential.

This is method acting for writers. I’m going to be a 43-year-old woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, an Italian man who’s a cross between Benicio del Toro and my friend’s husband, and an elderly man paralysed down his left side.

I’m going to have to dig deep. Imagination, yes; a bad mood, most probably; yet another frown line, you bet. And masses of research.

This time around I’ll be rewriting and editing with this word on replay: Emotion. Emotion. Emotion.

Why This Writer Needs Other Writers

I spent the first half of last year being cross at my writing. It had taken me away from people and I was beginning to feel quite isolated.

Then something started to change – my writing began to bring connection, people who I could really hear, people who energised me.

It started when an agent put me in touch with an editor. Yeah, yeah – I know lots of us have been through this, and I was cynical but decided to take a leap of faith and pay for my novel to be edited. It was a wise choice. Editor, Sara Sarre, got my book, was enthusiastic about it. Her wisdom gave me a new spark. Suddenly I felt as if I wasn’t in this alone.

And it was a magical moment in June when literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My face hurt, my smile was that wide.

Writing has brought me new friends too. In November, I met up with a group of writers who I knew only through Twitter. I stood outside a restaurant in Covent Garden feeling nervous before I opened the door and sat down to lunch with seven complete strangers. It was one of the highlights of my year. Forget nothing conversations about the weather; here we talked openly about our fears, our hopes, our children. And oh how we laughed.

For a long time, I’d wanted to meet gifted writer Joanna Campbell whose work I admire. In December, I got my chance at the launch of her short story collection When Planets Slip Their Tracks. Her nuggets of wisdom have stayed with me. As has her book – it is so well observed and funny and I am enjoying it immensely.

I’m ending the year feeling grateful to my writing. It’s brought me some special personalities, people who have made my life better with their thoughts and funny asides. I’ll be holed up in the writer’s cave again throughout 2017, but I intend to make regular escapes to talk about it all.

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How to Start Writing a Novel – The First Steps to a First Draft

I’m three weeks into writing my new novel. It had been so long since I wrote a first draft that I’d forgotten just how difficult it is.

For starters, there was blank page syndrome. That sickly feeling when you see your computer lurking on your desk, and all those things you do to avoid sitting in front of it. Gardening in sub-zero temperatures anyone?

My first few paragraphs didn’t have an easy birth, beset by distractions. Copious cups of tea were made. Toast was burnt. And oh, what the hell, just one more look at my emails.

Then, falteringly, somehow I hit 31,000 words. 31,000 rough words that I wouldn’t want anyone to read just yet. But still….

For me – starting is the hardest part. And in starting, it all came back to me. So here are three steps that have kept me on the straight and narrow and stopped me staring aimlessly into space.

Step One: Make a Plan then Make Another One

I scribbled a rough plan of the whole book before I started to write. Once I’d started, the story began to take its own shape, so I tore up my plan and wrote a new one, detailing the dramatic peaks of the story and the development of my characters. If I was an organised kind of person, I’d pin this new plan to the wall, but every time I start writing again, there’s a snowstorm of papers as I riffle through the mounds to find it. (Note to self – buy some Blu Tack.

Step Two: Research then Research Some More

I did a lot of research before I started to write -newspaper cuttings, lectures, speaking to an in-the-know friend. And I’ve punctuated my writing with doing yet more research. Reading about the subject at the centre  of my novel is helping to make the writing more authentic. It informs character development and sets off new ideas too.

Step Three: Write one Character at a Time then Rewrite and Repeat

My novel has two points of view, so I’ve started by writing one character in her entirety. That way, I might get more of a handle on her essence, on how she reacts to things, the way she speaks. She started off as a Victoria, transformed into a Kate and now she’s someone else entirely. Once I’ve finished writing her, I’ll rewrite her all over again hopefully turning her into a really strong character. Next it’ll be over to my second character. After that, I’ll start piecing their narratives together and work on pace.

Right, I’m going back in…..

 

5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.

6 Reasons Why I Stop Reading Novels

I give up on books if they’re too hardgoing. There was a time when I’d persevere. I did an English Literature degree and wouldn’t have got through Tristram Shandy or Ulysses without a bucketload of stoicism. But now I’m done with difficult.

My most recent read is a bestseller; copies of it are piled on tables all over Waterstones, and this is the worst part, someone recommended it to me – always a guilt inducer that, but 150 pages into it, I’m bailing out.

I have a short attention span. I’m easily bored. If a television series doesn’t suck me in from the get-go, I switch off. Conversations about the weather make me zone out, and as for books – there’s a pile of them that I’m taking to the local charity bookshop because they just didn’t do it for me. Page 150 is my benchmark. If nothing’s happened by then, count me gone.

Reading is an intensely personal thing, of course. One of my favourite authors, for instance, five-starred my latest abandoned read on Goodreads. And a close author friend of mine couldn’t stand one of my favourite books. But as I start writing another novel, I wanted to figure out why I give up reading certain books.

So here they are – six reasons why I end up a quitter

1 Lack of action

I need something to happen. Don’t get me wrong, I love patient books like Stoner, but if the book meanders without any sense of purpose, to me it’s the equivalent of downing a couple of diazepam – except that’d probably be slightly more enjoyable. Slow books make me grumpy. They make me say things like, ‘Christ, why won’t somebody die or something?’ If there’s no action, for the sake of my sanity, I just have to give up.

2 Dull characters

The most memorable books are ones with emotionally deep characters. I’m name dropping Olive Kitteridge all over the place at the moment. What a woman. I want to connect with a character. I don’t necessarily need to like her, but I do need to understand her. And if she or he makes me groan with boredom, well, it’s time to call it a day.

3 Outlandish plot

Weird shit happens, doesn’t it? Life is full of coincidences/ gifts from the gods – and I do like to stretch my imagination, but ask me to stretch it too far and my elastic tends to break. That’s probably why I’m not a massive fan of psychological thrillers, but then that’s just me. I like a fantastic story with a hint of truth to it.

4 Too many characters

When there’s a cast of characters so big that I have to jot them all down on a piece of paper, they quite often get diluted and dull because of it. A smaller cast with more emotional depth and I’m one happy page-turner.

5 Lacklustre voice

Sometimes I just don’t connect with the voice. Perhaps I find it a bit old-fashioned or riddled with cliche or maybe it’s trying to be too clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s chemistry – a voice just doesn’t jive with me.

6 Tension vacuum

I like a book with mood, a beautiful bit of description so we are know where we’re at (but not too much description or I’ll Zzzzzzz). Simplicity is key to begin with, a steady thickening of the plot. Oh, and make sure I know that the stakes are high, give me the sense that something’s at risk and I’ll stick around.

So 4,000 words into writing my new novel and I’m remembering just what a huge ask all of this is. But I’m up for the challenge. (Gets out INTO the Woods – How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke and furrows brow……

(Image courtesy of Unsplash)

4 Tips to Create Powerful Voices for your Characters

It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, a short or a full-length novel, voice is the lifeblood of your work. You might have all the elements of a great story – a dazzling twist, an arc to rival a rainbow – but if you haven’t got a voice that mesmerises, your story will be drowned out by dull.

I’m reading  Glorious Heresies at the moment – and the riotous voice is fair shaking me up and demanding I listen. It’s pushed me right into the mess that’s Maureen clobbering some bloke over the head with a holy stone and killing him.

A week ago, I polished off Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The voice of the flawed yet deeply loveable Olive is so believable, so sturdy that my race to read was slowed only by me underlining far too many sentences.

Mind you, just thinking about books like these can be really daunting while your characters-in-the-making are as quiet as the tele with the sound turned down.

Voice is hugely important, says writer Joanna Campbell. ‘If the theme is the hinge and the plot is the oil keeping it in smooth motion, it is the “voice” which opens the door.’

When writing, Joanna lets the character call the shots and write the story for her. ‘I never plan ahead anymore or work out a plot. On the occasions I have tried to do so, the story has rarely succeeded.’

But how the heck do you find your character’s voice? Here are four tips to jumpstart your search.

1. Scribble some character details

Get yourself started by writing stream of consciousness details about your character. Is she a good sleeper? How does she take her tea? What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to her? Whose calls does she ignore? What gets on her nerves most? You’re getting closer…. Now off that mute button and have a stab at making her speak.

2. Do some research

That voice is playing silly devils and isn’t arriving on the page? Do some research around your story. So it’s about a woman who finds out she was snatched from her birth mother while still a baby -assemble some comparable real-life stories. Reading them might just coax your character into conversation.

3. Start typing and see what happens

Does the voice sound real and right to you? If not, regroup and try again. Words aren’t wasted, they just bring you closer to the characters waiting in the wings of your mind. Writing’s full of false starts after all. When I wrote my Bristol Prize story Black Lines about a Honduran boy crossing the US/Mexico border, I originally wrote my first page as a gay male teenager. 500 words in, it became apparent to me, the lad needed to be a lot younger. I started writing again and this time he spoke right into my typing fingers.

4. Shift the perspective

I’d been having a love affair with first person for years. Working as a writer for women’s weekly mags, I’d interview people with all manner of stories and write them up in first person. God, how I loved it. What I didn’t love so much was reading it back to the interviewees. The woman who’d answered yes and no to most of my questions read like Homerton’s answer to Barbara blooming Cartland. But still, first person and me, we prevailed. It’s always my first port of call with short stories. And then my novel happened. First person was trapping me in the characters’ heads; I’d ended up using their thoughts to steer the reader instead of showing action and writing dialogue. Rewriting the whole thing in third person has made the novel punchier and more powerful.

I’ve been playing a long game of hide and seek with the voices of the characters in my novel, but at last I’ve found them. And now it’s time to start creating another cast for my new novel; back to step 3 then…..

 

 

Trying to Write Like Your Favourite Author? Just DON’T do it

I tried quite hard to be Evie Wyld for a while. Instead of becoming a contender for the Betty Trask Award, what I ended up with was the sleepy novel equivalent of downing half a bottle of whisky with your Nytol. In a word, it was crap.

The husband falling asleep with an early draft of it on top of his face, and a successful novelist friend of mine saying, ‘The thing is, I really preferred your other book,’ failed to convince me that something was wrong. I carried on buffeting my female protagonist with dramatic gale-force winds and filling my hero’s mouth with histrionic piffle.

But finally I realised why, when I spoke about that book, all my friends tried to change the subject, and I went back to book one – the one set in motion by reading a Maggie O’Farrell book. The one that had ground to a halt because it wasn’t quite Maggie O’Farrell enough.

I ripped the whole thing up and started again and this time my head didn’t scream. ‘For God’s sake, it’s a lesser Anita Shreve.’ The words, ‘You’re not good enough to be the next Kate Atkinson’ didn’t repeat like a CD with a scratch down its centre. No, I just wrote.

Somewhere along the line, I’d shaken off the need to try and be a writer other than myself, and I ended up writing my heart across 330 pages. I think I might just have found my own writing style now. It can take years to find it, but let’s be honest, even when you do find it, it’s a slippery thing. Sometimes it turns up to do the hours; other times it slides through your fingers.

My short story collection this year is a case in point. It’s been a neglected thing – what with trying to find an agent and all – but I did complete two shorts. One didn’t work out – I loved the concept and the twist, but the voice was too weak, too damn depressing. And my other story did work out, I guess. Sea Gift is a contender in this year’s Bristol Prize.

But the point is, writing without constraint, without thinking ‘I need to be as good as ……..[insert name of favourite author here], well, it’s full of possibilities and sometimes gleans grand results.

So as I stare at the blank page again – I’m about to start writing another book – I’m going to remind myself of this and take another gamble.