(H.M. Brock, detail of illustration to Mansfield Park, published by Dent in 1898, found here; this is what I look like when writing at my elegant escritoire)
A while ago I wrote that I had written a children’s novel – well, the first draft of one. Since then I have completely rewritten it once, typed it up with some revisions, revised it a further two or three times, to be honest I’ve forgotten how many, and grown to hate it. I have even started working on a sequel.
My original plan had been an experiment: could I write a novel rather than just giving up? As I worked on it, had flashes of excitement, enjoyed it, hated it and avoided having anything to do with it, I grew a bit more ambitious. What if it were worth publishing? The trouble is, I genuinely have no idea. I have never been any good at judging my own work – at school I would leave every exam glum and convinced I had failed, whether my result turned out to be a C or an A; I could not tell the difference in my performance. Was my book an A-grade book or a F-grade?
Feedback was of course required. I read it to my daughter yes yes she is biased and hates hurting people’s feelings, but she is an actual child. She told me she liked it but it would be better if the main character were called Astrid and she added that her favourite bits were the bits with the cats.
Then, I don’t quite know what possessed me, but I wrote an outline and submitted the book to two agents. I didn’t honestly think that they would dance about with excitement and offer to represent me, but I wanted to see if the first three chapters and the outline were interesting enough for them to ask to see the full book, and then I might perhaps get some ideas from them on how to improve my work. (Now I type that on the screen I realise how entitled that looks: agents! Please devote your time and energy to teaching me how to write a novel!)
Unsurprisingly, one agent has never replied (their site warnw that after eight weeks you should assume that they’re not interested); another replied very promptly to say it wasn’t for them. No feedback, although the second agent did send some useful links for companies specialising in editorial services and a forum where writers can give feedback on each other’s work. (The second agent also noted that they receive thousands of submissions every year and only request the full manuscript on a handful of occasions; this was both heartening and depressing.)
Friends, I felt downcast. Like many people who were moderately good at writing stories as a child, I dreamt of being a writer but put the idea out of my head as I grew older. I studied English Literature at university and if you’re spending all your time reading Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare it’s hard to believe that you have anything to say that’s worth the tree deaths. (But this is silly: every age needs their writers and their stories.) I had told myself that writing was for other, special people to do, not people like me. Now I felt as if my dream were dying a second time.
And then I remembered that pretty much all the writing advice I’ve ever seen has stipulated: persevere. Keep learning and keep on trying. I spent a chunk of Friday reading about writers who persevered for years and years and received hundreds of rejections before they finally succeeded in getting published. Some wrote three – three! – long novels which still languish somewhere in a bottom drawer before they produced anything publishable. And I also read some of the comments on the writers’ forum in which people said that they would always carry on writing whether they were published or not, because they enjoyed it.
I realised that I had indeed been extraordinarily arrogant in assuming the first book-length piece of writing I churned out – in fact, the only piece of fiction I had written since I was a teenager – would be good enough to publish or be read by any but my nearest and dearest. All of these writers had devoted many hours, years even, of their lives to honing their craft, analysing their own and others’ work, pushing themselves. Some had attended MA courses in creative writing, some hadn’t, but all of them had something valuable in common which I had not: they had taken their writing seriously, not as some sort of hobby. They were not amateurs in their mindset, as I had been.
On Friday, thus, I stood at a crossroads. I could either commit to my writing and say that this was worth doing, or I could give up and spend the time reading instead. I have to admit, the second option was pretty tempting: clearly I am not one of those people who would die if they weren’t writing, because for many years I have got on just fine without it. Or almost just fine: although writing fiction has been a struggle that hasn’t always been pleasant, it has given me something that nothing else in my life quite has.
Anyway, I decided to commit. Or to commit for a while anyway (no, I’m not very good at commitment!). The best next step would be to send my work to an editorial service – not that the book itself is necessarily salvageable, but I need to know its weaknesses and work on them, and I don’t seem very good at identifying them myself. However, commitment or no commitment I cannot afford to do this. I considered joining the writer’s forum but at the moment I feel a bit scared of them all. I think I’ll lurk for a bit and when I’m feeling braver I’ll sign up and offer some of them some feedback and then maybe post a bit of mine... Then, luckily, I remembered my mother! I know that it’s not a terribly good idea to ask your nearest and dearest for their opinions on your work, but my mother used to be an editor, and of children’s books, as it happens. This was a long time ago and tastes have changed, but still, she is smart and honest and I feel quite certain she will have some useful comments for me.
I may not be able to afford an editorial services or an MA in creative writing, but I can read some books about writing and educate myself. I have a couple already and have ordered a couple more. Maybe I’ll write about some of them here?
Meanwhile, another important piece of advice for new writers which I’ve read a lot is: put the book away and get on with something new. I am a bit stuck on the sequel and anyway, there doesn’t seem a great deal of point in killing myself over the sequel to a book no one may ever read (apart from my mum!) but I have lots of ideas for something completely different which I am excited about.
Why am I writing all of this here? Well, on Friday, reading what other writers had written about their failures as well as successes made an enormous difference to me; they probably are the one reason I haven’t given up (yet). And I have also learnt a lot from reading the posts and articles of writers both at the beginning of their careers and further on. I decided, therefore, that I would occasionally write a bit about my adventures in writing here on this blog. Whether I ultimately become a professional writer or give up, what happens to me might interest another writer and cheer them up on a dank Friday when they’re thinking about giving up. And it might perk this blog up a bit...