I thought I might write about how I got to this point. Where someone actually said they would publish my novel.
I know, from talking to lots of people, that so many want to write or feel they have a book in them. I know a number of people who have tried many times to get the attention of an agent. Here’s how it went for me. I’m mostly an English teacher and I read all the time. Three books a week sometimes. Does this confer on me the ability to write a fine novel? Well, ummm, no. (I will return to this in future posts.)
A year ago, on days when I had some childcare and when I had some gaps between lessons (as GCSE and A level classes fell away in exam season), I started to write. I’d written as a freelance journalist before and I’d written a couple of self published texts; one was a kitchen diary (that ran out of steam!) and the other the result of a sponsored short story marathon. Good practice, I suppose. But this new project was different. It held me in a a hot fury: I had this story I wanted to tell. It was based on my own life and experiences. Not that I thought I was a particularly interesting individual, but I did have a notion that the story of how an individual, Annie, manages adversity and mental illness with a host of imaginary friends (including Albert Camus, Dolly Parton and Frieda – the brunette one from Abba) and creates an alter ego, Hapless Annie, whom she later has to squish…..might provide an intriguing tale. I also wondered if a number of experiences I could delineate might be, shall we say, unusual.
So I wrote. In a great big splurge. Between lessons; when everyone had gone to bed: sometimes I hid in the shed and sometimes I wore earplugs and bribed the kids with refined sugar. After a few months I had 60,000 words. I edited. I thought I was writing a memoir at this stage, so I entered it for ‘Mslexia”s memoir competition and wasn’t placed. I cried a lot. Told myself the book was rubbish and put it away. Then I decided that there was fire in this Celt, so sat up straight and re-wrote. I began to see its flaws more clearly. Re-wrote. Read the many words of all those who had been repeatedly rejected by agents; of those famous and not so: folks who sat on slush piles for years. I sent my work to three agents. One wrote back. I cried again.
I heard about Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and decided this was a good place to start. They looked at a sample of the ms and told me there was a lot to like, so I approached this discussion as if it were the beginning of an editing or creative writing course and went for a full ms review. It was to be part of study, for me. My work with them provided the turning point and my editor was the wonderful, warm and supportive ‘Chick Noir’, creative writing, non fiction and editing specialist, Alison Taft. She was clever, insightful and so kind to me, but she was also teaching me, being frank about what perhaps didn’t work – the bits which were so complex as to be befuddling; where it was not entirely clear who the protagonist was; those sections where there was too much that was passive when it should be active – and what might.
I went on to combine what I was learning from Alison with the self editing material Cornerstones gave me. Within a few weeks, I’d had a substantial ms report, a long conversation and a sense that I was getting somewhere. I did a big re-write and also tweaked it to fiction (which had been a thought since my earliest conversation with Cornerstones) because it gave me a little more artistic licence, allowed me to make more of the most intriguing situations in the book and, to be blunt, gave me a more marketable book: memoirs are extremely hard to sell as an unknown.
I considered my next move.
I got a subscription to ‘Mslexia‘ magazine; saw the lovely Joanna Barnard talk at the Bath Literary festival (then read words of encouragement on her blog), listened to the agent Juliet Mushens at the same event, read this by Juliet…
….and thought, ‘I think I am really learning things now.’
I entered the Bath novel competition. I wasn’t placed. First thought was, ‘That’s because my book is rubbish.’ I was sitting in a car wash at the time. As you often are. I also reflected on how I’d been told so often, growing up, that I was rubbish and that this was part of my internal narrative. But frankly, I’d had enough of it (by now, the NHS had given me permission to have had enough of it) and I thought, ‘By the time I get out from under the blower, I’m going to have changed my mood. And I’m not going to give up. This is only the beginning. And if I can’t place this book, I will write another one.’ It was a bit like CBT (not that this had worked on me – actually: you can see that through Annie in the book), but for nascent authors. In a car wash. Then, I was laughing, the sky hadn’t fallen in and I’d decided I needed to have another go. The car looked pretty good, though the back wiper had now been torn off by the bristles. This might have been a metaphor. I see metaphor in everything.
I had read that Jessie Burton’s stunning debut, The Miniaturist, had sat on slush piles. I knew from Joanna Barnard’s blog that many a year had passed between the beginning of Precocious and publication – that she had considered whether entering the Bath Novel competition might be a last move before putting away the ms. Hmmmm. I wasn’t aiming to be a big author. But I felt – in a truly passionate way – that there were stories I absolutely had to tell. Just had to tell. I couldn’t not. Reading elsewhere, this seemed to be a good sign. Anthony Horowitz said so!
I went home and read Francine’s Prose’s Reading like a Writer. It was an extraordinary book. Here, said she, are your teachers. She introduced me to or reacquainted me with a myriad fine authors. Look in these books – this is how you learn. I rewrote some more.
I went home and read my new copy of ‘Mslexia’ magazine and I decided to try something new, which was to contact an independent press. The magazine was my starting point for information about this; it was full of encouragement and ideas: here was one now. Try contacting an Independent press. I had been learning about such a thing: a small publisher. That something is small, I had concurred, does not necessarily mean it is endowed with less. I looked around and did some finding out and discovered something and somebody I really liked. But would they like me?
I wrote to Patrician Press, a small and vibrant publisher, which produces fine books that are also (does this sound old fashioned?) the most beautiful objects. I had written a funny, quirky book; a black comedy, with some stark and potentially shocking content. I wanted to entertain, but I also had a sense of vocation tied up with this book: I thought, ‘I survived. It was unorthodox, but I’ve done it. How would it be if others could read this book and feel encouraged? Is it even possible that this book could be useful for someone who is a health professional, with its accounts of therapy and response? As a sort of book a bibliotherapist might mention: “Look, here is an example of how someone has been comforted and restored by reading – by words?”‘ Patrician Press responded warmly to the book, even seeing immediately that an important part of it was, as I said, ‘..as a paean to the NHS!’ And I suppose my book didn’t sit so comfortably in a genre: it was important, as Alison Taft had counselled me, to find the right person for this one.
And so here I am. Now, I work about twenty five hours a week. I have a lot of other commitments. I’ve three boys, aged four to thirteen – and I’ve spent big chunks of my of my life at least partially scuppered by mental illness. It isn’t theoretically possible that I should have time, energy – or perhaps even faith enough to write a book. Except I just did. And It’s coming out in 2016. I’ve even asked two people prominent in mental health journalism and in psychiatry to write the foreword. I gather I might be a bit naive, because apparently that doesn’t usually happen if you’re, you know, a rookie like me.
And so if you have a story you must, absolutely must tell, start writing and when you feel discouraged, get back up and scribe. xxxx