This is a reworking of an earlier piece; it had been edited for an online magazine. The idea of the voices is an important one. And I’m very familiar with voices, but for the full cast, you’ll have to read Killing Hapless Annie to see what got said and by whom….
‘You? You write a book. How could you do that? That is for other folk.’
Now this: this is what I learned to say, ‘Boo!’ to.
A year ago, in little gaps I carved out, I began. I’d written as a freelance journalist before and done a couple of self published texts: good practice, I suppose. But this new project was different for it held me in a hot fury. The story 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 from Abba – and creates an alter ego whom she later has to squish […] might provide an intriguing tale. I wondered if a number of experiences I could delineate might be unusual; diverting.
So I wrote. In a great big splurge. When everyone had gone to bed: sometimes I hid in the shed, wore earplugs and bribed the kids with refined sugar. After a few months I had 65,000 words. 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, telling myself that the book was rubbish; look: here was proof. But then there was fire in this Celt, who sat up straight and re-wrote, beginning to see its flaws more clearly. Online, I read the many words of 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; the other two never responded. I cried again.
I heard about Cornerstones Literary Consultancy – a group of publishing, editing and writing professionals who help guide and refine your work; they looked at a sample of the ms and told me there was a lot to like. I approached my time with them as if it were an editing or creative writing course and went for a full ms review. This proved a turning point and my editor was the wonderfully supportive ‘Chick Noir’ novelist and editing specialist, Alison Taft. She was insightful and so kind to me, but she was also being frank about what didn’t work – the bits which were so complex as to be befuddling; where it was not clear who the protagonist was; those sections where there was too much passive and not enough active: she also gave me some ideas about what might work. I combined what I was learning from Alison with the self editing material from Cornerstones, studied my substantial ms report, had a long conversation and got a sense that I was getting somewhere. I did a big re-write and also tweaked it to fiction, because that allowed me to make more of the most intriguing situations in the book and, frankly, gave me a more marketable book: memoirs are extremely hard to sell as an unknown.
I entered the Bath Novel competition and wasn’t placed. First thought was, ‘That’s proof your book is rubbish.’ I was sitting in a car wash at the time. As you often are when you get email or text dumped. But I reflected on how I’d been told so often, growing up, that I was rubbish and that this was part of my internal narrative. It was connected with the periods of illness I’d had from early childhood onwards and, frankly, I’d had enough of it now. I dared, ‘By the time I get out from under the blower, I will change my mood: I’m not going to give up. This is the beginning: if I can’t place this book, I will write another.’ Whoah: with my background, telling myself what I did took everything I had, but now 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.
At home was Francine’s Prose’s Reading like a Writer. Here, said she, are your teachers. Look in these books – this is how you learn. I rewrote some more. I also got a subscription to ‘Mslexia’ magazine; it was full of ideas, such as ‘Try contacting an Independent press’. So, I wrote to Patrician Press, a vibrant publisher, which produces fine books that are also the most beautiful objects. I had written a black comedy, with some stark, potentially shocking content. I wanted to entertain, but also had a sense of vocation tied up with this book: the protagonist survived; it was unorthodox, but she did it. Could others read this book and feel consoled? Might the book be useful for a health professional, with its accounts of therapy and response? Look, here is an example of how someone has been restored by reading – by words? Patrician Press responded warmly. I knew the book didn’t sit so comfortably in a genre: so it was important, as Alison Taft had counselled me, to find the right person for this one. It felt like I had.
And so here I am. Now, I teach and run a business, I have a lot of other commitments. I’ve three young sons – and I’ve spent chunks of my life scuppered by mental illness. When would I have time? Well, I should like to say this: if you have a story you must, absolutely must tell, start writing and when you feel discouraged, get back up and scribe.
And when the voices come, don’t forget to say, ‘Boo!’