Thanks, but no thanks

I received two more email rejections of my SINGLED OUT submission this week.

thumbs downAs always, both literary agencies let me down gently and politely – but both were clearly standard format replies this time. One gets to tell the difference between the standard thanks but no thanks emails and the ones where someone has taken the trouble to insert a personal line or two. You can’t expect it, but it’s nice – even in a rejection – when someone adds a personal touch.

One of my standard email rejections advised:

“We receive over 300 manuscripts a week and can only take on a handful of new writers every year. The result is that we have to be incredibly selective, so please do not be too disheartened. Another agent may well feel differently.”

Over 300 manuscripts a week!

I think SINGLED OUT is a solid piece of work – it’s an original setting with distinctive characters and, even if I say so myself, a pretty decent plot. It’s gripping and grizzly in parts and laid-back and sunny in other parts. Perhaps that’s a fault, but if it is, no one has yet homed in on it. It’s not perfect, but that’s because it’s my first attempt at a novel. It’s as good as my (lack of) experience can make it, and I imagine I’ll find I can do better with subsequent manuscripts, given how much I’ve learned through writing this one.

The question for me is, is it good enough to rise to the top of a pile of 300 manuscripts in one week, let alone an annual pile of over 15,000 manuscripts. Is SINGLED OUT good enough, original enough, compelling enough, well-written enough… to rise to the top 5 or 6 in a pile of, what… 15,000 on any literary agent’s desk? Even I have to admit, this seems slightly more unlikely than winning the lottery jackpot whilst being simultaneously struck by lightning – and a meteorite.

I’ve blogged before here about whether I should simply chalk it up to experience and bottom-drawer SINGLED OUT before moving on to the next. But with so many other options available to today’s authors, struggling for recognition through traditional publishing avenues, would it be a waste, simply to bury it?

In truth, I’m coming round to the idea of self-publishing…

When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

What will they think of me?

Do you ever worry what people close to you might think of you if you write certain things into your novel? I do.

eye-catcher-74182-pixabayA few months ago I circulated Singled Out to a small group of Beta Readers. On returning with his feedback, one reader said, with a wry smile, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at you the same way again, Julie.’

I don’t think he meant anything by it – in his case it was more tongue-in-cheek. It’s just that Singled Out does contain a few shall we say, edgy moments and a bit of shall we say, earthy language, and I think they took him by… surprise. But that’s because I’ve chosen to write psychological rather than chick lit or aga saga; deadly nightshade, not sunbeams and butterflies.

His reaction though begged the question, will others who read this feel the same way and if they do, how do I feel about that? Readers who don’t know me will take it all at face value, since writers write about all sorts of things and readers buy what they enjoy. But what about friends and family? And for me, wearing a businesswoman’s hat as well as a writer’s hat, what about my professional marketing clients? Should I be concerned what they will make of it?

So yes, if not a worry, it is certainly a concern.

Pale faced, my Beta Reader went on to ask, in a way which suggested he might not actually want to know the answer, if I was writing from experience. I told him, I’d been on one or two singles holidays so, yes, I was writing from experience. ‘Not that’, he said. ‘The— oh, you know what I mean’.

Ah. Yes. But no. What he’s talking about, those edgier plot moments, it’s a No. I wasn’t writing from experience. It was all from imagination – well, almost all. Mostly. Anyway, I thanked him for his concern and told him he could stop worrying.

Of course one doesn’t have to experience things in order to write them into a story. I can describe a dead body without ever having seen one; a cocaine hit without ever having been near a gram of the stuff; a deviant sexual activity without ever having so deviated; or a grizzly crime without ever having been a victim of it – or a perpetrator for that matter. There are always people who know people who can help with credible detail and failing that, there’s a world of Googleknowledge to draw on. If writers couldn’t do this, there’d be far more dull and insipid novels around and far fewer murder mysteries, heart-stopping thrillers and psycho-dramas.

But whether I’m writing wholly or partially or not at all from experience, I chose to write a gritty psychological story where bad stuff happens and the mood is at times raw and unsettling. Apart from anything else, I confess it’s weirdly fun to get out of my workaday existence and alter-ego this kind of material.

So if any clients, close friends or family are reading this – or in future if any clients, close friends or family read this novice writer’s first attempt at an unsettling psychological story – I hope you will all forgive the fact that I’ve taken a big step away from my comfortably suburban private life and my conscientiously professional business life and gone somewhere very different for my new writing life…

I just hope it doesn’t offend you, or disturb you, or make you look askance at me.

A Big Freshly Pressed Thank You

juicedI was lucky enough to be featured again on Freshly Pressed over the weekend – courtesy of my last blog post on Marmite Moments: Writing Good Sex.  So first off, it’s a big thank you to the Freshly Pressed crew for singling me out again. 

Getting Freshly Pressed gives a big boost to little blogs like mine.  Last time, I went from readership in single figures to over 1,400 hits in one day alone, and several hundred new subscribers.  This time, A Writer’s Notepad has seen around 1,200 hits since late Saturday night – and from the last time I know, that’s early days in terms of numbers. 

The biggest delight of all is that so many new people have joined the conversation, by commenting on this post and others.  It’s weirdly fun, to engage with people all over the world, from all sorts of perspectives, and simply share a few lines of comment, empathy or opinion in a warm and social environment.  It’s a bit like a bunch of friends settling down on the flumpy sofas at their favourite coffee house and having a chat – if that’s not too much of a raging cliché these days. 

So my other thank-you is to you.  If you’ve found my blog in the last few days and joined in by commenting, or just followed, or even just popped by to see what’s going on – I thank you! You are what makes blogging… fun.

In case you’re interested, I also have a Facebook author’s page – yes, budding authors can just about get away with this.  So if you’re a friend of Facebook, find your way there and ‘like’ if you will.  There’s a Twitter feed too – both are signposted in the right hand column.  It’s all about writing because that’s my passion. 

I hope you enjoy my novice writer’s journey, my writerly angst and the odd off-piste moment that finds its way on to the blog.  Don’t be shy either – it’s great to get comments and I read and respond to all.

Rise and Shine

scissors-editI have committed one of the cardinal sins of novel-writing.  It’s a trap which many neophyte novelists fall into, although when first I fell into it, I wasn’t aware of this.

My story begins with not just one, but two characters waking up.

Actually, that’s not entirely true.  My story begins with a prologue – albeit a short one, at around 350 words. But guess what? That’s another cardinal sin.

Never start your story with a prologue.  Or someone waking up.

I’m busted.

I wonder if these faux-pas explain the steady trickle of rejection emails. Each one is perfectly courteous and proclaims, using remarkably similar wording, that the agent in question does not feel passionate enough about my novel, to invest the time and effort required to launch a debut.  I understand. In a world where countless hopeful authors are chasing a finite and modest number of agents, my novel is not standing out.

But I wonder, is this because it has a prologue?  Is it because it starts with someone waking up?  Are those agents I’ve approached so far not getting past those two cardinal sins?  I don’t know whether they’re even reading beyond those first few pages.  Maybe, by the time my two characters have exited their respective hotel rooms and met in the corridor, I’ve already lost them.

For every rule there are exceptions.  One could list dozens of novels which begin with a prologue.  I’m reading one at the moment in fact, Dominion by C J Sansom.  I’ll bet there are dozens of novels which begin with a waking-up moment too. But if you’re a first-timer, a would-be, a novice… you break the rules at your peril.

You might argue I’m being naive, or misguided and put it down to my lack of experience, but I believe the wakey-uppy moment in Singled Out is important.  The reader learns things about both characters in those first few pages, including the roots of their respective frailties.  But perhaps it would go down better if I found a way to impart those essential attributes later in the narrative.

I want to keep the prologue, I’m afraid, but it’s so short I can’t believe that this alone would prompt the casting-aside of my manuscript. But if I get rid of the wake-up call and the early-riser breakfast, would it make Singled Out more buoyant?  Would this be enough to make it rise above the slush pile?

I don’t know if that’s the answer, whether it will bring agents flocking to my door (or popping up in my inbox at least). But I’m beginning to think, if I don’t try it, I might never know.

From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

How can this be?

Synopsis crisis 1Submissions to agents require that you send a sample of your novel.  Typically this is described as sample chapters (usually three) or 10,000 words.  Often you’re told to conclude your sample at a sensible end point, rather than get too hung up on precise word-count.

My novel, Singled Out, is divided into eight days (a one week holiday, see?).  Each day is divided into between 8 and 12 individual segments, each segment written from the point of view (POV) of one of three main characters.  I realise a day in this construction is too long to count as a chapter, but the individual segments are also too short.  Day One is around 12,000 words and to my mind marks a sensible end point – so that’s what I’ve been sending as my sample.  I figure if I’ve failed to excite an agent, it will be well before that 12,000 word mark and they’ll simply not read to the end.  If I’ve excited them, a few extra words are unlikely to put them off.  Hopefully.

However… one of the agents I’m currently keen to tempt with Singled Out specifies three chapters as the sample length, but then goes on to make the point that this limit should be strictly adhered to.  So yesterday, I was reviewing my sample document, to create a shorter version for this particular submission.

And on the first page – the very first page – I found a typo.

I know why this is.  This particular section has been in the past tense, then in the present tense, then in the past tense again (and perhaps even back and forth another couple of times – I forget). Somewhere in the transition from ‘He chose’ through ‘He chooses’ and back to ‘He chose’ again, I left a verb in the wrong tense.

I could have wept.

It seemed prudent, after approximately 20 minutes of swearing, cursing, throwing stuff around, stomping, stamping and kicking the cat (I lie – I don’t have one), to use the opportunity to review the whole sample segment, just in case anything else had slipped through in those first 10,000 words.  So I read it very, very slowly.  I found a few dozen more words I could do without, which was a plus.

But then I found another typo.

The error was not in a word, but in its absence – it was a missing word.  I’d probably read right through that invisible word two or three dozen times, failing and failing again, to notice its nonexistence.

Just in case you’re wondering how I’m dealing with this catastrophe of care and diligence, here it is. Yesterday evening I prowled my kitchen for comfort food. There wasn’t much, because I’m being very good lately; vegetables don’t even nearly qualify.  I managed to find three Rich Tea biscuits (stale), which I covered in butter and the dregs from a bottle of salted caramel sauce (Christmas leftover).  Thence to a restive night – I gave in to the TV and a repeat of The Jeremy Kyle Show at 5:15am. Today finds me curled up on the armchair in the corner of my office, rocking from side to side, cuddling a cushion and snivelling into a Kleenex.  It’s too early for alcohol, but I fear this may feature as the day advances.

By the way – there’s a lesson.  Now I understand what people mean when they say the final level of edit should actually be to read your novel backwards, word, by word, by word.

So am I a writer? (Part Two – the question of success)

writingmagcard0001Back in August 2011, I asked the question, ‘So am I a writer?’ here. That was when nobody – nobody at all – was reading my blog. I had scrawled the first (catastrophically rough as it now turns out) 45,000 words of my first ever first draft and written 3 unremarkable short stories, one of which has, astonishingly, been published.

Today, I have produced the completed manuscript of my first novel – that’s 97,000 words give or take – and I have the firm intention to get it out there one way or another.

In the intervening months whilst writing, editing and doggedly refining Singled Out, I’ve continued to earn my living as a business copywriter and marketer.  I deliver blog posts for my clients (for which I am paid); I deliver short promotional vignettes for my clients (for which I am paid); and I deliver a slew of output around sales propositions, products, thought leadership and product/service promotion (for which… yes… you got it). So I will, thank you very much, define myself, however cautiously, as ‘a writer’.   I write, therefore I am… a writer.

Moving on from this, today, a fellow blogger Eli Glasman at his fascinating blog here, gave me pause for thought on defining success or failure as a writer.  It gave me cause to reflect on whether I am – or ever will be – a successful writer.

Here were my thoughts on the matter, commenting on Eli’s blog:

What makes you or I a successful writer? Is it enough simply to write until something – anything – is complete? Must one produce multiple stories, or a novel, or more than one novel? Is it enough that your friends and family love what you write? Is it sufficient to self-publish? Or to be published by an independent? Or do you need the credibility of a mainstream publisher? Do you need sales in the several thousands to consider yourself successful? Do you need an occasional royalty cheque, payment for the odd short story? Is it enough to earn something – anything – from your writing? Or a proportion of your income – one-third, half perhaps? Do you need to be able to live on your writing income? Do you need to be an in-demand speaker at literary events? Would you have to have a place on the bestseller lists? Or a prize – Booker, Costa perhaps? Where does it end?

If you’re one of my writerly blog followers, have you ever considered what would make you classify yourself as a successful writer?  It’s a wholly subjective question.  And the inevitable follow-on question is this: If one isn’t – perhaps by one’s own definition – successful, does that mean one is an unsuccessful or even, heaven forfend, a failed writer?

I don’t believe so.  I might be successful on one level as my freelance work, which is largely writing, supports me.  On another level – in the field of fiction – I can’t own the word successfulYET.

I’m going to brand that perspective on the matter ‘success-in-waiting’.

2014: Two Goals – One Vision

Flowers language clicheI have two goals for 2014.  Many people will be all too familiar with Goal Number One – which is to shed (an unspecified number of) unwanted pounds, get fitter and eat more healthily. After several false starts over recent years, I don’t believe I should put it off any longer.  It’s time to begin to act consistently (ie, for more than 3 days at a time) in the interests of staying fit and well for a good many more years.   This, I’m sorry to say, doesn’t come naturally to me; so I’m linking it to my other goal, in the hope that a firm eye on this particular prize will help me stay the course with what is, for me, an undeniably challenging task.

Goal Number Two of course, is to find an agent and secure a publishing deal for Singled Out.   I’m more resolved than ever on this matter, as the final email I received on New Year’s Eve 2013, around 10pm yesterday evening, was my second rejection.  I experienced the initial lurch of excitement as I realised who it was had emailed me.  That’s a bit like getting an envelope in the post that you know is from the Premium Bonds, and until you open it and find out you’ve only won £25, you can dream it’s the jackpot.  It wasn’t the jackpot.  It was another perfectly polite and encouraging standard format rejection.  But I found myself quite content to receive it, as it came from one of those agents whose website says, ‘if you haven’t heard from us in 8 weeks, you can assume we’re not interested’. It was reassuring to be handled courteously and to be encouraged to try other agents.

So – getting fit and getting published – how do my two goals connect?  It’s in a single positive visualisation – something I’ve used on and off in life to help make the things I want to achieve more real and vivid and connect me on an emotional level with how much I want to achieve them.  I know it might seem a bit nuts and I confess I did get the idea from self-help guru Tony Robbins originally. But on occasion it’s served me well, so I make no apology.

Everyone should dream, no matter how far-fetched or remote their dreams may feel.  Mine feel to me to be tantalisingly attainable.  I hope I’m not being pretentious, sharing them with you.

I picture myself on the stage at a literary festival, maybe in an elegant public room, a small theatre, or a marquee, discussing my debut novel with an interviewer and reading excerpts to an audience.  In another version of the same, I see myself in a larger branch of Waterstones, seated at a table on which there are multiple copies of Singled Out.  In front of me is a gratifyingly lengthy queue of readers waiting for personally signed copies.  When I get going I can build these pictures into mini movies in my mind, imagining textures, colours and aromas; my choice of outfit, the refreshments on the table, the way the room has been dressed, the looks on the faces of the audience and more.   When you let yourself go, it’s fun to play with visualisations.

To properly relish the sense of achievement and success in these mini movies, I visualise myself as the best I can be – a worn-out, overweight and unhealthy version of me has no place in these pictures.  To enjoy the pleasure of my writerly efforts coming to fruition, I want to be full of energy and vitality and I want to look my best – that’s how I picture myself on that stage, or at that table.

And for that, I cannot afford to waste another moment. So before I get my head around the next few pages of the 2014 Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and get some more agent submissions out, I’m jumping on the treadmill.

Food, Glorious Food

iStock_000002093969_MediumI enjoyed writing a few gastronomic moments into my novel, Singled Out, which is set on a holiday in Turkey. Food allows you to explore all the senses and it can be a prism through which characters’ personalities and passions shine.  People gather together to eat, so food and mealtimes are opportunities for making connections and developing relationships between characters.  They can be made to linger over meals – creating episodes rich in sensory detail and dialogue, and loaded with cues and clues.

Below is a short foodie excerpt from Singled Out. I’d love to know what you think, and to hear how you use food in your own writing.

Mehmet and Defne brought baskets of steaming pide breads covered with napkins, to accompany the assortment of dips – creamy cacik, hummus and iman bageldi – on the table. They deposited platters of succulent tomato and feta salad drenched in olive oil, and saucers of black olives. The bread was pounced upon, ripped and shared. Brenda loaded her plate with dips and slices of tomato. She scraped a hunk of warm bread through the hummus and took a bite. It was sticky and grainy and the tang of garlic and fresh lemon flooded her mouth with saliva.

‘You’re enjoying that,’ said Turner, an inscrutable smile spreading across his features.

‘Indeed,’ said Brenda. ‘Good food, a warm evening—’

‘And great company,’ he added. ‘Here, try this.’ He held out a piece of bread loaded with the cacik – slivers of cucumber, crushed garlic and mint smothered in velvety yoghurt. Brenda reached out to take it with her hand but he pulled back.

‘Take a bite,’ he said, holding it out towards her mouth. ‘Go on. I want to watch you eat it.’ The corners of his mouth twitched.

As she parted her lips he slid the bread on to her tongue. The chilled yoghurt softened in the heat of her mouth and she savoured the silken concoction as it slithered down her throat…