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.

It’s nothing personal

White rabbitFor those amongst my lovely readership who are following my search for an agent… I received my first rejection email today.

It was clearly a standard rejection email, but for that, it was courteous and kind and it urged me not to be discouraged. In a bizarre way, I was actually quite pleased to receive it, as it broke my duck in terms of agency rejection. Now I know how it feels. What’s more, if they’re all like this one, it won’t hurt a bit. Well, maybe just a bit – but not much. Also it was a pleasant surprise to receive an email, as one is often advised simply to draw a conclusion of rejection, as in, if you haven’t heard from us in X weeks, we’re not interested.

Rejection is an unwelcome visitor, returning time and again in life. It introduces itself in in the playground, where friendships are fluid and children can be unintentionally cruel. It rears its head at the school disco, where everyone except you seems to get a last dance and you feel the sting of being looked right through, as if you’re transparent, in pursuit of a prettier model.

For several painfully pubescent years, rejection is a constant companion. It’s all boys, boys, boys, with their dismissive see you around, or worse still, the casual I’ll call you, ahead of the anxious three week wait and the phone that never rings. Harder to bear today, I imagine, with ever-on phones in pockets. At least back then, we could convince ourselves that we must have missed the call during those few occasional minutes when we moved beyond earshot of the phone in the hall, or when our mothers or siblings so inconsiderately monopolised the dreaded device. And what about the acid-tongued adolescent rejection – the one that brands you as frigid, inadequate or repressed, because you won’t do what all the other girls will, round the back of the bike-sheds?

Then comes work, and rejection sticks its head around the door again. In the 80’s, an era of full employment, I confess I don’t recall much in the way of rejection as I progressed through a succession of secretarial posts. But I do remember I was neither sufficiently cutting-edge, nor sufficiently waif-like, for a position at uber-trendy Virgin Records – one of relatively few knock-backs I was forced to swallow in my early career.

It was when I moved into IT Sales, that rejection and I became regular bedfellows. Here’s where you learn to lean on the platitude that it’s not personal – that the people to whom you’re trying to sell your impossibly complex technology are not rejecting you; they’re rejecting the impossibly complex technology. That thought doesn’t halt the torrent of negative reflection and self-criticism however; because if only you’d seen one more manager, made one more presentation, found the answer to one more tricky technical question, brought one more expert over from the States, put one more tick in one more box… it could all have gone your way, not the way of your competition, who, as everyone knows, are a load of amateurs flogging a box of old rubbish – aren’t they?

When it comes to redundancy, rejection has its feet firmly under the table. You’re supposed to appreciate that it’s not you that’s redundant, it’s your position… But that’s no help as you carry your cardboard box to the lift lobby and everyone on your floor contrives to be in the toilets or out running errands as you stutter your goodbyes through gritted teeth. Two redundancies for me – about par for the course these days.

Now I’m self-employed and rejection, when it comes calling – which, thankfully, isn’t often – is a gentler and more subtle guest; a display of interest or enthusiasm that isn’t followed through, for example; a polite, sorry, but we’re not quite ready to go ahead with this. It’s a kinder world I inhabit these days, and I’m glad of it.

One last place where rejection elbows its way in; I played around with internet dating for a couple of years. Here, I dished out as much rejection as I received in this plenty more fish in the sea environment. Snap judgements were the order of the day – on an ill-judged profile picture, a stuffy turn of phrase, an interest in football, the presence of a dog, the absence of ambition or the inability to string a few words into a sentence. Yes, I get it; maybe there’s a message here. Perhaps the whole agent/rejection thing is set to dish me out a bit of karma.

That said, no would-be novelist goes into the business of writing, blind to the possibility – nay, likelihood – of rejection. It’s a numbers game and there are more writers seeking to be published than there will ever be agents seeking to represent them, by a mind-boggling margin. Rejection is a fact of literary life, and I shall embrace it and take encouragement from something a dear writerly friend has just shared with me: Only real writers get rejections.

The Dating Game: Debut novel seeks ambitious agent

Singled Out Turkey Singles Holiday Novel

My name is:  Singled Out

I am:  A debut novel

I am seeking: An agent

My location: A singles holiday in an unspoilt village on Turkey’s seductive Lycian Coastline

The sun scorches the earth. Exotic rhythms pound out along the beachfront. Strangers mingle, thrown together in pursuit of pleasure for a single week of their lives.  A dangerous individual circles the unwary group like a wolf. He begins picking off victims, playing a sordid private game.  Can he be stopped? Who will dare to get in his way? And what will it cost them?  

Hi there! I’m Singled Out. I’m a debut novel and I’m looking for a soulmate.

Not so long ago I was a wretched mess of a draft – half-baked, blistered with plot holes, scarred by cliché and rambling all over the place.  I would spend my days splurged on the sofa, stuffing my pages with excess adjectives and downing bottle after bottle of purple prose.  Things got so bad that my author staged an intervention. I couldn’t put it off any longer – it was time to straighten myself out.

So I’ve been in therapy.  I’ve been dispatched on courses and hidden away on retreats.  I’ve forced my author to accompany me, dragging her away from the distractions of email, piles of washing, odd jobs, miscellaneous errands, internet retail emporia, and – horror of horrors – out of mobile coverage. I’ve been subjected to group therapy and prescribed some unquestionably excellent advice.   I’ve been on a diet too.  I’ve dropped a dress size, losing 9,000 words to a series of edits – that’s almost 10% of my body weight.  I’ve been working out every day… working out how to make the plot sizzle, working out how to invigorate my characters, and working out how to build the tension and tighten the twists and turns.  Finally, I was given a glossy makeover and now, sculpted and trimmed, I’m double-line spaced and dressed in wide margins and a curly serif font.

I may be scrubbed and pressed, but I’m never going to be a frothy party-girl of a novel. There’s more to me than cocktails and cosy poolside chats; I’ve got my dark side, make no mistake – it may be tequila sunrise one moment, but the next… oh, but that would be giving too much away, and a new novel has to protect her modesty, doesn’t she?

So my word-count is snug and my pages are in pretty good shape, but no novel is perfect; you may feel you want to smooth out some of my grittier characteristics.  And that’s all fine, because you’re the expert and I’m the novice and one thing my author and I have learned over the last couple of years is how to take advice.  But I want to enjoy the process, so the most important thing is that you and my author see eye to eye and get along famously – because that’s when the whole collaborative, mutually beneficial professional relationship thing works like a dream and everyone gets what they need. Happy days.

So are you the agent for me?  Are you savvy and well-connected, a joy to work with, adventurous enough to take a risk with something new and a little dark? Will you nurture me and promote me and find us a publisher? Do you want a long-term partnership, not just with a debut novel, but with her future siblings? Are you the one to single me out, and turn Singled Out into a double-act?

Where the wind blows…

I feel a little unwell; light-headed and a bit giddy. Random stars and spots drift across my field of vision and I’m in danger of hyperventilating. As the wind whips into a pre-storm outside my door, I’ve had my finger poised over the Big Red Button on my PC so long that it went numb. Eventually I did it. I pressed ‘send’ – twice – and dispatched SINGLED OUT to two agents.

Only two, you say? Yes that’s right, only two; two important agents who’ve been recommended to me, either of whom I would be thrilled to be represented by. This is where it starts. I plan to take things slowly, in case it transpires (imagine!) that I receive any feedback. I might have missed something, or have something to learn, an error to correct, or things to polish, to improve my approach and raise my chances of success in the future. I don’t want to burn all my bridges at once.

It’s also inevitable that, despite having poured over my manuscript sample, synopsis and query emails for the last several days, tweaking this word and that, I will reread these documents in the morning and cringe – or cry. Most likely, I will reread the Nth redraft of my synopsis and want not so much to burn the bridges, but throw myself off one of them.

I’m the first to admit, I made heavy weather of the synopsis thing and I still wasn’t happy with the end result. Happier than I was, but I got nowhere near the smug glow of satisfaction I was hoping for, when I first imagined that if I reworked it diligently enough, I would eventually produce the perfect synopsis. Okay, you can laugh. But that’s the problem when you’re a bit of a perfectionist and your only deadline is self-imposed. Perfection feels tantalisingly within your grasp, so you keep reaching for it. Guess what, it isn’t.

But I admit it, there’s a nano-hope glinting in the corner of my mind and you must allow me to tease myself with it, at least for now. My nano-hope is that one of these two formidable agents finding my query email in their in-trays tomorrow morning will get a shiver of excitement when they skim through the contents, and I in turn, will get a request to submit my full manuscript. One step, one step at a time. I dare to dream. How about that?

But for now, it’s Sunday evening and there’s some kind of a weather event set to blast across the South East tonight, which will be my excuse if I can’t sleep. Right now, I think brandy is in order. Then at least I’ll be able to breathe again.

Confession (aka Synopsis Crisis 2)

Synopsis crisis 1Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned.  It’s been… aah… sorry about this… 14 days since my last confession blog post.

I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve been committing myself to the task of getting my synopsis written, crafting a persuasive query letter and tweaking my first 10,000 words; all in a dramatic prelude (drum roll please…..) to submitting SINGLED OUT to an initial short list of literary agents.

It’s not quite ready yet, not through want of effort, I assure you. But in my less creatively energetic moments, I’ve also drafted an impressive spreadsheet listing all the agents I plan to contact, with their submission instructions and a few other essential details, all gleaned from agency websites.  Some might accuse me of optimism (oh, go on…), but there are just four agents on the list at this stage, all recommended to me by my mentor, which is a gift for which I’m absurdly grateful. This is where it all begins.

But first, I need the perfect synopsis.  And I’ve discovered that writing the perfect synopsis is a bit like looking for the perfect man. Yes, girls, you get it, don’t you?

So my synopsis is presentable in parts and pretty hopeless in other parts.  I’m trying to change him it but it’s proving a tough job.  There is a wealth of advice on writing synopses in the ranks of ‘how to’ books on my bookshelf and on the internet – and plenty of it is sound, sensible advice too.  I’m trying to follow it – but I think I’m trying too hard.  In all honesty, I’m making a bit of a job of it.

In the process, I’ve drunk my way through two jars of instant and 16 capsules of Tassimo Carte Noire Latte Macciato (yum) and even – the day my stomach became inexplicably crampy, probably due to stress m’lud (or maybe too much caffeine) – three peppermint teabags.  Yes, I know, I told you I hate tea – and I do.  But peppermint tea is more like drinking a Polo Mint and it was good for my withered digestive system, so I suffered it.

But I digress.

Each agent very helpfully puts submission instructions on their websites.  They want a query letter or email – that’s fine.  Actually that wasn’t too hard to write given my [mumble number of] years in sales and marketing work.  It has to be modified for each agent, but it’s as complete as it needs to be for now. They want the first 10,000 words, three chapters or 50 pages – that’s fine too.  It’s all much the same thing and once you’re happy with the content, you just need to cut-and-paste into a document topped with your contact details. But then there’s the synopsis… 300 words… 1,000-1,500 words… one or two pages… ‘brief’…  So, more than one version then.

Taking some good advice and paying a deal of attention to an interesting online workshop in free pdf format from Mslexia here, (for which many thanks sandradan1), I started with a 25-word elevator pitch.  Okay, so it was a scratch over 40 words.  But it fits the bill, and it helped me focus.  I graduated from there to the 300 word version which, with more help than I would have liked to have needed, is now complete.  Next… The Big One – character detail, motivations, inciting incidents, tipping points, trials and tribulations, tension and triumph – phew!  My first draft was a car crash and my second wandered into a maze of detail and never came out.  But, armed with a short version I’m now happy with, I have more confidence in draft number three.  There’s a faint hope that the process will be less like being hung upside down by my fingernails over a pit of vipers, and output more… forthcoming.

If somebody had said that writing a 1,000 word (or thereabouts) synopsis of your work will be harder than writing the 97,000 words itself, I’d probably have laughed confidently in their faces.  I’m a writer after all, aren’t I?  I’ve written dozens of business proposals, white papers and case studies, summarised entanglements of technical hogwash, edited endless articles and cut swathes from wordy websites.  A synopsis is just another job, isn’t it?

Not so, when you want nothing more in your whole life, than to be taken on by an agent, find a publisher for your first novel, and enjoy the privilege of spending the third phase of your working life immersed in fiction.  Not so at all.