When the sun is shining

It’s been a big few months. In April, I was published in Meanjin. In May, I came second in the Winchester Writers’ Festival short story competition. This week, a story has been published in Scrittura.

And I just spent the weekend in Winchester, at the Writers’ Festival. I attended talks, an open mic night (though I didn’t get up), workshops, drank too much wine with other brave and hopeful writers, and had one-to-one interviews with an agent and the director of Salt Publishing. Unfortunately, these interviews confirmed a truth that has been dawning on me for some time: the novel I’ve been submitting still needs work, and even then it is not inventive enough to be a debut. Debuts need a bit of pazzazz. They need to be crowd-pleasing and flashy, a Scott Hastings rather than a Ken Railings, even the literary ones. In some ways this is good, because I don’t need to do the structural changes yet. I’ll keep working on Harriet Starling, as that strikes me as a better debut, and maybe in a couple of years I’ll return to Hold Back the Night.

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But back to the weekend. Winchester is leafy, full of old stones and old people and old money, and at this time of year the air is thick with white and pink blossoms, like summer snow. The university is new, it’s all purple and green with squishy chairs and places to meet and sit and eat, as well as learn. I love universities, especially small ones. UCL is a great place to work, but it is a behemoth. The annual question is, how can we have more students than chairs for them to sit in? Winchester wouldn’t have that problem. The campus is set on one of the roly-poly hills so it overlooks the town. Across the road is St James’ Cemetery, full of crumbling headstones and those trees which make fantastic spidery silhouettes against the sky. It’s a city with writing in its soul, and despite feeling dispirited at all the work I still have to do before I have a finished, publishable novel, I at least feel like I’m on the right path. I am Harry Potter chasing down Horcruxes: I know what to do, now there’s just the business of doing it, without going crazy, burning out, or quitting my job. I could probably do with a sword though, that made all the difference for poor Harry, or a gold jacket so I can unleash my pazzazz like Scott Hastings.

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June: the month I went crazy, made a plan, and got impatient for July

 

 

It’s been a really tough few weeks, made tougher by the fact that I was expecting to feel all kinds of wonderful.

I went to Manchester for work. When I travel for work, I get to write a lot. Hotels are inspiring, somehow. But Manchester was in lock-down and even though I was as productive as I’d hoped, something about the atmosphere crept into me. Writing the climactic scenes when your novel is about a woman recovering after a sexual assault is traumatic enough, but editing them over and over while in a city with armed police on every corner was worse.

It was only a few days and I did what I had planned – I finished a draft. I had promised myself to put the manuscript away for a month, and expected to feel elated. Instead, I felt lost, empty, and like I was abandoning it. I tried to distract myself by researching literary agents and the publishing world. There was a lot of encouraging advice around but all I could think was – I’m not ready.

I wanted to get straight back and start editing again, but I’d already entered the first three pages in a competition and paid for feedback. I felt like I couldn’t do anything much with it until I received the feedback, and then I found two more competitions I wanted to enter it in before the end of June. My month of marinating started at least one month too early.

For three weeks, I stubbornly stuck to my plan even though it was increasingly making no sense and I felt rubbish. Why would I get out of bed if I wasn’t going to write? The strangest thing is that when I’m not writing, I find it very difficult to do my normal work, or anything much. Life is low, basically. Finally, I gave myself permission to look at the manuscript again. The problem with not writing very much is it’s difficult to start again, it really is like a muscle that needs to be used. I read paragraphs and knew they needed to be changed but had no energy or inspiration to change them. It started to feel like I would never get it to the next level.

And then I realised – the competition is announced this Saturday. If, as is entirely predictable, I don’t win, chances are high that I won’t want to look at it for a while. So I panicked, and in my panic I found my motivation. The things I have been thinking about adding or changing, I suddenly need to do before Saturday and the expected slump. I work well to deadlines. So I will do what I can before Saturday, slump a bit, then hopefully receive the feedback and work on the first three pages ready to submit to the two competitions by the end of June.

Hopefully, in July, it will truly be ready to sit quietly for a month so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. I am impatient to read it cover to cover (so to speak) and then start the process of finding beta readers (volunteers welcome!). And then, I will start using all my research and find me an agent. Who would guess I also have a full-time job?