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.
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.
On Tuesday I woke at 5am, excited to head to the airport for a three-day Paris trip to visit my sister. For weeks I had been in discussions with an editor at Meanjin, trying to walk the line between what I felt was essential to a story they had accepted, and trying not to be the writer who, despite little experience, refuses to accept changes suggested with only good intentions. After a few disappointing and nerve-wracking days, I woke at that ungodly hour on Tuesday to a link in my email account, and the news that my story was live.
LIVE! The little creature I’d been growing in a secret test tube, which had gone from icky mucus-covered alien to something shiny. I loved it, even the last minute changes which no one but me and the editor would probably even notice. It is a story about grief, but really about the difficulties in caring for others when we refuse to acknowledge our own pain. I immediately sent it on to those closest to me, and basked in the lovely and loving return comments.
It’s tempting to be pessimistic at this point, to think that this might be all there ever is. I’m increasingly aware that my writing can seem simplistic, even though I swear there are layers there like a secret onion. My favourite writers are those who write simply, so this isn’t a bad realisation, but there is a division between writers who think simple is strength, and those who prefer a thick, soupy kind of writing. I will never write a stew, I know this now, and that’s okay because I probably wouldn’t want to read it if I did. All I can do is try to convince people that simple writing isn’t actually simple.
And now, I have returned to submitting. My 100 submission challenge is on target. I’ve had 13 rejections, and have 19 other submissions out there, floating around. I have started the year aiming for the most prestigious publications, and am therefore expecting a high number of rejections. The second half of the year, I’m hoping, will be kinder. But this little bit of glitter from Meanjin will see me through these potential 19 rejections, and spur me on to finish the challenge. After all, if it’s the only publication this year, it’s a pretty good one.
So here I am again. This time last year I was sure that 2017 was going to be The Big Year of Getting Somewhere. I was sure I’d have an agent, and a publishing date, and that if I didn’t have those things then it would feel like a wasted year. I wanted tangible milestones to prove to myself that I was progressing. None of that happened, of course, but it doesn’t feel like a wasted year.
I began contacting agents in November, so of course I haven’t heard back yet. The rest of the year I spent working super super hard to make Hold Back the Night better. I also rewrote another draft of Harriet Starling. Considering I was working full-time, I produced a massive amount of work.
And now I’m quite tired. I’ve spent the first weeks of this year watching inordinate amounts of television, and I’ve also decided to do the 100 submissions challenge. I’ve already submitted to 6 journals/competitions. Last year, I submitted 8 times overall so this is quite an improvement. I am, as the challenge says, going to collect rejections. It feels a little like adding bricks to a mesh net hanging over my head, hoping I can avoid getting hit when it falls apart, but hey, it’s a different kind of work compared to last year.
So for 2018, I’m meandering through a third draft of Harriet, I’m working on my query letter and synopsis for the next round of agent submissions for Hold Back the Night, and I’m reading old stories and trying to improve them, word by word, so that I can find a home for them. I’m ticking things off slowly, between episodes of The Good Wife (and my actual job), and watching that basket of bricks swinging over my head. How many more can it take? I’m hoping as the rejections fall in and I resubmit and resubmit, the load will become lighter. By December, they will be bricks made of foam that simply bounce to the ground, ready for me to throw back up in the air. And who knows, maybe one will turn to sparkles and cover me in glittery dust.
I sent a manuscript to an editor this week. There is a great service where, for a hefty price, you can get professional feedback. No one has read this manuscript. It is of a fairly personal nature and so the thought of anyone I know critiquing it is uncomfortable, to say the least. But a stranger? I’ll have me some of that.
The thing is, when you have been polishing and polishing and polishing something for a long time, and then you let it go, everything else tends to look a bit shit. I was excited about getting back to work on something I haven’t looked at since July, but on opening the document my heart sank. It’s not very good. Which doesn’t mean it can’t be, but my god the WORK still to do! It’s endless!
So instead of facing that uphill battle immediately, I started something new, because having three unfinished novels going at once clearly isn’t enough. This one, I hope, might be fun. I’m not very good at fun, in general but particularly with regards to writing. I’m not a fun writer. After the personal, slightly tormented slog of the current one (last one? I’m not sure what to call it since it doesn’t have a proper name yet), it would be really good to write something enjoyable. Characters I can laugh with would be nice. We’ll just have to wait and see if the personality make-over is successful though, or if on re-drafting all the fun disappears.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the struggle to keep going. The novel I am working on was feeling unwieldy and misshapen, and I couldn’t get a grip on it. It was only by writing that post that I realised how long that struggle had been going on, and I took drastic action.
The next day, I cut 12,000 words. It was like losing a gangrenous limb. Those three sections had, at one time, seemed necessary. They were long, obviously, and I liked so many things about them. I had worked so hard to make them as good as I thought they could be. But I had had doubts for weeks and the relief when they were finally gone, falling away while the rest of the manuscript drifted slightly higher, was intense and energising.
I began a new plan. I moved other elements around. I streamlined, though that sounds coldly managerial, and all of a sudden I had room for the parts that had been missing. Which means I am once again writing, actually writing, and not just tweaking. Whole new scenes need to be created and, since that is the fun part, I’m in quite a good mood.
It’s easy to write blog posts about things being difficult, so I am going to leave this happy little post here to remind me: there is so much joy in creating something new, and that creation shouldn’t always be shackled to complaints of how hard it is as well.