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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Feel that glitter

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.

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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.

What to do when you’re not publishing #2

A while ago I wrote a post about what to do when you’re not publishing. I read it again recently because, low and behold, I’m still not publishing! I think it needs an update though, because I have discovered many new things to do that are more energising. The worst thing about constant rejections is their tendency to sap energy for everything – writing, work, life in general – and so finding things that can feed you (metaphorically, though delicious food is a good distraction as well) is life-saving.

11. Watch TED talks. They may be a bit cliched, but motivation is only lame when you don’t need it. It can be surprisingly effective when you’re feeling low.

12. Discover new artists. Artists of any kind, though my favourite is musicians. Find amazing art created by people who just got on and did it, and built an incredible back catalogue of work while apparently being ignored. My current anthem is Don’t Come Easy by Patty Griffin.

13. Try to find community. This is hard, though my recent discover of Writers’ HQ is helping me. They have free short online courses, cheap(ish) longer ones, they’re active on social media, and they run retreats in England if that’s your area. They also have a wonderful way of making it all seem fun, probably because of all the swearing.

14. Find some writing you love and type it up. It’s amazing how much more achievable it seems when it’s typed in Word rather than printed in a printed book.

15. Submit. Whatever you have really. The rejections (let’s be realistic here) won’t come in for months by which time hopefully you’ll be feeling better, and the little spark that comes with pressing ‘submit’ will do wonders right now.

16. If you haven’t already, download Scrivener and spend hours figuring it out and imagining how much easier it will be to do really good drafts in the future.

17. Take a weekend off. You’ll be dying to get back to it on Monday.

18. Imagine you’ve been given a death sentence (I mean weeping-in-a-courtroom, choosing-a-last-meal kind of imagining). What would you work on? Do that now.

Time for me to crank Patty, load up Scrivener, and find some old work to submit to something.

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2017

In 2016 I self-published a novel I had been working on for years. It was mainly so that I could finally count the book as ‘finished’, and commit publicly to this writing life. It is harder to be lazy when people you know and love think you spend all your time writing.

A Perilous Margin is still available on kindle on all amazons, and in paperback through amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

In 2017, I am going to try the traditional publishing route again. I spent the first days of the year reading publishing advice, writing advice, agent-seeking advice, and was filled with the intense need to make this part of my life. There is nothing else I want to do and so my options are limited. That might be a good thing.

I have never felt so close to publication, or so ready. I feel like all the work for the last nine years is finally paying off and I am this close! I have sent my new manuscript off for an assessment by an editor and I am terrified equally by the thought that it’s rubbish, and that it’s good. Our dreams are scuppered by fear of success as often as fear of failure, apparently, and I am trying desperately not to let that happen.

So, 2017, if in 351 days I still have no agent and no sign that anything is moving forward, I’m going to be very angry.

In the mean time, these are the potential novels I’m working on, because I’ve discovered that making things public is a good way of committing to them.

  • Still Life (working title)

A young woman takes a year off after university to learn how to be the carefree, easy-going bohemian she has always thought she could be. Months of partying hard allow her to break out of her shell, but one disastrous and damaging night makes her reconsider the person she is becoming.

  • Harriet Starling (working title/name of the main character because I haven’t thought of anything else)

A former sex-worker turned women’s right activist is caught off-guard by her daughter’s approaching adolescence, and struggles to teach her to deal with the common juxtaposition of sexual freedom and sexual violence.

  • How to build a temple (working title)

Tabitha, a twelve year old girl whose friends have disowned her, helps her mother build a temple in their backyard to compensate for the fact that she can’t afford to travel to Thailand on a life-changing spiritual journey.

The numbers game

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I’ve always enjoyed writing short stories. They were the first prose I tried to write, not counting several horrendous novel attempts when I was a teenager. I thought of short stories as a way of practicing writing without committing huge amounts of time or energy.

I think short story karma is coming to kick me in the shins for not taking it more seriously.

I just got a rejection email for a short story which I think is really quite good, but which has now been rejected five times. In the world of submissions, five rejections is not actually that bad. But it still hurts.

So I’m sitting here, knowing I should be being productive, but all I can think is – what more can I do? Of course, there is a lot more I can do.

I don’t actually read short stories. I’ve probably read three anthologies in the last six years. I was blown away, years ago, by Janette Turner Hospital’s collections of stories, but other than that I tend to just avoid them. I find their magnification of a writer’s style a bit painful. There is no escaping in a short story, there’s no sinking into the story and becoming accustomed to the style. It’s just there.

I can’t imagine trying to write a novel without reading novels. What a ridiculous idea, and yet here I am, treating short stories like the easy warm-up and getting disheartened when I’m not very good.

People talk about getting published as a numbers game, in terms of pieces submitted versus potential publications. That is, you need to submit a lot to get a small number published. But number one, I am not very good at handling rejections, and number two, maybe the real numbers game is about reading. Maybe rather than submitting 100 times to get 1 published, I need to read 100 stories to help me write 1 good one.

So my plan, because when sunk in the depths of a rejection depression I always need a plan, is to read one short story a day for three weeks. In three weeks, I’ll try to write something.

If anyone is looking for quality, free, online stories, check out Carve. They run the Raymond Carver short story contest, so they kind of know what they’re doing.

What to do when you’re not publishing

  1. Read lots of really good books and try to be inspired by their genius rather than dispirited by the gulf between you
  2. Read some badly written books and fix them in your head, and remind yourself that physiology – biting lips, churning stomachs, twisting fingers – is as painful to read as it is, apparently, for the character to experience
  3. Read those sentences, paragraphs, or pages written by friends and family that seem so impossibly clever but remind yourself that that is a different gift to writing a book, and fight down that jealousy and the sense that you are the wrong person to be attempting this
  4. Devote some of that precious writing time to looking through old work and thinking about how it might fit in the future

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    Look up writing quotes which can occasionally ring true

  5. Daydream about all the amazing things that you will write and that maybe, one day, will be published, or else will be discovered on your death when you will be hailed the great, unsung hero of your generation
  6. Think about what your life would be like if your favourite book had never been published
  7. Revisit favourite characters
  8. Write a list
  9. Write a paragraph
  10. Write a chapter

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