Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Rejection... get used to it

There it was, by return of post. A rejection letter from my favourite publisher who hadn't read my submission. They don't accept unsolicited manuscripts any more and suggested I find an agent. What have I been doing for the last however-many months? Well, at least they didn't reject it because they hated it. And I still love them.

So what now? The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, of course. I have trawled through the writers' bible looking for independent publishers who might possibly maybe take a sneaky look at an unsolicited manuscript. And, interestingly, the big publishers too: Macmillan have a New Writers section where you can send manuscripts to. By email, furthermore, thus saving the costs of printing, posting and including an SAE (about £2 per submission with printing costs and postage). They publish about one a month and receive thousands, but still. It's worth a go.

The other publishers will have to wait until my new toner has arrived so I can print out submissions. Oh, it's an expensive business, this.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Strange little rituals

I sent my revised manuscript to an independent publishing house today. If one can be a fan of a publisher then I definately am; if I see a new book that they have put out then I will be swayed towards buying it as I have enjoyed so many of theirs.

As I sealed the envelope I blew inside for luck... and then realised this was silly and superstitious and it was a good thing I didn't have a cold or they would have got some free virus with their manuscript. But don't writers thrive on strange rituals and habits, much like sports people or actors?
I heard of a writer (please remind me who it is if you know) who only writes on a specific type on A4 paper with two holes in it. When the company changed the paper to having four holes the writer bought hundreds of little circles of paper and painstakingly stuck them over the extra holes.
Writing a novel takes dedication and most writers recommend having a set ritual, generally starting at the same time every day and having a particular work environment, whether it is a noisy cafe, a silent study or a shed at the bottom of the garden (Roald Dahl).
Rituals can easily turn into obsessions, for the most part harmless, but sometimes to the detriment of family life or their social life. Roald Dahl used to sit down with five newly-sharpened HB pencils every day. Some writers have to have a certain mug or a particular type of coffee. Some write in their pyjamas in bed (quite often to save on bills, I imagine) while others always wear the same set of clothes. It is certainly important for someone who is managing their own time at home (like any home workers) to be in the right mindset before they can begin to work.

But working at home with no colleagues can make you a little crazy. Writers are notoriously difficult people to live with. Over the summer I got addicted to fresh peas, which are wonderful to snack on as there is the satisfaction of shelling them and then the crunchy, fresh pleasure of eating them. However, when I ran out I had to run and buy more before I could contemplate writing another sentence.

This is, of course, a mild case and nothing as destructive as alcoholism or drug-taking, but the glass of red wine habit can quickly get unhealthy, as I found last winter.
Then there is talking to your plants, your cat (I wish I had a cat but then again they are not very keyboard-friendly: it becomes irresistably comfortable to them when you are working), yourself or your imaginary friends. My characters and I went for a Christmas lunch last year because I was jealous of all my friends going out to celebrate with colleauges. You can only imagine what an office party would be like.

But it is pleasurable to wear jeans to work, drink as much tea as I like and work odd hours. I generally find midnight is a very productive time, although working much later than that can mean 500 words of utter drivel.
It's a strange life and I hope blowing into that envelope brings me luck: it's a life I would very much like to continue.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

What a softie

After ruthlessly casting Chapter Two into oblivion I had a change of heart and, Madonna-like, reinvented it to sit triumphantly in Chapter Four. We really couldn't do without Chapter Two, albeit in a revised form.

Just a minute, I really can't write until I've got a full cup of tea...

Ahh, that's better. While boiling the kettle I was watching the birds in the garden. They are back in force and I have been encouraging them with birdfeeders and those disgusting little fatty seed balls they seem to like. Since Mr. Cat from Next Door But One moved out they have been partying non-stop. There used to be a family a really cute woodmice that lived under the shed but Mr. Cat used them a source of presents to ingratiate himself with Next Door, apparently.

Anyway, after re-instating the new-look Chapter Two (now Chapter Four) yesterday I read the entire book again. I surprised myself by laughing out loud at a couple of parts and one line made me gasp with shock. "What's going to happen next?" I asked, eyes wide. Oh, wait. I wrote it and should know. But it does stop being yours the moment the words touch the page, like a baby that becomes its own person the moment it breathes in its first breath of air. It aquires a life of its own and its own momentum. Re-reading it, it is not the same book that was in my head.
And I will read it again today to see how the changes I made yesterday as I read it affect that strange life. It is possible to continue this process forever but maybe at some point it is better to stop; it may be as polished as it can be and to keep going may be to rub away the features that give it its identity.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Go, Go, Go!

I am holding myself back from leaping into the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook and dragging out the names of independent publishers to send my Book to. I have been delighted to learn at today's workshop (run by Alison Baverstock, author of several books on the subject of getting published) that you do not necessarily have to get an agent before approaching publishers, as I have previously been led to believe; independent publishers do not necessarily have the funds to pay agents' fees and are therefore more likely than the major publishing houses to contemplate signing new authors.

Hold your horses, Jenza!

Now I am painfully aware from feedback from friends about my manuscript and the workshops over the last couple of days that I may have dashed into sending my work to agents before I was entirely ready. This is, apparently, very common. Writers are just so desperately happy to have finished their manuscript that they just can't wait to hurl it at those glamorous folk who are just falling over themselves to publish it.
Except they're not. Agents and publishers can receive upwards of 30 manuscripts every day. Every DAY. And I feel guilty about not replying to emails quickly enough.

If I was honest with myself did I really, really believe that my manuscript was flawless, dazzling with brilliance, reflecting every colour of life in its polished facets? Well, yes. Really? There wasn't anything at all I wasn't entirely convinced about? Well... maybe.
That 'maybe' is what may well put an agent/publisher off what is undoubtably otherwise the winner of the next Booker prize. Once you've whored yourself they ain't gonna come back for more. And that Booker prize is going to some other, more deserving writer who polished their work until it gleamed so bright their publisher was blinded.

And so. Back to the laptop. With my humble pie still undigested I have started to re-edit based on the advice of brave and wonderful friends who gave me honest feedback on my book.

Chapter Two has gone. Chapter Two was one of my favourites. It was the first thing I wrote and dealt with the crushing world of insomnia, as experienced by one writer who had not slept in about six months and felt compelled, after one particularly rough night, to put pen to paper (sweaty fingertips to keyboard) and confine this terrible, lonely, hallucinatory existence to the page. (For anyone who is nodding right now I can recommend this approach as a form of therapy. After all, you've got a lot more time on your hands than most when your day is 24 hours long, so why not?)

So Chapter Two was deeply personal and (I thought) beautifully evocative. But it did nothing to carry the momentum of the opening section of the book and had to go!

Oh, you feel so disgustingly ruthless, amputating the finger of your baby like that. Chapter Two, however, is still there on file and may be used one day in another novel and I must remind myself that another novel is far more likely if I actually get the first one published.

After my meal of humble pie I have felt far more open to the words of wisdom and advice from the women who have run the workshops of the last couple of days. I am a 'product'. I am even willing to do that little air-finger inverted comma gesture that annoys me so much. 'Product'. To be packaged, marketed and sold. It sounds so horribly un-writerly, doesn't it? But to be sold... To be bought. To be read, to touch someone's life, to make them smile, react, to keep my characters in their head and for them to see through my characters' eyes for even the briefest time.

That is why I became a writer. And why I may still need another few servings of humble pie and patience before I even begin to consider sending my work to independent publishers.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Most recent rejection letter

My most recent rejection letter was a particularly lovely one.

'Maynard Hill' is vividly imagined and well-written...

This is high praise from an industry where anonymous compliments slips are the norm. I've seen the length of the letter, however, and I know there is a But coming.

... but although I enjoyed reading it I'm afraid to say that it's not for us.

Then there's the usual blurb about the competitive marketplace and the cordial, but standard ending:

We are sorry to disappoint you and wish you the best of luck in securing an agent to champion your work and find you a publisher.

I added it to the pile, feeling that the workshops I have booked onto on "How to Get Published" at the Cheltenham Literature Festival are probably long overdue. I have been sending my novel around the literary agents on the advice of the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook but I can't help thinking that I must be missing a trick. The pile of rejection letters nods wisely at me. Money well spent, it intones sagely.

Certainly I wasn't given the elixir of life at today's workshops and neither was I handed the gilded key to the magical kingdom of The Waterstones' Front Table. I wasn't told much I didn't already know. But. There's something about sitting in a room with the motley crew of the Good Ship Hope that gives the aspiring writer a sense of solidarity. We swap stories, we laugh. We have colleagues!
Writers don't really have colleagues. This can be one of the best and the worst aspects of writing. It's an intensely lonely world. However, I have no competition in my workplace; three days ago I was named Employee of the Month and that was on top of my recent promotion to Chief Writer. Soon I hope to be made Chief Writer Extrodinaire.
I have certainly taken some good lessons away from today's workshops by Jo Herbert, editor of the Artists' and Writers' Yearbook, and Alison Baverstock, who has written books on the subject and used to work in publishing herself. One thing that was particularly hammered home was that we need to wear an entirely different hat to sell ourselves to a world concerned by shrinking profit margins and increasing competition. Forget Keats, think Alan Sugar.
That seems to be one of the main problems for writers: the sort of people who sit in dusty little studies talking over plot developments with their Weeping Fig pot plant are seldom the types who could sell coal to Newcastle (cider to Sommerset, hippies to Totnes).

My covering letter certainly needs revisiting. In the meantime, I have a weekend of Pitching your Writing Idea. A whole weekend? Is that really necessary? The pile of rejection letters nods meaningfully.