As we come to the end of another year, I feel like it’s a good opportunity to take stock of where I am in terms of my writing endeavours and to assess what I have learned so far (emphasis on the so far bit – there is no end to the possibilities of what is out there, as-yet-unknown).
While I have had some small achievements this year, I am still sadly unpublished, so what I am about to write here is by no means an all-knowing guide. It’s just a reflection of my own personal experience of the writing world, containing some nuggets that others might find relatable or helpful.
Before I begin, here are some brief facts and figures: I started this website in April 2013 and have published 32 posts since then (this will be post number 33). I set up my Facebook page in September 2013 and my Twitter account in May 2014. I have 56 WordPress follows, 112 Facebook likes and 23 followers on Twitter. Modest numbers in the grand scheme of things but I’m grateful for each and every one – you are very kind and supportive people, so thanks a million!
So what have I learned?
Have a practical word count. I think I shot myself in the foot with some of my earliest submissions to publishers by offering a manuscript with a really ridiculous word count. After more than a decade’s work, my first novel had reached approximately 180,000 words. I thought, “Go me, this is great!” – but I bet whoever read my submission cover letter glanced at that figure and didn’t bother to read further. It is a ludicrous number for an unpublished author, something that only Stephen King or J.K. Rowling could get away with. Apparently, 80,000 is a nice, acceptable amount. I have since divided the book into three, with three much more manageable word counts, but I definitely feel I lost some opportunities at the start just by not knowing that a publisher would simply laugh at 180,000 words and throw the chapters in the bin!
Come up with a good title. Never judge a book by its cover – can you say that about its title too? Probably most publishers and agents will wrestle past the title and at least give the manuscript a chance, but I imagine that you lose brownie points right at the beginning if the title doesn’t have a nice ring to it. Coming up with a catchy title turned out to be an enormous struggle for me. For a while, I settled the behemoth novel with the name Seven Summers, Seven Winters, which was a bit too wordy in the mouth. Then, when I separated the first part into a book of its own, I called it Summer at the Manor – so blah! At last, and after much tearing out of my hair, I finally had a lightbulb moment and entitled the three books A Class Apart, A Class Entwined and A Class Abandoned. More appealing and more reflective of the content, I think they just might help my submission a foot further in the door.
Don armour when opening emails. There is always a little jolt of the heart when I check my emails and see one with “Re: submission” or something similar in the subject line. I usually check everything else first (nope, not buying anything today, VistaPrint) and leave the all-important one until last. Time to put on my helmet and breastplate, pick up my shield and face it. Every now and then, it might actually be a request to see more of the manuscript (throw away the shield and do a dance of joy!) but I also have to be prepared for “No, thanks.” In fairness, they’re almost always very nice about it (it’s just not for us, another agent might feel differently, we wish you the best of luck) but it’s still a kick in the chest – thank goodness for the breastplate.
Decide who to believe. I don’t know if I actually have an answer for this one. Here are some of the responses I have received over the past year and a half:
- I have now had a chance to read your material and thought the premise engaging and your characterisation strong.
- Although your plot is current and appealing, I am afraid I just didn’t connect to your narrative voice.
- Your writing is great.
- The narration takes the reader out of the story, slowing the pace.
- Your submission has an interesting and unique premise.
- At the very beginning, the description is well written, but it doesn’t have that hook that might compel a reader to continue.
- The panel and I really liked your writing and felt that it certainly met the standard for publication.
I have had one editor say the pace is slow and another say that the book has “pace, punch and passion.” Who to believe?! I’m still trying to figure this one out…
Know the writing world. When I joined Twitter this year, it was for one purpose only: stalking (but without the intrusive harrassment part). By following dozens of publishers and agents, I have fashioned a Twitter feed that delivers up-to-date information about the writing industry with just one scroll down the page. It is handy for learning who’s who, finding out what’s trending and hearing about competitions. If you know how the spider’s web works, you can navigate it a bit more delicately.
Work towards deadlines. I have written before about the dangers of procrastination (here) and have found that the most failsafe way to combat this is to always aim for a deadline. When I started this website, I promised myself that I would update it at least once a month. Only for the fact that December is creeping by faster than I thought, I might not actually have got around to writing this post today. But a deadline gets you writing and that can only be a good thing.
Learn how to be selfish. I feel bad about this but sometimes I just have to say no: I can’t meet up with you this week because I have to write. I’m sorry and thank you for your patience. 🙂
So there it is for what it’s worth, my humble opinion on certain aspects of being a writer. My intention is definitely not to whinge about my lack of publication thus far – I think 2014 was fairly all right considering I made two different shortlists (this one and this one) and I got printed in the newspaper. I look forward to 2015 and shall keep singing the Chumbawamba song in my head…!