Priority Balancing

Here’s a Relatable Thing. As a writer who also has to do ‘other stuff’ (earn money, buy food, do the washing up, book dentist appointments, have friends etc.), I generally find that any writing or publication-hunting I want to get done finds itself languishing in the dregs of the Priority List, somewhere between ‘change that lightbulb in the kitchen’ and ‘tidy files on desktop’.  Unlike the lightbulb, I actually really want to do it, but the fact is that if I don’t put a load in the washing machine, I don’t have any socks for tomorrow; if I don’t make lunch, I’ll be hungry this afternoon; if I don’t earn money, I can’t pay for stuff…ever. Whereas if I don’t send off that submission…well, pretty much nothing happens.

Because of this, it’s genuinely difficult to force myself to make time for it. And half the time, I’ll set a whole day aside for writing / submissions, then find myself at 4.30pm in an unusually tidy lounge with a bunch of things checked off my to-do list and about 8 words written. But this is a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ blog, so regardless, here are my top two tips for finding the time:

  1. Set aside time in advance. This always starts off being a whole day, then an afternoon, then a couple of hours, and usually at around 4pm I fling myself down on a chair and assert (to no-one in particular), ‘RIGHT. I am going to write for ONE FULL HOUR.’ (Then I spend twenty minutes fiddling with the formatting and despair at myself.)
  2. Scrounge any time you can from literally anywhere else. I have sent submissions off at work. I’ve sent them off in the middle of the night. I’ve sent them off whilst sat at bus stations. Depending on my motivational and rejection-blues levels, I’ve been pretty crazy about it. (Not that I recommend the craziness.)

And on that ALMOST totally pointless note, I will leave you.

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Things That Keep Me Motivated

  • The only slightly nonsensical belief that, if my fate was to acquire X number of rejections before achieving success, I must have put a good old dent in it by now.
  • Drinks with fellow writers, in which you lament the universe’s (/publishing industry’s) heinous treatment of you, air your fears and then slurrily insist that the other is SO TALENTED (they really are) and you’re SO SURE they’ll make it (you really are). It helps to know you’re not the only one.
  • Sitting in a cafe and writing by hand, which still always makes me feel like a ‘real writer’.
  • Sheer spite.
  • The thought that each rejection is a step closer to the agent who will (finally) take a chance (/pity) on me.
  • Other people telling me they really do believe I’ll make it (and these people are only sometimes drunk).
  • Reading wonderful books that make me realise that agents aren’t just sadistic twats.
  • Reading terrible books that make me realise I can’t be all that far off.
  • Not thinking about it for a while.
  • Tea (the drink, not the meal. Though actually, that too).
  • Having a bit of a cry, and emerging like an angry motherfucking phoenix from the ashes.

come at me bro

POSITIVE THOUGHTS

Hello all, another quick one today. The post that feels most relevant is pretty depressing (SHOCKER), so I’m going to save that for the future (read: next week). Instead, I’m going to leave you with a list of happy things I force myself to think when the rejections and general barren wasteland of unsuccessfulness are getting me down:

  • Even if this book never gets published, the full manuscript was requested three times, and as far as I’m aware nobody can go back in time and take that away from me.
  • I have, like, a LOT more story ideas to turn into books to turn into rejections before I’m done.
  • JK Rowling was, like, thirty-something before she was successful – as are most other authors (though this one usually leads to ‘I CANNOT TAKE ANOTHER TEN YEARS OF THIS’ so use with caution).
  • What’s for dinner?
  • Patrick Ness says that the best writers don’t just ‘write’, they ‘write anyway’, and hell if that’s not exactly what I’m doing. (My boyfriend would like me to point out that he actually suggested this point, not Patrick Ness. But he didn’t use the interesting phrasing, so here we are.)
  • In about three hours, I can go to bed.
  • What happens if I type ‘puppy’ and ‘trampoline’ into Google?
  • When my book is one day published and I become HIDEOUSLY SUCCESSFUL, I can spend a fabulous afternoon calling all the agents who rejected / ignored me and point out to them that they are not my agent.
  • If the publishing industry thinks it’s more stubborn than I am then it can THINK AGAIN.

never give up

The Venn diagram of people who get published and people who listen to editorial advice is a circle.

As I mentioned last week, I’m currently spending a day a week working as the editor for Cuckoo Review – a publication comprising of arts reviews written by young people in the north of England. It’s easily the most I’ve ever enjoyed work I was actually being paid for, and it’s given me quite a lot to think about (not to mention blog post fodder!). My job is, very simply, to edit the reviews, give some feedback to their writer, and publish them online. I’m not talking the J. Jonah Jameson style of editing, where you crumple up reviews and chuck them out of windows, shout a lot and smoke cigars – the purpose of Cuckoo Review is for the young writers to gain experience of professional writing, to encourage them and help them develop.

But that part – the ‘gain experience of professional writing’ part – has got me thinking. Because it’s one thing to sit in your bedroom and tap away at the keyboard – whether journalistic or fictional – and it’s quite another to hand it over to someone whose sole job is to rip it apart and put it back together again, to make it fit for publication.

(Massive tangent incoming…bear with it.)

There’s a bit in Joss Whedon’s Firefly when a fairly psychopathic bounty hunter explains to a doctor that if he’s going to work on gunshot wounds, he ought to be shot – so he knows what it feels like.

you oughta be shot.gif

Now, not to align myself with fictional psychopaths, but I have – on occasion – found myself thinking similar thoughts. As someone who’s in and out of hospital more than I’d like, I have often found myself wondering whether this nurse or doctor actually knows what it’s like to take this medication, or go through that procedure that they have no hesitation in suggesting to their patients. (Slight disclaimer here: I have thought this in an idle, passing way – not in the shooty Firefly way.) But (the relevance is coming…wait for it…) I also think there’s some definite crossover here with editing.

One of the things that I think makes me particularly suited to being an editor is that, boy oh boy, have I been on the receiving end of that crap. I’ve been reduced to tears by feedback received on my MA. My own mum once nonchalantly mentioned to me that she thought the main character of – what was at the time – my 300,000+ word fictional world was ‘a horrible person’. When I sent the book I’m currently submitting to my old dissertation supervisor, she managed to tell me that it basically needed re-writing from scratch in a way that made me feel positive and motivated as I left the meeting – though to be fair:

thats witchcraft

I am no stranger to harsh editing. So I bust a gut with every review sent to me, trying to respond in a way that is constructive but kind. In spite of which, I’ve had one or two responses from the young people that have made it clear they’ve felt defensive over my edits, and this gives me pause. Because on the one hand I’m mortified that I’ve displeased them – my whole purpose with Cuckoo Review is to help them, not annoy them. But on the other, perhaps a touch harsh, hand, a part of me thinks…well, that’s life. Similar to what I was saying in my ‘how good do you have to be’ post , self-editing is an essential part of making your work good enough; and the editing of others is, if anything, moreso.

As a teenager I once swapped my recently completed first novel with a friend’s, to read and critique each other’s work. My friend gave me plenty to think about for my own story (which was, in my poor friend’s defence, pretty abysmal), but when I went through the novel I had been given in return, I found every one of my suggestions countered; every question dismissed. At the time if frustrated me, frankly because I was a bit of an arrogant sod when it came to writing, but also because I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well then why did you ask me to read it?’

Because if a piece of writing is published, you are asking people to read it. And at least some of them are going to have questions, problems and critiques. So even before reaching the realm of submissions (which I realise I have made look devastatingly tempting to you all), I think it’s wise to listen to every edit given to you. I’ve always tried to listen. Some feedback I’ve dismissed quite rightly, some I really should have listened to – but most of it, even when I haven’t liked it, I’ve taken on board. Because that’s life.

And with that, we can file this away under ‘Becky’s Egotistical Reason #542 on why the publishing industry should stop ignoring her’, and move on with our days.

Next Post: Networking. Yep. You knew it was coming. We all knew it was coming. Try as you might, there is no escaping that terrible word and it’s horrifically awkward results. Now excuse me while I hyperventilate into a paper bag just at the thought of writing about it.

Submissions Last Week:

Well the best I’ve managed in a while – a WHOPPING 3!

Current Rejection Tally: 24

How Good Do You Have To Be?

So this is a question I, somewhat arrogantly, haven’t actually addressed on the blog yet: how good do you actually have to be to get published? Temporarily pushing aside the luck, the timing, the taste and all the other myriad factors that contribute to publication: is the book actually just…good enough?

Well, actually, I suppose the first question is; does it actually have to be good? Now, you can throw all the Fifty Shades of Grey / Twilight arguments you like at me, but the answer is yes. Yeah, I know: E.L. James is rich, Stephenie Meyer got a contract within a month or something, that book you read last month was purest bollocks etc. etc. There are always going to be exceptions to the rule: every now and then I think the universe likes to throw a curveball, just to check we’re all paying attention. Plus, I maintain that if E.L. James had been submitting to agencies, she would have been soundly and eternally ignored. She was published because of her fanfic’s pre-existing  popularity, and thus a guaranteed audience – and if the last year has taught us anything at all, it is that there is absolutely no accounting for the public’s taste.

i dunno

So, let’s assume that yes, the book does – obviously – have to be good enough to be published. How do I know when I have touched upon such hallowed ground?

Well, for me, it’s a combination of four factors, in descending order of common sense.

  1. I have edited it until my eyes bleed.  

Another thing we can just assume, is that a first draft isn’t good enough. Unless you’re magic, or perhaps Shakespeare (though even then…unlikely), a first draft is never going to be the best you can make it. I – she says, preening – have edited my book so much I lost count of what technically counted as a draft when I started the whole thing again from scratch, four edits in. I have edited it so much I simply cannot do it anymore, without knowing it will actually serve a purpose. I don’t say this out of arrogance or smugness, so much as with the hollow, weary eyes of one who truly – truly – cannot listen to the sound of her own narrative without screaming anymore. So that’s my measure of when you’ve edited enough; when you know it by heart, spend half an hour debating over comma placement, and cannot look at the manuscript without feeling slightly sick.

  1. Positive feedback from knowledgeable sources.

Now, this doesn’t mean ‘my mum reads lots of books, and she loved it’ (not least because my mum – whilst generally fabulous – hasn’t read it, probably wouldn’t like it, and would have no qualms about telling me so). I am, however, fortunate enough to have been able to take an MA in Creative Writing, and so had access to published, experienced writers to edit and feedback on my work. One of them said she thought that, with some work, this story would be publishable, and I have clung to that casual comment like a particularly voracious koala bear. I expect a similar effect could be achieved by paying for a professional editor’s opinion. Expensive, but – rest assured – cheaper than an MA.

One a similar note, whilst I haven’t actually had anything approaching an offer of representation from an agent, I have had several personal, heartening rejections (ha) and three full manuscript requests, which – if somewhat soul-destroying when they come to nothing – are unquestionably encouraging in the long run.

  1. Arrogant comparisons to published books.

Now please don’t think too badly of me for this one. I frequently read books so mind-alteringly astounding they make me feel like a time-wasting goon, with not an ounce of talent to speak of. I also often read books that leave me with a sort of begrudging admiration for a phrase or paragraph that feels depressingly beyond my own meagre ability. But occasionally – just occasionally – I read a published book, and get a twisted thrill of smugness, combined with a hearty dollop of bitterness, and the thought ‘I think I would have pulled that off better,’ or ‘I think my idea’s more original than that,’ or, most often, ‘WHY is she doing that, my characters are never this plot-servingly stupid!’ (disclaimer: not always true). And hey, they got published, right?

  1. Sheer pig-headedness.

The fact is that an awful lot of the time – and especially more recently – I’m not at all sure I’m good enough. I re-read excerpts of my submission and am suddenly, burningly sure they’re crap. I write a few lines of a new project, and cringe even as my fingers tap. I receive a rejection and ignore the positive comments, so as to wallow in the ‘oh GOD, she’s RIGHT, I am a TERRIBLE WRITER’ of the criticisms. Not only is this unhelpful, I know – in my heart of hearts, and less self-pitying moods – that it’s unfair. On good days, in soft lighting, I’m pretty sure I’m a decent writer. But failing that, I am as bloody stubborn as they come. And you’d be surprised how useful that is.

Next Post: Being as I’m not currently mired quite so deep in the self-pity trench as I have been in (many) previous weeks, I’m going to try and stagger through a post on what happens if this actually doesn’t work. Because, let’s face it, there’s a good chance it won’t, and we might as well all be prepared.

gulp

Submission Last Week

Just two, because I’m STILL waiting on that third MS response…which doesn’t feel like the most encouraging sign…

Current Rejection Tally: 17

A Most Technical and Thorough Study of Successful Children’s Authors

Firstly, apologies for the lack of post last week – I was halfway through writing this one, thought I had loads more time to finish it, and then accidentally filled that time with other stuff. My bad.

anyway

‘An original idea. That can’t be too hard, the library must be full of them’ – Stephen Fry

Okay, I was fresh out of blog ideas this week, so have fallen back on the age-old contingency of just nicking stuff from other people. I picked a list of authors by the extremely professional method of ‘the first few that popped into my head’, and put my not-inconsiderable cyber-stalking talents into trying to find their respective rejection / getting published stories. I also tweeted all of them to ask how many rejections they had received for their first novel. I didn’t really expect any replies because, like, these people are busy and my Twitter feed is looking increasingly desperate (which, to be fair, I pretty much am) – but did actually receive two responses!

So, here is my totally random and none-too-comprehensive list. They’re all at least partly children’s authors because that’s my area of interest (also that’s just what I read), and all are award-winning, highly respected and some of my faves.

Jonathan Stroud

Best-selling author of the Bartimaeus Sequence and Lockwood and Co., founder of creativity campaign Freedom To Think, and my all-time favourite children’s author.

I couldn’t find loads of information from Jonathan Stroud on his road to publication. He published a book of word puzzles aged 23, first novel at 28 and two years later became a full-time writer (still two years before the first Bartimaeus book – The Amulet of Samarkand – was published) – so we can safely assume he did pretty damn well. His advice to writers with a completed novel pursuing publication was ‘When you’re confident you’ve got something worth showing, send your material to several publishers at once, so you don’t waste time if it’s rejected. […] Don’t worry if you get rejections, but listen to any advice.’

(To be honest at this point I got sucked into a tragic hour of re-reading loads of information about the Bartimaeus books that I already knew, so let’s move on…)

Patrick Ness

Carnegie-award winning author of the Chaos Walking series, A Monster Calls (novel and screenplay), The Rest of Us Just Live Here, various other slices of fabulousness; but more importantly, another member of my Top 3.

There’s actually LOADS of advice / info from Patrick Ness about getting published, due to his 2009 Booktrust residency, but I’ve picked out the bits that gave my personal ego the warmest hug. He says that his original list of agents to submit to had sixty people on it (mine, after a quick headcount, has 58), and that he kept a spreadsheet of every agent, listing the date the submission was sent and a note on their response. Dude is my spirit animal. He’s non-specific on a stark, cold number of rejections, but does state that he had two ‘very snotty’ letters, a majority of form responses, and five or six requests for the full MS. Of all the author research and reading I did (and I really got quite sucked into it), nothing made me feel as reassured and soothed as this; jokes aside (sickly alert), I can’t express how much better reading this made me feel.

Sarah Crossan

An Irish writer, known mostly for her young adult novels – many of which have won awards, most notably perhaps last year’s One, which won the Carnegie. (Hilariously, I kept typing ‘one’ instead of ‘won’ there…not that I’m jealous or anything.)

Rejections: 0

raspberry

And I quote ‘the journey has been a long one, as it is for most writers […] I wrote privately and with no feedback for ten years before I wrote The Weight of Water, and luckily it was picked up by the first agent I contacted’. Now, Sarah Crossan is extraordinarily talented and seems like a bit of a legend, so I don’t want to undermine that casually understated ‘luckily’, but damn. I think this is one of those ‘exception, not the rule’ situations, but it’s mostly depressing to think about, so let’s just move on…

Matt Haig 

Author, journalist, mental health advocate and all-around dude. Writer of, amongst others, The Last Family in England, The Radleys, Shadow Forest and the upcoming How To Stop Time, about which I am excited.

Rejections: 37

Again there wasn’t a ton of information about Matt Haig’s road to publication – his road to writing a novel was so fraught it presumably is quite overshadowed. He does have a blogpost on how to get published[http://www.matthaig.com/how-to-get-published/], though, written in a typically hilarious series of undercuts and contradictions. Mostly I came across him assuring aspiring writers that being published and successful as a writer will not ‘alter your brain chemistry’ and automatically make you happy. Which I’m sure is true, but, y’know, I’d rather have a crack at it.

Philip Reeve 

Bestselling author of the Mortal Engines series, Carnegie-winner for Here Lies Arthur (my favourite) and recently nominated for Railhead, Philip Reeve actually responded to my tweet!

Rejections: and I quote, ‘LOADS’

I’m just going to let this sequence of tweets speak for itself: “Oh, LOADS of agents rejected Mortal Engines, or just ignored it.” – “This was before steampunk was a thing, I think the retro-tech element just confused them.” – “One said I needed to make it more futuristic, ‘like Independence Day’.” – “(I was trying to sell it as grown-up SF/F. When I redid it as a kids book Scholastic were interested straight away.)” – “The best bit was after it was published, when some of the agents who’d ignored my letters got in touch asking to represent me.” WE CAN ONLY DREAM.

So that was fun and educational for all! I would highly recommend giving these authors websites a good look, and if you’re into YA and haven’t read any of their respective novels then it’s only really sensible that you drop whatever you’re doing and get on that.

Next Post: How good do you actually have to be to get published? Hell if I know, but since when has that stopped me writing a blog post on it?

Submissions Last Week

Just one, but I’m still waiting on Full MS Request #3 so even that one was probs a bit cheeky…

Current Rejection Tally: 14

 

Following advice, not following advice, and giving advice guilty side-eye whilst ignoring it.

There is an overabundance of ‘how to get published’ advice out there. This is a fairly stupid thing to say, some would advise, given that this very blog could be seen as ‘how to get published’ advice.

advice - sarcastic comment

Except that CLEARLY this is not ‘how to get published’ advice. At best, this is ‘how to sort-of, sometimes cope with NOT being published, and only occasionally embarrass yourself’ advice. On which I occasionally implore you not to follow my really quite questionable advice.

But that’s mostly because I – as an unpublished person – shouldn’t really know the first thing about getting published. And you should never follow advice from someone who has not actually achieved whatever it is they’re advising you about. Except that, actually, I do know quite a lot about how to get published. I kind of know how to decide which way I should pursue publication, I know what resources are most helpful, I know how difficult it is and why that is, I know how long the odds are, I know how valuable determination is, I know – more to the point – how valuable actual writing talent is (as much as anyone can). I’d actually be willing to bet I know as much about getting published as some people who are published. I have the theory nailed, I’m just having…issues with the practical.

And as someone who has re-taken the practical as many times as I have – somehow getting ever closer to success without actually moving – I have been thoroughly and persistently bombarded with advice. Now much of this I have actually sought out, and most of it has been immensely valuable: I only gained whatever knowledge I have by pilfering it from other sources. BUT, it has to be said that occasionally there are moments when it’s actually worth ignoring the advice.

Here have been a few of these moments from my perspective:

  • When told that I shouldn’t send off a submission a day, but craft individual submissions carefully and individually, wait for the response to each one and incorporate any (unlikely) feedback into my manuscript before carefully crafting the next submission. Didn’t follow because:

I ain't got time for that

  • It’s universally accepted that you should not continue to email an agency (or frankly, anyone at all) who has rejected you. And whilst in 99.9% of cases I think this is spot on, I have recently – and just the once – ignored it. Because shy bairns get nowt, and sometimes desperation wins out (it hasn’t).
  • Don’t submit to agencies who aren’t advertising for submission. Well I’ve done this twice, once with initially positive results that then went south, and the other with no result at all – but if the worst that can happen is being ignored (which is what happens with many agencies who are open for submission), then I don’t see the harm in it, even if it’s more than likely a total waste of time.
  • Don’t get too downhearted about rejection. Pretty much every rejection I’ve received contains this advice, and whilst it is stellar, it’s also near impossible to follow. Plus, as my boyfriend recently pointed out to me during a more recent meltdown, the extent to which you are upset about something is directly proportionate to how much you care about it. And, you know, caring is A++.

So yes, I reckon the trick is to listen to all advice, take it usually but ignore it when you have reason to. For life generally, really, but – you know, as is relevant – for publishing. There is so much advice out there that you can’t possibly follow all of it, and nor should you – and that’s worth bearing in mind.

Though, to round this off, I’m going to leave you with Matt Haig’s Some Fucking Writing Tips – for some advice that is useful, interesting and – most importantly – hilarious.

Next Post: To be quite honest it’s getting harder and harder to think of posts that seem relevant when often what I want to write is ‘Yep. Still being rejected. Still not JK Rowling.’ So I think I’m going to do what I often do in such creative block situations, and fall back on other people – I’m going to have a dig around a few of my favourite contemporary authors sites and see what they have to say about trying to get published. And then, in all likelihood when I read that they just got published no problem and that’s why they’re successful, duh, throw myself a little Pity Party. All invited.

Submissions Last Week

None, but a guilt-free none this time, as I’m waiting for another full MS response.

Current Rejection Tally: 11