Looking back over 2017

Last year, I made a list of every children’s literature agent in the UK that was open for submission. There were 53 of them. At the beginning of this year, I resolved to submit my recently completed (and by that I mean completed, redrafted, redrafted, rewritten and redrafted several more times) manuscript to every one of them, in a do-or-die experiment to see if this could finally help me achieve my long-standing ambition to get the fucker published.

To cut a long story short, it didn’t.

shrug.gif

My current rejection tally stands at 45. There are a few competition / publisher rejections thrown in there as well, meaning there are still 12 agencies left on my list. I don’t think I’ll be submitting to them. I’m pretty tired.

And there has been some good news in there. I was longlisted for one of those competitions, three of those agencies had requested my full manuscript, and several more sent me encouraging responses; that this book wasn’t for them but I was doing a lot of things right and should keep going.  If it wasn’t for those few positive responses I probably would have drowned in a pool of tears and ice cream by now, so I really am enormously grateful for them.

But yeah, on the whole it has not really been a great year, ambition-wise. It is safe to say that both my ego and motivation are feeling a bit:

beaten up

But to re-employ my most wrung-out metaphor; I’ve been waiting for this bus for effing years, one more isn’t that big of a deal – I’m still not moving a bloody muscle until it gets here. So here, once again, is a Plan Of Action:

1. I won’t be posting (on purpose…) in December, because it’s Christmas and I am in dire need of both cheer, and not thinking about my bludgeoned dreams. Nobody wants to be dealing with this crap at the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.

sad elf

2. Currently the plan is to keep The Rejection Box going in the new year, because there are definitely more rejections in my future, amiright?! I’ll be posting fortnightly or monthly though, as for a while my focus will be to…

3. Write something new. Again.

And who knows? Maybe 2018 will turn out to be The Year.

Until then, Merry Christmas x

 

 

Advertisements

The Whooshing Sound

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that I was aiming to complete my new manuscript for the Chicken House Children’s Fiction Prize deadline of 8th December. I also casually mentioned on my Twitter feed that I’d reached the 40,000 word mark of my new manuscript by early October, but had also come to the troubling realisation that:

thisisshit

Which was, you know, not great.

The situation was not helped by the fact that throughout October I was having a flare-up of ulcerative colitis (a chronic bowel condition I am blessed with, of which you can find more hilarious details at my page on the women’s health blog Time Of The Month). In short, this meant that I was perennially exhausted, in pain and reaching truly unprecedented levels of raging grumpiness. None of which is particularly conducive to cranking out 5000 words a week of a story you’ve utterly lost faith in.

So on having my manuscript epiphany, I did what any fatigued, hormonal, stressed-to-the-nines writer would do. Had a meltdown, spent a week feverishly trying to find a way of balancing having enough time to fix the manuscript with making it not-shit, had several more meltdowns, and eventually was sat down by my kind and sensible partner to be told that maybe it was time to consider letting the Chicken House deadline go.

I mean, this stung. I am, historically, the sort of person who takes deadlines – if anything – too seriously, and have in the past pushed myself to depressing and unhealthy extremes in order to avoid missing one. But, my partner pointed out – with the sort of quiet, carefully-chosen words one might employ when trying to talk someone off a roof ledge – there would be no punishment for missing this deadline. In many ways it was self-imposed, it would roll around again next year, and it was making me really unhappy.

All of which was true. But to me, the punishment for missing this deadline is a missed opportunity.

This came back around to bite me again this weekend, when the deadline for the Bath Children’s Novel Award made that nice whooshing sound as it flew by me. I had been less focused on this than the Chicken House, as rather than needing a full manuscript to enter, only 5000 words and a synopsis was needed, which I had long-since prepared. Right?

laughcry

Well, I had 5000 words I fully intended to rewrite completely and a synopsis I had mentally binned but had no time to alter. So I spent twenty minutes on the day of the deadline looking over everything I had, trying to figure out if there was anything salvageable that would be even slightly worth the £25 entry fee, and eventually concluded that really, really (really) wasn’t.

I’m trying to see the passing of these deadlines not as lost opportunities, but necessary sacrifices. Even had I persisted with the manuscript as it washed down the toilet, the product would have been a ridiculously flawed story I wasn’t proud of and absolutely knew wouldn’t have a hope in hell in these competitions. But it’s been genuinely difficult not to see these whooshing sounds as personal failures. There’s been a lot of ‘if I hadn’t wasted so much time’, ‘if I’d taken longer over the planning’, ‘if I’d gotten feedback early on’, if if if if blah blah blah… And I still haven’t really shaken any of those feelings off. My attitude to writing has always been that it’s better to write something terrible than nothing at all, and that the only way to guarantee I’ll never get published is if I never submit. So to deliberately not submit, rather than submit something I know is bad, might be ultimately more sensible, but has still clashed spectacularly with my instincts.

Instead, I’m trying to focus on the next plan, and not on the feeling that I’ve set myself back a year. I’ve put the terrible manuscript aside for a while, to let it rest and see if returning to it in a few months can highlight how to fix it. I’ve gently started working on something new, but am trying to take it slowly and enjoyably with a distant deadline of December 2018, rather than looming over myself like an angry Judge Judy.

watch

I have embraced the Whooshing Sound. Unlike Douglas Adams, however, I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it much.

Enjoying the Unopened Box

So I’m guessing most of you know what Schrodinger’s Cat is, but for the sake of clarity; the idea as far as I understand it (and I’m quite sure it’s infinitely more complicated than the way I understand it) is that if you put a cat in a box with a bunch of other nasty stuff, then until you open the box, the cat is simultaneously alive and dead – in that, until you open the box, you don’t know which it is. Now my knowledge of physics is limited to some half-remembered, disconnected GCSE facts, but this I actually understand. (Well, sort of – I did have to clarify with Pete that this was just a ‘thought experiement’, and that Schrodinger didn’t actually put a cat in a box and wait for it to die.)

Currently, I feel like I have a (metaphorical) cat in a box.

Bear with me.

So last Friday morning I pottered into New Writing North to edit some Cuckoo reviews, got myself set up, opened the various tabs I need for work and the various others I have open anyway. When I got to Twitter, I saw this:

tweet

Now my initial feeling was, obviously, excitement. Then anxiety. Then, when I looked sideways at how many reviews I had to edit that day, a wince. But hey, let’s be honest, it was a small miracle I’d bothered to check Twitter in the 24 hours I had to find out about this; I wasn’t going to pass the opportunity up.

So, intending to send tweet-pitches for both my new project and the book I’ve been submitting, I cracked on. I started with the new project, because a hook occurred to me pretty much immediately. For the interested, this was my pitch:

“What if YOU were your own currency? Sweets cost eyelashes, a car costs a memory, true love; your health. And what if you made a bad trade?”

Then I settled back to work, thinking I’d work on the next one during my lunch break (it takes an inordinate amount of time to condense an 85,000 word novel into 140 characters). Exactly TEN MINUTES later, I received a private message from Chicken House asking me to send a full novel pitch and my manuscript in progress to them. Bearing in mind I’m used to waiting 2-3 MONTHS for a reply, for about a minute and a half my only reaction was this:

blink

Then I stood up and sat down again, did an in-the-chair jig, clapped my hands together like a three year old on their birthday and sort of stared around the empty office, wondering what the hell to do with myself. I ended up leaving work early through sheer friggin joy.

So over the weekend I have been frantically writing, re-writing, re-writing again and trying to work out what on earth a ‘full novel pitch’ actually is. It’s honestly been a blast. Mostly because it feels like it’s been a good while now since I’ve had a positive response to my writing – I know that in the scheme of things it hasn’t been that long at all, but Jesus it’s felt that way. I’d gotten myself properly mired in the Rejection Blues. So even to have had a thumbs-up that doesn’t lead anywhere is just the best kick up the arse I could have received.

But speaking of leading anywhere, this is where we come back to Schrodinger’s cat. Even though you thought I’d finally cracked at the beginning of this post, here is the relevance: this is my unopened box. This brief period in between being given good news, and finding out it’s not going anywhere. And unlike my previous full MS requests, where I checked my emails relentlessly and willed the agencies to respond to me as fast as possible, this time I plan to just enjoy the knowledge that the cat could be alive in there.

On Friday, for the first time in ages, I bounced home, and spent the rest of the day high as a bloody kite. To make matters even better, I got a phone-buzz every time someone liked the pitch I’d sent in to Chicken House, and every one pumped a little bit more air into my happy bubble. And I know – Christ, do I know – that this bubble is more than likely to pop, but fuck it.

Right now it’s fat and happy, and so am I. Whether the cat’s alive or dead, for the rest of this week at least, I plan to enjoy every single second of not knowing.

happy dance

 

But what happens if this actually doesn’t work?

God, even writing this post is going to be bleak. But come on guys, let’s chin up and barrel through. I am totally in control of my emotions on this subject, and this will not devolve into a hysterical, shrieking mess. I got this.

fake swagger

Ahem. So. My Current Rejection Tally stands at 22 – and it’s actually 24 if you include the two agencies I’ve nagged for a reply but who almost certainly aren’t going to email me back. (For the interested, 11 of those 22 have been actual rejection letters, the other 11 are assumed – if two months and three emails haven’t done it, we can probably safely assume nothing will.) My top choices list all have big red ‘R’s next to them on the fabled spreadsheet, or a slightly less aggressively red ‘Full MS – R’. Even though I’m currently waiting on 9 responses (unfortunately including the 2 that I’m 99.9% sure are rejections), and have a further 19 agencies in the next batch alone – it seems like it might be time to consider what happens if every one of these agencies – and the ‘long shot’ list that comes after – results in a rejection.

I’ve written before about what I believe is the best way you can prepare for an utterly failed submission, so I’m not really going to cover the practical aspects of what you actually do next, so much as the more abstract, emotional elements. How will I actually feel, if every single one of those agencies tells me I’m not quite good enough?

Firstly, it has to be said, quite embarrassed. There are plenty of people in the world (and I am often one of them) who won’t tell anyone when they have a driving test coming up, or when they’ve started a diet, or made a new life resolution – for fear of having to admit to those same people that you failed. Now not only did I tell literally everyone about my attempts to get published, I actually broadcast it on the internet. I was aware of the extent to which this might backfire when I started, but blithely told myself (and not incorrectly, it has to be said) that it probably wouldn’t be read by anyone, anyway, and it was a good way of guilt-forcing myself into not giving up. And in some ways this has worked – I definitely would have massively slowed down my submission / general creative / positivity output without feeling as though a small collection of friends and strangers would a) notice and b) challenge me on it. In fact, the dread of embarrassment at suddenly giving up on this blog altogether has once or twice resulted in rage-fuelled Sunday night power-writings, or panic-fuelled I-have-to-catch-a-train-in-half-an-hour submissions – which may not have produced my best work, but it did at least produce work. So yes, if at the end of this little internet adventure I have to post a ‘sorry guys, but I ran out of agents who might have cared’ conclusion, I will feel pretty damn mortified.

On a slightly more optimistic note, I think a (very small, to be honest) part of me will be pretty much okay with it. Being able to devote myself fully to my new project would hopefully grease some seriously sticky wheels, and I can’t say it won’t feel refreshing to see that little ‘(1)’ symbol on my inbox and not get that contradictory swoop of hope and dread in my guts.

But let’s be honest here, the overwhelming majority of my feelings will be neatly summarised by this image:

crying in the rain

The disappointment will be crushing on, I imagine, new and exciting levels. I don’t really want to linger on this point, but think 24/7 pyjamas, crying in work bathrooms and a hopefully temporary, though nonetheless intense, crisis of confidence / self-esteem. Throw in about 6 BMI points worth of chocolate and binge-watching old Friends episodes, and you pretty much have it. It wouldn’t be pretty.

The astute among you may have noticed that I’ve mentioned giving up and starting again twice before – my current submission is actually the third novel I’ve sent off, misty-eyed and hopeful, to agencies. So do I not know exactly how I’ll feel if I have to give up and start again now? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?…your call), no. I was nowhere near as mercenary with either of my previous submissions, and submitted in a much more happy-go-lucky, arbitrary and (perhaps) healthy way. Whilst this meant neither story was exposed to as many potential opportunities, it also meant that neither of them were systematically rejected by everyone possible (though in fairness…I’m pretty damn sure they would have been). Prior to now, I have never exhausted every possibility in my bull-headed pursuit of publication – and so maintained the veil of ‘well it could have happened…’ that would be thoroughly lacking this time.

So…yeah. If this doesn’t work, it will suck. But here are the comforting thoughts on which I will leave both you and (for sanity reasons) myself:

  1. It hasn’t happened yet, and is actually quite a ways off.
  2. Even if this book is rejected by everyone, I am 100% sure that I will just write another one, and try again.
  3. One day – one bloody day – I am as sure as it is possible for me to be that my stubbornness will beat the shit out of the publishing industry’s stubbornness, and I’ll get there.

So we’ll see.

Next Post: As part of my other life in which I actually get paid for stuff, I’ve started work as the editor for Cuckoo Review – a publication in which young people in the north of England write arts reviews, supported by New Writing North and an array of professional writers. Having been doing this job for a few weeks now, it’s got me thinking about the importance of editing, and the relationship between writers’ acceptance of criticism and chances of success – cue, The Rejection Box. Didn’t I make that sound like an absolute riot!?

Submissions Last Week:

Just two, but to be honest considering the level of busy things are at the moment, and the fact that I still haven’t heard back from Full Manuscript Request #3 – unusually, I don’t actually feel the need to apologise.

Current Rejection Tally: 22

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

The Dream Backup

So in my Rejection post a few weeks ago I mentioned how helpful I think it can be to start working on a new project as soon as the old one is in the submissions stage. I say this having never actually successfully achieved it – but the theory is stellar. And here’s why:

  1. It’s fun

Really though. I’ve always found the range of attitudes writers have to writing frankly hilarious. You have everything, from the people surrounding you telling you that if you don’t enjoy writing then you shouldn’t bother, to George RR Martin telling you he enjoys ‘having written’, to Hemingway saying you ‘sit at a typewriter and bleed’. And I have definitely experienced every one of those emotions whilst 50,000 words into a story I’m suddenly not sure is any good.

But, that’s a few months down the line. The start of a new project is like:

this is the best.gif

Because it’s all the good bits! For me at least, the best thing about writing is the story – and the start of a new project is all about the story. You can sit around in your pants (optional) and think about why your favourite Joss Whedon characters are your favourites, or what it is about the relationship between the kids in Stranger Things that works so well, or how cool it was in that book when all those characters who hated each other had to work together. You can weave whole new characters and plots and make them all the things you’ve loved in the last couple of years. And if you have a sudden doubt that actually maybe that thing in the middle needs to happen nearer the end, you don’t have to have a week-long crisis of debating whether this is enough of a problem to require four months of rewrites. You just draw some squiggly arrows and big crosses in a notebook and it’s sorted.

The fun of starting a new project, to my mind, is the perfect antidote to the soul-crushing cycle of expectation and disappointment that has certainly characterised my submission process. Remind yourself why you’re actually doing this – because, really, it’s worth it.

  1. It’s productive

I’m here to tell you that however rigidly you stick to a submissions timetable, you will still feel like those bits of food that go gunky and block the sink (wilted and gross? …no?) when an agent responds to the submission that collectively took you about three hours (not to mention the months of work on the novel itself) with a two-line, standard rejection email that doesn’t even have your name at the top. If they respond at all, that is. It’s extremely easy to feel like you are just wasting your time, to which the best solution, I reckon, is to use some of your other time really, really well. And what could be more productive than getting started on a whole new project?

  1. It’s distracting

So thirty or forty times a day I have a conversation with myself, which goes a bit like this:
The ‘Eat The Chocolate, Stay In Bed, You Can Exercise Tomorrow’ Voice: Check your emails.
The Sensible Voice: But I checked them eighteen seconds ago.
The ETCSIBYCET Voice: An agent could have replied in those eighteen seconds. It’s been twenty seconds now.
Sensible: Probably not though…
ETCSIBYCET: You won’t know unless you check.
Sensible: True…
ETCSIBYCET: Dooooo it…
*checks emails*
Sensible, now downhearted: Nope, just that Travelzoo promotion full of holidays I can’t afford…
ETCSIBYCET: I mean you could always have a look at them, though…

Clicking ‘refresh’ on your emails is not a good use of your time. Do anything else. Better yet – do something productive.

  1. It’s like Dream Backup

So just for a minute, let’s consider the worst possible outcome. It’s been months. You’ve (I’m using the second person here mostly for peace of mind) sent the book off to literally every relevant agent, publisher and competition in the country and they have all said no. Everything, without question, sucks.

But do you know what I’m betting makes it worse? If you then have to muster up the phenomenal amount of willpower, bravery and sheer bloody-mindedness to start again, from scratch. I imagine for myself at least, that every time anyone made a casual, gentle enquiry after that writing thing I used to be interested in, I’d just be like:

don't ask me.gif

That, surely, is the moment in which you are most likely to give up.

UNLESS, that is, you already have a plot outline and a few thousand words under your belt! Don’t get me wrong, that’s not going to wave a magic wand and cure the open, bleeding rejection wound – but it might at least disinfect it a bit.

So yes, I think the best thing you can do to keep yourself motivated and reasonably sane is to start a new book as soon as you send off that first submission. Even if you can’t or don’t devote loads of time to it – it will help. It’s helping me.

That, and the occasional cheese binge.

Next Post: A very, very carefully worded and much-debated-over attempt to not shoot myself in the foot whilst discussing the contradictions of the agency/submitting author relationship, and the respect (or lack thereof) that goes in both directions. Literally everyone is going to tell me not to write this post, so I’m probably going to fumble over the words so much it’ll come out more or less meaningless. Stay tuned!!!

Submissions Last Week

None, as explained in my last post. (Though actually I did send a cheeky one off over the weekend to an agent who was only opening for submission until Monday…shhhh…)

Current Rejection Tally: 3