With A Little Help From My Friends

Ha, how cliche is this title?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cliches over the last couple of weeks. Now that I’m (finally) trying to work out an overall plot for my new project, the phrase, “THAT’S SO BLOODY CLICHE” has been reverberating around my head more than any other (except possibly “I’m hungry”).

I’ve got no idea how many times I’ve embarked on the plotting of a new story, and I think every single time has been different. Sometimes it all comes out in a frantic fever-dream of creativity (or so I’ve heard), sometimes it’s a sudden coming-together of this idea and that concept, sometimes it’s a series of evenings sitting down with a whiteboard and trying to connect a few sparky dots in your head.

This time,  I’ve mostly nicked stuff from my friends.

In the past, I’ve usually played my story cards very close to my chest until I have a draft I’m happy to share. However, in the past when I’ve shared it at this written stage – when it is, to my mind, maybe 80% complete – some careful, honest, supportive friend has gently said, “But you know this decision she makes at the end of chapter one, which triggers everything that happens after? Don’t you think she’d do this instead?” and you look into their gentle, trying-to-help eyes, smile knowingly, pat them on the head and say, “…shit.”

ah shit

So I’ve learned, guys. This time, I cornered my partner (also a writer), stole his whiteboard, explained all my disconnected ideas and thoughts to him, and then wrote down everything he said and passed it off as my own original thinking. This done, I bat-signalled (read: facebook messaged) two writer friends from my Creative Writing Masters, explained the outline I alone (ahem) had come up with and again wrote down everything they said and am now passing it off as my own original thinking. And you know what? Turns out my own original thinking is good.

And this is hardly a groundbreaking approach. Pixar, the Masters of Storytelling (if you don’t agree with me I will fight you), have been doing this for years, and, you know, they’ve done alright out of it.

To nobody’s surprise, this has been enormously helpful. Not only does it help to give me some perspective on how worthwhile my own ideas are, it pushes me to think in directions I wouldn’t have considered on my own. Plus, you know, plagiarism.

So that’s where I’m at this month. Feeling more positive, more original, and more like I’m onto something…with a little help from my friends.

sunglasses

 

 

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Finding What Works For You

I’ve been struggling, so far in 2018, to properly settle to a writing routine. If you read some of my earlier blogs from last year, you’ll (correctly) get the sense that routine, schedules and templates are pretty important to both who I am as a person and how I like to work. This is not romantic. Jack Kerouac would have no time for this shit.

But what I realised several years ago now, when obsessively studying successful writers methods and habits to try and burn them into my own and thus achieve greatness, is that most of them don’t work. At least, not for me.

I do not do a whole bunch of things that writers are ‘supposed’ to do. I don’t get up at 6am to write for two hours before work. I don’t always carry a notebook. I don’t write something every day.

I have good(ish) reasons for all of these things. I don’t get up early to write because I cannot deal with mornings as they are, and anything I wrote in them would probably not be passable English, let alone competent storytelling. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t tend to write ideas down the instant they occur to me, because I like to let them rise for a while, like bread dough, developing and improving before they go in the oven – sometimes if I write an idea down too early I realise its flaws too fast and don’t give it a chance to become something tasty. Also, I’m lazy. I don’t write something every day because whenever I’ve tried to, the pressure of knowing that THIS IS THE ONLY FIVE MINUTE INTERVAL IN WHICH I CAN WRITE ANYTHING TODAY paralyses my ability to write anything at all. Also, I’m lazy.

and that works for me

But there are plenty of ‘common writing tips’ that I follow to the letter. I try to stick to a set routine. I read widely both in and outside of the genre I’m writing. I write stories I love, not ones I think will sell (as is now teeth-grittingly apparent). I hammer out a first draft without pausing to over-analyse what needs editing.

I discovered the various things that work for me through trial and error, and I’m still always learning new things that help and new things that absolutely do not. Here are a few of my personal discoveries:

  • Routine = good. Trial and error led to the realisation that I hit my writing stride an hour or so after I’ve technically ‘started’ (but there’s an awful lot of checking Twitter, getting cups of tea and staring slack-jawed out of the window in that hour), and once I stop for a break I rarely get my mojo back. For me, this means the best hours for writing are between 10am (I know, I know, it’s disgusting) and 1pm, and afternoons are only successful once you’ve ploughed through two hours of feeling like a talentless piece of human crap.
  • Being realistic = good. Whatever I do to try and help myself, there are days when I sit down, look at a flashing cursor and bleed slowly and painfully into a word doc, only to delete all 61 words two hours later when I realise it’s pointless exposition. Accepting that these days will happen, rather than feeling like a failure and stroppily refusing to start in the first place, is healthy (which is not to say that’s how I always react…).

tantrum

  • Reading = good. Specifically, reading a chapter of a good book before I start writing. I find the most inspirational and least plagiarise-y (important) stuff is books that have a loose genre in common with your writing (i.e. ‘adventure’), but not the specifics (Amazonian survival story vs. fantasy witch escapades). It’s the tone that helps; what I’m after is a nugget of that feeling you get when you – for instance – come out of the Wonder Woman screening and have a physical urge to punch your way through the cinema’s fourth-floor windows and jump with simultaneous grace and power into the street. (You get that…er, right?)
  • Rejection = bad. Which brings us back to this blog. As it has transpired, spending a year being systematically told I am not quite good enough to be a writer has not done much for my ability to write. I am struggling at the minute. I seek out all the flaws in an idea before it’s even formed properly, I lose faith after 100 bad words, I look for everything that’s wrong with a chapter rather than what’s right, I tell myself I have to make it perfect rather than just seeing where my own enjoyment takes me. It’s pretty exhausting.

But if all of these trials and errors have taught me anything, it’s that there will be a balance. Rejection did not work for me, but perseverance does. And having all my personal working tools in place is making it so much easier to stagger on through this current boggy patch.

As hit-and-miss as writing advice is, the most quoted and most common is still, I believe, the best:

Write.

But do it in a way that works for you.

2018 Goals

Hello! Here I am! Posting on the 29th day of January to prove that I really did mean it when I said I’d post once a month! *cough*

And even though it seems a bit late to be posting goals for 2018 now that we’re a month in, it’s still January so whatever, I’m doing it.

i got nothing

Having received a thorough pounding to my hopes, dreams and ego in 2017, I’ve gone for slightly more…restrained 2018 goals. Here goes…

  1. Don’t. Give. Up.
  2. Try to do something that contributes towards my writing ambition every day, even if it’s tiny. Or, at least, most days. Or maybe weekdays…
  3. Submit to the Northern Writers Awards by 1st February (this one is ALREADY almost complete, given that I – thankfully – made no specifications as to quality or finesse of said submission).
  4. Submit to The Bath Children’s Novel Award and the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition later in the year.
  5. Keep an eye out for other opportunities to apply for.
  6. Make time for writing.
  7. Try to be less angry / jealous / frustrated / saddened by the current absence of success.
  8. Don’t rush so much – the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere, they’ll still be rejecting people in a year or two’s time.
  9. Read more.
  10. Finish at least the first draft of a new story. (ALREADY 6000 WORDS IN BOYS.)

nailed it

So let’s see.

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

 

 

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