WRITER, ARTIST, WHATEVER – #1 ASPIRING NOVELIST
An occasional series where writers and creatives in different fields tell us how it feels.
99% perspiration, 1% representation
by Anna Clair
When I was seven years old, I remember being passionately jealous of Jayne Fisher, a child prodigy of authorship, who had, at the tender age of nine, written and illustrated a series of children’s picture books about happy vegetables called the Garden Gang.
Like most kids, I’d dallied with the usual aspirations to be an astronaut, film star, bus driver and so forth – but when I saw that it was possible for a girl only a few years older than me to get published (conceivably, now I look back on it, with a little help from her Mum), all these dreams fell away. I was going to be a writer, oh yes I was, and I was going to start right now. If Jayne Fisher, with her Royal School of Church Music Ribbon awards and her sideline in breeding stick insects, could do it, hell, so could I.
My first book was a couple of inches square, made out of lined paper torn from my school notebook, and featured a girl detective character who bore a startling resemblance to me. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t exactly channelling Philip Roth, but I had higher ambitions than writing stories about vegetables (pah! I’d show Jayne!) so I decided to write what might now be termed a techno-thriller, involving stolen jewels, an evil stepfather, liquid oxygen kept in the garden shed, and, for some bizarre reason, a wheelchair as the getaway vehicle.
Needless to say, despite a thrilling plot and my own lovingly hand-drawn pictures (self in detective uniform, bottle of liquid oxygen, colourful piles of loot, pimped-out wheelchairs etc.), Bloomsbury didn’t come knocking. But that didn’t matter, because I’d found my calling – and besides, I had ages. I’d definitely be published by the time I was ten. No question.
In my teenage years I discovered poetry, and got distracted. (Who wants to be Dickens when they can be Shakespeare, right?) My first publication outside of a school magazine was at the age of 21, in a now-defunct short story magazine called Lexikon. The story was, ahem, not that great – but it was also the first one I’d written in over ten years. This was a piece of piss! A bestselling debut novel, worldwide acclaim and unimaginable wealth would certainly be mine by the time I was 25 – wouldn’t it?
I finished my first, massively over-long, rambling, Byzantine mess of a novel a few months before my 25th birthday. I’d always assumed that the reason I wasn’t famous and adored as a writer was because I hadn’t actually bothered to write a whole novel yet – after all, that’s where the happy-ending fade-out usually comes in books or films about aspiring writers: not when they’ve spent a year revising, editing and shopping the thing around, but when they scribble in their notebook, bash out on their Olivetti, or type onto their laptop screen the two second-most satisfying words in the English language: “The End”.
(For the record, the most exciting – and daunting – two are “Chapter One” … at least in my world).
But, needless to say, this was only the beginning of a very, very long road …
Flushed with completion, I sent out the requisite three chapters and synopsis, along with a carefully composed and spellchecked covering letter, to a selection of literary agents, sat back, and waited for the offers and plaudits to roll in. I received a number of standard rejections, and one non-standard one which described my style as “cloying”. (Fair enough.) A bit of a setback, sure, but that was OK – I was winning a prize here and there, I had plenty of time, and if the novel didn’t work out, maybe someone would publish a book of my short stories? Yes, I was that naïve.
And then Zadie Smith happened. Talented, beautiful, edgy, slightly exotic and by all accounts a fabulous jazz singer too, Zadie spoiled it for everyone of her generation by having a monster hit with White Teeth which no-one could really hope to emulate. All of a sudden it wasn’t enough to get your novel published (as a friend of mine who made his debut in Year Zadie, also aged 25, discovered) – you had to become a literary superstar. I might as well throw in the towel.
But I didn’t. I immediately started another novel, and abandoned it after about six chapters in favour of directing a play. (Maybe I could be the new Peter Hall? … Ah. No, apparently I couldn’t). I kept writing stories and poetry, on and off, and slowly got better at the stories. I joined a writing group, then I did a Creative Writing MA, and learned to be harsh with myself and constructively critical with others (and trust me, that ain’t easy).
I still didn’t finish another novel, but hey, that was OK, I’d absolutely have a two-book contract by my 30th birthday. 30 zoomed up the tracks towards me. I got an agent (thanks to the MA) and pitched a book of interlinking short stories to her; she liked the idea. Score! I started writing the first story. I kept writing the first story. My housemate, who loved the genre I was writing in (historical fiction) read it as it grew; I’d type away until 6 in the morning and slip the latest chapter under his door on my bleary-eyed way to work.
I wasn’t starving, luckily, but I was literally living in an Edwardian garret (my room was at the top of the house and very, very small) – how perfect was that? Surely nobody could reject a book written in an actual garret? I could see the Observer interview now. I took a couple of photos of my tiny room to support the rags-to-riches story the Sundays would no doubt want to run on me when the book was published. (As it undoubtedly would be, some time very soon, and definitively before I was 35).
I’d already had two sets of early chapters nixed by my agent and I wanted to do her proud, so I resolved not to submit what was blatantly now going to be a novel to her until it was finished, in case she didn’t like it and I didn’t have the heart to carry on. I hit a dry patch and didn’t do any work on it for several months. Then I went to another friend’s book launch, and was kindly advised by a random fellow guest to write some erotic fiction if I wanted to “break in”.
“How very dare you!” I ached to retort. “Don’t you know I am a Published Writer (of Short Stories)?! I have Won Prizes! I have Been Paid for my Work! I Have An Agent!!! I am no mere amateur, I am a Dazzling Success Waiting To Happen!”
Luckily, I said none of this, because
a) it would have been very rude to someone who was only trying to help
b) it would have made me sound like a dreadful wanker
c) all the above counts for precisely fuck-all if you haven’t had a novel published, because that’s all most people care about. Me, especially.
Instead I went back to working on my novel, powered by the two strongest forces known to aspiring novelists; envy and bloodymindedness. I finished it three months later and sent the first three chapters to my agent. She liked them! She wanted to see more! My God, this was it! I celebrated, somewhat prematurely as it turned out, by getting incredibly pissed in a posh hotel. I wondered aloud whether public demand meant that I would be stuck in the historical genre, or whether I could make the second book science fiction. Astonishingly, nobody smacked me in the face.
It was at this point that hubris kicked in. My agent liked it, but wanted “a few” changes, which turned out, on closer examination, to involve rewriting pretty much the whole thing. At the same time, an ex’s first novel was published, to huge acclaim and oleaginous interviews in the Sundays. My oleaginous interviews, damn it! For what felt like about eight years, but was probably only a few weeks, every time I got off the tube from my job working for a north-west London housing association, I was stared in the face by a massive poster for his book.
I started taking the bus.
(Sorry if this is a bit long, by the way, but I’ve managed to cover about ten years of writing so far; bear with me).
I sat on the novel for eighteen months, sulking, brooding, doing other things, and not changing a word of it. Why couldn’t my agent understand that it was perfect as it was? Where was the uncritical adulation and giant cheque I so richly deserved?
Then came the credit crunch, a well-timed break-up, and four months of unemployment. I did some more sulking, interspersed with sunbathing, and finally realised that if I was going to have anything at all to show for this time apart from an empty bank account, an all-over tan and an excellent working knowledge of Trisha, I’d better get my arse in gear and rewrite the bloody novel.
I rewrote it. I resubmitted it. My agent felt that it had improved, but that perhaps it should go “on the back burner” for now. I felt that, seeing as I’d now spent nearly a year and a half on it (not including sulking time) it shouldn’t.
So, deciding to seek a second opinion (and a third, and a fourth), I submitted it to a few other agents with whom I had some sort of connection – my writer friends knew them, or they’d been interested in me after the MA, or, in one case, they’d seen a story of mine in a magazine and liked my writing.
Number One didn’t like the first chapters, but asked for some stories. (Blimey!)
Number Two liked it, but suggested another – again, fairly massive – rewrite.
Number Three liked it a lot, and suggested some more minor rewrites. (Are you sensing a theme?)
Number Four suggested a meeting. (I presume this meant that he liked it, but we’ll see).
Number Five I phoned up after a couple of months of waiting. He said he’d read my chapters, and would get back to me ASAP. He asked me if I was talking to other agents, and I said yes, but hadn’t met them yet. That was a few days ago.
The road to publication is strewn with rejection slips, disappointment, envy, more envy, a lot of coffee, many many late nights, frustration, hard work, moments of feeling like a genius, more frequent moments of feeling like a failure, moments of feeling like an utter twat, and moments of dancing joyously round the room like an utter twat.
I’ve got my first meeting with Number Four in a week. Wish me luck.
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