There’s this thing that a lot of people do where they talk only about the good times. It’s not everyone – I definitely know people who focus on the negatives and make you worry that their world is falling apart when it isn’t, too. But most of us seem to like to talk about our successes, and gloss over the failure.
It’s something that I don’t think helps us all very much, even though I understand entirely where it comes from. People don’t generally say “Hey, I put all my heart and soul into something, and it went nowhere.” It’s particularly the case in the creative industries.
And standing here, for the first time in my twenty years of wanting to be a “proper writer” and having got some of the marks of success I’ve always looked for – even before the book is out, and with no idea whether it will actually sell – I wanted to share all the failures that actually led here.
Because man, there were a lot…
The Teenage Years
I mentioned twenty years of wanting to be a real, published author. Well let’s think back to me at fourteen. (I know – I don’t want to, either…)
I wrote a novel back then, largely sitting in the back of my lessons when I should have been concentrating. It was truly, truly terrible. It was set in America and it was a sort-of thriller called Retribution. I can’t tell you how bad it was. I later destroyed it, which is a shame, as it would have been a hoot to read now.
Luckily enough, it was bad enough for me to realise how awful it was, and I decided to write another book. And that was slightly better. It had a few of the themes of a later book that I wrote, The Butterfly Catchers, but was – let’s face it – still pretty bad.
Now I was a teenager, and at this point I decided I was clearly a learned-enough writer to approach an editor. Which I did – via a connection. The incredibly kind Tim Manderson from Transworld, who actually rang me up to tell me that he thought I had promise. He also told me that my prose was “purple” it was so over-written, but he was nice enough that I didn’t quite lose heart. I figured I just needed to keep writing.
Like a lot of people, I ended up pretty absorbed in university life. I did too much drama and rowing, and way too little work. I wrote a little on the side: my first plays, which turned out to be a lot better than my prose at that stage. Because what I was doing with the prose, as a lot of people also do, was to rewrite and rewrite the same book and not actually accept that it just needed shelving.
My first proper failure came when a friend of mine who had an agent showed some stuff to him. And he was NOT kind about it. He systematically tore it apart. The only positive (and I still remember this, so it just goes to show) was that he liked my dialogue. And that was it.
Having felt pretty bad about the whole thing, I decided just to write plays for a while. And that seemed to go better. I won a few awards, even if I couldn’t seem to find an “in” with any big theatre companies. So instead, I toured them, and learned a lot from feedback, and their general good reception made me feel like there was light at the end of the tunnel.
Periodically, during this time, I would send off a few queries for that same novel of mine that I was working to death. And in every case, I got a no. It didn’t seem to matter whether I tried agents or publishers; nobody cared. The glimmers of ideas that were good were buried, in all probability, by a lot that was bad, and also, let’s not forget, by the thousands of other writers sending in three chapters and a plot synopsis. Don’t even get me started on the waste of time that is people confusing basic levels of literacy with the ability to actually write…
The heart-racing feeling when I got a letter back was always followed by crushing disappointment, and so, for a while, I stopped trying. I knuckled under with the scripts, and despite writing a whole other book while macros were running in my first terrible job out of uni, I stopped sending queries.
…And She Lived Happily Ever After… only I didn’t
Five years ago, everything changed, drastically. I undertook the UEA Creative Writing MA, where I largely did scriptwriting, but managed to cadge a few classes in prose-writing with some amazing writers. And a big thing changed. I realised that I wanted to write a NEW book. Not the same one over and over. I had a different story to tell, and I was darn well going to tell it. It was called The Butterfly Catchers, and something told me that it was different.
And something else had changed, too. In the depths of the UEA course, buried in the brilliant teachings of an Adaptation lecturer, I learned how to pitch. I realised that my lists of plot points I’d been sending out for years would have been making agents’ eyes glaze over before they’d got to the cover page. I learned to actually tell the story, and man did it make a difference.
Midway through the course, having walked out of a terrible event, I took an extract to several agents, and WHAM – they wanted to read more. And then to represent me. And after that, I decided to try my luck with the agent I’d once met in the ladies’ loos at Ely Cathedral and had a girl-crush on (this is a whole other story) and she and her incredible co-agent actually did want me.
It was the BEST FEELING in the WORLD…
…until the book didn’t sell to any of the publishers it was sent to.
Nope, not to any. Not even with some tweaks and resubmission.
I had had six agents wanting to sign me, and one of the most influential scouts in the industry tell everyone that she loved it. But the editors just didn’t want it. They didn’t love it. My creation of love was unanimously rejected. And man it hurt.
Taking it Badly
It’s sad to admit it, but at this point, I basically went to pieces. It probably didn’t help that the rest of my life hadn’t been going well. Relationship mess, lack of sleep from (very awesome but still rather wakeful) child, and a wedding stationery business that I’d had to close down and pay back debts for. But it wasn’t just that. This was my dream, and I’d got there – and then hadn’t.
It took me a long time to pick myself up off the floor. I was helped enormously by my wonderful agent, Felicity, who told me that this was how it went sometimes and we were just going to sell the second book I’d had an idea for instead. But that was a whole, whole big thing to get to grips with. The need to write another book.
It took an awful lot to pick myself up off the floor. An awful lot. I buried myself for a while in writing The Fragile Tower, a fantasy story that had nothing to do with the grown-up crime book I’d been signed for. Wattpad essentially saved my writing self-belief, because there were thousands and then hundreds of thousands of readers all wanting to have the next chapter, and the next. They gave feedback, they engaged. It was wonderful.
And then an amazing thing happened. Some lovely editors were interested in The Fragile Tower and it looked like that would sell! Hip-hip-hooray!
Only it didn’t, and my very awesome agent was leaving and I was back to square one. Only worse. I’d begun to believe I was unsellable.
And it was only that wonderful agent and those wonderful online readers who got me back into writing again. Many months later, I picked myself up enough to get a first draft of She Lies in Wait written. It was a bit all-over-the-place. It reflected my lack of confidence, and my periodic return to it. It also had echoes of a terrible relationship I got into at the time.
But with some feedback and a gradually improving mental state, I rewrote it and made it something that worked. It felt good, once again, to be writing and tinkering. I felt like I was actually writing something GOOD, and it was the best feeling in the world.
Ignorance is Bliss
The best part about She Lies in Wait going out on submission was that I didn’t know what date it had gone out. So the first responses were positive replies, and then, a day later, a full-on deal with my dream imprint at my dream publishers.
It honestly took me DAYS to really believe it. Possibly weeks. Because I’d become, in my head, the person whose books would never sell. It couldn’t happen.
But it actually did, and I’m really appreciating now that it has.
The Moral of this Story…
… if there is one, is that failure isn’t the end. It’s often just a staging-post. It’s not everything, or the end of everything, or the biggest of disasters. Though it darn well feels like it, and I will fully support you if you feel like that.
And I also really, really wanted to show that the overnight success story was not true for me. I failed a LOT, and I fell hard and painfully. It was only the burning feeling of needing to do this and the support of a lot of people that got me through.
So if I have the right to give any advice, I’d say it’s this: take every little fragment of success and pin it to your darn heart for the next time you need it. Use it to build a great big castle of self-belief, that floods and fire and things may shake a bit, but not tear down.
And do not. Stop. Writing.