Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.

Advertisements

Writing Fantasy: My 7 Tips

I’ve tried my hand at many genres, and found that nothing brings the same belly-tingling excitement as writing Fantasy. But it also brings challenges that other genres don’t. I find it the hardest genre to write as a result. I won’t claim to be an expert, and bear in mind I’m not published. But I did write a Fantasy novel, followed by a sequel, for kids aged approx 7-11. I’ve also read many children’s Fantasy novels. And I’ve certainly learnt a few things a long the way.

1: World building

There are no rules in Fantasy: your imagination can run wild, creating worlds of magic and turning people into beings that contradict nature. But the world you create can turn into a trap. What suits the story at the beginning, might make no sense in your world at the end. Or worse, in the sequel. And at the sequel level, it’s too late to go back and change the first book (unless it’s not published, but that sounds like an editing nightmare). It’s also hard to remember every detail of your Fantasy world, so take notes as you go, and make sure each idea consistently makes sense. When editing, ask people to explain your world back to you and make sure it matches what you tried to get across in your writing.

2: Believability

I don’t read adult Fantasy novels, but I love children’s’ Fantasy. But I lose interest in a novel if the story becomes too unbelievable even for the world it’s built in. It’s tempting when writing Fantasy to curve the story to suit yourself. If your character needs a sword, why not let one magically appear in a tree? You make the rules in your fantasy world, so you can do whatever you want. Right? Wrong. It may be convenient, but it’s lazy writing. The reader won’t believe it, unless you give a very good reason for the sword to appear in the tree. Don’t use plot devices to the detriment of the story. That’s what your imagination is for.

On the subject of believability, readers quickly tire of characters who repeatedly succeed just because they’re the ‘chosen one’ , and not because they’re actually worthy of success. You the writer need to believe in yourself, and give serious thought as to how to make them awesome.

3: Description

I have often stopped reading Fantasy books due to description over-kill. I understand Fantasy books require a lot description as you’re trying to explain a whole new world. But I don’t want to read three pages of description. And I don’t just mean landscapes or characters. I also mean explanations of the world, the reason the protagonist is the protagonist etc. The world and situation you create can be described gradually, with clues along the way.

The first chapter of The Northern Lights (by Phillip Pullman if you don’t know, and if you still don’t know, go and read it) is a great example of how to get the balance right. The reader immediately learns characters speak freely with animals, but no explanation is given. The not knowing is what makes you read faster, desperate to know why and how. The descriptions are the salt and pepper, and the action is the dinner. It is tempting to over explain everything the minute you introduce it, but where is the suspense in that? Don’t describe your story, tell it.

4: Uniqueness

Your book has a dragon. So what? Loads of fantasy books have dragons. What makes your dragon so special that I should read it? Find what’s unique in your story and explode it, make your dragon stand out from all the others. I made this mistake, I included a boring dragon. On editing, I realised my dragon was as dull as the dirty ground he walked on. So I changed him, and made his role in the story shine. But I could also have deleted him. Does your story actually benefit from your dragon? Is their species relevant to your story? Make the choice, and make it work. It’s hard to delete. But it can be done. Here’s how: delete delet dele del de d —

5: Pace

Pace is always important to keep the reader hooked, but particularly in the middle of Fantasy novels. The beginning draws you in because you want to figure out what this new world is all about. Endings, by their nature, should have a good pace, magnetising the reader so they’re unable to put down the book until they know how it all ends. But the middle can fall through the gaps. The world is created, the character is known, they are possibly on a journey to a distant land or meeting new people and creatures. But journeys alone are boring. And I don’t want to learn all the answers now. If you get writers block in the middle, don’t fire in all the answers, and don’t throw in irrelevant scenes that stump the reader. I love when clues are still being added in the middle, and when new mysteries appear. Keep the suspense, and you’ll keep the reader.

The middle section of your novel is a perfect opportunity for your protagonist to develop as a character. Use this section to show how your character moves from the beginning to the end of the novel, and how they change in the process. What happens in the middle that forces the character to make difficult choices that determine the path of the novel? Keep the character’s arc in your mind as you write this section, and you’ll be grateful for it when you reach the end.

6: Confusion

I’d rather read a short novel that I can follow, than a long one that I get can’t find my way through. My pet hate in Fantasy is when I can no longer understand what’s going on. Take your time, develop your plot and characters, but don’t squash them in. Give them room to breathe and give the reader time to catch up and process the information.

And remember, your novel isn’t there to show off how clever you are. I don’t want to read a novel and say “Wow, that writer has a fountain of knowledge, but I have no idea what s/he’s talking about, and I haven’t a clue what the story is about.”

7: Characters

I personally struggle with excess characters with unusual or foreign names. Not just in Fantasy (I had to stop reading War and Peace because I kept mixing up who was who with all the foreign names and places. A sad reflection on me, but a reality of many readers. Judge my intellect if you must, but I’m just being honest). Someone once told me they re-named all the characters in a book they were reading to John, Mary etc.. And made a list at the front of the book, so they could follow the story easier. Complicated or what?

This can easily happen in Fantasy, not just from made-up names, but from traits. Too many unusual characters or places can lose the reader. There is power in simplicity. Don’t name more than one main character with similar names, or names beginning with the same letter. Naming characters based on their traits can help. At it’s most obvious level, take these two names and guess which is the troll and which is the fairy: Twinkle-dust and Rotten-breath.

Epilogue

Fantasy is a genre dedicated to imagination and the wildest of dreams. It is a genre to be celebrated and loved. Mostly, I think it’s a genre to be thanked, as it is what made me and many other children fall in love with stories. And once you fall in love with stories, you fall in love with books. And that, to me, is FANTAStic.

Finding the Time

This week has been full of packing, de-cluttering, and the head-ache inducing smell of paint. Tumbling piles of boxes, and where has my living room floor gone? Boxes and bags reluctantly sent to the charity shop, packed with my memories. Out with the old, in with the necessary.

We first began this house move back in July. Seven months of waiting; are we getting it, are we not? When the keys finally landed in my hands, I jumped (honestly) for joy. I wasn’t thinking of the hours of work, the sleepless nights, the chaotic mess. The guilt when packing that I’m not spending quality time with my daughters, and the guilt when I’m spending time with them that I’m not packing.

Sleep has mostly disappeared. I lie down and wake up with images of the rooms, rearranging the furniture in my dreams. Why is this so stressful? Surely I should be filled with joy about my new house, bursting with so much excitement that stress can find no way in?

But it is stressful. It is exhausting. As soon I fix one problem (the bathroom cabinet fell apart), a new one arises (the back door scratches the brand new floor). The days this month have turned into a tangled pile of jobs and unfinished lists. My routine is gone. Change and I are not friends.

And that is why I need to write. It is exactly when I can’t find the time to write, that I need my writing the most. When the world seems so busy that each thought is punctuated by another. That is when I need to sit still, in silence, and focus on each word. To scrunch up the bills and stress and the endless phone-calls and throw them into a bag, seal it tight, and get rid of it. I don’t think the charity shops would appreciate those bags; some things just have to be thrown out.

Part of my love of writing stems from my love of stories, poems and meeting new characters. But I also need the escape. A reason to stop. The feeling of warmth that spreads through my finger-tips as I type, the beautiful shape of words that form in my vision. I cannot multi-task when writing, I can only think about one thing at a time and that is what I am writing. There is no room for stress and worries in my writing mind.

And so, no matter how tired I am, how much I have to do, how many conversations I’m missing, I find the time. And each night I forget about moving house and sit, and write, and relax.

Writing Resolutions

This time last year I made a new years resolution that I would move one step closer to being an author. There’s something sad about reaching the end of that year, and still being unpublished. But then my resolution wasn’t to get published, it was to start building the road towards being published. And I have definitely laid the foundations, if not the first few blocks.

I used to think that all I had to do to get published was write a book. Then send it to a publishing house, who would be thrilled and invite me around for tea. And I guess some people do succeed the first time around with little input from the outside world. But it turned out my first book was rubbish, and it has taken me awhile to reach a standard that I’m proud of. When I began writing, I had no writing resume, no English and Literature degree hanging on my wall. On the contrary, I’ve spent the last 11 years as a nurse, a hands-on shift work job. The only writing involved was the legal recording of the days events.

The first time I discovered that being a writer is a business and you need to know what you’re doing, was when I went to a ‘Getting Published’ event in the Cork World Book Festival, facilitated by Vanessa O’Loughlin. I first went to this in 2014, deadly proud that I’d written my first 30,000 words in a serious bid to become a writer. I didn’t have a clue, and half of what was said was like a foreign language. Voice? What was that? I was like a duck out of water, staring at a huge pond and realising that this was something I wanted, and needed, to be a part of.

When I went back to the same workshop in 2015 after much research and reading, I understood everything Vanessa said. It made my heart leap. Like any business, it takes time and effort. Part of this effort meant getting involved in the writing community. I started going to events, book festivals, the CBI conference, twitter chats, talking to other writers. The knowledge started seeping in by osmosis. I still didn’t get as involved as I would have liked to, between two small kids, a job and a marriage, but I did my best. Every event taught me something, and still does, which shows there is more to learn.

One of the best things about this year has been the books I’ve read. I began reading books based on recommendations, books I read about on twitter and in newspapers. In particular, books that other writers raved about. This introduced me to high quality children’s and Y.A fiction. I saw an immediate improvement in my own writing when I started striving for those high standards.

I also started sharing my work, putting it out into the open to be assessed and criticised. Through submissions, a Reader’s Report, making writer friends and asking advice, I have watched my writing change. I have embraced the fact that I need people to be brave enough to kick my novel in the face. And I recognise that it’s not the same as kicking me in the face. Quite the opposite, the more kicks my novel gets, the prettier it becomes. Unlike my face.

In terms of getting published, I didn’t succeed in any of my novels, but I also knew I wasn’t ready to saturate the slush pile world just yet. I’m taking it slowly, submitting bit by bit, reading every bit of feedback and editorial advice over and over until my eyes blur. I did get a few articles published online, which is a start. I also did the story board for a children’s story app that got published by a New York app. publisher. A writer’s resume needs to be created, and it takes time, so every little helps.

Most of all this year, I made a commitment. I accepted that writing is my passion, that I go a bit doo-la-lee when I don’t do it, and that it has become my way to escape the world. Like any relationship, it improves with time but only with work and dedication.

Next year? Well it starts with a creative writing course in UCC. It also involves my new house with a study dedicated to my writing (commitment or what?). It will involve new events and more chats about books over coffee and twitter. Most importantly, it will include more writing. And when I look back, this time next year, I hope to be able to say that I laid more blocks on the road. And even if there are a few stop signs along the way, I know I’ll enjoy the journey.

Being a Parent and a Children’s Writer: Pros and Cons

Pro: You get to try your stories out on your kids, for honest feedback.
Con: The honest feedback part. VERY honest.

Pro: To write for kids, it helps to know what matters to them. Parenting teaches you what things are important to children (breakfast… second breakfast… lunch… second lunch…), and gives you a Masters degree in their needs.
Con: Kid’s needs are endless. Literally. They never end. And that means very little time in the day for writing. I average one hour an evening, on a good day, and only when they’re in bed. Unfortunately my mind works ten times slower in the evening. I do try to fit writing into the daytime, but ten stolen minutes is about as good as it gets.

Pro: Writing loo humour for children can be great fun. I remember how the word poo made me explode with laughter when I was a kid. I thought you could never over-do loo humour back then. Now I know you can, thankfully.
Con: Dealing with real children and actual loo emergencies and poo explosions is just not funny in real life. And it always happens when I’m in a train of great thought, words flying out my fingers. It is so hard to get the words back in my fingers once that train has choo-chooed out of here.

Pro: Having kids means having heaps of kids books. This means getting to know the market, and learning to see language through the child’s eyes. It also means lots trips to the library and being able to take kids books out for yourself on their cards. Kid’s library cards have less fines.
Con: Having to deal with screechy rowdy toddlers in the library, and NEVER getting to browse the adult books section. Sometimes I forget that books do actually exist for people my own age. I try not to get eye contact with our librarian, as I know he sends me mind bullets. My 2 year old is, let’s just say, loud.

Pro: Kids create extraordinary situations. Like the time my 2 year old secretly took her potty out of her buggy at the counter in Tesco. As I paid for my purchases, she proudly exclaimed “Look Mummy! I used the potty!” She wasn’t lying. There are some things you would never think could happen, until your child does it. Extraordinary situations, and being pushed out of your comfort zone inspires stories and sparks imagination.
Con: Do I need to explain the con in the above situation?

Pro: Kids teach you to be more flexible. You just can’t predict what will happen next with kids. You learn to be creative about when you can write, and just grab your opportunities and feel grateful for them. So when you do get ten stolen minutes to write with Peppa Pig on in the background, you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest.
Con: Looking forward to writing all day long, and then at bedtime one of them gets suddenly unwell and there goes your hour of writing. It is not always easy to be flexible, and even a contortionist parent can’t get out of dealing with sick kids and vomit. A lot.

Pro: Watching your stories switch on the sunshine in their little eyes, knowing that your words made that happen. And even if no-one else ever reads those stories, you know you moved something in your child, and they know you did it too.
Con: Sometimes I find myself let down if my daughter doesn’t immediately love my story. But then I simply think of myself as a child, and let my own little self feel the magic instead. After-all, the most important person to write for is not your kids, or your readers, but yourself.

The Lullaby Monster

(Since it’s Halloween… a poem for the day that’s in it)

I’ve heard the gnashing of his teeth,
The midnight scraping of his feet.
The monster hiding beneath my bed,
Has eyes of fire and claws of lead,

I know he’ll crawl out from the deep
The minute that I go to sleep.
I think he feasts on young boy’s toes,
His all time favourite: children’s nose.

Tonight I will not close my eyes,
That monster’s in for a big surprise.
Tonight I promise I’ll be brave,
I’ll catch that monster in his cave!

All day long I’ve been prepared,
Determined that I won’t be scared.
I stole Dad’s tools out of the shed,
They’re hidden deep down in my bed.

I wait until the dark of night,
Before I grab my dad’s flash-light.
I pull my backpack from my bed,
And put my helmet on my head.

Wrap my bandana around my nose,
Three pairs of socks to protect my toes.
I’ve got my marbles, elastic bands,
My hockey stick gripped in my hands.

I lower my body to the ground,
Careful not to make a sound.
Now on my knees, I think I’m shaking
He’ll hear the noise my heart is making!

I roll a marble towards the dark,
Wait for fire, a flame, a spark.
But not a sound comes out to greets me,
No monster coming out to meet me.

I am brave, I am a knight!
I flick on my dad’s best flash-light,
All I see is dust and toys,
Nothing even makes a noise.

Come out!” I cry, “Come out and see
If you can fight your way past me!”
Then suddenly there is a rumble
A deep and throaty sort of grumble.

His feet are scraping on the floor,
I nearly run right for the door.
But I’m too late now to run free,
The monster’s right in front of me!

Slime is hanging from his chin
His belly’s fat, his legs are thin.
He’s not the size of a great hog,
More like a yappy little dog.

His eyes are sad, he starts to cry
“I guess I’ll have to say goodbye.
Beneath your bed has been so great
But I see now you’re full of hate.

Hate for monsters far and wide,
No one is ever on our side.
I thought because you are so brave,
You’d let me stay here in my cave.

Outside the world is awfully scary
I’ve got no friends, no godmother fairy.
Monsters live such lonely lives.
Look, I’ve broken out in hives!”

My jaw drops, my throat goes dry,
I never meant to make him cry!
What an emotional up-heavel,
I just presumed that he was evil!

But aren’t you planning soon to eat me?
Bite off my toes and badly treat me?
Use my bones for your toothpick,
The worry has nearly made me sick!”

Then suddenly a sweetly sound,
Fills my bedroom all around.
To whom does this sweet tune belong?
Could it be the monster’s song?

“Forgive my laughter, can’t you see?
You needn’t be afraid of me.
I’m the gentlest of them all,
I’m not just friendly, not just small.

I’ve never once made someone cry,
The name I’m called is “Lullaby”
My job was helping children sleep,
Fill their heads with counting sheep.

My songs are famous, don’t you know?
I’ve helped so many children grow,
A good nights sleep is truly vital,
But now I’m old I’ve lost my title.

I need a place I can retire,
A home is all that I desire.
Somewhere dark so I can be,
Away from work, retired and free.

I didn’t mean to make such noise
I’ve lost my touch, my stealthy poise.
And if I stay, please rest assured,
Your sleepless nights- as good as cured!

Every word sounds like a harp,
His eyes seem kind, his teeth less sharp.
I find myself filled up with trust.
Of course you’ll stay, in fact, you must!”

I remove my socks, the helmet too,
So glad my fears had been untrue.
Lay down my head and close my eyes
Good night then, Maker of lullabies.”

He disappears beneath my bed,
But as his song fills up my head.
I suddenly think, clenching my feet,
If not me, what does he eat?!

The Draw of Picture Books

The more I read picture books, the more I question why some work and others don’t. When talking about novels, people almost universally agree on what it is that keeps the reader reading; the voice, the characters, the pace, the story etc. Sometimes you’re hooked from the first line, sometimes it takes time to warm up but you keep reading because you’ve heard it’s a great book, or you love the author’s other work.

But picture books are short, they need to capture their audience in an instant. There can be no opportunity to lose them. They need to leave their mark to make sure the young audience will ask for the same book again and again. But with such short word counts, is it still the characters, the voice, and the pace that makes the reader keep reading? There is not always time for character development. The word count controls the pace, to an extent. So is it all up to the voice? Or perhaps it is a very careful balancing act to get the story across. Not forgetting the illustrations, which are often what attract us to the book in the first place.

I have heard many parents say that their child loved a particular book, and they couldn’t see why. What seems like a mundane story to an adult can be a comfort to a child. What seems like an amazing story to an adult, can lose a child’s interest on the second page, with those dreaded words “This is boring.” I have often been surprised by buying award-winning picture books, only to find my daughter wandering off half way through and coming back to me with an alternative book that gets shoved in front of the award winner. This I find intriguing. Is it always an adult who judges these books, or are they handed out to children to see their response?

I recently borrowed “The Monster Machine” by Nicola Robinson (author and illustrator) from the library. I picked it out because we were due a book about making monsters less scary, and the illustrations were fun. But to my three year old, this was no ordinary book. We read it five times that day, and then almost every day for the 2 week loan allowed by the library. I cannot tell you why she loved it so much. Something about it just gave her that special feeling that made her want more and more of it.

That, I think, is the key to a good picture book. Not just the story, or the pictures, but the feeling you get when you read it. More importantly, the feeling the child gets when they are read it. Childhood is the beginning of feelings, with new feelings arriving almost on a daily basis, with each new experience. A book than can make a child understand, re-live or experience a new feeling is, to me, a success (especially if that feeling is warm and fuzzy).

I read an interview with Julia Donaldson, who said she didn’t write to teach children what she thought adults wanted them to know, but she writes to give children a good story. Story is fundamental to picture books. Without a story that stands out, the child won’t want to hear it, and the parent won’t want to read it a hundred times. But I do believe in teaching through stories. When I first read Polly Dunbar‘s “Flyaway Katie”, I thought it was sweet. My daughter, 2 at the time, loved it, so I had to read it again and again. I no longer think it is just sweet, I now think it is marvellous. It took me awhile to realise all that is going on in that short book of so few words and pictures. Not only does the book teach colours, but also emotions, creativity, positive thinking, imagination, and sounds. All with the added bonus of fantastic illustrations. Now my youngest daughter, just turned 2, has discovered this book, and I can honestly say that I am delighted to be re-reading it all over again.

To capture such feelings in so few words is not easy. I first wrote a picture book thinking it would be simple, sure anyone can do that. 300 words? No problem. But it is not as easy as it looks. I have decided that is actually easier to write a 50,000 word novel than a 300 word picture book that leaves the reader with a warm feeling every time they read it. So I take off my hat to Polly Dunbar, and Julia Donaldson, and Martin Waddell and all those other picture book authors, who can create a world, a magnet, and a feeling in an instant.

My first Reader’s Report

Why did I get a Reader’s Report?

I have some very loyal readers, friends and family, who are happy to read my novels. They give me the words of encouragement that every writer needs. But when I went back and re-read my first novel, I was horrified by how bad it was. And my loyal readers had not told me how bad it was. I am eternally grateful to them, because if I had realised how bad it was, I may never have tried again. I needed their support, and their words of kindness. But since then, I have started taking writing more seriously. What started as a hobby, a wonderful form of escapism, soon became an obsession. The desire to join the community of established authors hit me.

I have reached the stage of sending my work to agents. But my eyes don’t always see the flaws in my own novels. I know that I need to get my novel as close to flawless as I can, before I start submitting. So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Reader’s Report.

What is a Reader’s Report?

I did not know what to expect from a Reader’s Report. I sent my novel to the Inkwell group and crossed my fingers, hoping this wasn’t a waste of money. I wasn’t disappointed.

My novel was critiqued by E.R Murray. Like me, she writes for children and young adults (YA). This particular novel was for young adults. The friends and family who read my novels were all adults, and not even adults who read YA. So getting a YA writer to critique my novel was the obvious next step. E.R Murray knows what YA books are out there, knows what works and what doesn’t, and has already been through the editing process. And very importantly, she was once in my shoes, so had the empathy to thread softly on my words.

I imagine that every Reader’s Report is structured differently, even when carried out by the same reader.

Mine was structured something like this:

  1. Summary of Areas that need work: Show don’t tell, Character’s motivations, Plot weaknesses, Character inconsistencies.
  2. Sub-plot: Things that needed more development, suggestions as to making the sub-plots flow smoothly.
  3. Pace: How to cut out repetition and keep consistency.
  4. Characters: What works, what doesn’t. In a general sense. Who needs to be developed, in particular the relationships between characters. Believability.
  5. Themes
  6. Writing Style

It then turned to chapter by chapter notes, summing up what needed work. Things I hadn’t seen myself, and even things I had seen but had chosen to ignore.

I was startled that I hadn’t thought of writing a short summary of each chapter before. Summarising each chapter into short paragraphs is a great way to spot repetition, notice that you didn’t mention a vital part of sub-plot for a lot longer than you realised. It shows you in a glance when characters meet each other, where you could merge scenes, when you can add new and important scenarios, without throwing off the whole sequence of events. The reader’s report did not summarise each chapter, but gave me an over all observation of the chapters.

How the Report affected me

My hand was shaking as I clicked the email to open the reader’s report. A part of me thought I was going to find an email saying “Throw it away, start again, come back to us when you’ve something decent to read. Just keep writing.” Instead I found page after page of observations. Every line I read I thought “That’s true.” “How did I miss that?” “She got the wrong meaning from that, I need to re-phrase…”

A smile replaced the shakes, as I saw that this novel was already getting better, just by changing my point of view about it. By seeing it from another perspective, by understanding what another writer saw in my words. Admittedly, the smile dropped with the penny, when it dawned me that all these observations meant a huge amount of editing. I do not like re-writing. I was already on draft 5, and sick of it. This meant another draft, probably two. I smugly thought the novel was nearly ready to send to an agent. This Reader’s Report told me I had a long way to go yet. It saved me from sending out my work too early, which just might make all the difference.

Be Ready to Edit

I am glad I waited until this novel to get a Report. This novel is the one I believe in, and can defend. There is no point getting a Reader’s Report if you’re not going to use the information and actually make changes. Editing takes time, especially as you will question everything the report suggests. You won’t agree with every single thing in the report, but you need to be open minded, to take the reader’s opinion on board and defend the bits you don’t want to change. Why bother paying for a service if you’re not willing to listen? So wait until you have something worthy of sending to an agent. Then get a reader’s report, when you believe in it enough to spend the following month or two editing.

Would I do it again?

I can’t recommend getting a Reader’s Report enough. I don’t even see it as a luxury, but a necessity. You only get one shot with each agent (admittedly you could probably re-try in about 2 years, but that’s a long time). Don’t send it out too early in a flurry of excitement; wait until your manuscript is as perfect as you can make it.

Nothing spots flaws better than someone else’s eyes, someone with no personal link to your novel, someone not afraid you’ll kick them out of your life if they point out the faults in your beloved words. Someone professional.

Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever send another manuscript for submission without a Reader’s Report. In fact, I am considering hiring E.R Murray as my own personal writing guru. Though I doubt she’d accept, since I could only pay her with tea. Though who knows, maybe this novel will be the one to get me published, in which case I can add apple pie to her pay cheque.

The Writing Path is Paved with Patience

When my husband and I were honeymooning on a cruise ship, we got cajoled into taking part in a quiz show for married couples. The wives went off stage while the men were asked questions about the women. When we came back on stage we had to guess what answers the men had given. One question was “What do you wish your wife had more of?” Of course some of the men said bigger breasts, longer legs; to the women’s horror. When it was my turn to guess, I racked my brain. I knew my husband was much too polite to suggest a body part. Then it dawned me. Patience. The audience gasped, as I guessed correctly.

Thankfully, I since took up writing. If you don’t have patience before you become a writer, you either need to learn it fast or find a new hobby. Writing requires more patience than I could ever have imagined, and I have slowly been developing this virtue.

The first time I sat down at my computer, determined to write every single day until the first draft of my first novel was finished, I was filled with excitement. The possibilities loomed ahead of me. I was about 20,000 words in when I realised that this wasn’t going to be as easy as it seemed, that it would take much more time than I expected. There were many days that I had to force myself to write, telling myself over and over again to be patient, that the end was in sight. But how I can I be patient, I thought, if I don’t actually have any patience? There was only one answer: I had to find my patience.

When I finally reached the end of that first novel I was on a high, exhilarated. All that time and dedication had paid off. I put the manuscript away for 6 weeks, since everything I read on writing told me to. After 6 weeks I read the first draft, horrified that it was nowhere near as good as I remembered. But I knew it had potential. I knew if I gave up then, after writing 75,000 words, I would never try again. So I forced myself to re-draft and edit. I know some people love editing. Not me. I don’t mind the first two re-drafts, when you start putting the plot into shape, inserting coincidences and noticing themes. But when it gets down to the nitty gritty of making sure each word is the right word, I find it gruelling, and at times boring. I have to summon every bit of patience I can find.

Thankfully I don’t write for money, so I have time on my side in my plight to get published. If I was depending on becoming a paid novelist, I would probably have no hair left because I’d have pulled it all out in frustration. If I thought writing a novel required patience, I had no idea what comes next. Submission after submission to magazines, trying to get something published to stick some credentials to my writing name. Time, waiting, patience. All the effort I put into making a submission and sometimes I get no response, sometimes I get a response three months later, sometimes a neutral rejection, sometimes a positive rejection. And I’m only talking about short stories and poetry here.

I am yet to send out my novel (the third one: it took three books until I found my voice. Patience..) to the world, my baby. I am almost scared to send it out because I don’t want the rejections. A rejection to a short story makes me feel “What a pity”, but a series of rejections to the novel I really believe in will be much harder to bear. The good thing that comes out of this fear is that I refuse to send out my novel until I know I can’t make it any better, so that with any rejection I get, at least I know I gave it my best shot. And so I wait patiently for feedback, for sufficient time to pass so my eyes will be able to spot my mistakes, until I know that I am ready, and so is my novel.

Thankfully patience is a learned skill. I wasn’t lucky enough to have been born with it. But I’m getting there. The patience I learned from writing has spread through my whole life. And I bet that if my husband was asked now what he wished I had more of, he would not pick patience. Now, five years and two children later, we would both pick time.

 

My Date with An Agent (article first appeared on writing.ie 19/05/15)

Everyone wants to know what will make their novel jump out from the agent’s slush pile. I was lucky enough to be one of the 75 writers picked to go to Date With An Agent at the International Literature Festival Dublin last weekend. I thank my lucky stars I was there, and got to hear what five different agents want, right from their very own lips. The five agents present were Julia Churchill, Sallyanne Sweeney, Clare Wallace, Simon Trewin and Paul Feldstein.

Julia works with AM Heath, and represents children’s and young adult authors. Sallyanne works with Mulcahy Associates, representing  children’s, young adult and adult commercial and non fiction. Clare Wallace with Darley Anderson Agency represents children’s, young adult and women’s fiction. Simon Trewin, Partner and Head of Literary at WME London represents adult fiction, some YA, non fiction and poetry. Paul Feldstein, of the Feldstein Agency, represents adult fiction and non fiction (although not historical fiction, sci-fi or romance).

The agents all agreed that an outstanding ‘voice’ is what they want above all. They want to be excited by the style of writing, by how the writer makes the reader feel, by how the words flow together in a way that only that writer can do. I have previously heard Vanessa Fox O’ Loughlin explain ‘voice’ by pointing out that if Pavarotti and One Direction both sang Ave Maria on the radio, you would immediately know which was which. It should be the same with writers.

Julia told us that everyone has their own voice, and it’s what makes the reader recognise something in the writing that they enjoy. Simon explained how important it is for writers to stop trying to copy or create a voice based on other authors, that you need to find your own voice, your natural self. Sallyanne agreed with this, saying if you hold back your own voice, your work won’t be true to you. So much so, that you shouldn’t really be aware of your own voice in your writing because it’s so natural to you. In short, summarised by Paul, the voice is the soul of a book.

Along with a unique voice, the story needs to stand out. Simon said that he likes books that make him see the world in a different way. While he deals with many books that make commercial sense, his passion lies with quiet novels, books that make a difference. Julia wants to be taken somewhere new when reading a book. Clare likes to see a character led novel with a “cracking pace”. Paul wants fiction that grabs him, and again, something different. He would love a new crime novel with a fresh angle or a new character, as many of the crime novels he gets in his submissions are similar.

It became clear that the agents want to be moved by a book. Sallyanne wants books that excite her and evoke passion. Julia gave some hilarious anecdotes about how passionate she can get about a new book, to the point of letting her hair turn grey at the hairdressers when she wanted to sign up a new writer (wouldn’t it be wonderful to be that writer?). Simon joked about how he has had to hang up the phone on authors when their novels brought him to tears.

The unpredictability of the market was referred to at various stages, and how fickle the market is. Julia advised writers not to follow trends in the market because by the time the book comes to the shelves, the trend will be gone. Clare also advised against following trends because your heart won’t be in it. A book needs to be unique and have its own merits and qualities. Sallyanne summed this up beautifully saying “We want to see the book that only you can write.”

Researching the agent before you submit is vital, as they often get submissions for books in genres that they don’t work with. Paul said agents tend to stick to what they know, because that’s what they can promote the best. So sending an adult crime novel to a children’s agent is not a good idea. And it does happen! Sallyanne added to this that an author needs to be very clear on their pitch, and make the agent understand why this is the book for them. She also said the tone of the book needs to match the target audience. In relation to children books, she said the only way to make sure your tone is right is by reading children’s books. On this note, it is vital to read the submission guidelines online before submitting to any agency. Not sticking to the guidelines is an immediate black mark on your submission.

I loved realising that agents are all normal people like you or me, not scary ogres who don’t want your books. They want new voices. As Sallyanne said, they want long term relationships with their writers. Clare reminded us that agents are all different people with different tastes, and finding the agent that is passionate about your book is what matters. The same book in different hands will have different outcomes, and Simon pointed out that if a successful author was turned down by a particular agent, the author may never have become as successful with that agent.

When it came to the Date, ten precious minutes with an agent, everyone had different experiences. Many came away with some great advice or even a sparkle of hope.

My date was with Julia Churchill. Julia’s extensive experience in the world of children’s books was enough to make my heart giddy-up. I went into the meeting seeing it simply an opportunity to get professional feedback, but I came out of it with so much more. Julia had read 1500 words of my novel and the synopsis. She picked one negative and one positive thing, explaining why they mattered and where there was room for improvement.

Getting this kind of feedback is invaluable, especially on the first chapter which is the most crucial part of the book to get an agent’s attention. The highlight of my day was when Julia said she could see I could definitely write. That comment alone was worth the trip from Cork to Dublin. As for the future, who knows? I will send Julia my novel when the final draft is done, and maybe she will love it, and maybe she won’t. If she loves it, I’ll pop out the champagne. If she doesn’t, then I’ll know we weren’t the perfect match. Either way, she gave me hope, and I am deeply grateful.

On a final note, the day was more than just the agents, editors and publishers. It was about writers, and for writers. If the other writers in the room were anything like me, writing is their addiction, and a day spent learning about getting to the next step was like an infusion of sense and hope. Meeting other writers, talking about our books to people who understand our obsession was inspiring and heart warming. Writing can be a lonely business, with a lot of solitude. Events like this throw us into the light.