Wednesday, 18 March 2009


What, you mean apart from the fact I wasn't good enough?

Well, time I explained this, I suppose, after several weeks of appearing to know it all. Because the truth is that once I knew a lot less than I do now. Obvious, really.

First, for those of you who have missed the tragic enormity of this failure, it took me twenty-one years of failing to get a novel published. At the time, that was more than half my life, and certainly all of my adult life. Yes, ALL my adult life failing to achieve the one thing I really wanted: to be a novelist. That's some bruising failure. And bruised I was. Badly. It affected my health and happiness and my sense of self. Luckily (for them) few people knew about my constant attempts at fame and fortune. Unluckily (for him) my husband did. He's still here. Still waiting for me to earn a lot of money, I guess. I'm trying.

OK, I did get some "stuff" published during that time, but it wasn't enough. Home learning books (which have done very nicely financially and which allowed me to say I was a published writer) and stacks of magazine articles. Oh, and talking of doing nicely financially: I regularly get money from a magazine I wrote for ten years ago which keeps using my articles and pays me every time, with me sitting at home doing sod all - would you believe that today I actually sold "36th rights" for three articles?? This means they have used them 36, yes 36 times. God, who needs to be a novelist when you get paid 36 times for something you can't even remember writing?

And there was the odd moment of relative success (relative to abject failure), like appearing in Reader's Digest with my photo and actually being recognised on a bus, and a story winning an expensive pen in the Ian St James awards, and a couple of times almost making it through an aquisitions meeting. But almost is not really good enough, is it?

Anyway, reasons for my abject failure:
  1. I thought I was better than I was. I just didn't know what mistakes I was making. This was in pre-blog days, when people like me (as in me now, not me then - me then would have been pretty useless) weren't sharing and there were few relevant books and nice helpful things telling me what a load of shocking errors I was making.
  2. I wasn't thinking of my readers. Couldn't give a toss about them frankly - yep, it was all for me. Moi, moi, moi. Self-indulgent beauteous prose, right up my own backside, just gorgeous (but over-written) plotless stuff that gave me shivers of gratuitous pride, and gave any potential reader a severe case of "where the hell's the plot gone or going and I mean why should we CARE about your drivellingly unlikely character who murdered her husband just because of some arcane psychological problem to do with Samuel Johnson which we are supposed to guess through the boring fog of your however-erudite turgidity?
  3. I hadn't written the right book. As in a book with a concept which would grab the agent / publisher with its stupendous hook, draw them into a tightly-written and either original or genre-specific plot, written by an author exuding wisdom and knowledge of the market. (Actually, I thought woman who murders husband because he's fat was quite good hook-wise, but hey, that was then.) See here for my post on this topic. (Not murders of fat husbands: I mean writing the right book.)
  4. I wasn't even following the rules of submissions to publishers, despite the fact that I roll my eyes at you lot for sending toffees to agents and being similarly foolish. In fact, once I even .... but no, I can't tell you that. It's too embarrassing. (For rules for submission, see the Writers and Artists Yearbook, publishers' websites and relevant labels on this blog. There is no excuse for not following these rules - there wasn't then, and there isn't now. Well, unless you actually want to beat my 21-year record.)
And so followed the rejection letters. Because yes, I've had a few. There were the occasional ones that said lovely things but which gave suggestions contradicting previous ones (like "we feel it's too short" after "we feel it's too long" and "the plot is somewhat avant garde" after "the plot is somewhat traditional"); there were the "not right for our list" ones (unhelpful but true); there was my favourite (though not at the time) which consisted of my rubbish covering letter with the word NO! scrawled across it in pencil and returned to me in an envelope without a stamp even though I HAD included return postage; and there was the one which arrived back the day after I'd posted it, something which defies the laws of both postage and Newtonian motion and I can only assume that the postman was an Orion employee sent to destroy the slush pile before it occurred.

So, if you are now in the position I was in then - one of soul-searing awfulness, when you feel that life will be utterly meaningless if you don't get that contract, when your whole belief in yourself is shaken daily - I feel your pain, I really do.

That not being good enough thing? In a way it's true, I wasn't good enough. And maybe ... sorry ... you aren't either. But maybe, by listening and learning and improving, you can become good enough. But remember too that it's not just about being good enough - it's about writing the right book at the right time and sending it to the right publisher at the right time. I know, I've said it before. I could even become boring. (If you're new to this blog or need a reminder, use the label "right book" on the list of labels to the right.)

The trick, and the one which this blog tries to help with, is to work out whether:
  1. you are good enough but haven't written the right book yet
  2. you are good enough and have written possibly the right book really beautifully but haven't sent it to the right person in the right way
  3. you aren't good enough but could become so, with time, practice and/or help
  4. you aren't good enough and won't ever be published satisfactorily
Thought for the day: actually, a lot of published writers aren't good enough either. Some of you may well be better than some of them. It all boils down to what a publisher thinks will sell. And I've already done a post on Why is crap published? But you're not writing crap, are you? Please say you're not. Though I have to be brutally honest and say that if you ask any agent or editor they will tell you that the vast bulk of the slush pile is absolute utter crap, of a meaningfully finger-in-the-throat boggingness.

After that bit of brutality and after all these weeks of listening to me seem to know it all, you deserve to know that embarrassing thing I did. I think I can trust you now. Please don't laugh.

Here goes. Deep breath. Will you still respect me? I was young then. Young and really stupid.

The thing is ...


People! Don't do it!


Marsha said...

I want to see the letter! Please post! :)

Thanks for sharing your struggle to be published. It puts everything in perspective for impatient people like me!

Nicola Morgan said...

No, Marsha, you must be joking!

bookchildworld said...

Oh go on!

Jane Smith said...

Ahhh, but did you ever send a covering letter and synopsis all printed on pink papger and bound together in a folder, along with suggestions for cover-art and countries to consider for a book-tour? Or include a photo of yourself performing Naked Yoga? Because if not, you still don't win the prize for Most Ridiculous Query Letter (and no, those weren't queries that I sent out, but ones I received all those aeons ago when I was still a real editor).

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! I have been writing novels since 1990, have had my fair share of 'almost-success', and am still learning these lessons.

You're the best!

Sarah said...

I've been waiting for this post! Kudos to you for persevering so long.

I'm in the middle of another round of rewrites and this post will help keep me on track. Not that it will be easy- the more I learn, the more I have to fix in my MS. Of course, that's been happening for the past few years.

And I really would like to see that rhyming cover letter. I'd be happy with an excerpt, even...

Nicola Morgan said...

None of you are rich enough to buy me the boots and chocolate and sparkly wine that i'd need to divulge what you want to know. Trust me.

Samantha Tonge said...

Tee hee - i guess sometimes we'll try anything to get an agent's attention.

Sandra Patterson said...

I once wrote a query in rhyme
Saying "Please view this novel of mine!"
The agent replied
"Your chances have died
Though your verses were really sublime!"

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh Sandra, brilliant(ly awful)!! This gives me an idea: I need to have a competition for the WORST query or covering letter! I will arrange it. Watch this space .....

Donna Hosie said...

I was going to come up with a really interesting and witty comment, and then I read Jane's comment about "Naked Yoga" and I am now rather speechless. I'm not sure I am bendy enough to make it in the publishing world!

Your tenacity is an inspiration, Nicola. It really is.

HelenMHunt said...

Proof - if more proof was needed - that it genuinely is those who don't give up who end up being published. I will remember this next time I have a wobbly and feel like throwing it all in. Thanks.

amberbromer said...

Thanks for such an honest post. That's got to be hard to do sometimes. Humbling in a way, I would guess

Ebony McKenna. said...

Once again I salute your bravery.

DanielB said...

Nicola - I have some deliberately bad query letters which I made up for the entertainment and instruction of my classes. I'll send you them!

Phillipa said...

Nicola. Your last few words (the coloured ones) have given me the best laugh of the day. I sent a dreadful query email to my agent, doing a Gerald Ratner on my own work and still got a deal. She ignored me, luckily.

Helena Halme said...

Nicola, this post makes waiting for an agent's comments on a re-write more bearable. Thanks!

Nicola Morgan said...

Phillipa - gosh, your writing must indeed be wonderful if you wrote such a rubbish query were still taken on! I'd love to read it (the query any time and the book when published ...)

helena - good luck!

Daniel - thanks, much enjoyed.

Everyone else - hang in there and keep writing.

Phillipa Ashley said...

Nicola - my writing is, sadly, not, wonderful. Some people really like it and some ... don't. I can't show the query (and email) as it named names and suggested a long list of ways in which I thought my book could be better if I did x,y and z. Simple fact was agent liked the book and knew exactly where she could sell it. The latter was probably the most important thing!

Nick Green said...

Ho ho! I once wrote a job application in rhyme. Though for a good reason. It was a copywriting position and the advert in the paper was laid out like a poem to catch the eye. But it wasn't actually written as a poem, presumably because their copywriter wasn't good enough. So I thought I'd trump them and do the whole application letter in perfectly scanning, rhyming verse, right the way down to my preferred minimum salary.

I didn't even get a letter acknowledging my application. It's true! Never do the rhyme.

Princess Scribe said...

Nicola ~

Your blog was recommended to me recently; I have to tell you how fabulous it is, and how refreshing to have such an honest perspective about this thing called writing. You, go, girl! HRH