Friday, 25 November 2011

My own journey - not a pretty story. Part 1

Many people who read Write to be Published comment on the story at the end, when I tell the details of my difficult journey to publication. People often say I'm "brave" to have told it. I don't think so. I have nothing to hide. People see me now - strong, healthy, confident, full of ridiculous energy - and find it hard to believe that I was none of those things in my younger adulthood.

For those of you who haven't heard the story, I tell it now. It's neither pretty nor short. Get coffee. It also explains the whole answer to the question: Why do you spend so much time helping writers who are trying to be published?

Reproduced from Write to be Published with kind permission of Snowbooks.

This book is a case of “Do as I say and not as I used to do.” I failed, as you know, for many years. Twenty-one years of failure to have a novel published. Towards the end of that time, I did have some small things published, home learning books mostly – they did very well in terms of sales, and many are still in print, but it was not what I wanted. I wanted, desperately, to be published as a novelist. Failure made me ill and consumed me with jealousy. It’s not a pretty story. It’s also a personal story, because every story of a writer struggling and failing is personal. Everything is wrapped up in it: health, family, psyche, location, support, income, and more. So, here’s my story.

Aged twenty, wondering what on earth a Cambridge degree in Classics and Philosophy was for, I decided that I wanted to be A Novelist. I knew I couldn’t earn a living immediately – hollow laugh – so I needed a job. I went to London, where streets are paved with wondrousness, and got a job cooking for an advertising agency, and dinner parties for Belgravia ladies who wanted strawberries only in December and smoked salmon if it was twice as expensive as the stuff their neighbours had.

And I wrote. I started a novel and also wrote stories aimed at women’s magazines, none of which got published, because they were completely wrong for their market. I had something published in Reader’s Digest and was paid £150 for about 50 words, an enormous payment in the early 1980s. My photo was on page one. Fame and fortune, I thought. I was almost right about fame: on a bus, I saw a man reading it, looking back and forth between the picture and me. I grinned. He asked me to sign it. My first signing!

Meanwhile, I was writing The Novel, on a cheap type-writer, while working as an English teacher. Somehow, in holidays and evenings, the novel grew and was finished. I sent it off. And received it back. Often. Each time I “improved” it. Trouble is, sometimes they said it was too long, and sometimes too short, so I was confused. One praised the original plot and another criticised its traditional nature. There was no internet and little advice available. I knew no one in the business, no one who was published, no one who was even trying.

Every time it came back, I fell apart. To most people, I seemed fine. But inside I was devastated that I couldn’t find the key to publication. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I felt useless.

After three years as an English teacher, I decided to give myself a year of writing full-time, really going for it, because being a teacher was incredibly exhausting and time-consuming and I couldn’t write enough. I also wasn’t well. I had glandular fever, toxoplasmosis and a couple of knee operations. So, supported by my lovely husband, I gave in my notice for the end of that third year. A month before term ended, I discovered I was pregnant. So, I didn’t get my year of full-time writing: I got a lovely daughter. But I was still sending off that bloody novel, still getting it thrown back. I’d revised it endlessly and didn’t know what to do. So I did the right thing and started another one.

We moved to Edinburgh and soon had our second daughter. I was still writing. But my health wasn’t good and I now believe that this was down to the gnawing pain of failure. I wanted publication so much and I was trying so hard. I felt I was good enough, so why wasn’t it happening? It wasn’t enough to be a mother, wife, cook and damn good house-person; I wanted more and I wanted it so much that it was making me ill. Postnatal depression was diagnosed, followed by an under-active thyroid, followed by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or M.E. The thyroid was true, and I still take thyroxine, but the rest wasn’t: it was Bruised Soul Syndrome. I was damaged where it matters. I was happy as a mother and wife, but I had a chasm where “myself” should be. The odd thing was that to everyone else I was Mrs Efficiency, Mrs High-Achiever, Mrs Get-Christmas-Sorted-in-October. Failure was inside.

Then, a dull government organisation offered me work, writing documents. I sailed out of that interview feeling fantastic. Energy flowed through me. I still remember that. God, those documents were boring but they gave me my life back. But I still wasn’t really someone who could call herself a writer, not in public.

The school where I’d taught had lots of kids with dyslexia, and I’d become fascinated. So I did a diploma in teaching pupils with Specific Learning Difficulties. That sparked an interest in the brain – a huge strand of my writing and speaking now – and a chance to be an expert in dyslexia and then literacy in general. I won’t bore you here with the literacy work I was doing, as it’s only relevant to the extent that it led to my first book contracts. To cut the story short, I self-published (badly) some home-learning books, sold the first print run of a thousand, and sent a set to the educational wing of Egmont. By chance, they were about to commission a major home-learning series, called I Can Learn. They asked me to write the whole series, for a glorious fee and my first experience of a nightmare deadline: twelve books in three weeks. Although it was fee-based rather than royalty-based, there have been reprint payments and internet spin-offs so I have been treated well. Also, when I do talks to teenagers now, many of them recognise those books from their childhood.

Anyway, now I could call myself an author. I was published. I was earning. I was valued. My books were in shops. I was reasonably well.

But I wasn’t A Novelist. My second novel was still coming back. I’d had near-misses: a fabulous letter from Collins; a story being short-listed for the Ian St James Awards; several times when the novel got as far as acquisitions meetings. But nearly being published is still failing. I started a third novel. I was full of hope. Sent the first part to an agent, got a lovely reply asking for the rest. (More rules broken: don’t send a novel out before it’s finished, but you know that now.) Went back to it, but didn’t finish it because by chance I read a new children’s novel. I’d been writing for adults and had never thought of writing for kids. Why would I? I wanted to break boundaries with language, not be held back by simplicity. Oh, how wrong that analysis was!

The book I read was Skellig, by David Almond, a beautiful writer with an extraordinary voice. He expresses deep ideas in language which is only simple because it is perfect, not because it’s trying to avoid complexity. He is unselfconscious and his words are crystalline and generous where mine were convoluted and self-indulgent. This was what I wanted to do. I’d been so tangled in prose that I’d forgotten about story. And now I could do both. From reading that one book, I learnt everything that I’d been missing in my failed quest for publication: that writing is about the reader more than the writer.

So I began to write Mondays Are Red. When I’d written about a third of it I became impatient and broke that rule again: I sent it to an agent and two publishers before it was finished. The agent and one publisher wanted to see the rest. I explained to the agent that I hadn’t finished but would do so now, and to the publisher that I had interest from an agent and would be in touch soon. I then wrote furiously and sent it off to the agent. The agent said that she loved it but that she was now ill and had decided she couldn’t take anyone on. (Pause for a scream.) I told the publisher this and sent them the rest of the book. Meanwhile, the second publisher, Hodder, rejected it. (Hold that thought.)

The first editor was very excited but wanted changes. She also suggested that I got an agent. I contacted two agents that day, one by letter because she had no email address and one by email. I included in my covering letters some glowing quotes from the editor. The agent I’d contacted by post phoned the next day and said she wanted to take me on. Just like that. When I opened my emails, I found a reply from the agent I’d emailed, apologising for not contacting me immediately. She was interested. Help! I contacted the first agent, explained and said I needed to know if she definitely wanted to sign me. Yes, she said. So, remarkably, I turned an agent down.

My new agent and I worked on Mondays are Red, and got it to the state we wanted it; but the editor who’d been interested wanted one change too many and my agent advised that we go elsewhere. She didn’t believe further changes were necessary.

Which publisher took Mondays are Red? Hodder, who had rejected it when I’d sent it on my own. Useful things, agents.

Mondays are Red was published in 2002 and I have been very lucky ever since, though it has not always been easy and I’ve had my knockbacks. Authors tend to hide those bad times and you should realise that beneath every apparently successful author’s confident exterior are bruises and scars. But do I wish I hadn’t had the years of failure, of not knowing whether I’d ever be published? No. They stop me taking anything for granted or thinking too highly of myself. They are crucial to who I am now; they are also why I understand what gets published and why some perfectly wonderful writing does not.

Now, I am wholly well. I put that down to having repaired my bruised soul. In the dark days, a clever medical person told me we need heartsong in our lives and that the key to health was finding my heartsong. When he said that, I knew what he meant and where I needed to find it. That’s why I spend time blogging for talented, hard-working, non-delusional writers and why I’m writing this book: because if you have that same need for heartsong, I understand.

Next week, I'll tell you the story of how I learnt about my first publishing deal and why my first novel is dedicated to "Alison". You'll need tissues.

If you'd like to buy the brand new ebook version of that novel, Mondays are Red, please do! It's published on Monday and you can be very sure I'll bring you details then. THANK YOU!

Edited to add: LOOK! A fab video trailer. *dances*


Alison Morton said...

Bruised Soul Syndrome is a great description of what each return envelope thudding on the doormat or each email starting 'Regretfully' does to you.

I try to stay positive by working on my writing, sending another submission out and hoping it will resonate with another agent/publisher ( But I do get bouts of BSS now and again.

So thank you for your courageous and moving post. If ever you wanted to motivate people to persist, this is the story.

Annalisa Crawford said...

That was such an interesting read. I have gone through a very small percentage of what you have on my way to publication (not quite there yet!) and it never occured to me to give up. Thank you for your story.

catdownunder said...

Or perhaps Battered Soul Syndrome when the response is "indeed I would encourage you to try elsewhere"? It should not be but that is even more devastating.

Effie said...

Thank you, Nicola.
Inspiring. Honest. Real.
I think I’ve suffered with BSS all my life. On the outside I appear to be a busy, hardworking, successful wife, mother, business woman. Inside my head, it’s all a jumble, bits all over the place and I never believe I’m good enough because what I really want to do is to be a writer, a proper successful author. It’s a struggle to believe it will ever happen, even when I have a story published or win a competition. It’s a heck of a long apprenticeship but as I know from many things in life, nothing worth having ever comes easy.
I’ve heard/read this before and next time I feel so despondent about my writing that I feel like giving up, I will read it again. It’s the belief and determination that success will happen if I keep trying and keep improving. You help to tie the two together.

JO said...

Would that more people could stand up and be counted like this - I think BSS is possibly most common in those women who appear the most capable.

(Many years ago, when my children were small, my then-husband was made redundant just before Christmas. Someone said, 'At least it happened to you - you'll be fine. Most people would disintegrate.' We weren't friends for much longer after that.)

It has taken me years to reach the point of realising that giving up on dreams is far worse than any rejection. BSS takes its toll, but there can always be recovery of sorts. So thank you, Nicola, for standing up to be counted as a BSS survivor.

Nicola Morgan said...

Aww, thank you all. I wish you all huge strength and success in achieving your dreams.

Sally Zigmond said...

You, Ms Crabbit, are a true inspiration. Feeling a bit down today but you have lifted me up a notch or two.

PS The trailer is fab. Can't wait for Monday to download it.

LR said...

Wow what a story. Very inspirational.

Katalin Havasi said...

Thank you Nicola for sharing your personal story. Very inspiring.

'Bruised soul syndrome': a writer's expression for her psychosomatic disease. Clever, poetic and touching.
Anyway, I'm glad you're healed now.

God bless you!

William Kendall said...

Thank you very much for sharing this, Nicola. Bruised soul syndrome... I think that's a very fitting term for what so many of us feel from time to time.

Talli Roland said...

Nicola, thank so much for sharing this. I read it in your wonderful 'Write to be Published', but I think it's wonderful that you're sharing it here -- it's so inspirational (in the non-cheesy sense of the word!).

KarenG said...

I love your statement that writing is about the reader not the writer. I'm not sure if any other of the arts fits that as much as writing does. Well, except for film and theater, which are about the audience. Art and music are expressions of the artist and can be more self-indulgent, with others appreciating the artist's expression. But writers must constantly keep in mind the reader who is the other half of the experience.

TeriT said...

major deja vu: reading Skellig is what gave me that major lightbulb moment and took me from writing for adults to writing for children!
That David Almond has a lot to answer for...

Debi said...

Not a pretty story, but a very important one. I don't believe there's an author out there, no matter how confident and successful they may appear, whose soul has never suffered a bruising somewhere along the path.

stephen said...

Nicola, your post worked wonders for me. Recently, I received a 8k comprehensive and brutal editorial review of my crime novel, in which there was not one word of encouragement.

It shattered my veneer of self-confidence in my writing. I know I'm not a bad writer, I know I'm not a great writer, and I know it's not going to be an easy road to publication.

One valuable lesson learned, as you have clearly articulated, is 'whose going to read this?'. If the answer is your dad, close friends, and a few male perverts who love serial killers - then clearly no agent odr publisher would touch it...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, I am truly grateful.

stephen (again) said...

Apologies for the spelling mistakes and one full stop too many...

S/B who's - eek! and or, not odr.

kate said...

you have touched a nerve! I have been writing all my life, while working in a different field. Everything was praised, nothing published. I am now working on my sixth novel and I find that with each battering, the soul slows down because one has to fight through deeper layers of 'how dare you' to get to the reason you dare. I have thought of giving up, but I can't. Whatever the world says, I'm a writer. Your story was inspiring,. even though I'm afraid my ending will not be as happy as yours. But it's encopuraging to hear it. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Shredded Soul Syndrome over here, and not to do with publishing (which is going just fine - hence being anonymous today). Remember the 10,000 hours rule: to master something, you have to do the apprenticeship. Just keep the goal in sight and remember that the failures en route are the steps you have to take to get there.

Oh, and remember that not all successful writers are novelists. That's not the be-all and end-all. Shakespeare didn't write a single novel.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, Sally, KAtalin, William, LR, Talli, Debi and Karen.

TeriT - how interesting!

Stephen - ouch, that sounds tough. I give critiques through my consultancy, Pen2Publication, and I'm known for not holding back (which is something I ensure clients are ready for before i'll take them on) and I make a real effort to a) point out a strength but b0 to couch the crit in terms of "this is what you need to do here" and "here's a problem/fault but this is what you need to do to solve it." I know the feedback I get is that the crit is often hard to read but fills the writer with renewed enthusiasm because knowing what we're doing wrong is an enormous and much needed step. I do hope your crit showed you how to improve?

Kate - don't give up hope unless you want to. Many rejections (as I had) can obviously knock your confidence. What you need is to find why you're getting the rejections and then see if you can solve that. Good luck. I hope you are *enjoying* your writing, though.

Anonymous, oh, I'm so sorry life is kicking you at the moment. I do hope things improve. (I do agree about the novelist thing - but it's what *I* wanted. I wasn't meaning everyone else had to want the same. Sorry if it seemed like that.) Take care. Life sucks, sometimes. x

Dorte H said...

Thank you for sharing your story - your honesty and your experiences are a great help for other writers struggling along that path!

And the only reason why I don´t write children´s books is that I know I am not good enough. So I am full of respect for someone who can pull it off.

Anonymous said...

Nicola -
What I love is the way you take your experiences and make something so positive out of them. No climbing the ladder and then kicking it away beneath you - you're turning round to try and haul up the ones still making their way. Your honesty in sharing the vulnerability of writing is much appreciated.
PS. I've done the thyroid and the ME bit - hey, that means the book deal comes next!

Nicola Morgan said...

Anonymous - oh, I hope so!

Claire King said...

What a wonderful post. I can see so much of myself in some of the things you describe and it's just brilliant to see how you came through the 'bruised soul' and out the other side. Thank you for writing this one! xx

Nan Bovington said...

This rang so many bells with me. I started trying to write for publication in 1980 and sent myself down so many blind alleys because I couldn't or wouldn't listen to people. Meanwhile I wound myself into a pretzel of misery, agitation and jealousy, so strong, that I literally couldn't walk into bookshops. So thank-you Nicola, I would never have guessed that this had been your journey too.

Inkpen said...

'I had a chasm where "myself" should be ...' What a brilliant phrase.
In one of my ideas notebooks, I have a quote scribbled down from an interview with Bruce Springsteen on Radio 2 in which he said that music is 'where I fit in, my connection to the world'. That made sense to me. For a writer, your place is created in words; it's how you make sense of the world; and without publication, you have lost that connection between yourself and the rest of the world. No wonder it can make you ill. Your small immediate world of family may be fine, but you need a place to be in the world outside, a way of fitting your private self into the public.

Deniz Bevan said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story and congratulations on having come this far with your writing!

Jayne said...

I never knew it had a name until I read this section in ‘Write to be Published’, but I recognised this feeling straightaway. So much of what you say above sounds familiar to things I have done, things that I feel. Outwardly I know I have many things going for me but inwardly I can’t make them add up; I can’t join the dots. But I keep trying as I know my heartsong is still out there waiting for me.

I am so glad that you found yours, Nicola, and that you share your story (and knowledge) with us here. x

Tania Hershman said...

I missed this post the first time around, so glad you just linked to it from your new post because it is wonderful, makes me feel so much better to have read it. Not your painful journey but the part about actually getting there. Interestingly, I too was diagnosed with an under active thyroid, ten years ago, before i had really begun to take my writing seriously, and my alternative healer kept telling me it's about not expressing myself truly, and that it happens to lots of women. (I don't take the meds anymore, not going to claim that it's because of my books, who knows?) I salute you and your inspiring perseverance, heartsong is a beautiful way of putting it!