On Harvest, Dandelions and Giving Up Writing

And so to Harvest, and Jim Crace’s much reported declaration that he is going to give up writing, and the accompanying theory that his Booker nomination is a plea on the part of the establishment for him to reconsider. I don’t buy it (well I did buy Harvest.) Firstly, if Jim Crace wants to give up writing, that’s his business. I’ve given up writing three times during the past decade, each time a considered response to the enormity of what I was trying to do, the complete mismatch between the effort I was putting into it and the success I was achieving, and a testimony of love to my husband and children, who seemed to be paying as big a price as I was. I needed a book deal. My family needed me to get one. I’d been out of the profession in which I’d once earned a living for ten years – would I even get another teaching job? If I went back to teaching, would I still write? What would happen to the five novels I’d written in those ten years if I did? And so I found myself creeping back to it, just one more novel, and one more, until I realized I’d given up giving up.

I used to love ‘how I got published’ stories. A guest writer came to talk on the Curtis Brown course I did I 2011. She told us that her first novel HAD to get a deal as she’d spent LITERALLY her last penny on the laptop she’d written it on. But what if that novel hadn’t sold? Would she have given up writing? We all know the story of J.K. Rowling freezing to death in a café as a single parent – but have you been to the Elephant House on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh? It’s a world away from the café in The Apprentice, where the losers sit and contemplate their shame. I could write a novel there, especially if I had friends there who would keep an eye on my children, and some alimony. Theses stories do no one any favours. Who are they for? The writers themselves? The publicists? Unpublished writers? The place for invention, for manipulating events, for telling a story, is in the novel itself. Anyone who’s had the good fortune to get a deal owes it to those who are still trying to tell the truth about it.

I wrote a play in 1995. I believed in that play. My Theatre Studies A level group and I took it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dandelions got a four-star review in the Scotsman and a mention in the Daily Mail. I honestly thought this would be the beginning of the writing career I so desperately wanted. But did I send it to any agents? Did I research theatres and publishing houses and send them tickets? Did I make a noise? No. Because writing careers happened through contacts, or by the kind of lucky accident that only happens to other people. I’d put myself in the way of such an accident. But no passing patron was blown away by my wide-eyed sincerity and unsung talent. The famous actor from the show down the road didn’t come to see ours and ask to be in a West End transfer. The director of the Traverse never did seek me out and insist that I write a play for him. And so I left it, and taught with all my heart, and didn’t write my first novel till eight years later. Because I really thought I’d tried, and failed, when all that had happened was success. I’d created the circumstances for the luck; the luck hadn’t come, and I called that failure. It wasn’t. It wasn’t even rejection.

If the stories I’d read, or that the writers I went to hear so avidly at the Edinburgh Book Festival year after year, had been more honest, would I have done things differently? I think I would. The years of weeping over rejections, of failing again and failing better, would have started earlier – and so would the bloody-mindedness I’ve discovered later in life (this, incidentally, is why I celebrate the bloody-mindedness of my own children, to the collective concern of their grandparents).

Jim Crace is no more owed a Booker nomination than I was owed a book deal (although I am of course delighted for both of us). There is no great God of publication who makes things fair and even. Why does one debut get a six figure advance and sales in twenty countries, whilst another is lucky to get four figures, or anything at all? And another gets nowhere? The first novel must be better, right? The second not quite as good and the third really a bit rubbish? But that way insanity lies. You don’t get a deal by cutting out all adverbs, or writing with a green pen in the grey light between the sunset and the fall of total darkness, or by spending LITERALLY your last penny on a laptop. You don’t leave your only copy of your manuscript on a train where it just happens to be picked up by a publishing director, or write a shopping list on the back of your synopsis so that the agent who plucks it from your abandoned trolley goes wild searching the world to find you. The best advice doesn’t come from any of the manuals or courses or the stories writers tell (or are encouraged to tell). The best advice for aspiring writers comes from Dory, the blue fish in Pixar’s film Finding Nemo. She gets lost, she doesn’t know who she is, she forgets where she’s been and where she’s going and that sharks are dangerous things driven wild by blood. Just keep swimming, she says to herself, over and over. Just keep swimming.

And now, I am going to read Harvest, by Jim Crace, and we’ll see if this Man Booker nomination keeps him swimming after all.

Should I do a Writing Course?

As I mentioned in my last post, nothing much has changed since I got my book deal. I’m still finding lost library books, dealing with the ants that always invade at this time of year, being the dragon that makes sure everyone does their music practice and the administrator that makes sure everyone has lessons. I still cook and clean and wash up and swear when I tread on stray bits of Lego. But I’m aware of a quiet, underlying confidence that wasn’t there before. I’m a writer, I can say without apology or explanation. And it’s only now that I’ve found that ability that I realise I could have been saying it all along.

If you are where I was a few weeks ago – a writer pre-deal – then that’s what you are. A writer. Not yet published, maybe. But if writing is what you do despite your other responsibilities, even though those responsibilities have drained every moment of your time and every ounce of your energy, then you are a writer. Live like one. Talk like one. Call yourself one, and if people ask questions about your writing, answer them. It’s good to practise. You have to be a writer before you get your deal, otherwise you’ll never get your deal.

People have asked me about writing courses, and I smile and get ready to sing the praises of Tobias Hill, who taught the first ever Faber Academy course half a decade ago. Of Erica Wagner, who sent us all off to find stories in the British Museum. Of Maggie Gee, whose session on Middle Sections was as honest and inspiring as her writing. Of Louise Doughty, who matched her board markers with her dresses and showed the same elegance and commitment to everything else she did. Of Andrew Miller, so generous with his time and insights. Of Anna Davis, who combined professionalism and expertise with a commitment to her students way beyond what was offered. Go, I poise myself to say to those who ask me about writing courses. Go, find your idols and learn from them! Walk into a room where your ambitions will be taken seriously! Commit some time and money to exploring the thing you want most in the world! Find the support group that will carry you forward when the course is over!

But so far, the people who’ve asked me about courses aren’t interested in the writers who teach them, or the various teaching methods, or how to get the most out of whatever course they’re contemplating. They want one reassurance – that doing the right course will get them published.

If I do a Faber Academy course, will Faber publish me? No. They won’t. They might turn you down, as they did S.J. Watson. But S.J. Watson had written a novel with huge potential, and so Before I Go To Sleep was published elsewhere. On the other hand, they might publish you, as they did Rachel Joyce. She did a Faber course, but that’s not why The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry got published. How about Curtis Brown Creative, then? They’re an agency. Will they take me on if I do their course? They might, of course.  They did me. But getting a novel published is not like starting a business, or training for a specific profession. There’s no specific number of certificates you can chalk up, from an approved list of creative writing courses, to gain an entitlement to a book deal. Everyone who’s ever finished a novel is entitled to a book deal, but not everyone who ever finishes a novel will get one. And a course, in itself, is not going to make the difference.

My first course was a Creative Writing MA back in 2004. I’d already written one novel whilst teaching full time, but had no success with agents. I thought that an MA was a magic bullet. It wasn’t, and four years later, I was married with children aged three and one, plus a newborn and two more unpublished novels in my collection. The next course was an attempt to create time that didn’t exist; by gaining my family’s support for that course, I dragged them into the commitment to my writing that I’d already made in spades. That achieved, the writing I did, and the friends I made, were a bonus.

What I am saying is this – if you are looking for more from a course than the experience of doing it, then think again. There is no magic bullet. There are no short cuts. There is no way of not going through the mill, if your aim is publication, any more than a broken heart or a thirst for revenge can be served by anything other than time. It is soul destroying to write and rewrite, to be rejected, to rewrite again and be rejected again. But unless you have a stroke of incredible luck (and make no mistake, genius is not enough alone), that is what has to be done. Courses spared me not one drop of blood, or sweat, or tears. They helped me only when I came to expect nothing from them.

The End of the Beginning

Last time I posted, I had just heard that a publisher had made an offer for The Ship. Since then, two more publishers have offered, and the deal has been done. The Ship is to be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in January or February 2015. As an extra bonus, my editor is busy with Malala’s memoir until the Autumn, so I have the summer off. Instead of sitting in corners with my laptop, I’m swimming, playing with the children, picking the yellow cherries that grow in the garden here, reading, watching the box set of Game of Thrones my husband brought with us and revelling in the complete lack of mobile reception. There’s a great deal of wine, a lot of laughter, and, for the purposes of this holiday, ice cream has been declared a nutritionally complete foodstuff. Thank you, Jonny Geller. Thank you, Arzu Tahsin.

So what has changed since I got a book deal? On the one hand, everything. Essentially, I’m going back to work. After ten years of childbearing and full time motherhood, I’m going back to work. It’s a daunting thing. I always said that if I didn’t get published by the time my youngest (now three) starts school, I’d go back into teaching. And part of me knew, with incredible clarity, that this was a distinct possibility. Good writing does not always get published. If it is published, it does not always sell. Some terrible writing does get published; sometimes it sells extremely well.  A novel that contains such lines as, ‘The famous man stared at the red cup,’ sells over eighty million copies. And in a world with no logic, how can you rely on ever succeeding?

An established novelist, who does a great deal of teaching, once told me that there was no mystery to getting published – you just had to write well. And I’d love to believe that. I’ve been told, more than once, that cream rises. Well, cream might, but good writing doesn’t. Good writing can be admired and dismissed; it can be crushed; it can be lost (and frequently is) in the sheer volume of work that’s submitted to agents, and then to editors. I submitted the first fifty pages of The Ship to four agents; three of them asked to see the rest and one rejected it outright. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the rejection came from the agency that received the submission through the general pool. The other three were agents I’d met at events, or who’d rejected my earlier novels. They were people to whom I had a connection, however tenuous; a submission that opens with, ‘We met at…’ gives the recipient a reason to click on, and read, the attachment. It didn’t take ten years to write The Ship, but it did take ten years, and four other novels, to get to a point where my submissions were read with intent.

There is only one way to get published (unless you are considering self-publication, which will be the subject of a future post). And that is to keep writing. If you keep writing, redrafting, improving, writing more, sending out, rewriting, going to author events, agent events, reading, taking notes, remembering names, writing more and redrafting again, you may get published. If you have a name yourself, don’t insult those of us who don’t by pretending it doesn’t matter. Just write as well as you can, use the name to get a hearing, and no one will grudge you the head start. If you’re starting from scratch, don’t be bitter about it. Just keep writing. And one day, when you’ve accepted that you’re going to write, whether or not you get published – when you know that your world, at least, is a better place because you put those words down on paper, with all the courage, sacrifice and tears that it took – when you know you’d carry on, published or not, then, my friend, you’re beginning to pave the way to a miracle.

My writing is the same now as it was before my agent took me on. It’s the same as it was before my editor made her offer. My life will still be a juggling act, my writing squeezed into precious moments like this one. Everything has changed, but nothing has changed. I was a writer before, and I’m a writer now. If you are a writer dreaming of publication, then keep dreaming. Keep submitting. But above all, keep writing. It’s all you can do.