Friday, 6 April 2012

Why I write- and why I won't give up

 I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of ten. My teacher remarked one day that I could be a writer…and that was it. Everything made sense. At that age, everything was simple. I’d write a story, show it to everyone, then it would get published and I’d be a success. No problem.

My teenage years taught me otherwise (yes, at 20 I can sadly no longer call myself a teenager…). I invented characters. I drew pictures. I made lists of stories I was going to write. Most of these never saw the light of day, but there was one set of characters who kept coming back. At 14 I attempted to write a novel starring these characters. It took a year and a half of extensive rewrites, but I was reasonably happy with the result. But I showed no one. My initial confidence had been crushed by secondary school, in which stories had to follow a set pattern dictated by the teacher, anything a little different was seen as ‘weird’ by others, and in which my teachers showed no interest in my ambitions- indeed, actively discouraging me from having ambitions, other than those they wanted to impose on us (which may be why, despite having an aptitude for languages, I had no desire to study them at university!).

Now, I wasn’t deluded. I knew I wasn’t J. K. Rowling, and I knew that most writers couldn’t make a living from writing alone. At age 15, I purchased ‘The Writers’ Handbook: Guide to Writing for Children’, which confirmed how difficult the whole business is. But nothing could persuade me to give up. I had my novel (which I was still editing obsessively), and I managed to work up the nerve to enter a few competitions. I received my first proper rejection at 16, for a children’s short story competition. Many writers speak of this pivotal experience as a moment of pride, but for me it was more like a month of despair, for the rejection was an example what I like to call ‘invisible rejections’ (i.e. competitions that only contact the winners)- which I was to experience again and again.

The novel, however, had expanded. There was going to be a series. There would be six books, and therefore a complete re-planning of the first book would be necessary. At 17 I got a laptop and for the first time was completely in control of my writing (hijacking the family computer for days at a time wasn’t always an option). I found a world-building website and got busy planning every detail of my fantasy world. I wrote character biographies, constructed synopses of all the books, and even went as far as to sequence every event of each book on a spreadsheet. Finally, I had six completed spreadsheets, and I was ready to start.
I was 18, revising for my A-levels, but the sheer amount of planning I’d done cut the writing time by such an amount that a first draft was finished in a month, and typed in another month. Three more months for edits (and positive feedback from friends and family, including my 13-year old cousin, who’d promised to be honest), and I stood facing a complete manuscript.

It took me a further month to put my submission package together. I honed my synopsis and covering letter, determined not to be caught out at the first hurdle. And just days before my 19th birthday I sent off my first novel to an agent.

The first rejection was surprisingly positive. Imaginative storyline, engaging characters, professional proposal…I was happy. For the first time I had confirmation that I could write, that I wasn’t just deluding myself. This only got better when I started my undergraduate creative writing course at Lancaster University. I met other writers, people like me. For the first time in my life I felt accepted. I had a sense of purpose that I’d previously only found in my writing. Despite having a creative writing tutor who wasn’t keen on fantasy (!), the response to my work was positive. I learned more about my writing- and about myself.

Of course, the rejections kept coming. I began to feel discouraged, once the initial buzz of university had worn off. If I could write, why couldn’t I get published? Why would agents not tell me why they’d rejected my work? I grew impatient. I wanted feedback, detailed, immediate feedback, and after researching all the options I finally decided to send my work to a well-reputed literary consultancy.

This was the best decision I could have made…and the worst.

Undoubtedly the most honest feedback I’ve ever received, the consensus was that my novel was unpublishable. It was well-written, well-planned, and all the rest of it, but as I’d feared, it didn’t stand out enough. It wasn’t “sufficiently original”. Yes, fantasy novels are all to an extent derivative, but I make a point of not ripping off other writers. What’s the sense in compromising your own ideas?  True enough, the story itself was perfectly fine; they praised my characterisation and writing style. There were some other issues, of course, but nothing unfixable. Except that. The indefinable something. Originality.

I wandered around in a state of listless despair for about a week. I thought of a million ways I could rework the story, but it all came down to that one question: is it original? I didn’t know. How can anyone know? There’s no such thing as a perfectly original book. And it’s a question I still can’t answer.

In the end, I started a new novel. Whilst waiting for the rejections I’d been doing the background planning/character biographies for a new book, and I was ready to start it as I went into my second year at Lancaster. I made the decision to make it my focus for the year, the core of my writing portfolio, submitting chapters to my seminar group for feedback every other week (definitely a welcome alternative to forking out £400 for an appraisal from a consultancy!)- until I finished it a few weeks ago. I’ve received honest, helpful feedback from my tutor and peers, and at least have some confidence that this time the manuscript is as good as I can make it. Once the final edits are done, I’ll be sending it to agents again.

Will I fare better this time, or will this be another failure? Only time will tell. I have ideas for two other series as backups in case this one doesn’t work, and I’m prepared to wait. I have that writerly virtue of patience, at least I can say that much. I don’t claim to be a brilliant writer. It’s entirely possible that I’ll continue to produce average, non-standout manuscripts for the rest of my life. But the writing’s the thing. I’ll keep doing it, and hell itself couldn’t discourage me. Because I’m a writer, and that’s what I do.

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