The life of a writer is mysterious. Legends of Roald Dahl crafting his masterpieces in a shed and J.K. Rowling writing her Harry Potter novels in the back room of an Edinburgh café romanticise the writing process, when the truth is vastly different. Completing a manuscript is tough. Whether it’s knowing how to magic the thoughts in your head into words on a page, dealing with the infamous ‘soggy middle,' or tackling good old writers’ block, the road to ‘The End’ rarely runs smooth. Even published authors and those under contract face these problems, and for many mid-listers with small advances or royalty-only contracts, other aspects of life are affected as budgeting is nigh-on impossible.
I’ve always been fascinated by how writers’ minds work. It takes a certain type of person to create a make-believe world and carry that through 80,000 words (or more in the case of a series—George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you). Rejections are commonplace and relentless at all points in the process—even the most popular authors have their critics.
When I first started writing, I never believed I’d end up as a novelist. Spilling random thoughts on a blank page was an escape for me, something I did for fun. My local library ran a writing group, and I went along each fortnight, enjoying having likeminded individuals to share my work with. Back then, it was a hobby, and I remember being petrified when I entered a poem and a short story in a local festival, especially because entrants had to read their work aloud.
It felt huge. It was huge!
I’m an introvert and sharing my work with others felt like baring my soul. I can still recall the clammy hands as I clutched the print-out, my heart pounding as I stumbled over the familiar words, but it was a landmark moment, a sign I was taking my writing more seriously. It didn’t matter that I didn’t win either category, I dusted down my bruised ego, ready to go again.
Soon after, I entered a national competition run by The Reading Agency. Where I’d previously been happy writing for pleasure, the local festival had given me a taste for putting my words out there. This time I was a winner! The prize was a writing workshop with an author at the London offices of a major publisher. The day was excellent and, with the encouragement of a published author and the confidence a shot of success had given me, I came away longing to see my name in print. The goalposts had shifted again.
I began writing short stories whenever I had chance. Sometimes I was inspired by real life, other times I’d ask my husband to provide me with random words or objects that I’d weave into my work. The library writing group provided me with critique which helped me learn the difference between minor edits and rewriting. Instead of persisting with projects that were never going to work, I became more focused and started submitting pieces to publishers collating anthologies.
There were rejections (many, many rejections). There were publishers who didn’t respond. It was disheartening, but the desire to be published was bigger than the disappointments.
The thrill of receiving an email offering to include my short story Back to The Old House in an anthology of romantic shorts was immense. My name was going to be in print! My words were going to be out there for all to see! I was ridiculously proud of myself for the tenacity I’d shown towards reaching my goal and delighted to hold a paperback which included my story.
I should have known the buzz wouldn’t last long. The pride was still there but the need to chase the next high called.
No longer content with being part of an anthology, I wanted more. My own cover with my name across the front, an author bio. It became a dream that needed pursuing, and nothing was going to get in my way. The obsession grew until it took me over; my quest for publication on a par with Frodo’s desire to destroy the one ring. I submitted a series of short stories digital first publishers and was thrilled when a HarperCollins imprint offered me a contract.
Was I satisfied when my own eBook was available to buy online, published by a huge global company? I was over the moon but, as you might have guessed, those goalposts shifted yet again. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to be a novelist? To be able to go into a bookshop and find my own paperback nestled on the shelf? So, I set to work on a romantic comedy, pitched it to my editor at HarperCollins and was offered a two-book contract. When my debut, The Singalong Society for Singletons, was selected to be sold in Sainsbury’s supermarkets across the UK, it didn’t feel real; walking into a shop to be greeted by my own book was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. For the briefest of moments, I thought I’d made it. I was so proud of my achievements.
Of course, the joy didn’t last forever. Sales figures weren’t as high as hoped and book two of my contract was a challenge to write. For the first time in my writing career, I was setting my sights lower rather than higher. All I wanted was to finish the damn book, but my confidence had taken a knock. The doubts were real but somehow the words came, and The Café in Fir Tree Park was released in May 2017.
Seven novels in, I’m learning to accept that however much I achieve, there will still be targets. Some will be self-imposed, others directed by a publisher, but there are always going to be expectations. That won’t change but what can change is how I deal with them.
As a traditionally published author, you are part of a team and, whereas in the past I’ve felt solely responsible for ‘my books,’ I now see them as the group effort they are. There are so many different people involved in the process, from editors to cover designers, marketing teams to publicity managers, and it is this cumulative effort, along with reception from readers, that controls how successful a book will be. All I can do is write to the best of my ability at any given time.
Wherever you are on your writing journey, take time to celebrate the successes along the way. You don’t always need to strive for more.
Sometimes where you are is exactly where you’re meant to be.
*Feature photo by S Migaj