Follow the yellow-brick road

I always wanted to be a writer. At school I spent many a happy hour writing angsty teenage poetry. I even made a couple of abortive attempts at a novel. I occasionally break out in a cold sweat over the fact that I don’t have any memory of gathering those adolescent efforts into a large pile and burning them to safe, unreadable ashes. The possibility that some of my old notebooks are still floating around somewhere out there is something I’d rather not think about.

I carried on writing through two language and linguistics degrees, working part-time as an etymologist for the Encarta Dictionary. It never crossed my mind to consider working in any field other than writing or publishing.

Which makes my fifteen year stint as a criminal lawyer somewhat surprising.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret one minute of it, but I do now look back and wonder how I went from writing obsessively on a daily basis to barely picking up my pen for anything but skeleton legal arguments and stroppy letters to the Crown Prosecution Service. There were always ideas rumbling about in the background, but they never quite made it onto paper.

Then one day, entirely out of the blue, I decided that I needed to write a novel. Right then and there. No matter what. Unfortunately, this compulsion made itself known right in the middle of a complicated and protracted two-stage house move from London to the south-west. Everything was being packed up to go into temporary storage. Our eldest boy, Thomas, was eighteen months old and keen to ‘help.’ There were regular runs down the M4 to deposit boxes of books in my parents-in-law’s front room. I did acknowledge that the timing could have been better, but judging from the slightly incredulous reaction of everyone around me, this admission would probably have stood a decent chance of winning the Nobel Prize for Outstanding Contribution in the Field of Understatement.

I probably shouldn’t even mention the Great Notebook Fiasco of 2011. In my defence, I’d looked everywhere else, so the only logical conclusion was that the missing information was in one of the aforementioned boxes of books at the other end of the M4.

And I really, really needed it.

carAnd if it hadn’t turned out that it was actually in London in a pile of things that hadn’t been packed yet I’m sure no-one would have objected to the 200 mile round-trip to disassemble the Great Wall of Books.

Anyway, the novel did get finished, and the house move did happen, and with great enthusiasm I launched myself into the next phase of the journey to publication – submitting to agents. Because that’s how it works, isn’t it? Everyone knows that. It’s a smooth, straightforward progression.

Write novel. Send to agents. Receive delighted and awestruck responses. Sign with agent. Await lucrative publishing deal.

I’m not entirely sure I actually got a single reply. There may have been a form rejection at some point. One of those ones that doesn’t even try to make it sound like they did really, really like your manuscript and are only rejecting it with great regret.

I was despondent. Fortunately, some very enlightening workshops at the York Festival of Writing led to the blinding revelation that I might have been slightly hasty in launching my magnum opus out into the literary world. Apparently you’re supposed to do a bit of editing first. Quite a lot of editing actually.

And a bit of showing it to people who know what they’re talking about.

And listening to what they say.

And revising accordingly.

I did eventually see the light. Novel writing was hard. It wasn’t just wafting about creatively, thinking authorly thoughts, and awaiting the next blinding flash of divine inspiration. Several edits and a blindingly helpful Cornerstones literary consultancy report later, I thought I might be just about ready to let the novel out into the world again. I booked to go back to the York Festival, with a one-to-one feedback slot with Lisa Eveleigh of the Richford Becklow literary agency, and I entered an extract of my novel, Telemachus, into the Friday Night Live competition.

I was delighted to be selected for the live final, but had no real expectations beyond taking part. So when my piece won the judge’s vote I almost exploded with excitement. Much wine was consumed. I definitely had a conversation with Lisa at the dinner that night but I have fairly hazy memories as to what I did or didn’t say. Clearly it couldn’t have been that dreadful as our one-to-one the next day went very well with lovely feedback on Telemachus.

I did manage to entirely fail to realise that she was asking to see the whole manuscript until she spelled it out to me in words of one syllable. Maybe less. Actually she may well have had to draw little explanatory pictures before the light dawned.  Anyway I did send her my manuscript, and after a couple of phonecalls and a meeting in London I found that I had a literary agent.

YBRoadAnd just like that I was back in Writers’ Fantasy Land, following the straight, flat, pothole-free yellow-brick road that leads directly from Novel to Publishing Deal.

You’d have thought I’d have learned. But, to be fair, whenever you hear about people getting published, you do tend to get the highlights. Novel. Agent. Publication. Not the messy, protracted in-betweeny bits.

Telemachus garnered some nice comments, but editors seemed strangely resistant to the idea of taking it off my hands and turning it into a best-seller. So I wrote another one. This time it took a bit longer, and there were several moments when I was convinced I’d completely fallen out of love with it and would never finish. I certainly didn’t have the happy, easy relationship with Fallen that I’d enjoyed with the first novel. But it got there in the end, and off it went on submission. A few more nice comments and an unsuccessful acquisitions meeting later and Fallen was consigned to the same drawer as Telemachus.

The yellow-brick road had grown considerably narrower and bumpier and was now resembling something that might, possibly, once have been a path some time ago before someone built a bypass round the outside of the impenetrable forest, putting all the local tradesmen out of business in the process.

By this time I was a term into the well-regarded MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and I was struggling with my new project. I sort-of knew what it was about but I couldn’t quite wrestle that vague knowledge into any sort of manageable plot. By the time the Easter break came around I was feeling fairly despondent about the whole thing.

Then we went up north.

When we went back to the north-east to see my family we tended to stay in Bamburgh on the Northumbrian coast. This year I left it too late to book anywhere in Bamburgh. All I could find was a self-catering cottage in Beadnell. I faintly remembered Beadnell being quite nice from my childhood trips to the seaside, so we booked and headed off.

The cottage turned out to be directly behind the dunes, so on the first evening I stuck my headphones in, put on some music and wandered out for a walk on the beach. I was faced with this.


The Space Between the Stars was conceived in that moment. Theme, characters and plot, all laid out in their entirety.

I should make it very clear that this does not usually happen. Theme? Maybe. Characters? Sometimes. Plot? Never. Plot and I spend a lot of time on very distant nodding terms. We occasionally thaw out enough to exchange the odd bit of stilted small-talk, but if we have to spend any length of time together things tend to get a bit heated.

Clearly that moment on the beach was the equivalent of those unexpected nights out when you finish up drinking a large amount of alcohol in the company of someone you previously couldn’t stand, and finish up discovering that you actually have all sorts of things in common. By the end of the night you’ve pretty much made up your mind that you are soul-mates, separated by a cruel twist of fate, and reunited by the healing powers of wine.

Or something like that.

Anyway, that was that. I went back to university and announced my intention to write an entirely new novel with only four months to go before I had to hand in my final manuscript. I strongly suspect that my long-suffering manuscript tutor, Maggie Gee, was somewhat sceptical, despite her encouraging noises.

The only thing to do in the circumstances was to plough on, ignoring every gaping plot hole that opened up, and leaving questions like ‘is this making any sense at all?’ for another day. There were sub-plots left hanging and characters abandoned in the middle of their personal story arc. A minor character called Davy went into a room one day and never came out again. He clearly got himself out somehow as he made a late, brief appearance as Alec, and an even briefer, later one as Ciaran. Unfortunately for him, by that time I’d come to the conclusion that ‘cause a dramatic argument and then die’ was probably insufficient as a raison d’etre.

I’m not sure if the ‘Chaaaarge!’ approach is a recognised and valid novel-writing technique, but it worked. I finished it, edited it (sorry, Davy/Alec/Ciaran) and off it went into the world.

And this time it found a home. Bella Pagan of Pan Macmillan contacted Lisa to say that she loved it and was taking it to an acquisitions meeting. I was cautiously optimistic. Not dancing-on-the-tables optimistic. After all, we’d been here before. But this time turned out to be different, and The Space Between the Stars will be published in spring 2017.

I did have a point at the beginning of this post. I seem to have rather lost hold of it. I don’t think it was as simple as ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ Perseverance is a good and necessary thing when it comes to writing. But I think it would probably be wrong to say that all it takes is hard work. There are a whole lot of factors involved, not least a sizeable dose of good old-fashioned luck. We hear about the overnight success stories, and we hear about the people who wrote ten books before they got there. We don’t hear about the people who worked as hard as they could for years on end, had near-miss after near-miss, and eventually had to call it a day for their own sanity or financial survival.

And there are an awful lot of people somewhere in the middle. In fact, judging from the experiences of several very talented writing friends, my windy and uneven road to publication is a fairly well-trodden one.

I think we should be talking about this a lot more than we do. On creative writing courses, at writing festivals, and online.

This book may not be the one you finish.

This book may not be the one that gets you an agent.

Even if you’re signed by an agent, it could take another three books before you find a publisher.

When you lay it out like that, it sounds terribly negative and off-putting, but I think that many aspiring authors would find it easier to deal with the ups and downs of the writing life if they were told all of the above, as well as And that’s okay. It’s normal.

In fact, perhaps the message should be It’s more than okay

Because I really think it is.

Just like I wouldn’t go back and change the decision to go into law, even if it meant starting my writing career ten or fifteen years earlier, I don’t think I’d change anything about the last three or four years, even with all the ups and downs. And let’s face it, writing-related downs are pretty crippling. All those months when nothing happens, and you’d sell both grandmothers, and probably throw in a few cousins too, for a longlisting in the smallest, most obscure writing competition known to man.

But everything that didn’t quite get there taught me something. I heard Stuart MacBride talk at the York Festival, and the main thing I remember him saying is how glad he was that self-publishing online wasn’t an option when he wrote his first novel, because he now realised that it was a good thing that it never saw the light of day. Although I do have to say, the plot sounded cracking and I rather hope he does release it some day.

But he was making an important point. I now look at my first novel and wonder what was I thinking? It’s not that I think it’s terrible. It had positive feedback after all. But there were things I just hadn’t learned at the point of writing it.  The second novel was better. And the third one was better still. Although I suppose I might one day look back on this one and cringe. Maybe that’s just what it’s like to be a writer. Always pushing forward, never feeling like you’re moving forward, until one day you look back and see how far away you are from where you started.

RubySo I think that’s my point. All that not-quite-getting-there is a good and normal thing, no matter how dismal it feels at the time. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have jumped at the chance of a shortcut if someone had popped up out of the bushes somewhere along the way and said ‘Psst! I’ve got a lovely pair of ruby slippers that can get you there in half the time.’

But that didn’t happen. And that turned out to be okay.

More than okay in fact.

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