How to survive rejection and uncertainty in Writers’ No-Man’s Land

I haven’t written my blog for a while because I’ve not had much to say – not in the way of exciting announcements anyway. On the contrary, I’m (still) in writers’ no-man’s land – of which there are many varying landscapes, all united by one coveted horizon – a glorious, glowing publishing deal, stretching its rosy tendrils across the sky.

But then I thought that writing about how it feels to be in this writers’ no-man’s land could be cathartic for me, and maybe helpful to others. So here goes.

I’m currently out on submission. What that means – if you’re not on a writing journey or perhaps in the early stages of one – is that I have an agent who is sending out my manuscript (MS) to publishers. It’s an exciting time, and certainly a brighter landscape than the writerly no-man’s lands where I’ve loitered in the past. I acknowledge that I’m extremely lucky to have an agent, especially one who is lovely and supportive, but I also know it’s still crucial to keep my expectations in check.

I wanted to write this post now, while I’m on tenterhooks, kept in a daily state of suspense, hopes rising one day, sinking the next, precisely because I need to make sure that if I get 25 rejections from 25 publishers, I won’t feel like I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut and drained of the strength to start over again. I need to maintain a balanced mind-set. In short, I need to be already immersing myself in the next project right now, regardless of the outcome of my current MS.

‘But JK Rowling got 27 rejections,’ I hear you say. ‘You can’t let this make or break you.’

So true. But actually JK Rowling was pretty lucky to only get 27 rejections. My tally (and I’m not alone) is somewhere in the hundreds, as this is my 8th MS, my 3rd agent and my 3rd entry into the submissions lottery – over a 20 year period. When I first started trying to get published I was 28, working as a magazine sub-editor, engaged and child-free. I’m now pushing 48, working from home as a copywriter, and married with 2 teenagers.

I feel very blessed in my life. I’m surrounded by a loving, supportive family and wonderful friends. I enjoy copywriting, too (well, most of the time). But the dream has always been to write fiction, be published and be widely read. And for some reason, no matter how many times I get rejected or find myself back at the drawing board, I can’t seem to give up trying. I might step out of the ring and take a break occasionally, but give up completely? I haven’t reached that point yet – and not because it hasn’t been painful enough.

I’ve had a few sucker-punch lows over the years: my 2nd agent letting me go; my foray into self-publishing starting off with an unexpected boom, then dwindling to a trickle and now the odd tumbleweed of a sale; and last year my previous MS, YA comedy The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, reaching an acquisitions meeting at a major publishing house before eventually being turned down.

But after this last blow, I knew I had to find a better way of coping. Hence tip no1: always have another project on the boil.

I noticed that some of my writing comrades had more than one idea in development at any one time. I was more of a one-idea-at-a-time person, but I could see that if one of their WIPs looked like it was hitting a dead-end, they could focus their hopes on the other one they had simmering away – while using what they’d learned from their rejected MS to strengthen the one in the pipeline. My problem was that I was waiting for the final verdict before beginning work on anything new.

However, when the tank is empty, it’s empty – as it was after submitting my MG comedy Clementine Florentine to my agent a few months ago. I knew I needed to start developing a new idea in order to distract myself from the submissions process, but I had nothing. NADA. The old noggin was well and truly empty. I felt like I’d exhausted every character, every plot and every punchline.

Fortunately, this next tip I learned from my husband, a graphic designer, artist and street photographer – and therefore thankfully someone I can talk creativity with on a daily basis! Tip no2: open yourself up and be receptive. Just switch off trying for a while. Give yourself a goddamn break. Take walks. Read books. Watch movies. Go to exhibitions. Watch paint dry, etc, etc.

Therefore it’s possibly not surprising that it was while on holiday in France that the seed of a new idea came to me. It seeped into my mind a couple of times before I realised this was it – the embryo of my next novel. I didn’t get my notebook out immediately. I just watched it for a few days before eventually scrawling down a few lines to officially earmark it. But what a flipping relief! That exciting feeling was back – I was not washed up, flat out of ideas, finished, as I used to believe. I was onto something new. And now I have to remind myself that I haven’t already done the best work I’m ever likely to produce – that there’s always a new idea waiting in the ether, and THAT is going to be an even stronger piece of work than the last one. Basically, no matter what happens, my best work is yet to come.

Anyway, the discovery of this new idea was over two months ago. I’m still mulling it around and jotting down notes, but overall a shape is emerging from the clay and I’m gearing up to write a first draft of the synopsis soon.

Meanwhile, Clementine Florentine is entering its 4th week of being on submission. I’ve had no responses yet (good or bad) and it’s Frankfurt Book Fair this week, so no doubt that will delay news even longer. I am, of course, getting my hopes up a little. But I know the odds are slim. I learned last week that only 10% of agents’ submissions to publishers make it to acquisitions meetings, so that was an eye-opener. Looks like Rolo did pretty well to get that far, hence there’s every reason to be hopeful with Clementine. But there’s also every reason to forget about it, move on and get busy with the next one.

That’s why I wanted to write this blogpost now, while I don’t know whether I’m about to achieve my life-long goal, or whether it’s back to the drawing board yet again. One other coping mechanism I’m relieved to have discovered: the Buddhist philosophy that all suffering comes from craving or aversion, and all feelings and experiences are impermanent (or something like that, I’m still learning…). So tip no3: acknowledge the craving, then look at it from a different perspective. For example, it could be a case of: get a publishing deal and it’s champagne and cartwheels for a few days and then it’s shit your pants trying to whip the book into the exact shape an editor wants, OR don’t get a publishing deal, slap your pillow about, have a hearty cry, shovel a few cakes down your pie-hole, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on to the next project.

Either way, whatever happens next on my writing journey, I’ll be sure to share my impermanent feelings of joy or misery about my impermanent situation of success or failure. In the meantime, best of luck to you, my fellow writers. As ever, keep on truckin’.

Things are looking up!

With my fellow shortlistees, junior judges, competition founder Caroline Ambrose and literary agent Sallyanne Sweeney at the Bath Children’s Novel Award Ceremony, Feb 2018

It’s been a long time since I talked about my writing journey, but there’s been a few sunny developments recently, so here’s what I’ve been up to over the last couple of years…

  • Jan 2015 – Decided to take a break from writing after my two latest projects (Blown-Away Man and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova) failed to find representation. Added them to my other self-published novels on Amazon and stepped away…
  • May 2016 – In an effort to hone my skills and develop a foolproof manuscript, I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children online course and got offered a place.
  • Spent the next 3 months developing my novel, The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings (a YA comedy drama), under the guidance of award-winning author Catherine Johnson and my brilliantly creative writerly classmates. Re-wrote the first 5 chapters many, many times – taking it from a 1980s setting to the present day and from a diary format to a first person narrative.
  • March 2017 – Started the nail-biting process of submitting Rolo to agents.
  • Sept 2017 – Accepted an offer of representation with Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency. Meeting Lauren and seeing her passion for Rolo was a surreal moment – especially after going it alone as an independent author for so long.
  • Dec 2017 – Had to pinch myself at learning I’d been longlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
  • Jan 2018 – Had to get the husband and kids to pinch me at learning I’d been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award! In the end I didn’t win, but making it to the final 5 out of 750 entries was incredibly exciting and more confirmation that Rolo is my strongest piece of writing yet.
  • Feb 2018 – Am currently developing Rolo further under Lauren’s guidance and, all being well, hope to submit to publishers in the near future.

Back in January 2015 – after 10 years of gaining and losing literary agents, an endless river of rejections and some short-lived success at self-publishing – I hit a bit of a rockbottom on my writing journey. I knew I wasn’t going to give up, but I needed a break from trying. Now, three years later, I’m super-proud of Rolo and the response it’s achieved so far, and am looking to the future with fresh optimism. Watch this space… (she said, biting her nails…)

Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.

A table for 13, please

The following series of emails is based on my husband Chris’s attempt to organise a festive get-together with his side of the family in Lincolnshire. Some paragraphs are real, others fictional. The senders and recipients are Chris, his Uncle Bob (former owner of a chain of restaurants, now retired) and Chris’s sister Jenny, a nurse. Names of places and characters have been changed. Except Chris, that is.

To all. From Chris:

Howdy all.

After hours of strenuous internet research, I can happily confirm that I’ve booked McDonalds for 12:30pm on Saturday 8th Dec. Only joking. I’ve booked The Castle on Duke Street, see attached map. It has a private room that can squeeze in all 13 of us, just to please you, Bob.

Jenny, I’ve reserved a highchair for Olivia. Bob, will you and yours be arriving by helicopter? If so, please warn them in advance so they can reserve a spot on their helipad:-)

They’ve asked that we order food one week in advance – see attached menus. As Mum probably won’t want anything fancy I’ve posted her a kids’ menu.

Chris

To all. From Bob:

Chris, many thanks for making all these arrangements – we do appreciate it.

I have a confession to make.

Having looked up on tinternet how to get to The Castle, I noted that 20% of the respondents to TripAdvisor.com rated it Poor or Terrible. So, I phoned The Castle to get a feel for the place, and was given a 10-minute fire and brimstone diatribe by the owner on how they have 1,000 customers a week and no one ever complains. Oh, and “all customers are self-abusers”.

Frankly if I were a Lincolnite and had the inclination to complain, I’d think twice too given that Attila the Hun is the gatekeeper. Anyway I took matters even further (OH NO I can hear Chris exclaim), yes, I’m your Uncle and I reserve the right to be bonkers. So I emailed the owner – Margaret – and I explained to her how she can respond to her critics if she feels that the criticism is unfounded.

I have to say, one in five can’t be that wrong – however, she didn’t reply and I can only assume that given she’s a geriatric exhibitionist who apparently loves to prance around behind the bar, she hasn’t got time for technology. Unfortunately she’s probably worked out when we’re coming now, as you CC’d me on the booking emails, so maybe she’s instructed the chef to goz in my plum pudding and fart into my wine glass. So, all in all it should make for a very eventful occasion, which I for one am looking forward to.

If this has made anyone remotely nervous I apologise in advance – and no we shouldn’t change the venue because it’ll be a hoot. Tell Tash it’ll make great fodder for her next book.

All will be revealed…

Mischievous and obdurate,

Uncle Bob of Bobbington Heights

To all. From Chris:
Right… Nice one, Bob. I suggest we move to Plan B. (Actually this would be Plan H, as I already crossed off several plans before submitting Plan A to all of you lot and I don’t have time to start the search for the perfect restaurant all over again as I’m two men down at work this week and up to my neck.)

So Plan B, if Jenny’s ok with it, would be for us all to meet at hers instead. We can all bring a dish with us, and a dessert, and have a buffet. The kids can run riot, we get to chat properly and we can all muck in with the cooking and washing up. It’s cheaper and we won’t get kicked out at 4pm. Well, we might…

And we won’t have a chef wanking into our rice pudding. What do you think, Jen?

Chris.

To all. From Jenny:

No pressure then.

Can anyone recommend a crack team of industrial cleaners to come and blitz my house so it meets with Uncle Bob’s standards? And by the way, we’ve got a new dog called Biffy who likes to hump everyone. Oh, and our loo doesn’t flush anything other than wee. Other than that, you’re all welcome.

Bring some chairs. About 6? Uncle Bob, you can sit on the recycling bin.

To all. From Bob:

Great response – you’re on fire my peachy little niecey-nephlings. This sounds like the best option. At least we won’t find a cock ring in the guacamole.

Now listen you lot, I’m quite happy to run the gauntlet with Atilla the Hun and see what unfolds. But Jen-Jen (I can just see you with folded arms and tapping foot giving me a withering side-long glance), if you’re happy to have us, we’re happy to come. Your house is lovely, and I’m not averse to some mess. After all, you have young kiddiwinks and we’ve all been there. I’ll make sure our lot empty their bowels before we descend upon you.

To make life easier for everyone I’ll draw up a spreadsheet of what food each team should bring. In the meantime, let’s move on to presents. Who wants what? Or shall we ditch the idea and just buy each other goats in Africa? Although Jen, I’ve just thought of the perfect present for you: an inflatable pink poodle. There, that’s one problem solved.

See you all on the 8th,, squadron.

Lord Bob of Bobsworth Manor

To all. From Jenny:

If you want to get me a present you can chip in with our kitchen extension fund. That way I can fit you all in.

Bring booze.

And no you can’t stay the night.

See you on the 8th.

To all. From Chris:

Sorry, I missed the last round of emails. Can someone bring me up to date? There’s a message from Margaret at The Castle on my voicemail asking if I can give her a call. I’m too scared. You do it Bob.

To all. From Bob:

With pleasure my little Chrissie-whissie. Can’t get enough of Margaret the Hun.

To all. From Jenny:

Bring crisps.

And Valium.

To all. From Margaret@TheCastle:

I suggest you bunch of morons all learn how to use the CC facility properly. In the meantime, you’re all banned from my restaurant from now until hell freezes over. Set foot in the door and you can expect a proper Attila the Hun welcome.

Good riddance.