The value of perseverance in writing and creating: A personal account

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Recently I went from having no publishing offers to having to decide between two – I know, the irony! This is for a novel I wrote in two very different versions, and after deciding that the first one was best, going on to rewrite it many times.

My writing pathway to finding a publisher

My process over more than ten years included the following steps:

  • Redrafting my manuscript over again
  • Engaging editors for the first and part of the second-to-last major redrafts
  • Paying a mentor (a costly and negative experience)
  • Reading countless writing books and doing my best to apply the learning
  • Undertaking many writing-related courses in person and online, including on poetry, book publishing and creativity
  • Submitting my manuscript, garnering interest but being rejected many times
  • Nearly giving up a few times, before picking myself up off the floor and starting over
  • Taking on the feedback for two advanced drafts from my long-suffering writing group.

It’s often said that a writer’s first two novels are their learner books and that the third is publishable. Alternatively, people talk about writers needing to practice their craft for ten years before reaching a publishable standard. For me, redrafting the same story in various forms was how I progressed my craft. I didn’t want to let go of my story, focusing instead on improving it ad nauseam. And so ten years passed by…

Until finally, it paid off. (Although I’m well aware that having found a publisher, I haven’t achieved publishing success yet. But that’s a whole other journey.)

It was nothing! (Lies)

It would be easy to look back and say that it was worth it, or even that it was fun or easy. Ten years – nothing! But the truth is that like all writing, it was both wondrous and torturous, easy and impossible. For years there was rejection after rejection, no promise of publication (ever!) and no guarantee of any return for my hours of toil, the income I forewent or the money I spent on my book.

And yet writing and creating was and remains the only thing that makes me feel professionally fulfilled. I actually become restless and irritable if I don’t write creatively.

Key things I did to find a publisher

After I announced the two offers on a Facebook writing group, a couple of writing colleagues contacted me to ask how I found a publisher? Some had achieved agent interest, which after a time had waned.

While I’m no expert, I answered them because writers need the camaraderie of others to help pick them up when they’re feeling uncertain. These are the key things I told them. They’re simple and probably obvious, but nonetheless powerful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves:

  • Always be open to improving your craft and never be complacent or arrogant – Too often authors become attached to their work. Get some distance and reevaulate after a break. Kill your darlings etc.
  • Believe in your story (or let it go and move on) – If you don’t, who else will? Believe in it to your core
  • Believe in your abilities – Again, if you don’t, no one else will. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things. Writing is an art, but it’s technical and involves a lot of craft
  • Find your publisher fit, only going where you’re wanted – Whether that’s a large publisher, an independent one, or a small one. What’s their speciality, do they love your kind of work and genre, what are their values? Alignment is key. Publishing is business but it’s also a relationship
  • Get philosophical (or zen, or something similar) – While I’d got to a point where I believed – paradoxically and blindly – that I’d find a publisher, I honestly didn’t care anymore. I knew in my gut that my story was good and that was enough, so I sent it out and let go. Me and my story were ready and, amazingly, the world responded
  • Above all, persevere! As Churchill said, never give in. When you’re ready, dust yourself off and continue. Logically, you must to get there, in the end.

Are you ready to be published?

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou

How to write the second novel

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  1. New Book, New Process
    You learned how to write your first novel. Now you have to learn how to write your second. This is an old but true adage. If you want each successive book to be good or better than the last, challenge yourself to grow. Throw out the rules and remain open.

    ‘Each time you write something, part of you grows. You’re training your artistic muscles to find your voice.’
    Pen Densham

  2. New Skills
    You’ll probably need new skills if you want to be true to the new theme and characters. These might include learning how to write different characters, changing point of view, writing in another tense, changing your style or using different techniques such as alternating chapters or bending timelines, conducting deep research, visiting new places or interviewing people. Whatever your story requires.

    ‘When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you’ve got a good writer.’
    Theodore Sturgeon

  3. First Drafts Are Rubbish
    Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Remember, you probably worked on your first book for ages, editing and honing it until it was fit for publication. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how woeful your first draft was. Don’t expect that just because you’ve completed one novel, the next will come out equally polished. You’ll need to go through the same torturous, creative process of redrafting over again until your true and best story emerges. 

    ‘The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.’ 
    Robert Cormier

  4. Abandon Fear
    Fear of failure can be debilitating. This is especially the case if you enjoyed some success with your first book. Don’t expect the same kind of story to emerge. Don’t expect success. Or failure. This story is different, so let it emerge and grow organically. Trust and believe in yourself. Authenticity will get you through. 

    ‘Don’t wait for the world to believe in you. Believe in yourself first. It’s faster and more efficient.’ 
    Milli Thornton

  5. Stick With It
    Give your new work a chance. I know so many people with abandoned second books because they didn’t meet their own or others’ demands. Ignore doubting or prescriptive voices and write for the sake of it. You’ve planted a seed, now nurture it. Get back to good writing habits. Do, don’t overthink.  

    A writer’s only responsibility is to his art.’
    William Faulkner

  6. Know You’re Not Alone
    Plenty of writers struggle with the second novel. It’s a part of the writing life. Know that others have faced this challenge and worked their way through it. You can too.

    ‘Every writer I know has trouble writing.’
    Jospeh Heller

Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

Waiting: What should you do after submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher?

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I submitted my manuscript to two new publishers this week, dutifully complying with all their requirements before I sent it off as well as checking and rechecking my letter, author bio, synopsis, book comparison, marketing appraisal and so on.

But what to do, or not do, now?

  1. Tread the fine line between hope and lowered expectations
    Rejections can be gutting. I’ve written about this before. You need to prepare yourself in case that’s what happens. On the other hand, you want to believe in your work and be open to success. It can be torturous when you’ve invested so much time, effort and even money.  But aim for zen like detachment, understanding that you’ll be rejected until you aren’t.

  2. Start something else immediately
    If you’ve written fiction, perhaps you have an idea for a non-fiction book. If you’ve written long form, maybe it’s time to try short stories, which if published can help build your author biography. Alternatively, your short stories might make great novels. 

    When starting a new project remember two things. First, you learned how to write your last story, not necessarily others. A new story might demand other skills. Second, first drafts are often terrible. Don’t judge yourself. Just get something down and redraft, redraft, redraft…

  3. Take a break
    Is it time you did something else for a while? Doing nothing can be anything but doing nothing. You might actually be creating a masterpiece in the background. More on that here

  4. Have a Plan B
    I like to have a back up plan. Perhaps there are other publishers you haven’t tried such as overseas or independent ones. If you’ve exhausted all channels, consider other publishing options, as I’ve discussed here. For me with this manuscript my Plan B is joint publishing. But perhaps you want to consider self publishing. Then again, after some reflection, you might conclude this was your learner novel. There’s no rush.

  5. Learn patience
    Patience is not an inherited trait, it’s a learned and practiced skill. Get on with the next thing in your life, quarantining a place of hope inside you in case that positive outcome arrives. 

What not to do

  1. Don’t reread your work
    Unless you’re prepared to endlessly rewrite your manuscript, don’t reread it while you wait. You can do that later if your submissions is rejected. 

  2. Don’t make changes and resubmit to the same publisher
    Once you’ve submitted that’s it, so make sure your manuscript is ready. Some people put their work away for weeks or months before deciding whether their piece is ready. I wish I’d done that in the past. Still, everything is a process, including mistakes, or rather learning experiences

  3. Don’t harass publishers or agents
    It’s a test of patience, but if your potential agent or publisher said they usually reply in 3 or 6 months, then wait the allotted time. If they’re considerably late, inquire politely. Harassing won’t earn you a favourable reputation. 


Remember, publishers want commercially viable books.
If you don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you can’t write
or that your work is rubbish. 

 

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.