Finish Your Damn Book by Catherine Ryan Howard
Are you writing a book? Been meaning to start? Been “finishing” a novel, whatever that means, for longer that you’re comfortable admitting? Maybe you’re like Badger in Breaking Bad, well able to lead anyone who cares to listen through every plot point of your tale – a Star Trek spec script, in his case – only to end with “I gotta write it down, is all…” If so, then read on.
One afternoon in August 2008 a much anticipated e-mail landed in my inbox. I’d sold my laptop back in Orlando to fund my subsequent adventure in Central America, so I had to check it on the family PC, in full view of half of the family. It was from an assistant at a literary agency in London – let’s call her Helen – who had loved a travel memoir I’d sent her, Mousetrapped, and had pitched it enthusiastically to her boss. I double-clicked. I’m writing with some good and some bad news. Unfortunately we don’t feel there is enough of a market for us to be able to represent Mousetrapped … However we love your writing. What are you working on now? We would be really interested in reading it. Do you write fiction?
Fiction was all I really wanted to write – Mousetrapped has just been an accidental detour – and now here was an agent saying she wanted to read it! Fantastic! Now there was just the little matter of actually writing some…
It’s June 2009, the bones of a year later. I’ve trudged home from work, got in the shower and am crying – sobbing, really – while I stand in the stream of lukewarm water. I’m crying because my job – an office manager at a letting agency, or The Only Other Person Who Works There Who Isn’t the Letting Agent – is slowing destroying me. Just that day a young girl has come in to beg for her deposit back and before she leaves, we are both in tears. “What’s going on here?” she wants to know, meaning why on earth am I crying about the unjust retention of her deposit. What I want to know is why I’m still there. Not a word of The Novel has been written yet – despite there being an agent in London waiting to read it – because I don’t have the energy, let alone the headspace. When I’m not at work, I’m overwhelmed by the exhaustion of recovering from having been there, and then by the dread of having to go back to it soon.
A bold idea begins to form. Years before, I’d read an interview with Irish crime writer Alex Barclay where she talked about writing her first novel in wintry holiday homes around the country. I decide to do the same. I find a lovely place by the sea in East Cork, book it for six weeks starting that September and hand in my notice at work. I’m going all in on this writing thing.
A draft of that book is finished by May 2010 and, with the kind help of Vanessa O’Loughlin, I find myself in a meeting with an editor at the Irish office of the world’s biggest publishing house. I’m so excited to see the inside of a real, live publisher. Books are stacked everywhere: on shelves, on the floor, on desks. They send me home to Cork with a big bag of them, some for research purposes. They like my writing, but they don’t like the book I’ve produced. We brainstorm and I agree to go away and write another.
I’ve self-published Mousetrapped in the meantime and it’s bringing in enough money to keep me in coffee grounds (and my parents are being very understanding). So I can write full-time, but I don’t. I write around blogging and Twitter and Facebook and reading other people’s books. I waste most of my time. It slips away, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, unnoticed.
Suddenly it’s September 2012. I blink in confusion at the calendar. When did it get to be 2012? The publishing house send me an e-mail, or maybe it’s a welfare check because they haven’t heard from me in a long time. Could I come and see them? I’ve spent the last two years messing about, writing an outline of this, the first ten thousand words of that. My heart wasn’t in any of it, but recently I’ve had an epiphany. I’ve been breaking the cardinal rule of trying to get published: writing what I think will sell, not what I love to read. I’ve an idea – a great idea, I think – for a serial killer thriller. That’s what I’m going to write now. I tell the publishing house this. They make ooh and aah sounds and seem very interested. Now all I need to do is write the thing…
Blogging. Twitter. Facebook. Repeat far more often than is required.
Now it’s an April morning in Bewley’s Café on Grafton Street. I’m with two writing buddies, Hazel and Sheena. Not the next April, mind you, but the one after that. Last April, 2014. Coffee cups clink as we talk about Hazel’s amazing book deal with Harper Collins in the U.S. I’m a third of the way into The New Novel, but have been stalled at 30,000 words for ages.
The lovely ladies tell me to start submitting to agents. (I’ve decided to try and get an agent instead of going straight to the publishing house.) I say no, I want to finish it first, and polish it up. Perfect it. They roll their eyes, perhaps because they suspect – as I do myself – that such a plan will only leave me in a permanent state of paralysis. After another round of coffee, I’ve been convinced. I’m going to submit to agents. Now. Right now.
Well, after I get back to Cork…
I do eventually submit it to an agent. The agent says no. This knocks my confidence somewhat, so I decide not to submit again until the novel is actually finished, until I can feel confident about what I’m sending out. Luckily I’ve found out I’ve been accepted to Trinity College as a mature student on a degree course that starts in September, so now there’s a big, stonking, terrifying deadline looming over my head.
August 10th last, nine minutes past ten in the evening. I send an e-mail to a friend that consists only of a screenshot of the last page of a Word document, doubled-spaced, that says “THE END” half way down. The subject line is FINISHED!!!!!!! I’ve finally finished The New Novel and it’s only because of my Trinity/Dublin deadline. (And my Nespresso machine.) I wrote the last 50,000 words in a caffeine and carb-fuelled 21 days, albeit it with a detailed outline to hand. It’s amazing how much time you can find in the day when you have to. I’ve gone from Well, I’ve only an hour so there’s really no point even getting started… to A whole hour? I could finish this chapter in that time!
19th September. After some intensive polishing, I submit The New Novel to the reader at Gregory and Company, a London literary agency run by Jane Gregory, the agent to have if you write crime. She represents Val McDermid, Mo Hayder, Belinda Bauer, Sarah Hilary – all writers whose novels have left me in awe. Belinda Bauer has written one of my favourite crime novels ever, Darkside. Jane gets 5,000 submissions a year, her website says, and at most she’ll take on 2-3 new authors. She’s so tough you’re only allowed send her the first 10 pages of your book, when the standard is more like 50. It’s all very intimidating. I bite my lip. Fingers hesitate over the keyboard. Is there even any point? I take a deep breath and press SEND.
23rd September. The reader replies. Thank you for sending us your material. Cautiously, and without wishing to raise your hopes, could we see the rest? For a change, I have “the rest”, ready to go. I send it off. (I assure them that all my hopes are duly in check, which is a lie.)
16th October, 4:40pm. Jane’s in-house editor, Stephanie, e-mails. I get it on my phone while sitting in a café on Dawson Street, looking out at a dreary, darkening sky and pouring rain, killing time until a late lecture. The reader has been on holidays, Stephanie says, and hasn’t had a chance to get to it, but she’s started it and is enjoying it. Am I still seeking representation? Um, let me think… Is the Pope Catholic? Am I currently caffeinated? Do my eighteen-year-old fellow freshmen keep claiming that Crime and Punishment is their favourite novel because they think it makes them sound cool? (I say mine is Jurassic Park.) That would be a YES.
17th October, 2:20pm. An e-mail from Stephanie. I emailed Jane your book last night and she has been reading it too. Neither of us have finished it yet but we are greatly enjoying it and we’d very much like to represent you…
What’s the moral of this story? Well, for one, if you say Crime and Punishment is your favourite novel, what you’ll get from me is a smirk. But consider this too: how long was it between me starting to take this Get Published thing seriously, and me getting the agent of my dreams? If we consider the starting point to be August 2008 – which it isn’t really, because I started writing Mousetrapped in early 2007 – then we’d be talking about a little over six years. And how long was it between me finishing the first complete draft of the novel that I knew in my heart was the novel I was supposed to write, the one I thought I could write the best, the novel I wanted to read but couldn’t find on the shelves, and me getting an agent?
Now I know what some of you are thinking: I wasn’t exactly twiddling my thumbs during that six-year gap. I did self-publish and start public speaking and I actually ending up doing social media work, freelance, for the lovely people at the aforementioned publishing house. But what I wasn’t doing, crucially, was finishing my damn book. What’s the ONE thing every single person who has ever got published has in common? THEY FINISHED THEIR DAMN BOOK.
What might happen if you finished yours?
Finish your book in 2015. No ifs, buts or DVD box-sets about it. Just do it. Start and keep going until you’ve done it. As I said, you’ll be amazed at the time you’ll find in the day when you really commit to squeezing words out of every available minute.
Close your browser immediately – well, share this on Twitter or Facebook first and then close your browser, thanks very much – and let’s get to work.
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
For what happened next, check out Just Keep Writing! Corvus Acquires Catherine Ryan Howard’s Debut
If you enjoyed this post, check out Hazel Gaynor’s article: Hazel Gaynor On Not Giving Up. Ever.
And Dave Rudden’s 8 Ways to Get Serious About Writing in 2015