Just six months ago, I was sat in front of my computer, feeling like I was banging my head off the wall. I hadn’t written just one book to a publishable standard, I’d written two – different genres and for different age groups – and although I had faith in them both, it felt like I was never going to succeed in getting them on the shelves.
I had the agent, I’d put the work in (twice!), but other than sell my soul, what the hell did I need to do to actually get a book deal? And if it didn’t happen soon, how was I going to keep going and face more disappointment?
And so, I opened my computer, took a deep breath, and started another book.
This was seriously the most challenging time in my life. I’ve had my fair share of tragedies and difficulties – who hasn’t? – but this was different. It was something I really cared about, something that I believed in, that I was desperate to make happen. I’d developed skin like a rhino, but after four years of writing every day, that toughened skin began to wither. Every slight knockback felt like an actual physical blow and I began to wonder – what if the truth of the matter is, I’m not good enough? Sound familiar?
Well here’s the good news…
After much frustration, several false starts and meltdowns, I received an offer from Mercier Press in autumn 2014 – a three-book deal for Nine Lives, my Middle Grade fantasy trilogy, and Book One, The Book of Learning is due out in August this year, with sequels to follow in 2016 and 2017.
And this week, less than six months later, I signed a deal with Alma Books for my other book, Caramel Hearts; a Young Adult novel about a girl with an alcoholic mum, that will be out in May/June 2016.
Two book deals in six months; I can still hardly believe it. And the reason this is good news for you, fellow writer, is because…
If it can happen to me, it can happen to you too.
I’m no different to anyone else; I just kept going. I put in the hours, writing every day for four years (including Christmas, birthdays etc), made some severe lifestyle changes to accommodate my writing, and deleted any form of social life. I attended the writing workshops of writers I admired, so I could learn more about my craft. In short, I gave my writing the focus, dedication, and determination it needed. And if you do the same, I believe you’ll get there.
Writing requires a lot of patience, and a lot of waiting. An irritating fact, I know, but the only way to improve is to sit down, write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Then, put the manuscript away, pretend it doesn’t exist for a while, and reread it before… you guessed it, rewriting, and rewriting and rewriting…
The two books I’m about to have published aren’t the first two I ever wrote. There is an awful abandoned manuscript no one will ever see (I’d die of embarrassment, I really would), but I’m proud of it because it was my first attempt at writing something of that length. And if you speak to most authors, they’ll probably admit the same.
So don’t give up hope! After lots of practice and determination, the time will come when you know you’re close, that you’ve polished your manuscript to the nth degree and have written a really good book that’s ready to be sent to the agent or publisher of your dreams.
When you reach this point, push the pause button and do some thorough research. Make sure your manuscript fits what your choice of agent or publisher is looking for, and that you’ve matched all their requirements in terms of what to send, formatting etc. Trust me, you don’t want to get this wrong.
You must rein yourself in and stay focused because the worst thing you can do is to send out your manuscript too early, before it’s ready – or to not send it out correctly. You only get one chance with a publisher or agent. Screw it up by being too hasty, and there’s no going back.
That feeling when you hit send is incredible – it’s exciting and scary both. All you will want to do is hit refresh on your email account, ready for that instant reply that tells you how wonderful you are and how the book world will be fighting over you. But guess what? You’re back to waiting. And the rejections will probably come first.
Lots of writers get frustrated at this time. And pushy. I know I certainly did – and I believe that this is perfectly normal. Why? Because you had to believe you were good enough to keep going and write the damn book. And you also had to want it badly enough to have enough staying power to make your manuscript good enough to be published.
But remember – publishers and agents have massive piles of manuscripts to read. Their time is split between finding new authors, and supporting the ones they’ve already published. There are so many facets to the industry, most agents and publishers are overworked and tired; but trust me, they love their jobs and they are looking for new writers. They will get round to your manuscript and give you an honest reply – just not in the five minutes (probably not even in the five weeks) after you hit send!
So, bearing all of this in mind, how do you stay sane and motivated, and keep going when
1) you’re finishing your manuscript, or
2) you’ve been rejected, or
3) you’re waiting to hear back from an agent or publisher?
I’m no expert, but this is what worked for me at all three stages. If it helps you in any way, I’d be delighted…
Multiple Projects: Personally, I can’t bear the waiting process when you’re giving your manuscript some space, so I work on multiple projects at a time. I bring one novel as far as I can, then when it’s time to put it away and let it breathe, I immediately switch to another. I continue by switching between the two projects until they’re fully completed – which, I’ve found, is never at the same time. But that’s part of the fun. Sometimes, I even write another first draft in between, to mix things up a bit, so I can enjoy those feelings of joy and hope and freedom you experience when starting a new project. (I have three more first drafts lurking, waiting to be rewritten – or not. We’ll have to see if they still seem interesting in a year or two.)
Create a Personalized Routine: I’m allergic to actual routine – as in, I can’t even promise myself that I’ll sit down and have a cup of tea every morning before I start working – but you need to establish some form of routine that suits your personality to make sure the writing gets done. This needs to be measurable, so you can see your progress. It could be an amount of time, or a specific daily word count – you’ll probably find you need to adjust your routine when you switch from a first draft to a rewrite/edit – but the important thing is to know how you work best and to set yourself a daily goal. I honestly don’t believe in procrastination, and I don’t believe that successful writers suffer from it. After all, you’re the only person who can write your book – so if it’s your dream, why wouldn’t you just sit down and write?
Try Shorter Pieces & Submissions: Give stories, poems, or flash fiction a go. Writing something else keeps your brain interested and lets you enjoy a separate sense of achievement. I find short stories extremely hard to write, but there’s something magical about them – and about the idea that you might actually complete something sometime soon! Entering competitions or submitting to magazines gives you achievable deadlines, so you can feel like you’re enjoying some measure of success. There’s a great sense of achievement when you hit send on a magazine submission or competition entry – and an even bigger sense of achievement when you get longlisted, shortlisted, or published. Successes like these are a great way to build your profile, and possibly even get noticed, and any writing you do will improve your skills. As for rejections; don’t worry, they’ll help toughen your rhino hide for when you’re facing agents and publishers.
Get a Life: this might sound like counterintuitive-advice, but I believe it’s really important that you do something other than writing so you can restore your energy levels, enthusiasm levels, and stock up on ideas. Work, family duties, gardening, exercise, theatre, films, travel; these will take time away from your writing, but in truth, you can only write well for a certain amount of time anyway. All writers are different, but it seems the average daily word count is between 1000-2000 words. And besides, lots of the important stuff really does happen when you’re not at the computer. I find walking and gardening particularly meditative – and I often figure out plot issues or characterisation flaws when I’m absorbed in these activities. This ‘down time’ is the area I really didn’t give enough credence to when I started writing with a view to getting published and it’s still the area I find hardest to maintain – but it really is worth it, so I’m giving it a damn good try.
Every few weeks, I hear about another friend signing a deal with a publisher or an agent, and it makes me so happy. It also goes to show that achieving your publishing goals is not impossible – though it will probably take a lot longer than you initially hoped for or expected.
None of the above suggestions are particularly difficult or original, but they do require dedication – and balance – and they really did work for me.
It’s not long since I was feeling the heartbreak of wondering whether I was ever going to be good enough, so I’m writing this in the hope that if there’s a writer out there feeling as stressed and frustrated as I was, then maybe something will resonate and help to alleviate some of the suffering so you can keep going and get one step closer to your book deal.
(c) Elizabeth Rose Murray
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in rural Ireland where she fishes, grows her own vegetables and lives for adventures and words. Her children’s trilogy, Nine Lives, is to be published by Mercier Press, with Book 1 scheduled for summer 2015. Elizabeth has had poetry and short fiction published in journals across the UK and Ireland, and has been shortlisted for several awards for her writing including Francis McManus Short Story and Aesthetica Creative Works competitions.