Stop, start, stutter, repeat: My attempts at starting book two

When creating goes wrong (picture source: http://pajamadiaries.com)

When creating goes wrong (picture source: http://pajamadiaries.com)

I had an idea for a new book. This was back in September while I was in the final phase of editing book one. It was a great idea (in my own humble opinion), one that I’d never seen before and one that I was sure would resonate with a large audience. It was a very different idea from the book I was about to complete but that didn’t matter. The concept was excellent. I’d even written an opening chapter which was guaranteed to draw people in. I needed to research a number of areas but that was fine. All I needed to do was finish book one and I would get right onto it.

By November I’d finished book one and sent queries to a number of agents in the hope of representation. I was too late to take part in NaNoWriMo with my new idea as I hadn’t started my research, but I wasn’t worried. There was under no time pressure. Because it was a contemporary novel I wanted to get the detail right, and as a thriller I felt that it was better to make sure the key plot points were clear before starting. To help my research I’d arranged to interview people who were involved in the area I wanted to write about, and I researched my key locations online with a plan to visit them in person before Christmas. All was going well. The concept still excited me.

By the beginning of January I had decided I’d been procrastinating for too long. I hadn’t had a chance to run any interviews, or visit the locations as planned, but I wanted, no needed to start. Over the Christmas period I had received two rejections of my first book and  silence from the other agents. I knew that this was part of writing, but I was feeling fed up, so my plan to kick myself out of a rut was to start something new. The problem was, my enthusiasm for the project had died. It was still a great concept, it was still something that was current, important, and with a large potential audience. It’s just that I had lost something on the way. The initial spark that is so important when starting a new project had gone. I struggled for a few days, writing a few hundred words here and there, but I struggled to get into the heads of the characters. It was a miserable feeling. I was a failure.

Then the other night, while I was lying in bed worrying about my writing, worrying about why nobody was interested in my book and generally feeling like giving up, I had the idea for a character. It was a vague outline but I immediately picked up the notebook I keep beside my bed and scribbled furiously. I hadn’t any idea of what the story might be, but I knew how the character thought, what their conflict was and why it made them so compelling. It was the first time I’d felt this enthused about writing for months. So I took the  decision to park my initial idea for book 2, put to one side the research I had completed, and write about this character instead. It wasn’t that I’d  given up with the original idea, it’s just that I decided to wait until the enthusiasm returns so I can do the story justice.

Today I sat at my computer and wrote for four hours straight. I wrote around two thousand words, all about this new character. Sadly they were two hundred words at a time, as I repeatedly started writing the story, stopped, decided it wasn’t good enough, deleted everything and started again. And again. And again. By the end of today I have exactly no words written but a lot of excitement. Well, you can’t have everything. I’ll try again tomorrow.

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Facing rejection

The rite of passage (image source: billanddavescocktailhour.com)

The rite of passage (image source: billanddavescocktailhour.com)

So it finally happened. I received my first rejection email from a literary agent on Friday. It was a very polite, well written, even encouraging rejection letter, but it was a ‘no’ all the same. I know that there are many of you out there thinking about submitting your beloved manuscript to an agent and I wish you all the very best. If, however, things do not go to plan, I would like prepare you for the emotional roller coaster you are about to undertake. Here is my guide to the five stages of grief writer rejection*:

The tingle of excitement as you read the email heading soon turns to disappointment as you get to the key phrase “your book is not for us/we are not interested in representing you/my eyes, my eyes!” It is at this point you enter the first stage of writer rejection:

1. Denial and Isolation
There must be some mistake. You had just spent the best part of a year/years putting your life’s blood into the manuscript. You may have only sent through the first three chapters but what great chapters they were! Your Mother loved it when she read it through, said it was the best book she’d ever read. Perhaps there had been a clerical error and some lowly intern had sent out a rejection mail by mistake.

By this point, disappointment’s insidious rise starts to subvert your brain’s initial denial into a completely different emotion.

2. Anger
How dare they! Exactly who do they think they are, sitting on their high horses acting as gatekeepers to the promised land. Then again their website is a bit of a giveaway, filled with the latest autobiographies of z-list celebrities keen to make a quick buck in the lead up to christmas. Plus they represent the Author X, who’s writing is terrible despite the bucket loads of books they’ve sold. You know that you’re so much better than the cliche-riddled tripe that they produce every six months. It’s clear that the agency clearly put commercial success above artistic merit. It’s as if they believe selling books is some form of business!

You chanter away for a while, dreaming of Molotov cocktails and agency windows, but as your anger subsides, you are left with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability and feel the need to somehow regain control.

3. Bargaining
Perhaps you could beef up the opening paragraph. Instead of your hero smiling at his beau over a cup of coffee, he could be handing her a child he’d just rescued from a burning building whilst under-fire by guerrilla rebels, putting his body in the line of fire to protect the child and taking a bullet while winning her heart? Then again, maybe it was the chicken analogy. You’d always thought it a bit clunky. Perhaps if you used a skunk instead it would be more eye-catching. Or you could change…

With each thought, like raindrops striking a dog-turd, your confidence in the integrity of your book erodes until you believe that the whole thing is just one big shitty mess. This leads to the fourth stage:

4. Depression

You were an idiot to have sent it in. The book is clearly awful. Who were you kidding? You’re the writer equivalent of those poor, deluded saps dreaming of stardom while warbling tunelessly during X-Factor auditions. The only way you’re likely to get published is as an example of how not to write for creative writing students, or as an email circular agents send to each other** with the title “You’ll never believe what arrived this morning.” Perhaps it would be better to pack away the notebook, the highlighter pens and the mind maps and go back to the day job.

For some, this period of despondency takes months to recover from, for others just minutes, but eventually you come to the final phase.

5. Acceptance

It was just not meant to be. For whatever reason, this agent and your book were not a match. It was nothing personal and it doesn’t mean the other 20 submissions you sent would end up the same way. You’ve had enough good feedback from others to believe there is some merit, and even you thought it was OK and you are your own worst critic. Relax. Look at the number of famous authors who initially faced multiple rejections. And it wasn’t as if this agent was the one you really wanted to work with, was it.

Plus, even if you get rejected by every single one of them, there is always self-publishing, which pays a much higher percentage per book…

Other good blogs on handling rejection:

25 Things Writers should know about rejection – Chuck Wendig

12 Famous writers on literary rejection

Literary rejections on display

*with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

** I have made this up, I’m sure agents are far too professional to behave this way. Well, most of them.

Fingers Crossed

These are not my fingers, or my backside (picture source: www.bryangira.com)

These are not my fingers, or my backside (picture source: http://www.bryangira.com)

So here we are. I’ve finally done it. Having spent the last couple of weeks interrogating the Writers and Artists Yearbook (2014, no less), polishing my letter of introduction, squeezing my 85,000 word book into a one and a half page plot synopsis, succumbing to doubts about the merit of my work and researching self-publishing, procrastinating (lost of procrastinating, and eventually building up the courage, I’ve just sent submissions to four literary agents in the hope that one will bite.

And after all the stress and anxiety, I feel fine. My requests have flown, there is nothing I can do now but sit back and wait. I’d like to say that sending them now was part of a cunning plan to take advantage of the fact that most other writers are too engaged with NaNoWriMo to send in submissions, but that would be a lie. It just happened this way.

Why only send to four? Why not to forty? Well I decided to take some advice from the wonderful Jools of A Writer’s Notepad fame, and test the waters with the view to adapting my approach based on feedback, rather than potentially blowing it all in one go. Plus there aren’t forty who will take my book. One of the most depressing parts of the process has been reading agent descriptions which say “interested in all commercial and literary fiction (no science fiction, fantasy or horror).” I don’t see my book as Science Fiction, it is a political thriller. But it is set in the future, it does have a lot of future technology integral to the plot, so it would be an argument I know I would lose. My next book should be easier. It’s a contemporary thriller; everybody wants one of those.

I’ll keep you up to date with how it goes and try not to be too despondent when the rejections arrive (I’m not being negative, just realistic). In the meanwhile I’ll carry on with the new book and keep reading up on self-publishing. It’s good to be prepared.