Posted in Author, author life, Kidlit, novel, Writing, writing for children

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I don’t remember when I knew I wanted to be a writer. In truth there probably wasn’t a magical revelation moment. It was just something that was always there in the background ticking along. Over the years I’ve filled countless notebooks with stories, or bits of stories, or just words which sounded interesting. I’ve planned out novels, written articles and jotted down poems on scraps of paper. 

They all exist somewhere – most of them in boxes in the attic, along with the childhood treasures we couldn’t part with and at least three blow up air beds we forget about each time we have guests. More recently I have become organised and now much of my writing is stored in the Cloud: the magical land of word documents – less dusty than the attic at least. 

So although there was no ‘I’m going to be a writer’ moment, there was definitely an ‘I’m going to try and get published’ moment. It was the 1st January 2020 when I made my annual resolutions list and stuck it to the fridge. 

In that first month I wrote a picture book and, having done absolutely no research whatsoever, sent it off to literary agents in a frankly shocking display of naivety. I waited for the offers of representation and instead received silence (shock! horror!). This is the empty inbox equivalent of a tumbleweed rolling around and crushing my dreams. 

I know. I know. No one gets published the first time, right? Well. I mean, some people do. But they are the exception. And don’t worry – even JK got rejected at first. People are kind – too kind sometimes. What I probably should have been told back then, on that frosty January filled with hope and ambition, was that actually I didn’t deserve to get published. 

I had done no research. I hadn’t asked anyone to critique my writing. I hadn’t even bothered to learn how to present a picture book manuscript, or how many pages (which I now know are called spreads) are in a picture book. I had done none of the hard work which I now understand is required. Those silent rejections were not only appropriate, but fully deserved. 

I wish I could write that a year and a half later I have put in the hard work and now the magic has happened. Because I have worked hard. I’ve read and read and then read some more. I’ve entered competitions, started building up a writing community network, attended lectures and been on courses. I have two writing critique groups and I am learning more than I even knew I needed to learn. I have had so much valuable and varied experience which has in every way made me a better writer.

But I am still not a published one. 

The last fortnight started with such hopefulness. A Twitter pitch day (I didn’t even really understand Twitter last year), a poetry head-to-head competition and a completed YA novel sent to three prospective agents. But after an unsuccessful pitch day and being knocked out of the competition in round one, I am feeling decidedly less positive. 

Then the real blow came. 

I listened to an established author talking about writing compelling plots last week. Her latest book was just about to be released and the talk was in part to promote her novel. It worked. I purchased it immediately and it arrived two days ago. I finished it today. It was brilliant. I loved it. The only trouble was – a major plot point was identical to the one in my novel. I don’t mean they were a bit similar – I mean they were spookily, eerily, terrifyingly similar. Some of the lines were almost word-for-word matches. It was very disconcerting reading it and part of my heart broke that my novel has already been published but it wasn’t me who’d written it. 

I suppose this must happen all the time. As is often said, there aren’t an infinite number of plots. Just the same stories told in different ways. But even so, I still can’t quite believe it. I remain positive that at least the idea must be a good one, good enough to get published. Even if someone else did get there first.

So, why do we do this to ourselves? I honestly feel like throwing in the towel (or the writing equivalent – recycling the paper?) and calling it a day. Perhaps, like the number of plots, there isn’t an infinite number of times you can be told you’re not good enough before you quit. 

But then this happens…

A new idea.

A new story I want to write.

A new story I have to write.

And then we’re off. Step one (again) on the merry-go-round of life as a wanna-be-author. Maybe this book will be the one which gets published. Maybe it won’t. But at the end of the day it’s not actually about the rejections or the acceptances (one day, please!) – it’s because the stories are there and they need to be written. 

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World Book Day

It seems wrong for an aspiring author not to mention the magic that is today – World Book Day – and so I present this honorary blog post where I share my World of Books. 

There is an ancient video somewhere of my mum reading The Family at Red Roofs by Enid Bylton to me at bedtime – I have no memory of the story or it being read to me but I love watching the video because it captures the magic of the shared story experience. An experience which starts the reading journey for most children – listening to stories at bedtime.

I do remember listening to The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl, a story which our four year old son is now enjoying listening to all these years later. I remember listening to story cassette tapes in the car on long journeys – yes, tapes. A concept which will be lost on our children, who listen to stories via the wifi and a magnetic character sensor.

The first chapter books I remember reading were the Animal Ark series by Lucy Daniels – I devoured them all – Puppies in the Pantry, Kittens in the Kitchen, Hedgehogs in the Hall…well, you get the idea! They were the perfect blend of slightly different stories in the exact same format each time – classic early reader stories. Years later I would learn that my beloved Lucy Daniels was not an author, or even a real person, she was a group of writers all trained to deliver the predictable animal tomfoolery I’d loved. My mind was blown. 

My favourite childhood book was Ella Enchanted by Gail Levine, a retelling of the traditional tale Cinderella – but in this version, Ella saves herself by being kind. Female empowerment and kindness in one book – I still read it once a year or so, just because. Closely followed by Louis Sachar’s Holes. 

Much later, in adulthood, I first read some of my favourite Young Adult novels – Junk by Melvin Burgess, Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, Wonder by RJ Palacio, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon…now I’ve started remembering, I feel guilty for having favourites, but there have been so many amazing books I’ve read over the years I would be here all night listing them. 

An interest in theatre and performance saw me consuming works by Ibsen, Shakespeare, Caryl Churchill and poetry by Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Anne Duffy and John Agard.

My two best friends often give me books as presents – always winners whether children’s books, non-fiction or stories aimed at adults; they know me, so they know what I’ll love or what I should read. They love sharing the books which they’ve loved reading and I love them for that. My husband is very tolerant of me reading books over his shoulder – he begins each new book reminding me that I can always read it after he’s finished but by page 50 he has inevitably started talking about the plot and characters until I am hooked in and spy-read his book disjointedly whilst also reading my own. 

My favourite authors for adults are Susan Hill, Ben Elton and Jussi Adler Olsen – a trio of drama, darkness, horror, thriller and social commentary. I love books which make me think and make me feel – and these authors are my guilty pleasure. They are the books which stay with me long after I’ve finished reading them. I also love books which make me laugh out loud – a recent joy has been the Rosie trilogy of books by Graeme Simsion, the genius who created Don Tillman – one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. 

It seems to me that reading is about sharing – from the earliest memories of being read to, to the excitement of reading and sharing an amazing book with someone else, right into the core of reading itself – an author sharing the world they have created with the reader. I would love to hear about your favourite books and hope you feel inspired to share them.

So Happy World Book Day to you – now, go share a book!