I was looking for a bill or something in my email account the other day and although I thought it was forever lost, somewhere in a long defunct hard drive, my search pinged forth a message containing the first three chapters, synopsis and agent query letter for my first (complete) novel writing attempt. Honestly, seeing this hopeful little email from so long ago – July 9th, 2004 to be exact, in a world before children, before moving across the world, before all that defines my life now – was a bit confronting, especially as I’m in the midst of submitting my current MS to agents.
I scanned the letter and cringed at my enthusiasm which, in the end, had come to nothing; I read the synopsis and although I was surprised at how solid the story’s bones were, made a face at the obvious, gaping holes. Then, taking a deep breath, I opened up the sample attachment and began to read.
Every writer, editor and agent talks about how important it is to have distance from your work. How after finishing a draft, you must let it rest and breathe a while so that when you return, it’s with fresh eyes that after months of being wrapped up and obsessed and filled with love, hate, joy and despair for the work, you can attack it anew and, hopefully, finally see some wood for some trees.
Well, let me tell you that twelve years of distance helps you see things very clearly but for all their faults, those first three chapters – written so long ago, by a girl I can barely remember being – were actually surprisingly reassuring. They weren’t as awful as I remembered or as dreadful as I imagined them to be for all these years.
Sure, they were gauche (sample: “‘It’s gorgeous,’ I sigh. It must cost hundreds of pounds.”), the subject matter dated (“She passes me what looks like a small calculator and a microscopic mobile phone”) and it’s very clear that I was a true pantser back then rather than the sort-of-plotter I like to imagine I’ve become now, it was a solid first attempt. I enjoyed reading it and even wanted to keep going.
Then I got to the third chapter and realised why I’d got all those ‘no’s’ from the eight or nine literary agents I queried!
I remember one of the rejection letters from an agent praising my writing style but adding that I tended to “tell rather than show” and I recall thinking at the time, oh bugger, the cardinal sin, well that’s that then, I don’t have the talent necessary; time to file away this novel-writing attempt under F for Failure and Forget It.
Now, looking at chapter three – which, yes, is extremely heavy on the tell with barely any show – I want to grab my 2004 self by the shoulders and say, c’mon, you, this is good advice! This agent is absolutely right: you need to show not tell, so re-write it, make the work better, redraft again, let other people read it, then redraft some more and resubmit, dammit; don’t let this advice go to waste!
But of course, I didn’t. Rather, I gave up. And I don’t think it was because I was lazy or couldn’t be arsed to rework and redraft the MS.
Knowing myself, I’m pretty sure I let this (constructive) criticism find that dark hole of doubt inside me and take hold.
So, I put the book away; I moved countries; I had those babies and I told myself that perhaps one day, maybe, I’d try again and do better. Eventually, I did just that. I was stronger emotionally then and less precious about my abilities so when I got feedback, I didn’t automatically assume I was a big fat failure. Instead, I redrafted and redrafted and sent the MS back out into the world where it came very close, tantalisingly close, but then was rejected in a bigger, perhaps even more soul-crushing, way.
Bruised and battered but refusing to be defeated after learning so much about the business of writing books from the process – and wanting to be part of that world more than ever – I started again with another novel.
Most writers seem to agree that wrestling with doubt is probably the greatest threat to their creativity and production. I can read the same chapter at different times and if I’m in a negative frame of mind, it won’t take much for me to decide it’s complete rubbish and if I brood on this thought then, sure enough, I’ll soon find myself walking away from my laptop. If I’m in a better mood, I’ll allow myself a ‘hmm, not so bad, I guess’ and keep on trucking.
I’ve learnt I have to ignore the doubt. Most of the time, when I’m writing, I’ll just keep on going whatever my reaction. I don’t let the negativity in until the end of the draft. I know not to, because it’s too destructive and time-wasting and pointless.
But the doubt has taken up hold again, in a big way. Now that I’m querying and waiting … and waiting … and waiting … I’m finding it hard to ignore that voice. It’s tenacious and compelling and its whining is getting louder with every day.
I think the only way to defeat it – apart from that three novel book deal! – is distraction and to start writing again. So here I go again. Book four.
But I can’t help imagining myself in another twelve years, looking back on the emails I’m sending out now. Will there still be hope, doubt, despair with maybe a smidge of something good in there too? Will my dream have come true? Will I still be trying and thinking, maybe the next one?
Okay, so: I promise, future self, that even though I’m always going to hear the doubt, I’ll also listen to the good stuff, too; the productive stuff, the constructive criticism from others that makes a better writer and a better book.
There’s also this: I promise that doubt will only get a small time-share in my thoughts and only after I’ve done my daily word-count.