How to survive the wilderness years – Charity Norman

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By Charity Norman

Most of us have been there. Perhaps your first book’s finished and you’ve sent it out, but you haven’t yet found an agent or a publisher. Perhaps you’ve begun another one, or perhaps you’re still rewriting the first. The months pass, and then the years. You’re hunched over a laptop, day after day. You’ve invested so much into this, and yet you’re getting rejection letters while some seriously terrible books are flying off the shelves.♥

Writing’s lonely. There’s no team meeting; nobody gives you daily feedback. You know you can write – that’s why you’re doing it – but self-doubt lurks in the shadows. Then there’s guilt: you could be doing something useful like earning a better living, or being a better parent. Family, friends and passing acquaintances seem to have only one question: “Any news on the book?’ they ask – sometimes kindly, sometimes maliciously. There’s a sub-text. What they mean is: “Still not published?” You can see it in their eyes. You suspect they think you’re a self-deluded narcissist. In your darkest moments, you wonder whether they might have a point.

If this doesn’t resonate with you, please feel free to stop right here. I apologise for wasting your time; but if it does, let me promise you that you’re not alone. I’ve been there myself. In fact, that wilderness is so damned crowded we might as well throw a party.

Here are seven things that kept me going when I was slogging through the wilderness years:

1. Use a professional manuscript assessor, and listen to their advice. No, really. Friends won’t give you an honest, skilled opinion. They like you too much. A manuscript assessor can provide moral support as well as editorial advice. Using such a service was a turning point for me.

2. Enjoy the journey. Yep, it’s a cliche and it’s easier said than done. But if you delight in this time of creativity then they can’t be wasted years – whatever the future holds.

3. Writing a novel is a massive achievement in itself. Lots of us are going to write a book. Very few of us actually do it. If you’ve finished a novel, you’re way, way ahead of the pack. Remember that, next time self-doubt nudges you. Tell her to sod off.

4. Some people get stuck after finishing their first book. They can’t quite bring themselves to send it out into the cold, hard world. They polish, and polish again. They talk about sending it to an agent, but they hesitate. Do it! Go on. And if it’s rejected, send it to another, and another. In the meantime …

5. I’m sorry, but write another book. Perhaps you’ve invested years already; but you have to let go of that first one – for now, at least. You’re second may well be even better. Agents and publishers want to see a writer who shows they can keep writing.

6. You could give up, of course. Many do, and who can blame them? But if you do, you certainly won’t make it. Blind stubbornness is vital in this game. One thing all published writers have in common is the fact that they didn’t give up.

7. Remember: you’re not alone. Plenty of published authors have been exactly where you are right now. I travelled through those arid lands for about half a decade. It was grim, at times. But it was worth it.


Charity Norman was born in Uganda and brought up in successive draughty vicarages in Yorkshire and Birmingham. After several years’ travel she became a barrister, specialising in crime and family law. In 2002, realising that her three children had barely met her, she took a break from the law and moved with her family to New Zealand. Her second novel After the Fall was selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club. The New Woman is her fourth novel.

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