My pretty ugly route to publication – Virginia Franken

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By Virginia Franken

The magical moment had arrived. Settling myself in front of Skype, I was about to tell my parents the amazing news that I’d just landed a publishing deal! They were about to learn that a whole group of people had agreed to pay me actual money in exchange for some of the words I’d been scrapping out of my brain and plugging into a Word document for the past year. ♥

My folks didn’t know I already had an agent, two agents actually. It was all going to be a massive surprise … Was there going to be a joyous explosion of parental proudness? Would they assure me that now I was published, all my life-long “eccentricities” were instantly justifiable? Would there be a spontaneous opening of secretly stored champagne? Tears? Hallelujahs?

I dropped the news.

My dad was the first in with a response. “Well. It’s about time. You’ve been at it long enough, haven’t you?”

And he was right. Kind of.

I’m a big fan of indirect routes. As a child I’d always beg Mum to drive home “the pretty way” from school – through the narrow hedgerow lanes, past the rural farm houses and sheep-speckled hills. It took about ten minutes longer, but the alternative, of course, was to drive straight through the center of town with its triple-pierced teenagers and bla storefronts. A big fan of “the pretty way” herself, my mother always complied with my wish to feast my eyes on beauty.

We’re told that it takes a person about 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. I don’t know how many hours I’ve racked up tinkering around with writing fiction without actually having much to show for it, but it’s got to be getting close to 10,000 at this point. And nope, it hasn’t been pretty. Sifting back through my stop-and-start lead-up to actually getting a book in print, I realize that there’s one big reason it took me as much time as it did to get this party started: Focus. A large lack of it. A quick count puts me at six books attempted – three of which I never finished, four of which I never showed to a soul. And that’s not all! Another quick count puts me at five screenplays also written and not shown to anyone on this planet. All those words furtively thrust into a hard-drive and only two novels ever shared! And one of those was only ever seen by a handful of agents. The second has somehow clawed its way out into the world and will be making its debut this September.

Looking back, this all seems a very inefficient and frivolous use of time. What was I doing writing reams and reams of unread words and then tucking it all away in my bottom drawer? Was I afraid of failure? Worried the world would find me as interesting as a bag of brown bananas? Honestly? I’m not quite sure. But looking at it all through the clarifying lens of context, I think I was learning how to write.

I first started writing with some serious intention after my first child was born. He’s now seven. I think I’d been expecting motherhood to define who I was as a person and cement my place on planet earth amongst the other humanoids. Didn’t work that way, and when I became a mother I was as grasping and confused about life as ever. So when my baby was about six weeks old, I start writing with one almighty burst – three books at once.

Yet as I continued to churn out all those words over all those years, I somehow instinctively knew that those dear little sentences weren’t quite good enough to do anything with. Not yet. But for some reason I kept on going. So what exactly did I learn through all those scrappy writing years? Well, I definitely got used to throwing things out, safe in the knowledge that the next idea would be along any minute now. I also developed the courage to scrap whole characters, whole plot lines, whole books if I realized they weren’t working. I found out when it was worth taking time to stop and untangle something, and when it was best to walk away.

I worked out a routine for approaching a story, which is important – otherwise it’s just you and an ugly off-white screen glaring back at you – yikes. From writing a bunch of screenplays I learned how to structure a scene and how to frontload a story in order to keep an audience leaning in for more. I learned about the economy of words. And when I finally came back to writing a novel after my educational screenplay detour, I discovered I’d learned to stop trying to write like the novels I read, and learned how to start writing as me. And with one, and then two, kids underfoot, and a full-time job to tend to every day, I also learned how to write fast. These days I write as fast as the f*cking wind.

There are other things I could have done to speed up my progress. I could have not listened to the people, or read the articles that said getting a publishing deal was most likely never going to happen. I could have focused more. I could have done a course in creative writing. I could have spent less time trying to justify the hours I was devoting to something I loved, but wasn’t yielding much in the way of tangible return.

But, of course, hindsight is 20/20. And anyhow, this all might have taken me a while, but at least I got to feast my eyes on the pretty. And looking back now, even the ugly looks kinda beautiful.

Virginia Franken was born and raised in the United Kingdom. She currently lives in suburban Los Angeles with two kids, a dog, an overweight goldfish, and one bearded dude, in a house that’s just a little too small to fit everyone in comfortably. She gets most of her writing done when she should be sleeping. Life After Coffee, available now, is her first novel.


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