Knowing when to quit – Rory Dunlop

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By Rory Dunlop

I took seven years to write my novel and I spent about half that time wondering if I should give it up. I was working as a barrister and so every hour spent on my novel was an hour where I could have been earning actual money to support my family. I worried constantly that it wasn’t worth all that time off, that it was a bourgeois self-indulgence, that it would never come to anything. As I blundered along the path to publication, there were several moments when I nearly gave up, and some when I thought I had given up.

If you’ve ever done a creative writing course, you’ll know there are some people writing novels that are definitely never going to be published. How can you know if you’re one of them? It’s so hard to critique your own work, particularly when you’ve re-read it several times. Friends are liable to err on the side of encouragement rather than candour. How can you know whether you actually have a shot at making it?

The first thing to do is to ask an expert. I sent the first draft of my novel to an agent who was a family friend. Generously, she read it. Her rejection email had just enough praise in it not to put me off. She said it needed changes. I re-wrote it and sent the new draft to someone else, who wrote another, similar email with nice things in one paragraph and then not-so-nice things in a slightly longer paragraph. It felt like this process could go on forever.

By then, I’d spent three years on the book and publication seemed as far away as ever. I signed up for an Arvon course, where I had a one-on-one class with Jim Crace, perhaps the finest prose writer in England. He told me I had to keep trying, that I owed it to myself. That kept me going for several months until I had a new draft and I could delay no longer. I emailed various agents, attaching the novel and a precis for another I hadn’t written. This is it, I thought. If they don’t like it, I’ll take the hint and give up.

A very well-known agent responded within three days, inviting me to her office. I read and re-read the message, trying to tease out her intentions from the two lines of text. Surely, she wouldn’t have asked to meet unless she wanted to represent me? I picked my way to her sofa through the stacks of her bestsellers. She made me tea and told me she’d loved my novel. She said it made her laugh and cry.

‘And yet,’ she said. I kept smiling as my heart fell to the floor. ‘And yet I’m not sure how I’d sell it. This other novel, that you’ve written the precis for. That I could sell in a flash. And you’ve learned so much from writing this first one. You’d be amazed how many successful novelists have an unpublished novel in their drawer.’

Still smiling, my dreams in pieces, I left at the first polite opportunity. Five years of holidays and late nights and early mornings had been poured into that novel. A slight tinker, even a redraft, I could have accepted. But to give it up and start again? After all that time? I might as well give up writing. There was no way I could justify the time it would take to write another novel when, for all I knew, it would also be rejected. I was facing the same dilemma as the main character in my book, a question most of us have faced in our lives – should I carry on with a failing relationship in the hope it may get better or give up while there’s still time to start something else?

I’ve never found it easy to let go of the past. I probably would have given up eventually but it would have been a long and painful process and I would have tried every agent out there. Thank God it didn’t come to that. The best thing, indeed the only good thing, about sending your literary child out to the world is that you just need one agent and one publisher to like it and the other rejections can be borne, if not forgotten.

I thought again of that first agent’s advice recently, when I was reading Freakonomics. The authors recall Churchill’s famous words to Harrovian schoolboys: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty.” They argue, persuasively, that this is poor advice. To be successful at one thing, you often need to fail at others. People who don’t quit easily get stuck in something they’re not good at. Churchill was a frequent quitter before he became Prime Minister – he tried half a dozen careers. This may be true. It may be that the agent was right – it may be that I would have spent less time, or earned more, if I’d written the second novel rather than persevering with the first. But I’ll never regret it. I think that’s the test for anyone thinking of quitting – will I regret it later if I give up now?

Rory Dunlop studied Classics and Philosophy at Oxford and worked as a teacher and journalist before being called to the Bar. He spent a year in Strasbourg, writing judgments for the European Court of Human Rights, failing to learn French and falling in love. What We Didn’t Say is his first novel and is available now.



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