Getting published is about graduating from the school of hard knocks…with honours – Carol Mason

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By Carol Mason

You’ve heard it before. Ms Bankrupt Single Mum starts writing a novel in between caring for her dying mother and autistic twins. She finishes it in four months, lands a dream agent at her first try, and the book sells at auction for six figures.

It happens. It didn’t happen to me, and the truth is, it’s probably not going to happen to you. Everyone’s route to getting published is different, but, with the exception of lucky duck above, there’s one thing that most writers have in common: they let nothing defeat them. They dealt with disappointment and bounced back from every single roadblock along the way. If you can do this, and you can write, then your dream of being a published novelist may well become a reality.

It’s 14 years since I left my advertising copywriter job to write a novel. That book didn’t get published, nor did the second or third. It’s been a long and sometimes grim process. And yet to do something else for a living would be unthinkable. I actually love writing, if not always the process of creating a novel. I certainly love when a book is finished and I feel it became everything I wanted it to be. Because writing is hard. Anyone who says differently is lying. And writing book #4 is not easier than book #1. Writing never gets easier. You push yourself harder with each one, so you’re always being challenged. A career in novel-writing will put you on a rollercoaster of emotions. But you must rising above dismay and doubt and remembering what your goal is. Staying the course is easier if you have the right approach and attitude. Here’s how.

1. What to write? Always remember that you are writing the book for you first and foremost – not to land an agent, or to appeal to a publisher. Your book should be something you’d long to read, something you’d be fully absorbed by, something you’d remember long after the final page is turned. If you are not sure if your heart is in your WIP ask yourself: Is this story really exciting me? If I could take three novels on holiday, would one of them be my own or would all three be somebody else’s?

2. Outline or wing it? Either way, there will come a point where you will be so close to it that you will cease to be able to objectively judge it and then you will spin your wheels. Step back. Take a week, a month or however long you need to be able to read it with fresh eyes again. It will unleash a torrent of inspiration. You will scramble to make notes on what’s wrong and how to fix it. You will be energized by the book’s potential again. I promise you it will be the best time-out you ever afforded yourself.

3. If the book is plodding – for me that’s usually after I’ve rewritten the first chapter about forty times – it helps to visualize it as a movie. Movies don’t work if there is insufficient action and too much internalizing of the characters’ emotions. Re-write areas that are running out of steam – or never had any steam in the first place. It’s fun to imagine your book on the big screen. Using this technique can transform how a reader will engage with your story. Google the Three Act Structure used by screenwriters to work out how to do Set Up, Conflict, Resolution. You don’t have to follow it to the letter but it really helps you find out if your plot has any substance.

4. Remember that sometimes the idea/concept is good but the execution isn’t. Instead of rewriting the same thing endlessly trying to make what you currently have work, accept that what you have is one way to do it – now try another. Write down for or five possible loose plots for the same concept – fresh and completely different ways to go. It’s an invigorating exercise to think out of the box, and will help breathe new life into what often starts to feel like old work.

5. Finished! Or is it? A first draft is a wonderful thing. You’ve got a structure and it’s hanging together from beginning to end. Second draft is writing with all the angst taken out; now you just have to make it brilliant. Even when you sense your book is nearly complete, set it aside for a week or so, then be brutally honest about how well its various elements are working. Could it be funnier? Darker? More suspenseful? Are there parts you skip when re-reading? Are there any highly visual stand-out scenes that readers won’t forget? Are the characters real or have you just used them to get the plot written? Think of your favourite novels/characters in fiction – how do yours rate beside them? Take what you’ve considered finished from an 8/10 to a 10. Don’t be in a hurry. Go the extra mile with every aspect of the novel until you really feel it sings.

6. When you get feedback from either a trusted reader or a prospective agent, listen to it, welcome it. If it’s not all glowing, it’s not about you, so don’t take it personally. And remember – you asked for it! Praise never made anyone a better writer. Then again, opinions are just that and no ten people will share the same one. But sometimes a reader will identify an issue that you intuitively know exists – you’ve just been ignoring it to make life easier! After receiving a particularly bleak set of editorial notes, when everything feels hopeless, I always ask myself these questions: Do I believe in this book? Or, do I believe in some element of this book? That might be a character, a storyline, or the central idea… If the answer is yes, then don’t be deterred. Just accept that you might have to find a new way to bring your idea/character alive. It may feel insurmountable to start from almost scratch again, but remind yourself that in three months time you will realise it was the best thing you ever did.

7. When you begin your search for an agent, take off your creative cap and put your business one on. Make all communication succinct and professional. Remember that agents reject you for many more reasons than just the quality of your submission, so, again, don’t take rejection personally. Ever. Move on and remember it’s a numbers game. If your work is fresh and clever, and your approach is professional, you will succeed eventually. If you expect the process to be a bit of a tedious nightmare, you might be pleasantly surprised. And remember everyone has a scary agent story. Here’s mine.

I sent my third (currently unpublished) novel off to 3 agents in London while I was living in Canada. One of them rang me and said she was only half way through but she was blown away by how good it was, and could we discuss representation? I was so excited that I agreed to fly to London to see her. I had also set up meetings with two other agents who had responded favourably – so this felt like an amazing position to be in. But when I arrived at Agent #1’s office in Kensington, I could sense something was wrong. Rather than looking like she was about to greet “the next Roddy Doyle” as she had called me on the phone, you’d have thought she was about to go in for a colonoscopy minus sedation. She proceeded to say some mumbo about how she normally only represents non-fiction. Then, without looking me in the eyes, she finally admitted that once she’d finished the entire book she’d gone off it! She wished me well with my career and showed me the door. I left there most confused. Couldn’t she have just rung me to save us both the awkwardness?

My confusion only got worse when I landed at Agent #2’s door, a couple of hours later. Agent #2 said that while she loved my novel, she hadn’t realised I was “shopping around” for an agent. She thought I had given her the book on an exclusive basis (even though I had never told her it was exclusive and most agents, in the absence of you stating this, assume you are querying others). She said she felt like I was here to interview her, and she found this offensive! She gave me my manuscript back and sent me on my way. It was pouring rain when I stepped onto the street. I felt so devastated that I went and sat on a wet park bench and cried. But I still had one more agent to go. Fully expecting to be shown the door here too, this agent had an entirely different approach. She hated the book but loved my writing. She said my heart clearly wasn’t in the story, I should write a book where it is, and then she would sell it. And she did. The Secrets of Married Women (soon to be re-released by Amazon’s Lake Union) was sold to Hodder in a two-book deal.

So my next bit of advice is simply this: travel down your own road. Don’t compare yourself to others. Don’t make someone’s huge advance or ability to snare a top agent at first try, the stick by which you measure yourself. If someone writes two books a year and you can only write half a one every two years, be proud of your achievement. You are you, and if you are clever and wise, that might just take you far in life.

Carol Mason is the author of After You Left (published April 1 by Amazon’s Lake Union,) The Secrets of Married Women, Send Me A Lover and The Love Market. Her books have been reviewed everywhere from Australia’s Cosmo to the UK’s Financial Times. She was born in Sunderland but now lives in Canada with her Canadian husband.

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