I think every writer has it. The terror of being no good mixed with the total arrogance that of course people will want to read us. Both are necessary – the arrogance is what gets us going (only I can write this book); the terror provides the humility required to self-edit to death (the only way to avoid certain failure).
When I was young, I never thought about these things. I wanted to be a writer and thought it was that simple. What stopped me back then was time. It seems stupid to me now, looking back as a 50 year old at my 20 something student self with hours to spare doing everything but write. University was an exciting time for me – the course sucked, but I threw myself into a myriad of activities: community action projects, the student counselling service, Amnesty, the chaplaincy, a vegetarian cafe, and, for a very brief time, the student newspaper. All of which taught me loads of skills for life and work but gave no space for creativity. And when I left York in 1987 I plunged straight into a demanding social care job. I dabbled with writing a bit, but usually was too busy or tired to get on with actually putting anything on paper.
Roll forward a few years, and I’d left my job precipitately, after a particularly stressful year. It was the job or me, so I chose good mental health, which left me struggling to find work. A brief period in a hideous telephone fundraising company, was followed by eighteen months as a receptionist in a church, supplemented eventually by part time work for an inclusive drama company. It happened to coincide with interest rates going up to 15% which doubled my mortgage payments. I was earning far less than I had been and so I ran up debt after debt, was constantly having utilities cut off, and at one point was living off £40/week.
But, the lack of income, and working part time did have one positive effect. I couldn’t afford to go out, and now I had time to write. I began a novel that I’d been thinking of for several years, writing about two thirds of it. I wrote several short stories and worked out the plot for a second novel. I even tried to submit some stories. Back then, pre-internet, there were no helpful agents on line to tell you how to do it right and the only literary magazine I’d heard of was Granta. I typed up my story, sent it off, naively thinking that was all it took. I was so crushed by that first rejection, it didn’t occur to me to try again. Besides, I’d just got a place on a Masters course, and soon that ate into my lovely free time. Shortly afterwards, I found a new job that paid the bills, life started looking up; the novel remained unfinished and the short stories went into the back of the cupboard.
Over the years that followed I kept telling myself I would be a writer one day. Every time I picked up a highly praised book I thought was rubbish, my arrogant self said, I can do better than that. But there never seemed to be enough hours in the day, and once I was married and started having babies, that only got worse. It wasn’t until 2003 when I stopped paid work to be a full time mother that the opportunity to write opened up again. And this time I was ready for it. Because by the time I was in my late 30’s I was beginning to recognise I could no longer put it off. If I wanted to do this, I was going to have to commit to it now, or I never would.
So I started to write, beginning with ‘Echo Hall’. I picked over the writing of my early 20’s cringing in horror at the banality, re-working them to make them better. I gained a place on a writing course which simultaneously built up and wrecked my confidence. Being on the course suggested I had some talent, but I found the endless assignments, academic approach and constant marking demoralising. Still, when I left in 2009 I had a writing qualification and had developed the habit of writing. I could consider myself a writer.
On my twin sister’s (Julia Williams) advice I set up this blog and started finding writers on twitter. I started doing ‘Friday Flash’ and found a supportive community for critique and learning about flash fiction. Gradually short stories were picked up in online journals, and at last in 2014, I could claim the title author, when ‘Rapture and What Comes After’ was published by Gumbo Press.
And in all that time, I have worked on ‘Echo Hall’. The novel took me ten years to write, and it wasn’t till I had a third edit done that I felt able to show to anyone. I did, however, show sections from time to time. Though the majority of the feedback I received was positive, one particularly bruising and poorly worded critique nearly made me give up writing all together. Most people were encouraging, but some thought it was too complicated for a first novel and I should lower my sights. I didn’t because I felt (and still do) that the book had something worth saying. Luckily my husband, Chris, Julia and my friend Anne Booth were all very good at geeing me along, so I kept faith with the project. By the time I was ready to submit to agents, arrogance was winning: the book was good enough, it would succeed.
I knew by now that rejection would be the order of the day and it was. Everyone was lovely and I had several requests for full manuscript. Some people liked it, but not quite enough. Others dismissed it as lacking suspense, conflict or characters they could root for. One or two clearly hadn’t read it and some never got back to me at all. I had discussions with people who told me that I’d never get there with my first novel, and it was time to put it to one side. And one stranger online telling me quite categorically that 120,000 words was far too long for a debut novel
Though with every rejection, the terror was never far away (what if I’m kidding myself, what it really is no good?) the arrogance kept me going. And although the steady stream of rejections did get to me (a LOT), I continued to pick myself up and putting myself out there. Until, at last the miracle happened, and Unbound picked me up.
I’m really happy to be with such a great publisher, but of course this means putting myself out there even more. Because I’m not just pitching to agents any more, I’m pitching to you the reader. And every time I do, though I veer from the arrogance of (of course you’ll love it) to the terror of (what if it fails to meet expectations?)I know that ultimately this is what I have to do to get the book published.
After 12 years of living with the characters of ‘Echo Hall’ in my head, I really want to see them on the page and in bookshops, libraries and beside your bedside table. I really do believe that though it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, there are enough potential readers out there who will like it enough to want to pledge to make it happen.
So if you are one of them, please do pop over to Unbound and pledge today and tell all your friends to join to. Together, we can make it happen.