In case you haven’t seen it, this is the early proof version of my cover. It’s likely to be changed a bit, but, more or less…here it is! I’ve dreamed of seeing my name on a book cover for years, and I’m happy to say I love this. My name! On a book! To everyone else who dreams the same, I wish you a similar result.
I follow quite a few agents on the vast eternal cocktail-party that is Twitter (I suspect they are eating all the canapés). At first this was in the hope of soaking up some wisdom and helping myself to bag one. Now it’s mostly because they’re interesting, fun, and bookish people. However, I’d never have dreamed of pitching to an agent via Twitter, or following them into the ladies’ at an event, or accosting them with a manuscript under my arm and the words, ‘Twenty years ago you asked to see the rest of this…well I’ve finally finished’. Yet these are all things I have seen and heard of being done.
Of course, when you’re trying to get published, agents are up there with St Peter as powerful gate-keepers. It’s tempting to fall to your knees and try to touch the hem of their clothes. And it’s true that when agents go to new-writing events, they’re usually looking for people to sign (‘building a list’). So you don’t have to slide nervously past them as if scared that looking them in the eye will turn you to stone. They do, generally speaking, want to see good work. But don’t leave your wits at the door. Trying to get published can feel like you’re going mad at times, but don’t actually, y’know, go mad.
Irritate the gate-keeper and you may find the gates swing ever-more tightly closed. Even if you can write, you might cause them to ponder if they really want a client who’s as mad as a box of frogs. Just remember, people who work in publishing are human beings, who have jobs, work in offices, have likes and dislikes, and good and bad days. You don’t have to do wacky or outrageous things to get noticed (this only works in rom-coms). What you do have to do is read their submission guidelines and follow them – it’s tempting to cut corners, but you’ll just be giving them an excuse not to look at it. Write a good book and follow the guidelines, and don’t hassle.
This doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of events and gatherings (see previous posts like ‘Stand at the bar and smile’). By all means chat, and say hello, and even mention your book if you feel the agent is receptive. Just don’t think that dogged persistence is the way to succeed, or making heartfelt speeches, or crazed stalker-like behaviour. Because you’re not in a rom-com. No really, you’re not, even if you have a best male friend who you love and who secretly fancies you, but you both keep falling for the wrong people, or if you’re addicted to shopping and drinking but you’ve got an amazing job by dint of lying and/or gross incompetency, and you wear Jimmy Choos though you work in a juice-bar, you’re still not in a rom-com. Because no one would ever make a rom-com about a writer. We’re just too unphotogenic.
To summarise, never do the following things and you’ll be just fine:
Pitch on Twitter or other sites where the agents are there to chat
Refuse to read the signs if you’ve been told not to pitch
Follow up submissions too soon (they might give guidelines on the website, but a month or so at least)
Phone up to ask for information that’s clearly available on the website
Try to stand out with ‘wacky’ paper, glitter, gifts, gimmicks, or pop-up covering letters
Send naked photos (yes, it does happen)
Pitch in the toilets
Hassle the agent at events where they’re trying to mingle and have fun
Forget the agent is a human being
Last week I tried something different – I went away on my
own to try to fix the plot issues with my second book. The thought appealed –
throwing myself into my work, focussing on the inner life, getting away from
distractions. I’ve been working from home for about five months now, and it’s
not been entirely as I expected. On the whole I love it. I don’t feel tempted
to watch daytime TV and I don’t get lonely during the day or miss being in an
office (the tea is better at home and I don’t have to go to meetings about water-coolers).
Working for myself suits me – a flexible schedule, no need to get up early (my
number-one hate), and being driven by my most exacting boss – me.
However, what has really got to me is the internet. I love
Twitter and Facebook and all that and think it’s really useful for building a
profile. But because I have a part-time job working from home, I tend to have
my email open all the time, just looking for distraction. Although I’ve still
got quite a lot of writing done in the past five months, it’s shocked me a
little how poor my concentration now is. I used to be able to work for up to
three hours with no internet, no radio, nothing. Now I find myself jumpy and
twiddling my thumbs if I don’t have another window to click on every five
I recently went to an event with the great Edna O’Brien, who
spoke about this problem. She felt that social networking and the internet may
actually fundamentally change the character of the novel. It will disrupt that
deep, almost trance-like concentration you need to be able to hold 100,000
words in your head at once. I’ve recently heard writers debate the issue of
long-hand writing. I wrote most of my current work long-hand to start off with,
copying it onto the laptop after. I realised this didn’t make much sense, and
was duplicating work, but I felt the text I wrote straight onto the screen
lacked something tangible. A flow, a connection. Edna O’Brien explained this by
saying writing is a kinetic art, flowing from somewhere in the body. To etch it
out, pen onto paper, is like painting. We feel the words going out of us. I
agree with this. I think for me the only way that works to write a book is
straight through, no stopping, and in longhand. In fact I think the reason I’m
struggling with something in book two is that bits of it were written over the
years and then put together. It’s a book that’s come together in the edit. I
don’t think I will do one this way again.
So I thought I would take myself off to re-connect with the
deeper part of the mind. But it soon became clear to me that there’s a reason
writers tend to cling to the internet like a toddler to their parents’ legs.
Because being a writer, being alone with your thoughts all day, can be pretty
lonely. And though I did get a lot of work done last week, I was lonely at
times too. It feels slightly embarrassing to say that – like loneliness is a
shameful secret in today’s world. But everyone who writes must feel it at
times, the desolation of the blank page, the stark understanding that however
helpful the advice, no one else can do this for you. You dig out those
plot-holes alone. With just me and the book, everything felt quite raw. Like
there was nowhere to hide, either from myself or from it. Natalie Goldberg writes
about loneliness in her brilliant and brave book Writing Down the Bones, which I often return to for solace. She
says it’s like cold water – you never get used to its sting and bite, but you
can learn to stand up under it.
What’s the solution to lonesomeness in a profession where
you need to be alone to do it? Writing in cafes, or trains, or communal writing
retreats? I’d try all these things, and remember to be grateful for everyone
who’s out there, offering advice and support. Even if it’s through the medium
of links to amusing You Tube videos of people falling over.
I’m no intellectual. This much became clear to me when, plunging into the writing world, I decided I’d give up my subscriptions to Glamour and Cosmopolitan, and take out one to the London Review of Books instead. I was always seeing people online going, Oh, I read this fascinating article on the behaviour of nematodes (or something) in the LRB.
It was a mistake. I have yet to finish an issue. I simply can’t get on with the lengthy text, the broadsheet size pages, and the lack of photos. There aren’t any pictures of shoes! There’s nothing telling me what famous women like to eat for their lunch, or swearing that they ‘love junk food’ and ‘are proud of their curves’! Good God, there’s not even any sex tips. And so, as I let the LRB stack up and the dog shreds them while I sneak off to buy Heat magazine, I must face the truth: I am no intellectual.
For many years I thought I might be one. I enjoyed school. I went to Oxford to study English, where I didn’t find most of it intolerably dull. I have on occasions taken enjoyment from the Rabelaisian vigour of Middle French, and I can certainly be relied on to find the apt literary quote that the moment demands (Eg on doing a home facial – ‘Out out damned spot!’ ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ (No. It isn’t.) But I had to face my true intellectual mediocrity on the day I had a tutorial on critical theory. I believe it was on something like the death of the author (oh how I wished they had died instead of writing their book on critical theory).
Frightening clever tutor: ‘So, what does Harold Bloom mean by the anxiety of influence?’
My infinitely more intellectual friend: ‘Covering angels….ephebes….belatedness….Keats…..Milton…’
Frighteningly clever tutor: ‘Excellent points, cleverer-friend-of-Claire. What do you think, Claire?’
Me: (after long tumbleweed pause) ‘So who saw Heat magazine this week? If only they’d do that Mr Rochester as Torso of the Week, eh? Eh?’
To this day I have no idea what anything I studied that week actually meant. If you can explain to me succinctly what Harold Bloom was on about, you can have all my old back-issues of the London Review of Books (slightly chewed in parts, one careless owner).
So, the point of that foray into my student days was to introduce the topic of education. What is a true writer’s education? There’s a perception in some new writers that you need to be conventionally educated to be an author, or even ‘have been to Oxbridge’. This isn’t true. I went to Oxford, yes, but I learned more about making outfits out of bin bags while vomiting in a wheelie-bin than I ever did about writing. The only transferrable skills I can think of are: 1. Reading lots of books fast. 2. Laughing in the face of deadlines as you stay up all night in a Red Bull and Haribo-fuelled binge of Henry Fielding. Useful for edits. 3. How to drink heavily while still scribbling down 2,000 words on structuralism. 4. Blagging. Writing 2,000 on structuralism while still to this day having no idea what it means. So, by all means teach yourself to blag, booze, read, and deliver under pressure. But you can probably do this without spending three years studying obscure Romantic poetry.
What then makes up a writing apprenticeship? In other forms of art– music, drama, painting – it’s considered perfectly normal to commit to years of professional training. Not so in writing – outside of the literary genre, few people seem to do this. And the more I think about them, the less useful formal writing courses seem. We’re fortunate. Our apprenticeship can be served with a stack of books and a pen. By all means we must educate ourselves. Simply by taking in whatever we can. Do things. Any things. Like if you ended up in a prison camp for years, that would be very useful for a book or two. Ditto childhood trauma, broken relationships, and something interesting like growing up in a petting zoo. Absorb as much of life as you can, safe in the knowledge that every soggy taxi-queue, every Little Chef breakfast, every painful injury, is all good fodder for your works to come.
The other thing you can do to educate yourself is absorb as much sense of story as possible. Again this is lucky, because story doesn’t just come between the dusty covers of a 19th-century novel (some of them really went on a bit). It’s everywhere – the most rubbish explody-shooty film, the most gory computer game, the slightest children’s comic, even the tales you eavesdrop on at the bus stop in the rain. Stories need to sink into our skin, so that when we write, they are there at our fingertips. So listen to gossip, read everything, talk to people. It’s all an education.
What do you think – what makes up a writer’s education?