Could you just make it a little ……different

Before XX found its perfect publishing home with Dialogue Books, I’d experienced a lot of rejection, for this book and all the manuscripts that came before it. There were three of them, of varying quality, and now that a decent amount of time has elapsed, I know that they represent my apprenticeship as a writer..

In publishing rejection is often impersonal. There are clear reasons for form emails being a necessity, but when you’re on the receiving end it feels like a cold barrage of no, no, no. When I first started sending XX out to agents, I was shocked and delighted that full requests started to come in alongside these form rejections. So desperate was I to climb that first stair to publication that I felt ready and willing to change anything, to rewrite the whole book if necessary. I had the attention of people who could get me published. If they were interested in representing me, I would do whatever they asked. No way was I going to let this opportunity slide.

The fact that eight agents requested the manuscript following my initial submission told me that I was definitely on to something with XX. Interest in the premise was strong, yet when agent comments started to trickle in I felt deeply uneasy. So much of what was suggested jarred with my vision for the book. For instance – a number of agents questioned my protagonist Jules’ working class background. Did it have to be – as one agent put it – so grim? Yet for me, this very ‘grimness’ made Jules who she was. It was fundamental to the way she saw the world and how she interacted with others. If I were to attempt to edit her background into something more palatable, then I’d be taking away her beating heart.

Other agents advocated a more thriller-like structure. Yet I hadn’t conceived the book as a thriller at all and to re-write it that way would have stymied my ability to explore gender politics and the other themes in the nuanced way I’d intended. I really did start to despair. It felt as though my chance of publication – my one chance – was dependent on me making changes that I didn’t believe in, into crafting the book into something I no longer felt so passionate about.

I like to think that I would have resisted. That I would have stayed true to my vision for the book, even at the cost of representation. But fortunately that wasn’t a choice I had to make, because I was invited to discuss representation with an agent who liked the book as it was. An agent who intrinsically seemed to ‘get’ what I was trying to do with the book. She did have editorial suggestions, but when I heard what they were I agreed with each and every one. Her changes bought my book closer to my vision for it, rather than further away.

It was a reprieve – preventing me from taking a path I would have been uncomfortable with. Don’t get me wrong – listening and applying feedback is essential for writers. But it’s important that you are honest with yourself about your own conception of the book. An agent will want to shape it into something that she can sell, but what she sees herself selling might not be the book you want to write. And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’ve missed your one shot. Publishing is such a subjective business, you just need to find the agent whose taste matches your own.

I can’t help thinking that if I had reworked XX into a thriller, if I had given my protagonist a nice middleclass upbringing, I would have fallen out of love with my own story.

Writing a novel alongside the day job

In an ideal world, we’d all have the means to retire to a French châteaux to nurture our creativity and hone our masterpieces. But for those of us with no choice but to work full time, here are a few tips that helped me commit a novel to paper, whilst continuing to work full-time.

1. Schedule your writing time

When you first fall in love with an idea, you may well be willing to write through the night, you may find that you enjoy such prolonged sessions. But writing and honing 100,000 words will normally require a less romantic, more methodical approach.

Look at your week and schedule realistic writing slots where you can. In your first flushes of enthusiasm it’s easy to believe you’ll find the will to do a two hour stint after you’ve been to work, gone to the gym and cooked dinner. But half an hour is more likely a sustainable goal. You can always keep going if a session is going well, but you’re much more likely to sit down in the first place if your target feels doable. And doable when you are tired and doubting yourself, not just when you’re freshly enthused.

2. Write every day if you can

For me, a daily commitment to writing allows me to reach a much deeper level of immersion in my story and characters. I find that if I miss a few days, the session that follows will go far less smoothly and I may have to spend time going back over my notes and soaking myself in the atmosphere of the book before I can make any progress.

Again, you don’t have to commit to hours and hours, but thinking about your work in progress on a daily basis will fuel idea generation and maintain forward momentum.

3. Accept that your first draft won’t be perfect

When I first started writing regularly, with a view to publication, I found it very hard to get beyond chapter one. I had high expectations of my prose and wouldn’t move on to the next sentence until I was sure what came before was as perfect as I could make it. This made for some very frustrating sessions, crafting and re-crafting the same section, whilst not really moving the narrative forward at all.

Giving yourself the freedom to write rubbish – to simply get something down, knowing that you can come back to it later – will liberate you creatively. Nothing can compare to those sessions that go by at breakneck speed, when your fingers can barely keep up with the thoughts in your head, when you are ‘seeing’ the action unfold in the same way that your reader will see it later on.

You can always fix your first drafts. But if you strive to hard for perfection in the first instance, your pages will remain blank.

4. Keep exploring new ideas

Whilst maintaining momentum and ploughing your way through the scenes and chapters that will comprise your first draft, it’s important to also devote some time to the wider landscape of your novel.

Every week or so, I like to sit down with a notebook and ask myself: am I exploring my themes in a sufficiently compelling way? Am I giving my characters the opportunity to make choices that will shape their destinies?

Going back to pen and paper, spending time thinking, rather than writing, often helps me generate ideas for later in the book. This pays dividends later on, making it far less likely that I’ll dry up during any of my writing sessions.

5. Edit your way out of a rut

There will be times when writing is absolutely the last thing you want to be doing. When you’ll open up a word document and feel as though you have nothing to give. You don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. You’re not sure you even care anymore.

My tactic for extricating myself from such a rut is to edit. Sometimes, going back over the last couple of nights’ work will be enough to re-immerse myself in the story and enable me to press on. Other times, I may need to go all the way back to the beginning, re-reading and tweaking as I go.

So there you have it. The work of creativity is exactly that – work.

Rearranging the pieces – the big structural edit

One of the reasons XX proved more successful than my previous efforts, is that it benefited from a far more prolonged and extensive editing process.

So much of writing is rewriting. True, you need to silence your inner editor if you’re to get a first draft down at all. But the minute you type ‘the end’ on version one, the real work begins!

A book will need editing at both the macro and micro level – sometimes many times over. Today, I’m sharing a checklist relating to the big, structural edits: the changes that enable the gush of a first draft to take shape as a coherent narrative.

Ideally, you’ll put the manuscript away for a few months before embarking on this process.

Have you fully explored your themes?

Most of us write books because we have something to say. So a key question to ask yourself: have you said it? Have you covered a range of different perspectives on your themes? The most satisfying narratives tease out a multitude of complexities – have you gone as deep as you can go with your explorations?

Be ruthless at culling any moments where your characters appear as mouthpieces for a particular point of view. There will be other, more compelling, ways to explore the nuances of an issue. You just need to invest some time trying to find them.

Do your characters feel real?

I find that I ‘get to know’ my characters through the process of writing and that their slow progression to rounded human beings can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of working on a book.

However, this often means that they were introduced to chapter one before they’d taken on a three dimensional form. When I begin writing, the protagonists are a list of characteristics in my notebook. They tend not to take their first real breath until much later in the story. Going back and retrospectively adding complexity to your characters in earlier scenes, will help your readers care about these fictional people.

Do they undergo a journey?

Do the events in your book shape your characters in some way? Ideally, they should be learning new things about themselves and the world they live in as the story progresses. Revisit the key moments in the narrative and ask: how might this change my protagonist? And how might this change manifest itself.

Is the action driven through choices, or are you subjecting the reader to a cascade of events?

Stories in which one momentous event follows another can be wearing for the reader. We want to see the characters shaping their destiny through the choices they make, rather than always being buffeted by forces beyond their control.

Go through each of the things that happen to the central figures in your story and ask yourself: how can they contribute to their own predicament? How will they respond, and what bearing will this have on what happens next?

Does the reader have a reason to keep turning the pages?

You will have inevitably worked a climax of some sort into your first draft – but one tense moment is not enough to sustain reader interest throughout the course of a novel. On a chapter by chapter basis, you need to ask: where is the tension coming from?

You may need to give your protagonist something to solve in the short term to inject pace. Or to introduce some sort of ‘ticking clock’ which will raise the stakes and keep the reader engaged.

The fertilisation of an idea

My debut novel was born many years ago, in an A level biology class. At the time, we were learning about sexual reproduction – specifically, how ova and sperm are unique in containing a single set of chromosomes, rather than the pair which is found in all other cells in the body.

At the moment of fertilisation, the genetic material of a single sperm cell pairs up with that of the ova creating a full genetic blueprint for a human. It’s a beautiful process: the marrying of half a mother’s DNA, with half of the father’s.

‘In theory then,’ I thought to myself, ‘you might be able to create babies from two women in the future.’

I’d always wanted to be an author, ever since age five when I read my first novel (Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree) and first understood what it is that an author does. Since then, I’ve been diligently filing away odd moments of inspiration, the strange facts, possibilities and conflicts that contain the germ of a story. In most cases, my enthusiasm will wane, but in a few lucky instances the initial excitement for an idea stays with me.

As in this case, I might not revisit it for years, but it’s still there, holding its promise in my mental filing cabinet.

Before XX, I’d written several – not very good – books, submitting them to agents, then feeling crushed by the slew of rejection letters, later emails, that followed. A good 15 years after that biology class, as I slowly came to recognise that my latest literary effort wasn’t of a publishable standard, I started casting around for a new project.

This was at a time where the phenomenon we call trolling was still fairly new and getting a lot of attention, with several high profile women subjected to virulent abuse on social media. I found myself questioning how far we’d really come as a society: was gender equality an illusion?

And so, I found myself asking: what would happen if the science evolved to allow human beings to be created from two egg cells? What if men were suddenly no longer essential for reproduction? Everything I was seeing in the media made plain that there would be a backlash of some kind. But would the opposition be limited to more fringe elements, or might the opposition become more widespread?

This process allowed me to recognise the ingredient missing from previous novelistic efforts: a fascination with the questions I was raising. I had found a premise which intrigued me on so many levels. A ‘what if’ that I was compelled to try and answer.