Sliding Doors

Fuck, fuck fuckitty fuck. I have just made a decision that could be the best or worst thing to ever happen to my writing career. Yes, people: I turned down an agent’s offer to represent.

I know. WHAT THE HELL AM I THINKING?

As a first time author, it’s safe to assume I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. But surely everyone knows, if you get an offer, even if it’s just digital and not quite what you were hoping for, you take it, grab it, hang onto it with both hands and say thank you A LOT. Right?

Wrong, apparently. Although, as you may be able to tell, I have been asking myself why that might be for several minutes now; in fact if I’m being totally honest, I’ve been asking myself the question for the entire five days it took to press ‘send’ on the email. I’m still wondering if I did the right thing and I’ve spent the past five minutes since I sent it writing ‘fuck’ a lot on my blog, so I think you get the gist of my angst/regret/torturous self pity.

But was it the bad decision I make it out to be? Setting aside my affection for dramatic, attention seeking first paragraphs, things are, of course, much better than they appear. The agent I pitched to at the LBF is also interested in the book, says she enjoyed it and it’s right up her street. What a position to be in! I’m liked by two agents! This should be the bit where my ego takes me out to dinner and thanks me for getting stroked so much. I’ve got off the slush pile twice, which is no mean feat. Yay me!

So why the torture? Why the angst? Because as yet, the other agent isn’t offering representation. They want me to make changes – pretty major ones – in order to make the book something they can take to publishers, and to make it something which could go the distance and become a series of books rather than just the one. Which seems like sensible feedback. I’m not scared to take advice from people that know what they are doing, because, let’s face it, I sure as hell don’t. In fact, during our call, I agreed with her 100% about the work that needed to be done; I came away feeing hugely positive about making the changes, and that it could only make the book (and me) better. And as the agent put it, ‘I wouldn’t be spending this time talking to you if I didn’t think it was worth it.’ So how could I possibly be feeling bad after that?

I knew what I had to do. An agent that offered editorial input was the right choice, no matter the end result. Right? Probably. Other people said so. It seemed like something you would read online if you googled it incessantly until you found the answer you were looking for. So, after a mere five days of churning anxiety-riddled thinking on the subject, I turned down the other agent.

Now, of course, I have the fear. Fear that I picked the wrong horse to back. That I should have taken the offer because I might never get another one. But mainly, the utterly paralysing fear that I won’t be able to deliver on what is required to take it to the next level. That I’m not good enough.

Strange fact coming from a writer: I’ve never felt like I’m not good enough. Most writers feel the opposite, but I think I either have a massive ego or I’m completely unaware of my own limitations, or both. However, right now, self doubt is all over me like a rash. And God, it’s horrible. Crippling. I start to think about the changes I need to make and suddenly I’m completely lacking in the confidence that I can. What if my new world building is crap and the agent doesn’t like it? What if I write a load of rubbish in response to their feedback, that isn’t want they wanted at all? I guess the answer is, they won’t offer to represent me. And that’s where that horrid little voice in my head suggests I should have taken the sure-fire offer in the first place and not let the temptation of bigger and better things (or being published in print, as it’s known in the real world) get the better of me.

Of course, once I’ve finished this self-indulgent wallow-blog I just need to get on and write. See what happens. Focus. Use every bit of the toolkit I’ve slowly built up over the past couple of years to make the book better than it was before. Hope that I paid enough attention to the agent’s feedback; that I can do enough to get me over the line. And if I can’t, know that the book will be better anyway, for the extra thought that has gone into it.

I never realised at the time that the hard work and perseverance it took to write 80,000 words was the easy bit. I look forward to when I can start writing the second book and think, gosh, that will be so nice, to just get back to writing again instead of having to think. What a journey this is, what an experience to embrace. Even if it all comes to nothing, it will never be nothing. I do hope I made the right decision. But whether I did or not, it’s time to own it. #amwriting

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What I learned about pitching at the London Book Fair

Being ready can take a long time
I started writing The PTA Assassin two and a half years ago. When it was done, I followed up with the first edit. Then a second one. Then a massive third edit took place last year when I paid someone professional to look at it. Since then it’s undergone a copy edit too, and after all that I’m confident it’s in a reasonably good state for submission.

I actually started submitting 18 months ago, sometime before the third edit, and I look back now and I’m not surprised I was rejected out of hand by everyone. It was horrible. POV was all over the map, my grammar was inexcusable in places and the climax at the end was about as dangerous as a Blue Peter advent calendar.

After a diligent manuscript review by my wonderful mentor at PWA, however, it was looking in much better shape. I got my synopsis together, brushed up my cover letter and started all over again with new agents. This time, I got some positive responses. Twice now, it’s made it off the slush pile, although not quite converted to a deal yet. Undaunted, I headed to the London Book Fair this week to meet with an agent face to face.

The Elevator Pitch
‘What’s your book about?’
So many other writers have asked me this at the LBF this week, and it’s been a brilliant way of polishing up my elevator pitch. By the time it came to meet an agent for my one-to-one session on Thursday, I could have told my 2-minute version of The PTA Assassin to her in my sleep. So instead of worrying about ‘knowing my subject’, I focused on preparing the other things an agent might be looking for when they met me – knowing around my subject.

Say it out loud before you go
I got on well with the agent I met, and she instantly warmed to the idea of the book. I have to say, that helped a lot. She asked me about the genre, the audience it’s aimed at, what books are most like the one I’ve written. Of course, nerves got the better of me at this point. I managed to a) forget Janet Evanovich’s name and then oh! the joy of remembering it, swiftly followed by b) not be able to say it properly the first five times I tried. Still, we got there in the end. I felt a bit of an idiot though. Note to self: Learn how to actually pronounce out loud the name of the person you’ve read books by since you were in your twenties and written repeatedly into your cover letter for the past two years.

Make a connection
The agent asked who my main character was, and what she was like. ‘She’s like Bridget Jones but with a gun,’ I said. ‘But more competent than Bridget.’ ‘So in a film, she’d have Melissa McCarthy playing her?’ the agent said. ‘No, I think she’s more of an Olivia Coleman,’ I replied. We laughed. ‘Got it,’ she said. It was a brilliantly fast way of getting on the same page and giving her a vision to work with. You don’t get that in an email submission.

Know what you want
She asked if there was a sequel and if I intended it to be a trilogy or a series. ‘It’s a series’ I said, although noted that there’s only a finite amount of research one can pick up on the internet about MI5 so there were limitations. We talked about where the PTA Assassin was set, how it ends, and where the next one picks up. ‘Don’t set it too far after the first one,’ said the agent, ‘or she’ll be 107 by the fifth book.’ I like the way she thinks. She asked what else I write, and what I do for a living currently. She asked briefly about another book I was writing but when I couldn’t describe it without stuttering, I asked if I could pitch that another time when I could remember what it was about and she laughed and agreed that might be best. She asked if I would be able/willing to write something at the suggestion of a publisher, rather than it being my own initial idea. We talked for 15 minutes and about half of that wasn’t about my book. It felt comfortable and not at all scary. Dare I say fun?

Please-Like-Me-Meme-Girl-FaceStay positive
She’s asked for my manuscript. Obviously I was totally cool about it and didn’t say ‘Really?’ in a high pitched squeak of excitement (honest). But even if she decides that ultimately it’s not for her, I learned a ton about pitching from that meeting. Getting face to face time was great for me. It wouldn’t suit everyone, I’m sure, but for me it was great to be able to express myself and convey my sense of humour – humour that the book contains, too. You just can’t do that on a cover letter without sounding like a total prat.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know yet, if I’ll ever get an agent or end up self publishing. But even if you self publish, you still have to pitch your book to people to get them to buy the damn thing. There will be signings and launches and PR to do and every time, you’ll need to convince people that your book is worth reading. So I would say to anyone out there who’s in the same position, to practice, practice, practice, and get good at telling people about what you wrote. You never know who might want to read it.

 

What I learned about self publishing at the London Book Fair

I decided to brave the London Book Fair for the first time this year.

The LBF isn’t really for authors, but they do have a special little corner for us where talks are given and, if you were quick off the mark when the tickets went on sale, where you can get a 10-minute agent one-to-one to pitch your work. I’ve decided to use the fair to make some informed decisions regarding whether I should keep pursuing the traditional publishing route or self publish, so today I devoted my day to finding out about self publishing and sourcing people to help me do that.

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Self publishing feels like quite a daunting prospect, I don’t know why. It all seems like a lot of hard work. No, let’s put that another way:  it is a lot of hard work. And investment – of time and money – the returns on which are very unclear. I’ve toyed with the idea for sometime now but I’ve been unconvinced I’ll be very successful for a myriad of reasons: I don’t understand the tech, I’m scared of doing it wrong, I worry about wasting a lot of money on stuff I don’t need, I don’t know how to market my book to make people buy it, I won’t have the security blanket of an agent/publisher to help me make decisions, I will be the one to make all the decisions and they might be bad ones because I don’t know what I’m doing … I could go on. Basically, there’s a lot I don’t know.

Then of course there’s my ego. ‘Getting published’ sends a very clear message to your friends, family, adoring fans, unknown critics, etc etc., that you have been approved and endorsed by at least one other person who isn’t your mum.  Self publishing feels like you might have made it all up, that you are good at writing in any real way, like you paid your way into a world you don’t deserve to live in and it’s just going to be you and your mum buying 300 copies of a book for £2.27 plus postage and packing.

But today I listened to lots of people talking about the self-publishing experience and concluded that there are some very compelling reasons why I should get over myself and seriously think about doing it. In terms of control over your work and your career, it seems like self publishing beats trad hands down. You work at your own speed, have complete control of your end product (no editors changing your book title, ending, etc), retain the ability to flit between genres without upsetting a publisher who wants you to only write a certain kind of book, and stay directly in contact with your readers.

Of course, the little devil on my shoulder still says that self publishing means your book wasn’t ‘good enough’ to get picked up by an agent or publisher. And there is no doubt that for many people, the holy grail of getting one is the most important thing. But a number of authors who spoke today had deliberately chosen self publishing, even though they had been traditionally published before. Yes, there is a lack of reach, due to money and time and the ability to distribute across all the same channels as trad publishers enjoy. But something that really struck a chord for me was the entrepreneurial spirit of these authors: their joy in acquiring knowledge about the industry, the tech, the marketing and distribution; the buzz they clearly had, of being successful and respected, not only as authors but as business people too. It looked like a lot of fun.

The confidence in their product and the way they had got their stories out there was really interesting to observe. All of them had strengths and weaknesses; all of them identified their weaknesses, hired someone to do that bit of the process, and moved on. I thought about the crushing feeling of getting rejection after rejection, of the endless waiting to hear from an agent, of the vague notion that your book (as you wrote it) might never see the light of day. Your self confidence as a fledgling author is being permanently bashed up and it’s hard to stay positive when you’re staring into the abyss of having to do yet another submission to keep the dream alive. I’m finding it hard to be patient and stay positive through that. But then I thought about the motivation and satisfaction I get, from learning what good looks like. Of getting a job done well – and of having something to aim for – of having deadlines and being organised and in charge. I came to the conclusion that self publishing might just be a way to remove all the anxieties about being ‘good enough’ and just get on with achieving something.

One of the authors speaking made the point, that you will only ever be successful if you make your book indistinguishable from published authors of the same genre, which means you have to write a very good book. So either way, you have to write a very good book. How you get it out there and convince people to read it is purely down to luck, personal preference, or because your cousin’s husband works for a literary agent. So, lots to think about. Tomorrow I’m back to the LBF to pitch to an agent and consider the trad route. It will be interesting to compare how I’m feeling about things after that. If my ego is still speaking to me by then, of course. 

Winter blues

Winter is my least favourite time.

Some people love it. They wrap up warm, enjoy hot chocolates by the fireside and remain resolutely cheerful throughout the darkest, coldest months. I am not these people. I spend most of winter feeling perpetually cold, almost always miserable, I pile on weight from eating stuff I would usually NEVER put in my body (certainly not in the quantities I’m talking about, anyway) and I can’t get motivated to do a. single. thing.

Existing like this for a quarter (possibly a third) of the year, every year, is not helpful. I feel completely incapable of doing anything except breathing; the grey of the sky makes me want to crawl into a hole and get lost on the internet all day instead of doing anything constructive at all. ‘Go for a walk!’ friends say. ‘Get a SAD lamp!’ ‘You just went on holiday!’ ‘Cheer up, it’s February!’ Ugh. I could scream, if I could be bothered.

Of course all this sulking doesn’t help the creative juices flow. I have tried to maintain a daily writing regime since new year, to get my second novel finished and start the sequel to The PTA Assassin. If this agent thing doesn’t work out, I want to make sure I have the beginnings of a stable of books in order to maximise my chances of self publishing success. At the best of times, though, it’s hard to keep going when you’re writing, especially when you’re a new author. There’s no deadline, no one is saying ‘great job!’ and it’s a pretty lonely existence day to day. My story has got darker and darker and I’m struggling to even like it, never mind let anyone else read it. I think maybe I should wait to finish it until Spring, when I can get outside in the garden and tap away in the little sheltered spot I reserve for such moments, and bring a bit of light back to the book. But writing shouldn’t be a seasonal sport.

A voice whispers to stop worrying about word count, or if that agent will ever call; that I should clear my head and get away from my desk, find something to be excited about, do or see something joyful that sparks the imagination, and stop counting the days down until the clocks change. And of course, the voice is right. So I resolve to brave the winter weather and step away from my laptop, in order that I can embrace it on my return. The grey outside doesn’t have to mean grey on the page, too. Books don’t write themselves, but they kind of do, actually, if you’re inspired to write them.

 

 

 

Conformity

The brilliant Matt Haig posted on Twitter yesterday. Anyone who follows him will know this is hardly unusual, but this particular tweet stood up, grabbed the microphone and shouted ‘Faye! I’m talking to YOU.’

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Deep, huh? It immediately made me think about the past few years, of moving country and returning to London, and of my determination to ‘fit in’ with people I thought I had things in common with. On paper, fitting in should have made me happy, but instead I managed to accomplish a whole new level of invisible within the environment I’d placed myself, simply by attempting to conform. When Matt wrote ‘The moment you fit right in, you disappear’ I could immediately identify with it, and when I thought about it in the context of writing, I realised the conundrum was also true of books as well.

In fiction there are always trends coming and going – think unreliable narrators, vampires and, if my tween-radar is pointing in the right direction, llamas – and it would be fair to assume that the easiest way to get a publishing deal might be to write to a particular trend. For example, my Twitter feed has been overflowing for a while now with books displaying threatening titles in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS about women with revenge issues. There have been some chillingly great books written in this genre in the past few years. But the original thing we all liked about them was the twist at the end, the unexpected violence, the shocking revelation. Conformity to the genre has rendered invisible many of the books sitting within it. Now we all know what to expect when we pick up one of these books, and we look for it, which makes it less exciting and therefore less attractive to the reader who no longer feels the thrill these books once offered.

I’m not saying it’s not important to write within a genre. If you don’t conform to something then most people are going to struggle to identify what your book is about, whether they will like it, and most importantly, whether they will buy it. If a reader likes books about llamas, chances are they’ll buy more than one of them, too, which is why you generally want your book to sit on a shelf next to lots of other books about llamas. It’s why agents and publishers always look for books they can categorise, preferably one that’s right in the sweet spot of the ‘genre du jour’ so they can ride the wave and max their sales.

As an author, you need to conform to the genre you are writing in so that you can compete. But as soon as you do, you become invisible, so you have to make sure you have something extra to offer. You must write (and write extremely well) in a recognisable genre, whilst maintaining something different about your novel that makes it stand out from the crowd. As a new author in particular, that’s hard, because you’re also sitting in the slush pile – somewhere you definitely don’t want to ‘fit in’.

My novel, The PTA Assassin, sits squarely in the behemoth that is ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. Personally, I think this genre sounds as appealing as cold custard on broccoli, and when I’m submitting to agents, I like to emphasise other qualities of the book that make it different. It’s a spy novel. A middle-aged woman is the protagonist. It’s humorous. Actually, someone told me not to describe it as funny in case it wasn’t – comedy is notoriously hard to pitch – but the rebel in me refused to conform so for better or for worse, I left it in anyway.

Possibly for the better. At the moment my full manuscript is sitting with an agent. Whether the writing is good enough, whether the story holds up, whether the agent believes it will sell, remains to be seen. But it gives me hope that I got off the slush pile, that maybe the book was just different enough to be noticed without being out-and-out weird. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I’d like to be thought of, too.

 

 

Write what you know

When you first start out learning the process of writing, a lot of people will encourage you to ‘write what you know’. Feeling I had loftier ambitions than writing about being a 40-something housewife from London, I decided that for my first novel, I’d saunter directly into the unknown world of a fantasy sci fi, and write from the point of view of a fifteen year old girl from another dimension. I lasted about 20,000 words before I realised it was like the writing equivalent of trying to play Minecraft for the first time: an infinite world where anything was possible but I had no idea how to even open my inventory, never mind create anything of any meaning. I wasn’t ready to write the unknown. I needed to start from a more comfortable spot and see where that took me. So I thought about what I knew, and imagined a story filled with characters and places I was far more familiar with, and The PTA Assassin was born.

Granted, I had to Google a fair few things: what the difference is between MI5 and MI6, the inner workings of a Zippo lighter, how to tap an iPhone, what a luxury yacht looks like, how to do an arms deal and whether Dalek costumes are readily available on the internet. I could go on, and I’m pretty sure there’s a drone poised permanently over our house watching to our every move thanks to the less salubrious searches I performed. But despite all the crazy things I had my characters do, for the most part, I wrote about their feelings in ways I could identify with. I wrote what I knew.

My characters started off as strangers, with a traits and feelings I borrowed from my own library of experiences. I created people who I liked, and some who I didn’t. Actually, I liked all of them in the end, even the bad guys. An improv teacher of mine once said that the longer you hang around people, the more attractive they seem. You become familiar with them – the way they look, the way they dress, the way they laugh – and your brain starts to think about them in a different way. I thought this was his own discovery but it turns out it’s a well known psychological phenomenon called ‘mere exposure effect’. Well, that happened with me and my characters. They went from names on a page to real people: a glorious mash up of human kind, each with their own unique footprint, and I loved every moment of their creation.

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The world my characters inhabit grew from knowing them, too. I could tell you which of the works of art adorning the walls of the Koslovsky house were curated, and which were chosen personally. I could tell you where Vicky keeps the mugs and that the curtains in her bedroom are never quite pulled back. I could even file the paperwork for Matisse in the cream linen magazine files that line the top shelf of her personal office. It was amazing, once I knew my characters, how easily I could build their world.

I’ve had people ask me if they are in the book, and although I could never write a person I knew – because really, how can you presume to know anyone well enough in real life to give them a voice on a page? – I think everyone I’ve ever met contributed in some way to the characters I created. But I’ve learned that ‘write what you know’ isn’t meant to be literal, it means to write what you feel: The love you have for your partner that spans decades of time; the low self esteem that creeps up with the loss of youth; the sadness you felt when a friendship came to an end. It doesn’t have to be attached to the person who made you feel those things to make the feelings real.

The PTA Assassin is on the path to publication now, one way or another. The manuscript is finished and I’ve handed it to editors and agents to dissect and decide whether they believe in the people I’ve created. It’s hard to say goodbye to some of the characters, knowing when I come to write the sequel, that they won’t be there. But I’m looking forward to inventing new characters who will grow and mature into old friends, and now, I trust that I can. Writing what I know is really about believing that me and my experiences are enough. My inventory is plenty full and I can go ahead and build new worlds over and over, wherever and whatever they may be.

The one about winning.

Last month, I wrote about failure at some length on my business blog. I’m a big fan of failure. HUGE fan. I’ve done a lot of improv comedy in the past five years and it’s not something you can enjoy or get good at without accepting that you’re going to have some unfeasibly bad moments, usually in front of a lot of people. When I teach, I teach that failure is good, and I believe it. I get itchy when I see stuff like this, especially when it’s attached to a ‘Motivational Monday’ hashtag:Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 09.11.25

because I don’t find it the least bit motivational, and don’t get how anyone else could either. What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Not much, I imagine.

Failure is how we learn. It’s a way for us to understand how we can be better. If you never take a risk, if everything in life is handed to you on a silver platter, wanting, or needing success – striving for it in every possible way – would become unnecessary. Everything we said or did would be ‘safe’, and consequently, we’d probably say or do very little. A world where you couldn’t fail would be a very boring world indeed.

There are days, though, I think that boring might be quite nice. Days like yesterday, where I just seemed to fail over and over again, culminating in the fastest, most cut throat book rejection I’ve had to date. And I’m going to be honest and say that on top of an already shitty day, it hit me really hard.

Let’s get this into perspective: the sort of stuff I’m talking about isn’t the huge crushing blows of a shark body-slamming me. It was more like jack frost nibbling at my toes. I’m super aware there are people with far bigger problems. But yesterday, for whatever reason, my failures got to me. They made me wonder whether I’ll ever achieve anything past the level of mediocre, and getting past that to more familiar ‘fuck ’em’ territory has been unusually difficult. ‘I’m usually much better than this’, I think, and realise I’m failing at failing now, too.

But the life coach in my head (hey there, tough lady) keeps on telling me none of it’s worth getting upset over, that things will be better for finding the right people and paths to tread and these ‘failures’ were just things that weren’t meant to be. And whereas yesterday I was trying not to cry with frustration, today I am busy getting over myself and getting back to business. It’s not nearly the end of the world, and there are plenty more days to fill with successes and failures of all shapes and sizes. And that, in itself, sounds like winning.