That difficult second album

It’s been a funny six months since I got my literary agent. Time seems to have slowed down, or is passing in larger chunks, I’m not sure which. I no longer speak about the process of writing in weeks, but in months, or years even. At a micro-level, things are happening. My first novel has been edited once more (with feeling!) and safely delivered to my agent. She loves it. I love it. It’s gone, out of the door, on submission to publishers; all I can do now is wait, anywhere between four weeks and four years, to find someone else who enjoys it enough to put it into print.

In the meantime, my agent asked me what I was going to do next.
‘The sequel’, I said. Easy. I have an outline of the next book in the series, and in my head, it seemed like the natural next step to start writing it. Just incase I get a two-book deal, my inner voice mutters hopefully. I am more subtle with my out loud voice. ‘That makes, sense, right?’
‘Do you have any other ideas to pitch?’ she replied, indicating it didn’t. I ran through my library of half-started/half-finished novels: a middle grade ghost story, a YA fantasy, a fully blown sci-fi novel that’s been in my head for about five years now. But I knew none of that would be useful to an agent that’s just signed me to write commercial women’s fiction.

‘I have one idea,’ I ventured. ‘But it’s literally a single sentence.’ And I pitched her a thought I’d had in a particularly dark, hormonally driven moment a few months ago that hasn’t gone away. A back of a fag packet idea that I had no notion of how to execute on.

Of course, she loved it. I mean, REALLY loved it. ‘I LOVE that idea,’ she said. ‘You have to write it. Now.’
‘But I don’t have a clue what it’s about. I literally have just that one idea.’
‘You’ll get there. Go away and think about it over summer. I can’t wait to read it.’

16uwxlSummer lasted quite a while as far as I was concerned. July and August were spent reading lots of commercial fiction, because the voice I wanted for this book, I knew, would be in stark contrast to my first novel. Not all women’s commercial fiction is created equal and there’s a startling range of writing styles, some of which I’d really rather never read again. But a few stood out as the sort of book I wanted to give a go; Elinor Oliphant, Three Things About Elsie plus half a back catalogue of Liane Moriaty later, I knew what I wanted my book to feel like, even if I didn’t have a story yet.

I waited, patiently, for inspiration to hit. The one idea played in my head like a broken record and I was sure that I had the rest of it tucked away somewhere, but August became September and still, I had nothing. The terror of putting pen to paper and coming up with anything close to meaningful began to overshadow my ability to write and by October, procrastination and self doubt had crept so far into my head that I’d given them house keys and a drawer. Since July, I’d written approximately 5000 words, with no direction or real sense of what the story was at all.

I don’t know why today was different. I’d been on Twitter, the writer’s equivalent of prozac, and got lost in a series of posts and articles that I could vaguely pass off as research. But then suddenly, an idea popped into my head. And it was so obvious, and so easy, that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. What sweet relief! Suddenly all the other ideas began to arrive and I began the glorious business of putting together a plot. By midday, I had a couple of A4 pages that were starting to look suspiciously like a story.

Writers talk a lot about their process. Articles – indeed, entire books – have been devoted to the subject of how to write. My MA peers, when we meet, represent the entire gamut of book writing methodology, from blow by blow post it note plotting, to 1000 words a day for the whole of November NO MATTER WHAT, to my rather less precise notion that I’ll write when I have time and the mood takes me and the ideas will happen when they happen.

I had begun to doubt my own process, believing, quite wrongly, that I should be ‘better’ second time around, about the structure and methodology of writing a novel. Turns out that I should trust my instincts. It took me 40 years to come up with the idea for the first book, and only six months to come up with second. I’m on a roll.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.