As part of a busy creative team, I’ve always been motivated and inspired by those around me. I’ve always been in awe of the talented designers who have brought life to my words, no matter how dry the subject matter. Gifted wordsmiths and copywriters have always pushed me to think beyond my comfort zone and have provided invaluable feedback and critique before that moment where you send your handcrafted ‘baby’ out into the world to fend for itself.
If all this sounds frenzied, then you’re correct. However, the world of novel writing is very different. It is solitary. That means you have to be all things to yourself and your work. Many writers will identify with the roller coaster of emotions. The elation and self-belief that you are creating something that could change the world, all the way to despair and the pits of self-loathing. You know what I’m talking about. When you look at your screen and think ‘who am I kidding? A five-year-old could write better than this. I’m an idiot to think I could have something here-‘ and so it goes on.
Sound familiar? If you are one of those who has been quietly working in your corner of the world with no human contact, embroiled in your own nightmare of rejection and derision then I’m here to make a suggestion. Get involved with other writers. They’re not a bad bunch really.
I have to say I struggled with the very advice I’m imparting to you. First of all, I don’t want other writers stealing my idea (as if-). Secondly, having traversed publishing and corporates alike, I have met my fair share of -well I’ll just say it – stuck up literary snobs. The thought of spending evenings or weekends with a bunch of bespectacled ‘superior school teacher’ types makes my feet want to curl up and drop off.
Without wanting to sound like one of those very snobs that I shy away from, neither did I want to attend a writer’s group filled with old grannies writing stories about their cat (and, by the way, I love cats). I’ve been there, done that and I’ll be back there soon enough I’m sure. My desire was to find a group of people just like me – if that were at all possible. People who had enough intelligence to provide valuable critique without making me feel I should give up and stay home to watch the Jeremy Kyle Show. I soon realised that in order to test the waters with what I had to offer, I did indeed have to dip my toes in that scary water.
Taking my courage in my hands, I signed up for a writer’s workshop at Bloomsbury Press in London. The title of the workshop was “How to hook an agent.” I didn’t feel my writing was at the point of needing an agent. My coat of protection was the notion that this was a fact finding mission. If my work wasn’t up to scratch it was because it wasn’t ready – if you catch my drift.
The day of the workshop arrived as did I, all nervous with my laptop in hand. I have no sense of direction and was following my trusty Google Navigation along the streets of London. When I looked up, I met a similarly apprehensive individual, smartphone in hand, nervously looking around.
“Are you here for the writer’s workshop?” I asked with all the coyness of a girl embarking on her first day at school. I was met with a smile and relieved nod of the head.
My new friend Alice and I walked in together and sat next to each other to provide each other with much needed moral support. As it turned out, there was nothing to be scared of. We met a group of 4 agents, each providing us with valuable information on what they looked for in a query letter and submission pitch. In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to use that information and deliver our own pitch.
Hearing yourself describe your book to a group of people you’ve never met before is an illuminating experience. First of all, you are fighting the fight or flight instinct with thoughts of ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ But what follows after your mind has scrabbled around trying to find as few words as possible to sum up your book, is the beginnings of your ‘elevator pitch’. Let’s be honest, how many of you would make yourself come up with that at home in the comfort of your study, until push came to shove?
Instead of blank expressions, communicating the much feared ‘what planet are you on?’, you will receive encouraging nods, and people breaking out into their own discussions about ‘your book’.
The feedback I received in my ‘one-to-one’ with my chosen agent of the day, was invaluable. What surprised me most was the questions from other writers and participants. Questions about characters, questions about what inspired the novel and so on.
In short, I came away from the day thinking, ‘you know what, I might have something here. I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I know where the work needs to be done.’ Putting myself up for scrutiny like that provided fresh momentum, new motivation, clearer direction and a belief that my destiny didn’t lie in the lap of Jeremy Kyle while my writing languished in a bottom drawer somewhere.
So if you’re struggling with confidence or clarity, I really recommend putting yourself out there. Start with whatever group you feel most comfortable with. Nowadays local libraries run excellent writer’s groups who will provide you with a forum to read your work out loud. That alone is an invaluable experience.
Of course, for my part, the icing on the cake from my adventures in London was making the acquaintance of like-minded people who were really great fun to be around. We made a pact to email each other from time to time and offer support when moments of doubt come knocking. Nobody was interested in pinching my story idea because they all have fantastic stories of their own to tell. So yes, writing a novel is a solitary experience, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.