Have you ever heard it said that you need to be incredibly thick skinned to be a writer? Well, I think you need to be a walking callus. The agent I told you about in my last post rang back, here’s how it went…
Fab agent lady: Let me just start by saying I that think both you and the novel have a huge amount of potential.
Me: Thank you! [Oh dear, sounds like she’s trying to soften the blow…]
Fab agent lady: There are some problems with the structure. You need to do the ‘dining room table test’, lay the whole thing out on your dining table room and check what happens in each section.
Me: Uh huh [wondering if it would be churlish to mention I don’t have a dining room table, let alone a dining room. I do have a rickety kitchen table – but it’s usually covered in cats and Weetabix and may well collapse under the weight of four hundred pages.]
Fab agent lady: It just seems to take ages and ages for anything to happen.
Me: Right [Oh God, I have bored a Fab Agent Lady. She spent hours of her precious professional time reading what I thought was my romantic, amusing and occasionally heart wrenching manuscript – and all I’ve managed to do is bore her to tears.]
Fab agent lady: And your heroine, twenty something year old Emily, she just spends far too much time either binging or whinging! I mean, I like to go out and have a drink – but I never drink that much, do you?
Me: Um, no, of course not [Not now I’m in my thirties and pregnant, anyway…]
Fab agent lady: And you’re going to have to make her a lot younger, otherwise she’s far too much of a loser already.
Me: Okay [Wondering if I can do the same for myself]
Fab agent lady: But there’s nothing wrong with your writing.
Me: Well thank you, and thank you so much for reading it.
Fab agent lady: Not at all, you’re very close. I’d say you’re about sixty five to seventy per cent there. I love your descriptions and I love all the stuff about Parliament – you just need to learn a bit more about how to structure a novel. I am hoping we can work together.
Fab agent lady: Absolutely. Go away and think about your sub plots and the overall structure, as well as how to tone down Emily’s drinking and crying, then come back to me.
Me: Thank you, thank you, and thank you again! [Cheeks burning with shame at having bored potential agent half to death with my first draft – but having a champagne cork popping moment all the same!]
She’s right, of course. I go back to my notes and look at where the action is set: there’s Pugin’s Bar, The White Hart, The Crown and Sceptre, The Old Dispensary, The Marquis of Granby… Are you picking up a theme here?
Then when I look at my chapter plan I can see that my big twist happens half way through the book, far too late to have intrigued my readers enough to have kept them interested up until this point. Before this, Emily is so obsessed with going after the man she believes it is her destiny to be with that doesn’t notice the stories that are going on around her.
This means Emily can come across as unsympathetic and I therefore run the risk of having created a character my readers cannot sympathise with. It’s the same problem Jane Austin thought she might have with Emma, except I don’t remember Emma being a pisshead loser.
I am eternally grateful to Fab Agent Lady for pointing this out to me. I am still amazed, as well as slightly embarrassed, that she read the whole manuscript. I know it will be a stronger novel because of her feedback. It’s just that, if this is what someone who quite likes my work and believes I have the potential to write something that could actually make money says about it, then what on earth are the critics are going to say?!
Fab agent lady rang. As soon as I saw her number flash up, I began popping champagne corks in my head and mentally spending my advance.
I’d been waiting excitedly for her call. Although, I’d been told not to expect to hear anything for a while as October is Frankfurt Bookfair. I’m not sure what exactly goes on in Frankfurt, except that anybody who’s anybody in publishing attends and, both before and after the fair, everybody is VERY BUSY and MUST NOT BE DISTURBED. Calling an agent during Frankfurt would be akin to peeing in their chocca mocca skinny frappacino, giving it a stir, and then handing it straight back to them.
So finally, I got the call. After the lovely feedback the publisher gave me I was feeling pretty confident. Too confident, in retrospect. Here’s how it went:
Fab agent lady: “I just wanted to call and let you know where I am with it. I got so far through the novel and started thinking is this it? I mean, there’s this boy and this girl and you’re wondering what’s going to happen between them, but what else?”
Fab agent lady: “I’m thinking the plot may just be a bit too linear, do you understand what I’m saying?”
Fab agent lady: “There’s no room in the market for a straight romance. You have to ask yourself, if you take the romance out, what else is there?”
Me: “Oh, erm… well… How far did you get?”
Fab agent lady: “Oh lord, I don’t know. I’ve read absolutely tonnes lately, what with Frankfurt.”
Me: “Have you got to the part where…”
Fab agent lady: “Shhh… don’t tell me what happens, I don’t want you to spoil it.”
Me: “Ok, um…”
Fab agent lady: “I had a quick peek at the synopsis to see if there was anything else coming up, and it seems there is, so I am going to carry on with it. Perhaps after I’ve finished I’ll make some suggestions for you to jig it around a bit? I just wanted to fill you in.”
Me: “Oh right, okay then, um, thanks very much… bye.”
The whole call lasted less than three minutes and, although I was too stunned to make any kind of coherent conversation, I think I learned some very important lessons from it.
First is the rule about taking the romance out and then asking what’s left over? The very definition of chick lit is that the heroine’s relationship with other areas of her life may be as/if not more important than with the hero (e.g. her career, her family her best friend, her credit card). I think my problem might be that for the first half of the book my heroine is so obsessed with chasing down her man, she doesn’t realise what is going on with her friends and family. In fact, she actively uses her infatuation with him to distract her from the more painful issues going on in her own life. In making her so unsympathetic, I run the risk of turning the reader off before the real story kicks in.
The second is the importance of the synopsis in getting published. I almost laughed when she told me she hadn’t read it. Every agent asks for a synopsis most authors will tell you that it is the most difficult thing to write. How do you begin to condense a story into one or two pages when you’ve spent the last two years turning it into a 400 page novel? I found it so hard to cover the main story in this format that I almost cut out all of the sub-plots. I’m glad I didn’t as it turned out this document actually saved me – if my synopsis hadn’t been promising enough, I’d have received my manuscript (and my dreams) back through the post already.
Most important is how to deal with criticism. Tears and tantrums were my first response – but they didn’t make me feel any better or the book any more saleable. Eventually, I calmed down and reminded myself that one, if not the, most important attributes of a successful writer is persistence. The only thing I can do is learn from it – try to understand why she thought the plot was too linear and work out a way to fix it.
I have to concentrate on positive feedback the publisher gave me and the fact that the agent is still reading it. I am also reassured by the fact that so many of you lovely people come back and read my blog every time I write a new post. Even if this novel never gets published, I have to take all the compliments and criticism on board and hope the next one does. It’s either that or give up, and I think I’d go nuts if I did that.
I had the second big moment of my literary life a couple of weeks ago. I was just about to flop down on the sofa when I saw I had a new voicemail message. I held my breath, crossed my fingers and prayed ‘please be an agent, please be an agent’- but I nearly fainted when I heard:
“Oh hi Jessica, this is [fab agent lady] I just called to tell you how much I’m enjoying your novel and I’d love to see the rest of it! I’m going away for a few days, so please can you get the hard copy to the office for when I return on Monday?”
This was THE moment I’d been dreaming about ever since I started writing. You’d think I’d quickly stuff the manuscript in an envelope and send it straight over, wouldn’t you? Wrong – this was actually the moment when I realised I was totally unprepared to have my work read.
First off, I didn’t even own a printer. Besides the moral issues involved, I didn’t think I’d get away with subtly printing four hundred pages at work. Plus, this plan was fraught with potential mishaps. Imagine if I sent it to the wrong printer and the whole manuscript arrived in my boss’s office? What if the machine broke down and I had to call out an engineer to retrieve a sex scene from a paper jam?
Even more importantly, the manuscript hadn’t been thoroughly proof read. I’d given my husband this job as he’s particularly anal good at noticing tiny little mistakes. Having been assured that publishing moves at a glacial pace, I’d set him a target of one chapter a night. He now had thirty nine chapters to proof in just five days.
Like a true romantic hero, he got straight onto Amazon, and ordered me a decent printer. Then he bravely ploughed through my book, chucking out superfluous the, there, and ands, tackling typos and patiently explaining the difference between hyphenated and compound words.
It was wonderful to watch the story come to life in his imagination. Nothing can beat the feeling of satisfaction I’d get when I’d see him laugh at something I’d written (even if this was sometimes due to my appalling spelling). The very best moment of all was when he texted me “Just read chapter 21, cried all the way through”. I am now more determined than ever to one day see my work on the shelf at my local library.
Just to prove how important this last stage in the writing process is, I have saved all my favourite mistakes and typos for you.
In the synopsis
- It is just the latest slight from the continent that stole her beloved sister and left her to deal with her recently windowed grandmother all on her own
On the very first page
- The boat performed a swift u-turn, almost capsizing its passengers out into the deadly currant
Throughout the rest of the novel
- I had pinned a big red paper rose to the side of the low neckline of the dress and I was wearing a thin red patent belt to show off my waste [this mistake was repeated throughout, giving my romantic novel a scatological subtext]
- Mum and Dad were blown away that their little girl was allowed to wander around the corridors of power, pointing out original copies of the Magna Carta and leading them through the Queen’s very own robbing room
- Janet was so thrilled with me, she barely pulled a face when I asked for a long lunch hour so I could give Faye, Bruce and Pan a tour around the Palace [I was meant to taking Nan, not the bearded, flute playing god of shepherds]
- When talking about Australia: We were half way through the next bottle when I told her my theory that all my problems could have been avoided if only the Portuguese had not landed at New Foundland [erm, wrong continent!]
- I caught a flash of Christian Louboutin’s signature red soul as Loraine turned on her heel and stepped into the lift
So, aspiring authors, the lesson here is: before you send your material, DO make sure it has been thoroughly scrutinised by someone who knows the difference between their waste and their waist (oh dear, what would Freud say?). And if you can’t afford to pay someone capable of proof reading it to a professional level, marry them instead.
I had a bizarre moment recently when I started to wonder if my novel actually existed. I was telling my friend that I was just putting the finishing touches to my submission material,
“Can I read it?” she asked.
“Um, I’m not sure about that.” I mumbled.
So far, I have been very reluctant to let anybody see it. This is partly because I am a perfectionist, I don’t want anybody to read it until I am completely happy with it. It’s also partly due to arrogance – I honestly believe it’s a good read, I like it the way it is and I didn’t want to have to deal with criticism that might knock my confidence while I am still working on it.
“Well, has anybody read it?” she asked.
“Erm…no actually.” I replied, in horror.
What’s the point of an unread novel? It makes about as much noise as the sound of a tree falling in a lonely forest. That night I woke up in the early hours, thinking what if it’s not a novel at all? What if, when somebody else reads it, they tell me it’s just a collection of mad scribblings that don’t make any sense?
Spurred on by this fear I did something that could have turned out to be either very brave or very silly. My former boss’s sister is a publishing director for a large publishing house, specialising in romance and chick lit. She’s actually a bit of a heroine of mine – I’ve never met her but I’ve read her name in so many of the ‘acknowledgement’ sections of my favourite books that I am in total awe of her.
For months now, I have been trying to work up the courage to ask my old boss if she’d ask her sister to look at my submission material and give me some feedback. In the end I told her that I needed to ask her a favour but was far too embarrassed to do it face to face, so cowardly typed out an email. I physically cringed after I hit send. I felt even more nervous when I received a reply saying she’d ‘love to’ and I actually had to send her my work.
Over the next few days I checked my inbox every five seconds and braced myself for the worst things she could possibly say (Why don’t you join a writers group? Do the MA at UEA? Learn how to spell?). Then one Friday afternoon at the end of September, I got a short email back saying that she’d had a look and “thought it was pretty good actually” (note the surprised tone!) and even “you’ve definitely got something”. She gave me her office number and invited me to give her a call.
After I’d spent ten minutes running round the house hyperventilating, I finally worked up the balls to speak to her. She gave me some lovely feedback and constructive criticism – but, best of all, she said she would get in touch with two agents, who she thought just might be interested, on my behalf. That night, I was so dizzy with happiness that I couldn’t sleep at all (just as well since my poor two year old spent the night throwing up and demanding to watch Mary Poppins). If you’re wondering what happened next, that’s something we’ll both have to wait and see…
Like my picture? Let me explain… Everyday this blog gets about twelve hits from people using search engines to look for images of ‘typewriter’, ‘typewriter girl’ or ‘erotic typewriter.’ Now I love watching that hit counter on the right build up, I’m addicted to it. I also get one hit a day from someone looking for ‘Jessica Bull porn’ but we won’t go there.
It’s this obsessive nature that made it possible for me to finish the novel. Have you ever wondered how someone can write something as big as a novel? I mean to be able to plan all those little scenes that feed into one big story? How to manage a cast of over twenty characters and remember all the little details that make up each one?
Well if you’re a little bit obsessive with a good dose of anal, it’s actually quite easy. I start with the arty farty creative bit and walk around in a daze while I dream up the story. This is the dangerous part – quite literally, as I can be so distracted I step straight out into the road without looking for traffic.
But then I get organised. I buy a nice fat pad and start making notes. Wherever I am, if I think of something then I just write it down. Then I transfer the notes into a word doc which I call my ‘scene planner’. This is basically a list of stuff I think should happen in the novel. I like having it electronically, as I can play with the sequence and add more detail as it occurs to me.
Then after I’ve written the scene or chapter, I transfer the notes onto a spreadsheet I call my ‘super chapter planner’. This clears up space on the ‘scene planner’ for me to write more notes and keep plotting the novel in further detail as I get nearer to writing the next scene.
The ‘super chapter planner’ is really handy as I know where everything is without having to read through the novel to look for it. I can quickly go back and change things and, when I’m writing a scene with a minor character, I can easily go back and remind myself what they were like last time (appearance, speech, mannerisms etc) so that I can be sure I am developing the character consistently.
On the ‘super chapter planner’ I have a column that adds up my overall word-count. This is the bit I really love. Writing takes up so much time and it’s easy to lose focus, especially when you’re struggling to find that time. Watching my word-count climb from two thousand (a decent short story), to fifty thousand (a novella) to eighty thousand (a real novel) then finally peak at one hundred and ten thousand (woo hoo, it’s bloody finsished!) was a great incentive.
It’s just a shame my particular brand of obssessive anality doesn’t make me a good editor – but that’s another post altogether.
Ellie Woods spends her days immersed in the escapist pages of the romantic novels she lovingly edits. But her reality is somewhat less rose-tinted. Once upon a time, Ellie had her ‘happily ever after’ moment when she married her beloved Nick, but fifteen years later her husband’s tragic death leaves her alone with their soon-to-become-a-teenager son, faced with a mountain of debt, and on the verge of losing the family home.
On the brink of bankruptcy, Ellie finally succumbs to her sister’s well-meant bullying and decides to rent out some rooms. And all too soon the indomitable Allegra with her love for all things lavender, Sabine on secondment from Berlin and estranged from her two-timing husband, and unreconstructed lads’ mag aficionado Matt enter her ordered but fragile existence – each with their own messy life in tow. And Ellie finds herself forced to step out of the pages of the romantic novels she hides behind, and learn to live – and love – again. Maybe a new chapter is about to begin for them all…
I knew I was in trouble with Rowan Coleman’s The Happy Home for Broken Hearts when I got to page three and had to put it down to wipe away the stream of sobby snot running down my chin.
Oh no, I thought, it’s one of those books. You know the ones that create a well of hurt in your chest and then, every few pages, take a big stick and stir it all up again? The ones that make you check your children are breathing in their beds and thank God (even though you probably don’t believe in God) that your husband is snoring away next to you?
Thankfully, The Happy Home for Broken Hearts is a bigger book than that – it is a novel that asks ‘what do you really want from a novel?’
Perhaps you want to hear widowed Ellie Woods’ sad story, so you can have a big cathartic sob and let out all the hurt that has been building up inside you for weeks? Even if that hurt is only due to the silliest things, like realising the milk was off only after you poured it all over your cereal?
Maybe you want to be swept off your feet into a world of hyperbole and romance? To a safe place, where you can act out all those dark fantasies you know wouldn’t be very nice if they happened to you in real life? Then you might want to meet Allegra Howard, a romantic novelist who will ensure you receive a vicarious ravishing every ten pages.
Or do you want to read the kind of thing Matt writes for his tits and bums lads’ mag? Columns that take all the complicated heartache out of human relationships and concentrate on bawdy humour instead?
I think I want all three, which is why I already want to read the next Rowan Coleman novel.