My Writing Journey to… Well, Nowhere Very Much

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    It has become a tradition, continued here from the Word Cloud, for those who have succeeded in getting an agent or a publishing deal to blog about their journeys to that success. Well, some of us who haven’t managed to get that far have our stories too…

    In 2012 I started my first novel. My first proper novel, that is: the first one to be taken seriously, the first one that really counted. I was already coming up to my sixty-second birthday.

    I’d been writing on and off since my teens, but not to much effect. My first teenage outpourings had been the setting down in black and white (or blue and white, depending on the pen) of a shy boy’s daydreams about how he might one day get a girlfriend: somehow it made them seem more real. Not, in retrospect, a good place to progress from. Even after I thought I’d moved on from that, even when I thought I was working on a novel, I was continuing to use writing as escapism, to put myself in places I’d rather be than my real life. All my efforts were inward-looking and egocentric, with everything revolving around a first-person MC. And they had no real backbone to them, because daydreams don’t thrive on jeopardy. No wonder I lost faith in everything I wrote and abandoned every effort – though one did get up to 80,000 words. Of self-indulgent crap, basically.

    It didn’t help that I’ve been a lifelong prey to low self-esteem. I’ve always found it hard to believe I’m actually good at anything. I wrote because I wanted to, or even because I felt compelled to, not necessarily because I thought I was any good at it. I had no idea that I had any special talent with words until my late twenties, when a supervisor in what was otherwise the most disastrous job I ever had told me how very good he thought my business letters were. Well, that was something, even if it was only business writing, and I began to have a tentative belief in myself. And then, about ten years later, someone who’d read (not by my intention) something very much closer to my heart said the words that haunted me for years. ‘You have a precious gift. Don’t waste it.’

    Haunted, because all my writings continued to stumble and fail, and those words added to the pain by implying that I was letting myself down. Shortly afterwards I became a bus driver, and shift work is not exactly conducive to writing. Not if the only time you get enough peace and quiet to write is late at night, when the rest of your family is in bed: you can’t do that if you have to get up at four, or if you haven’t got home from work until half-past one. By the first decade after the millennium I was hardly writing at all. I was void of inspiration, my writing dead in the water.

    Then, in 2010, came the biggest upheaval of my life. I lost my job, and it seemed like the end of the world until we realised we could take advantage to fulfil our long-held dream of getting out of London and living in the country, a dream I’d sadly come to believe over the years would never happen. Now we went for it and made that dream come true, upping sticks to move in April 2011 to a small former mining village halfway up a mountain in the countryside just south of the Brecon Beacons. For the first year we were there, if I thought about writing at all it was only to reflect that now, for the first time I could remember, I was content enough with my real life not to need the escape that writing had always been for me. And then, out of the blue, inspiration descended.

    Between my village and the Brecon Beacons, visible from my house, there is a little-visited stretch of upland. At its western end, just above the upper Swansea Valley, there is one village, but between that and the Waterfall Country to the east, at the head of the Vale of Neath, there is nothing but rough pasture, conifer forest (originally planted, I believe, to provide pit-props for the mines), a few unfrequented lanes, some of them not even metalled and none of them leading to anywhere much, and a handful of isolated farmhouses. You can walk for an hour or more without meeting a soul, or seeing anything to show you what century you’re in.

    We came upon one of those farmhouses one day when we were out driving, looking for somewhere to go for a walk. It was an extraordinary place: a row of four cottages in the middle of nowhere facing right onto the lane, one lived in and the other three derelict, probably used for storage. The farmyard was opposite, on the other side of the lane. We later discovered that when they wanted to drive their sheep into it they shut the gates across the lane, closing it off. I don’t think I’d ever seen another dwelling with quite such a look of back-of-beyond about it.

    What might it be like, I wondered, living in such a place? I was reminded of a passage from a Sherlock Holmes story (The Copper Beeches, to be precise) that had always stuck in my memory for some reason. Maybe, like the Beatles’ blackbird, it had only been waiting for this moment to arise.

    But Holmes shook his head gravely.

    ‘Do you know, Watson,’ said he, ‘that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation, and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.’

    ‘Good heavens!’ I cried. ‘Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?’

    ‘They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’

    ‘You horrify me!’

    ‘But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.’

    Now my writer’s imagination woke from its slumber and lumbered into action. I began to think about all the nasty stuff – abuse, incest, murder, you name it – that might go on unknown and unchecked in a place like that cottage, in a family claustrophobically locked into its isolation, the victims far from help. There ought to be a story there, surely.

    The tinder was ready, but the spark was missing. The story that was taking shape in my head was a bit too unrelievedly dark – downright depressing in fact – for me to want to actually write it. Then came the spark that lit the fire.

    What if those grim events had taken place back in the past, and had left their traces behind? A haunting, in fact. And what might happen to anyone who, all unsuspecting, moved into the house where they’d happened? I’ve always loved ghost stories and I’d long wanted to write one myself, but I’d never had a good idea for one. Now here was an idea that might have legs, and as soon as I checked that passage from Conan Doyle I even had a title. A Record of Sin. It was instantly right, an exact fit for my story. This had never happened to me before. More excited by an idea than I’d been for years, I began to write.

    And as I did more stuff fell into place. From the first I’d made the momentous (for me) decision that this time I was not going to project myself into the story, but stand back and watch my characters playing their parts. Now I watched them fleshing themselves out from the bare bones I’d started with, naming themselves and taking on a life of their own. I knew that my writing had taken a quantum leap up to a new level, that I was working on the best thing I’d ever written. By the end of the year, for the first time in my life, I’d finished a first draft. It was much too short and obviously needed fleshing out, but I had a complete story. Where should I take it from there?

    I bit the bullet and enrolled in the next Self-Editing Your Novel course, and it turned out to be the most fun I’ve ever had with my writing, before or since. One thing that surprised me was the number of times both the tutors and my course mates told me how clever I’d been, when I’d banged something down that way without thinking about it simply because it felt right. Maybe I really did have an innate talent, an instinctive feel for writing. And thanks to the course, now I knew why those things felt right. Armed with my shiny new writer’s tool-box and increased confidence, I started on the rewriting.

    That confidence took a bad knock when, after another year or so, I began submitting. I felt I owed it to myself to at least try, but the results were not encouraging. The response to a dozen or so submissions was, without exception, wholly negative. Not one flicker of interest. Not one word of feedback or encouragement, not one personalised comment. Nothing but form rejections, with one or two no-replies for good measure.

    I am not one of those who believe that you should never give up and keep on and on submitting regardless. I agree with the Crabbit Old Bat, Nicola Morgan, that if you get nowhere with a dozen or so submissions you need to accept that there is almost certainly something wrong with your book. I gave up.

    After I’d picked myself up off the floor (and it took a while), I thought maybe I should try to find out if, after all, I was indeed doing something wrong. I bit the bullet again, and did what I should have done before submitting. I paid for a professional MS assessment.

    The report was more encouraging than I’d dared to hope. The editor pointed out several issues that she thought needed addressing, but she praised my psychological insight, my characterisation, my pacing, my dialogue, my descriptions, my style. She also said that she’d enjoyed reading it (‘and it should be said straight away that I very rarely say this’), that she was ‘genuinely impressed’, and that I was a talented writer. This chimed with the reports of beta readers who’d said that they’d been unable to put it down, had stayed up past bedtime reading it, and similar comments. Why then, the tumultuous apathy from the trade?

    My biggest problem, the editor said, was that the trade saw no market for ghost stories, especially not contemporary ones like mine. And haunted houses were a cliché. There was nothing wrong with my book that a bit of work couldn’t put right – except that I’d written the wrong book.

    I took this with resignation. I’d quite consciously ignored the market and written the book I wanted to write. And I was a talented writer. I laid it aside and turned my attention to the next one, which I’d already started, like they tell you to. There’d been no exalted inspiration this time. I’d been unable to think of anything better than a reworking of an idea I’d had years before, a story involving poltergeist phenomena. I’d decided to follow up A Record of Sin by substituting a full-blown haunting, and to get myself out of my egocentric loop by making the target of that haunting a character other than the MC, who had problems of his own.

    I’d started it more because I felt I ought to than through any great enthusiasm, so it was perhaps inevitable that it had stalled. But now, if ghost stories didn’t sell, maybe I could try bump-starting it again by switching genres, replacing a haunting with human evil. The old, original concept already had a character who had the makings of a splendid villain, but I’d wimped out of taking full advantage of his potential. It was time to toughen up.

    I got it to work in the end, but it was a hard slog all the way. At the same time, I let myself go a bit, switching to a much looser, more colloquial style which seems to come naturally to me and which I find fun to write. Turning to human evil to provide the jeopardy took me to places darker than my writing had ever gone before, but it made for (if I say it myself) a strong storyline. I was eventually quite satisfied with the result, which at the moment is called The Last House – the title is another thing that didn’t come so easily.

    This time I did it the right way round, and sent the MS to the same editor before submitting. She was just as enthusiastic (‘an incredibly powerful and engaging story that simply draws you in’) and, subject to some improvements and a slight reservation about it not being quite everyone’s cup of tea, she suggested I should try submitting it.

    Two of the first five submissions brought form rejections of the kind I was only two familiar with, one of them within a day. The other three never got a reply at all. Sixty per cent apathy of that order is not exactly encouraging, and I hadn’t the heart to take it any further.

    Where was I supposed to go from here? My first novel had flopped because it wasn’t right for the market, so I’d tried something (hopefully) more market-friendly and that had flopped too. I knew there were people around with a high opinion of my writing, including professionals like Debi Alper, Emma Darwin and that editor, who is also a published novelist. Why was there not, apparently, one single agent who agreed with them? Maybe the talent I’d been told I possessed wasn’t enough after all. I sank into apathy. My writing was very nearly as dead in the water as it had been before my move to Wales.

    Then, a little while back on this very forum, I saw a couple of posts that suggested that not only was interest in ghost stories picking up but that a few agents were actively looking for them. If I couldn’t find inspiration for anything new, maybe I should dust off A Record of Sin and finally address the issues that had been highlighted in the MS assessment. At least I’d be writing again, after a fashion. I looked through it again and, yes, it was pretty good. Better, I thought, in some ways than The Last House, and definitely worth another crack at, if only for my own satisfaction in making it as good as I could. Two members here who read it, unrevised, both thought so too.

    Well, I’ve rewritten it again, and as I write this it’s out with three beta readers. While I’ve been waiting for their feedback I’ve revised the covering letter and the synopsis, so (depending on what they say) I’ll be ready to put myself once again through the personal hell that is the submission process. Will I go through with it? I guess I still owe it to myself to at least try, even if it does lay me low again. As a friend of mine said many years ago when I asked him if he had any idea how many first novels that are submitted actually get published, ‘No, but I know how many that aren’t submitted do.’


    I enjoyed reading A Record of Sin on the Cloud and I think it deserves to see the light of day. So good luck with the submissions when you get to that stage.

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