I started writing a novel in January 2008. I had a germ of an idea and a burning feeling that if I didn’t start writing a novel Right This Minute, I would never do it and would one day die old and bitter and angry with myself. I spent all of January writing, and at the end of the month, submitted my first page to Nathan Bransford’s Suprisingly Essential First Page Challenge. Then I went on holiday.
I spent the time fighting my fear on the ski slopes and not thinking about my novel, but back home I logged on to discover that there had been 645 entries in the competition and I was one of the six finalists. I felt faint and a bit nauseous and an incredible joy. Someone, somewhere, thought my tiny germ of an idea had legs. I didn’t win the competition, but being a finalist gave me the confidence to carry on.
That was not to say it was without fear. It wasn’t. Every time I sat at the computer, I had dizzying anxiety that I had to force down. But there were moments when it flowed and that felt so good that I kept writing, right until the end of the first draft, fifteen months later. It took that long because I am a pantser and also because I write in the cracks and corners of my life, between school runs and play dates and writing for money.
At that point, my novel was literary fiction, written from the perspective of three different characters. On rereading I had a strong sense that it wasn’t pulling together, but I wasn’t sure how to fix that, so I went on holiday. Driving home from Berlin, a brand-new character popped into my head, complete with voice and attitude. I wrote a storming new first chapter, and as I did so, it dawned on me that the vehicle this story needed was not literary fiction. I was writing crime! A murder mystery! Six months later, I finished the second draft. On the advice of my online writing friends at Litopia, I put that draft in the drawer and concentrated on writing other things.
I started the third draft in January this year, a process of weighing and balancing, and posted my early chapters on Litopia for critique. Receiving critiques was exquisitely painful, but incredibly useful. I learnt what my tics were, began to understand why telling was bad and showing was good, and started to think about my story at word level.
I gave it to two other people to read: my husband, who is clever, loves books and crime fiction in particular, and another friend, who has been my writing mentor. She has always encouraged me to find the time for my writing, to make space for it my life.
I finished the third draft and then mailed Nathan Bransford, to collect my prize from February 2008 – a query critique from the lovely NB himself. He agreed, I sent it, he sent suggestions and then wrote some words that made my heart skip several beats: ‘Is this ready to be considered? If so, I’d be happy to take a look at the first 30 pages.’ I quickly made his suggested changes and sent him my new query and the first 30 pages.
My novel was not for Nathan. He sent me a very polite email saying, ‘I think you have an intriguing premise and this is an interesting setting, but …’ Disappointed, I decided to ask the advice of a dear friend who is a very successful talent scout. Her words were tough: lots of rookie errors, too much tell not show, first person is all wrong.
After a couple of days of rubbing my solar plexus where the punch landed, I started on draft four, changing it from first to third person. I sent the new version to my beta readers, who agreed with me that Maggie, the novel’s protagonist, was coming alive. However, one of them told me that she was still not relating to Maggie and the reader needed some back story to understand why she was so prickly. I wrote draft five, threading in some back story, giving Maggie a history and a reason for so passionately wanting to solve this particular mystery.
My husband and my mentor said, ‘It’s ready. Submit.’
In July, I wrote an email to an agent in Berlin. We had had a brief conversation in 2008, when I had confidently told her the novel would be finished by the end of the year. In my 2010 email, I said there had been many drafts since then, but that I was now feeling ready to submit. She said, ‘Sounds intriguing. Send it to me.’
Dear readers, the long and the short of it is, you are now looking at an agented writer. I signed the contract this week and have started on the revisions requested by my agent. I’m still fighting the fear, but the joy in my belly is beating down the nausea and dizziness.
Writing this novel has been a long journey. It is by no means over. Many revisions and changes lie ahead of me and publication is not guaranteed.
But I love what I do. I’m proud I took that first step into the abyss 31 months ago. And I’m grateful to the kind, intelligent, wise, thoughtful people who have helped me get this far, from the ones who’ve been shouting encouragement into loud-hailers since I was six to the ones who’ve read this blog and listened to me talk about the process to the ones who’ve picked over words and helped me write better sentences.
You know who you are. Thank you.