On book angels…
A couple of days ago I posted a vague tweet about ‘book angels’ and promised to follow up. I’m always interested in the stories behind stories, so here’s some insight into mine.
I’ve been lucky with the people I’ve met on my writing journey—either that, or the YA/children’s writing and publishing community is populated by profoundly generous human beings. It’s like the saying where if two people exchange apples, they both still have one apple; if the same two people exchange ideas, both have two ideas—the belief that you cannot hurt your career by supporting another is a fundamental reason behind the success of YA books. I imagine being a YA author is probably a bit like working for Google.
I’ve been meaning to write about the people who’ve been along for my ride for a long time, but then I got caught up with the trauma of preparing for public appearances (it does get easier), meeting deadlines (whoosh), and the writing (it doesn’t get easier). Eventually, the desire to hug everybody I met and tell them that their book CHANGED MY LIFE and the tendency to wander about in a perpetual state of star-struckedness—it faded. It’s not that I was less struck, it’s just that the opportunity seemed to have passed me by and, before I knew it, people were asking me for advice about writing. I convinced myself that I had made it—I am here, I belong here, I was always here—and that publicly thanking those who made the arrival possible would be deeply uncool.
Bullshit. If you’ve read any of my writing you’ve already seen inside my soul.
In the beginning, I liked the idea of being a writer much more than I liked the writing. I spent way too much time researching articles about the rules of publishing: How To Submit To an Agent, How To Write a Killer Query, How To Write the Dreaded Synopsis, How Not To Screw Up Your Submission, How To Sidestep the Slushpile. This kind of research gave me the impression that I was going somewhere, like the false sense of motion you feel when you step off an escalator. In reality, it said more about my procrastination and avoidance tendencies than my attention to detail. It’s when I stopped this useless research, when I fell in love with the payoff that came from writing words that made me feel, regardless of the ‘rules’, that I wrote a book.
All I Ever Wanted was written in secrecy, at night, just me and my keyboard. I had no bloody clue as to whether it was any good and, at the time, I didn’t care. If I failed, I would do it privately: no Facebook, no Twitter, no website, no beta-readers or critique partners—not because I didn’t see the value in being part of a community but because I had no clue how to connect. Writing Mim’s story took about 8 months from start to finish, but it took quite a while longer to submit. I shoved it in a drawer and got on with life.
So, I could claim that I’m an enigmatic loner, I did it all on my own, and that my own conviction is the thing that got me through. But that wouldn’t be true. If it had been up to me and my ‘conviction’, that book would still be sitting in my drawer. I needed inspiration, validation and a sense of belonging to follow through. All of this stuff came from other people. I think only a rare breed of writer can make it on his or her own.
If any of this sounds familiar and you know, deep down, that you’re rigidly worshipping the dream instead of bending to the reality of writing, stop. Stop the research. Start reading books that show you how to tell a story instead of reading articles that tell you how to write; reach out, make connections and be brave.
For my inspiration, I have many to thank. I’ve been a compulsive reader for most of my life, but the authors who were most present during the writing of All I Ever Wanted (purely on the page, of course) were Melina Marchetta, Meg Rosoff, Simmone Howell and Alyssa Brugman. This was my quartet of awesome (the field has grown considerably since) in terms of writing integrity, beautiful words and unforgettable characters. Jellicoe proved that YA books can be incredibly complex without ever losing sight of story; Solo pushes right to the edge of darkness and gave me the courage to write without censoring myself or my characters; after reading Notes—so smart, intuitive and thoughtful about relationships—I vowed to never, ever write down; How I live Now showed me what voice is (and made me believe that I had one).
For validation, I recommend a drip-feed. It does wear off after a while and a whole book needs a whole lot of validation. When I submitted my anonymous first page to a panel of editors and publishers at the Salisbury Writers’ Festival in 2009, I mainlined the feedback I received from Dyan Blacklock (Omnibus). Dyan requested my manuscript, but I had only written one shaky page—that’s how unsure I was about my writing. On the strength of her comments, I wrote the whole goddamn book (this was the purest hit of validation I’ve ever received, and it will forever be one of my sweetest memories).
While nobody had read AIEW in its entirety until I submitted, I did (with much grinding of teeth) give a couple of early chapters to Sue Fleming (Coordinator – Professional Writing AC Arts). Sue’s reply email was enough to get me through countless rewrites and bouts of self-doubt. Sue was also the first person to ever call me a writer.
I’m eternally grateful to author and book angel, Emily Gale, who was trusted with sifting through the slush and who became my first reader. Emily recommended Mim’s story to my agent, Sheila, who offered representation and went on seal the deal with Text Publishing. I still have Emily’s editorial and personal comments memorised (I hate to think what might have happened if she didn’t like it—back into the drawer, I suspect).
My sense of belonging came much later. It’s something I still struggle with and that’s because I’m… well, me. I hate asking for anything. Luckily, in the YA and children’s community, so much is offered and there’s a ‘pay it forward’ mentality that lifts everyone. I hope it’s similar elsewhere. I know there’s a certain amount of cynicism attached to the practice of author blurbs; some of you might think it’s a ploy to build brands. I had not met Cath Crowley or Melina Marchetta before they read my books. We’re not with the same publisher. I was a cynic, and I wondered what was in it for them? Was there a secret back-scratching ledger that must be balanced? How would my debt be repaid? (Yes, I have to expose my own frailties in order to highlight others’ strengths.)
Sure, cover quotes sometimes sell books, but, in my experience (now), a book is read and a ‘puff’ is given freely, thoughtfully and honestly, with no compensation other than knowing that a book you liked, or loved, might go on to reach more readers. Cath Crowley and Melina Marchetta did that for me.
So, this is like writing an acknowledgements page—I’m going to keep remembering the people I’ve forgotten after it’s already gone to print. Mainly, I’m thanking people without whose input (either knowingly or unknowingly) I would not have written my first novel. Following publication and during the writing of Friday Brown there are even more people to thank. Part two is imminent, methinks, so stay tuned…
There, that wasn’t so hard. Easiest 1300 words I ever wrote.