Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The fate of Not One of Us...

Last week on Juxtabook’s blog, I wrote an article which talked about getting the email that all writers fantasise about – the offer to publish your work. This week, I find myself writing about the email that all writers dread, the one that begins with all the things your publisher really liked about your book but whose second paragraph begins with the ominous word ‘However…’. That’s when you know you’ve failed to pull off the difficult second book.

Now, bearing in mind everything I said in that piece for Juxtabook nobody would expect the decision not to publish Not One of Us in its current form to be anything but thoughtful, considered and taken with due concern for my future work as an author. Nor was it. But, despite the extent to which the right words can soften the blow, reading Will’s kind comments and perceptive criticisms it was abundantly clear to me that, although there were good things about Not One of Us, overall it didn’t accomplish what I’d set out to do.

But all is not doom and gloom. Quite the reverse. This blog post has been a difficult one to write, not just because I didn’t want to admit to failure (though obviously that came into it) but because I’ve been mulling over how to convey my state of mind vis a vis my writing at the moment without seeming falsely bright eyed and bushy tailed.

So, what is my state of mind? Well, having read the fateful email whilst I was cooking supper after getting home from work one day last week, I spent the rest of the evening in a bit of a slough, trying to find it in me to disagree with the difficulties Will and his colleagues had found with Not One of Us (and failing) and just basically being pissed off that I’d spent a year working on a project which part of me knew I should have abandoned with the previous unfinished version of the book a year ago. The following day (after waking up and thinking ‘bugger, it wasn’t a dream’) I re-read the email and realised two things.
1) Though my judgement as to whether the whole novel hung together had clearly been wrong, I had known which bits really worked and Will’s email had agreed with that judgement – he had flagged exactly those elements.
2) Two (and this arose directly out of 1) Not One of Us had not played to my strengths as a novelist.

Later that same day I spoke to Will on the phone and, as a result of our conversation, I made a decision. Well, two decisions, actually, but let’s take them one at a time.

Firstly, I decided that I had allowed the essential fascination of the split time narrative – the ability both to write a historical narrative and then to have contemporary characters play with it, interact with it, reflect on it – to seduce me into writing, as Will put it ‘a novel about history rather than a historical novel’. The things I find most fascinating about history – how it affects us today, how we peer into the mists but can’t possibly see it as it really was, how we interpret the fragments that have come down to us in myth and document - are the things that lead me off the path of narrative and into something which becomes more about the idea than the story.

And that brings us to the second decision which is that my next book is going to be a straightforward historical narrative. No contemporary strand, no batting back and forth; I’m just going to maroon myself and my reader in the fourteenth century and see what we make of the people and situations we find there.

Various agents, readers, friends and relations have told me for years that they thought that this is what I should do (write historical novels, not maroon people in the fourteenth century) but I’ve ignored them. I don’t honestly know why, except that a) I’m not good at doing what other people say I should and b) I felt that it was a bit presumptuous for me, a non-historian, to produce fictions which basically said ‘I know all about this’.

So what’s changed?
Well, even the most determined go-er alone eventually realises that an opinion expressed so often and by so many different people is unlikely to be completely mistaken. And writing historical fiction of the split-time variety has shown me that you don’t actually need to know everything, you just need to be convincing about the bits you choose to shine a light on. After writing Testament there are still a million things I don’t know about life in late fourteenth century England but I know a great deal about the things I chose to spotlight – masons and building, the Lollards and the relationship between church and university.

And something else has changed as well. Or perhaps I should say that I’ve made a resolution that it’s going to change. Like many writers I am reticent to the point of paranoia about letting another living being see my work whilst it’s in progress. I don’t discuss my work with anybody and I don’t let anybody see it. I’m not a member of a writing group of any kind. Basically I DON’T ASK ANYBODY’S ADVICE. (See comments on not being good at doing what other people tell me, above...)
And this has to change. If I’d shown Not One Of Us to Will at an earlier stage a lot of wasted time and effort might have been avoided. Either I would have acknowledged that what I was trying to do was too ambitious and abandoned it or I would have changed the focus and done something different with the central idea.

So… I have agreed with Will that I will send him a synopsis of the book which is germinating - sprouting, growing madly - in my mind and that we will discuss the progress of said book as it goes along. In other words I will bite the bullet and show him the thing. I may not like it but I have come to the conclusion that it’s a necessary discipline. It would be nice to go all literary and say that I just want to be left alone to write the books I want to write but the simple fact is that I want to be published. And, however many times I heard, prior to Will’s offer to publish Testament, that ‘it must be so rewarding to write’ it frankly isn’t rewarding if nobody’s reading your stuff. For me, writing is not its own reward. I want an audience.
So it seems sensible to show my stuff to the man who gets to make the decision as to whether I’ll get an audience somewhat earlier than the moment at which I type THE END so that he can point out to me when I’m wandering totally off the point and losing my audience in the long grass of my own preoccupations.

And, contrary to what you might think, these realisations and decisions have left me feeling astonishingly energised. I can’t stop thinking about the new book (working title The Black and The White), about the central character and his predicament. Everything I do or see seems to spark off some new train of thought, some new avenue for research. (By the way, speaking of research, if anybody knows any good books on the history of charcoal burning in Britain, more particularly in the medieval period, please let me know.)

Far from feeling daunted at the thought of confining myself to the fourteenth century I’m feeling liberated. I can think more purely about the story and less about the historical echoes. There won’t be those jumps out of one century into another when I look at the prose and wonder why I can’t mirror something of the quality of the historical voice in the present day narrative. I’ll be able to immerse myself and my reader in another world.

Of course I’m annoyed that my own mistakes mean that I’m not going to have a book published next year. People keep asking me ‘when’s the next one coming out?’ and having to tell them that NOOU hasn’t made the cut isn’t quite the conversation I’d hoped for about the fate of my next book.
Of course I’m cross with myself that the characters of whom I’ve become so fond aren’t going to be there on the shelves for other people to get to know.
Of course I’m cross with myself that – even if all goes astonishingly well – there’s going to be a gap of more than four years between Testament’s publication and the next one. Not good for building reader loyalty.
And I suspect that people are going to take my enthusiasm for work on The Black and The White as a smokescreen behind which I’m attempting to hide NOOU’s failure. But it’s not. I’m quite honestly very excited every time I think about the new book. Probably more excited than I’ve been about writing since I got the idea for Testament. And that’s a good feeling.

Wish me luck…


Doug Worgul said...


Thank you for this honest, pained, and thoughtful post. My heart aches for you.

I admit that I fear, as all writers do, that this will be the fate of my second attempt as well. So I'm grateful for your insights.

Bless you.

doug worgul

Alis said...

Thanks, Doug. Let's hope your path is smoother...

C. N. Nevets said...

For all the possibility a story of a rejected manuscript has for depressing the hopes of new writers, I actually find this quite promising. Your use of this disappointing experience as a launching point for self-analysis and for improving your writing are inspirational.

Thanks so much for sharing.


Alis said...

Hi Nevets! Thanks for your comment - I appreciate that very much.
I just hopped over on to your blog and I like your 'you're the author, take charge' line.
I feel like I'm definitely in charge at the moment.

Leigh Russell said...

The first person to see my MS was my publisher, and the second person was the editor - who was ruthless in her critique , as you'll know if you've been following my blog over my long journey to becoming a published author. It was ridiculous, but I was reluctant to show anyone what I'd written... In two weeks time the MS will be published. I'll have to allow people to read it then! In fact, I'm busy now, with arrangements for a promotional tour to try and encourage as many people as possible to buy it. What was the point of being coy about the MS? I think it was lack of confidence. Perhaps I realised that my first draft didn't quite work. Now it's been edited and reworked, I'm quite happy for the whole world to read it. So perhaps your reluctance to show your MS to friends and family was, deep down, a recognition that you weren't completely happy with it?

Alis said...

Hi Leigh - Yes, I'm sure there's something in that. But then, when is any writer ever totally happy with what they've written?

Frances said...

Leigh, I think there's something about having the imprimatur of your publisher which makes it easier to show work to other people. There's a feeling of 'well, that's ok then'. Having said that, I show my husband everything I write, but while he says he's being perfectly honest, I have my suspicions. Will at Macmillan has to be perfectly honest, and I'm afraid he's usually right (I say this from recent painful experience). It's interesting that none of us MNWs who have recently had disappointing verdicts from Macmillan have so much as mentioned submitting our work anywhere else. This says a lot for our faith in MNW. Alis, I do hope you're feeling less sore now, and enjoying your new WIP. I'm so glad that you - like me a few weeks ago - have found sharing your experience helpful. It's a difficult thing to do, isn't it, but I would have felt very isolated without everyone's understanding.

David Isaak said...

Hey, I have 4 1/2 unpublished novels still hanging about. A lotta time and a lot of work and passion just sitting there in a stack. (Some of it may be fixable. I hope.)

Frank Santillo said "If there’s any basic rule in the creative process, it’s this: the things you try that don’t work will always show you what does work."

I've certainly found that the ways I've gone wrong have pointed me towards the right thing to do, and it sounds as though you are having that experience too--now you know what will work.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that you can write a killer historical.

PS Don't expect me to be as mature as you are here when Will tells me my second isn't getting a green light.

Alis said...

Hi Frances - Yes, our level of collective trust is interesting isn't it? Prior to Will's email I'd probably have said that I would try elsewhere if the answer was no but he so obviously hit all the nails right on the head that I knew there was no point.
To be honest, it was your post on the MNW collective blog that made me feel it would be safe to blog about failure so thanks for blazing the trail. And yes, I am enjoying thinking about the WIP and getting into the research. And I've taken the plunge and told my other half what it's about and how I'm thinking of structuring it - such a departure!

Alis said...

Hi David - I think Frank Santillo hit the nail on the head and I've found again and again that making mistakes can be as useful as getting it right.

Here's hoping that you do get the green light for your next book...

Juxtabook said...

What a very gutsy post! I am sorry to hear about this Alis, not least as I was looking forward to reading it. However your excitment about your new project is heartening to read. You are a truely fantastic writer of historical fiction but what struck me most about Testament was the sense of place *across* time as well as in time. The one fictional place in more than one era: Amazing work. But having done that once perhaps you are right to decide to go with one era at a time. When you get fed up of the fourteenth century I am sure you will make a success of any era you choose.

Martin Edwards said...

For what it is worth (perhaps not much) I think that, as with so much connected with writing, one has to go by 'gut feel' as to whether to share work in progress with other people. In my own case, I usually do share it, but not always. I tend to be governed by whether I think that negative comment will completely destroy my enthusiasm for the story, or spur me to improve it.
Very best of luck, Alis.

Akasha Savage said...

Alis, here comes a virtual hug!...not that I think you need it too much, you seem very enthused about your new novel. I must admit, I am one of those people - as you already know - that loved the medieval strain that weaved its way through 'Testament'.
Here's to 'The Black and The White.' x

Meg Harper said...

You are so right about all of this, Alis. I feel bad that I should have said so before more explicitly - that for me the 14th century part of Testament (and in the original Toby long ago) worked so much better for me.

And yes, definitely share at least your synopsis with your trusted editor or agent. They know where the gaps lie and will tell you immediately if you're barking up the wrong tree. I hadn't realised you weren't even sharing synopses or basic ideas.I can't say I'm overburdened with success at the moment myself but at least I know what's not wanted and a rough idea of what might be! Which is a start!

But I also totally empathise. I have spent several months writing a book which will never be published too - but like you, I have learnt from the process and it has moved me into a slightly different direction which is enjoyable and stimulating. May it be so with you too!!!

Much love, Meg

Frances said...

One last thing from me on the whole subject of rejection - surely, while we all (or most of us) want to be published, the ultimate buzz comes from those moments when the writing flows, you can't wait to get back to it, when it seems to speak of its own accord. And this applies to 'failed' books as much as those which are eventually published. Isn't that why we all do it? And isn't that why it can never be a waste of time?

Alis said...

Hi Akasha - thanks for this. How's your novel coming on? I'm dying to read it!

Hi Meg - yes, I've clearly been too secretive by half. Not that Will didn't intimate that he might like a synopsis for NOOU, I just never gave him one! We live and learn...

Hi Frances - yes, you're right, there were times during the writing of NOOU when I'd look up when my other half got home and realise I'd written six thousand words almost without stopping - the thing just flowed. Those were the bits that 'worked'. There just weren't enough of them!