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Being objective when it comes to subjectivity…

There’s been one factor surprising my friends and family more than any other recently and that is the reality of editing a book for agents.

I have four editions of my manuscript; the one I use for my initial submission and three others edited in accordance with the advice from the agents I’m currently speaking with.

Four different editions

Surely that’s wrong, my friends say. Surely you only need one, surely all the advice is applicable….

The publishing industry is one of the most subjective out there. It’s rare to find two readers who love all the same books for the same reasons, just as it’s unlikely to find two agents, editors, publishers or reviewers that have the same opinion about a novel. And whereas many of the changes I make may impact on all four versions of my MS, I have discovered that each will always be subtly different depending on the preference of its receiver. One agent may love expressions of thought, whilst the second may not. The second may appreciate a lack of exposition whereas a third may want more exposition but no internal dialogue. And a forth may mistake your psychological suspense as an historical western…

Whatever the agent feedback, I have learnt to adapt an objective, open mind. Agents really are a very knowledgeable bunch, far more experienced than I am when it comes to editing a novel. If you’re prepared to trust them with your work, you also have to trust their opinion, believing whole heartedly that they’re advice is what’s best for you and your book, however conflicting their advice may be to someone else’s.

Most importantly, however, I have learnt to trust my own ability as a writer. Whatever these guys want me to add or change I will endeavour to do it, knowing not only that I can, but that I can do it well. And that self-belief, my friends, is priceless.

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Celebration, pride and a whole lot of tears

The post-Winchester blues have truly set in…but with a slight difference this year.

Last June, after my first attendance at the festival, I felt really sad for a few days that it was over, that I was no longer surrounded by all those wonderful writers, teachers, agents, friends. Mainly, it had to be said, because I didn’t know at that time what my future would hold.

This year my blueness is tinted by nostalgia rather than uncertainty. It was brilliant, it was great fun, it was scary at times, thrilling at others, with the odd injection of pure, unadulterated jubilation (there are agents who want to read my work, my full MS!!!!)

Wow, what a weekend.

But there is one lesson that has resonated more than any other this year.

Gill McLay gave a brilliant talk on the publishing industry. She also gave the budding writers in the room a very wise and poignant piece of advice: enjoy every step of your journey, taking time to appreciate your achievement.

I have lost count of the times when, urged by my husband to celebrate the latest big step in my writing journey (submitting my manuscript to agents, for example, or the completion of my tenth rewrite) I have said no, hold back, keep that champagne on ice. I’ll celebrate the next big step, I would say, or I’ll celebrate once an agent has requested the full manuscript, or once I have signed to an agency. I have held back, and not taken the time to appreciate how hard I have worked and the achievement I have made.

It’s not just that I worry about tempting fate by celebrating too early (which I do) or that the celebration will be followed by disappointment (which I also worry about) but more so that, if I take time to really contemplate what I have done it will be too much, too emotional to cope with.

Three years ago, after the somewhat traumatic birth of my beautiful boy Ruadhan, I had a difficult time. To cut a long story short, my confidence plummeted and I found talking to anyone outside of my immediate family almost impossible. To think that, three years on, I would have the confidence not only to write a book, but to let others read that book and even stand up, alone and quite frankly terrified, in front of a room full of strangers and read a section of my work aloud is utterly utterly incredible.

Many people have helped me on that journey, most of whom have been completely oblivious to the wonderful impact they have had (a certain mentor is very high on that list.)

This may go some way to explain why, when I finally reached home after a long drive yesterday to my children and husband, who smothered me with kisses, hugs, popped champagne and told me how proud they all were of me, I promptly burst into tears.

And then, when the tears had dried, I bloody well celebrated.

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Where’s the focus at?

I am worrying about my hair-band.

Strange thing to worry about, you may say.

It’s a very cheerful hair-band, borrowed from my daughter; pillar-box red with a bobbly, smiling Santa Clause dangling from a holly leaf. Bright, unseasonably festive, tangled with strands of Aoife’s titian hair.

Not the most appropriate hair-band, however, for meeting agents in one-to-one appointments. All my own bands have snapped (thick hair problems: many broken hair-bands) and I’m worried I’ll forget to buy new ones and, come Friday, Santa will be grinning at the agents from the top of my ponytail.

And what about my clothes? Will my ‘smart’ trousers be smart enough? Will the fact they are bright blue (petrol blue is the name, though hardly reminiscent of petrol itself. ) be off-putting? Will the agents think them too blue?

I’m getting my haircut next Thursday. What if it’s cut too short, or the colour becomes brassy or the scissors slip or the straighteners burn a hole in my ear? Will I still be able to go to the Winchester Writers’ Festival if I have third degree burns to my ear?

I am not panicking. I have nothing whatsoever to panic about. Everything from my elevator pitch to my open mic performance has been rehearsed to a T (and did you notice I said performance, not just reading? Expect jazz hands, people.) I have a wonderful opportunity to meet friends, pitch to agents and editors, refine my work and learn wonderful things.

It is an opportunity.

It is exciting.

It is not a reason to panic. Or worry. Or get nervous.

But still, I am worrying about my hairband, my petrol blue trousers, the possibility of having my ear burnt off at the hairdressers. And what unnecessary worries these are, because we all recognise their irrelevance. Agents and editors won’t care less about hair-bands, trouser colours, massive, protruding bandages covering half of my head….

All they care about is the quality of my work. But that is a little too scary to think about right now.

I’ll worry about my hair-band instead.

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The joy of having a mentor

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m lucky enough to have crime writer, teacher and BBC correspondent Simon Hall as my mentor. But what I haven’t done is express the difference having a mentor has done to both my work and my confidence.

Last year I attended Winchester Writers’ Festival as another unpublished author. As a stay-at-home mother of two I didn’t have the finances to support a long term course in creative writing and, having taken an eight year break between finishing my degree and starting to write seriously, my confidence was somewhat lacking. Enthusiasm, drive and ambition I had in abundance but confidence, not so much.

Then, on the last day of the festival, I joined Simon’s novel writing workshop. Afterwards I railroaded him (he will politely deny this) into giving me his business card.

I asked for his details because he was a fantastic teacher. I learnt more in that one day than I had in the past year of research (no doubt music to the ears of those taking his crime writing workshop this year! You’re in for a treat, believe me.) I knew, after that course, that I could learn an awful lot from this man.

I had a vague, unrealistic hope that he might agree to read my submission material and give me a few pointers. What I didn’t even let myself hope for, let alone believe, is that he would spend the next year mentoring me through skype and email, becoming a friend and confident.

Shortly after the festival he sent me a message on twitter, including the four words that would change how I viewed myself, my work and my prospects for the future. Those four words were: “You have the talent.” He has continued to encourage me ever since, knowing when I need a pick me up, and also knowing when I need a jolly good kick up the backside.

I would need thousands of blog entries to tell you all of the techniques and strategies he has taught me to help improve my work.  Most crucially of all, however, is that he has always made sure I improve the work myself, however frustrated I’ve been (remember foreshadowing?) He has guided, advised and helped me hone my voice to a level I never knew I was capable of, but he did.

No doubt Simon will be blushing as he reads this, and if asked will tell you that he really didn’t do that much; something he’s said many times when I’ve thanked him for his help and generosity of time (and we all know how precious a commodity that is.)  But let me tell you this; I would not have the self-belief I have, nor the confidence in my writing, were it not for his patience, encouragement, guidance and wisdom. I am essentially a nobody; the fact that he has taken time out of his insanely busy schedule to help me, when he didn’t have to, means more to me than I can express.

So thank you Simon Hall, you superist of super chaps. I am thoroughly looking forward to buying you a well deserved pint at Winchester and I hope those taking your course this year realise just how lucky they are.

And if you are taking his workshop and he asks you to close your eyes, then breathes on the back of your neck; don’t worry – he’s done it before, he’ll do it again, and his techniques (however startling) work miracles.