By day, I’m a psychiatrist. By night, a writer. The latter can depend on the teething of my toddler. I completed Mother Tongue, my first novel, during my Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa. It was longlisted before, for the 2013 Mslexia Novel Competition, which gave me permission to start over, and rewrite the book I wanted to write. I heard about this competition through Twitter. It was reassuring to learn about the panel of readers – I felt that my manuscript would be in safe hands.
Being longlisted again has given my confidence a tremendous boost. My MA prose tutor once presented us with the B&B test: If someone picked up your book in a seaside cottage, would they read to the end? Now I think that they might. I was disappointed not to make the shortlist. I thought about how long I’ve been writing and asked myself: can I make it? But I think disappointment tells you something. It tells you that you believed in yourself and hoped for a different outcome. And it can give you the desire to achieve, no matter how much you might feel like turning off the B&B light and letting the sea lull you to sleep.
So I’m looking forward to contacting agents. Thank you to everyone at the Bath Novel Award.
“There are about a million things I want to be when I grow up,” I wrote in a semi-autobiographical story when I was nine or ten years old. “First of all, I want to be an author, second an advertiser, and third a baseball umpire.” It took me a few decades to realise my first goal.* I studied politics at university, received a masters degree in non-profit management, and worked at NGOs for many years before remembering that I loved writing stories.
I decided to study writing. Whilst working on my masters in creative writing, I wrote about my relationship with my grandfather, a man with a mysterious past I loved dearly. He was the only person in his large religious family who survived the Holocaust, but he never spoke about them or his life before the war. I wanted to know who they (and he) – were.
To answer this question, I researched his community in the 1930s. I integrated this with the few genealogical details that were available, and filled in the blanks with my imagination. I will never know how close I am to their true lives. It is my deepest wish that I have honoured those who were lost – including my grandfather – with this novel.
After many** revisions, I thought I would enter for the Bath Novel Award. I had seen many people tweeting about it, and I loved the sense of community there was. My experience verified this. Not only was it an honour to be longlisted, but loads of (anxious) fun. Everyone was fantastic! I don’t know what is to come for this novel or the next one, but I know that I would absolutely enter for the Bath Novel Award again in the future. I loved every moment of the experience.
*I’m not making much progress toward the second or third aspirations, though.
**Many, many, many, many revisions! So many revisions!!!
A photographer I met in India several years ago suggested to me that showing someone your creation was like showing them your arse – you’re never really sure if it’s any good or not, because you’re incapable of looking at it properly/objectively, but you’re always devastated when they say they don’t like it.
So a writer, or a painter or a jewellery designer jewellery must be, basically, the equivalent of an underwear model, because if they want to be successful, they will show off their arse to as many people as possible.
For aspiring writers, that means asking for critiques; giving drafts to friends, family and strangers on buses; sending novels out to agents and entering competitions.
I’ve done plenty of most of these, especially agent submissions – received enough rejections that I can probably call myself a Real Writer (for anyone who doesn’t write, the number of agent rejections is a greater sign of being a writer than the number of published books. Honest).
But I had steered clear of competitions, for the most part. Until March, when I entered the Bath Novel Award. It’s a prestigious award for unpublished novels, and last year’s winner, Joanna Barnard, is getting her book, Precocious, published in July. So, it’s kind of a big deal.
It was a bit of a punt, to be honest. I had, sort of, given up on this novel – hadn’t looked at it in almost a year. In the meantime I had some short stories published and worked on a couple of other projects, both of which had initially shown promise and then stalled.
But I thought it was ready, more or less. It was good, more or less. And if nothing else it would give me something to get excited about in the month or so between when I submitted and the inevitable discovery that I wasn’t on the longlist.
I wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere, but what the hell, eh? If you’re not in…
I sent the first 3 chapters, waited, and then came the longlist announcement, and I was there! Holy shizzle!
Then came the panic… I had to submit the full manuscript. In 9 days.
So I started to re-read it and found plenty of flaws. Fixed the ones I could. Paragraphs of unnecessary description (how did I not notice them before?); adjectives that didn’t add anything (an affliction that I thought Andrew Wille had cured me of); dialogue that was clunky and unnatural.
Removed about 1,000 words.
Felt good – optimistic. Until about 2/3s of the way through when the realisation struck that the novel’s momentum was grinding to a halt because of a storyline diversion that belonged in a different book. I had thought it was necessary, but realised now that it wasn’t. Unfortunately, there were intimations of it earlier in the book, and its effects were felt later – I couldn’t just remove the offending chapters.
What to do? I had 3 days to the submission deadline; I have a full-time job, family. Not enough time to fix it. So I decided I couldn’t. It would have been like removing a weed from a garden – I had time to pull the leaves and the stem, but couldn’t get rid of the roots.
I decided that it was more important to have a coherent, consistent narrative than to remove that momentum-killer and confuse the reader.
So I sent it off and waited patiently (ha! not really!!) for the shortlist announcement. It was about 5 weeks of the most exquisite torture imaginable. I followed other Longlistees on twitter and got involved in some friendly chats with them. @BathNovelAward tweeted hints and we all wondered whether our story was one of the lucky ones. It was an oddly great experience.
And then the shortlist announcement came, and I wasn’t there.
Devastation? Depression? Punching the walls and condemning the unfair nature of the universe? No – I was surprisingly OK with it.
I mean, I was upset, of course. Who wouldn’t be? To get so close to something so brilliant and then to miss out…
But I realised something. I was upset because I really wanted this. I really, really want this. I want to be a successful writer (not “JK Rowling” successful, just “published and read and liked by some people who don’t know me” successful. Though I’ll take “JK Rowling” successful, if anyone’s offering!)
So I went back to the book, aware that I know of at least one problem with it. There could be more – the Bath Novel Award, like agents on submissions, understandably does not give detailed feedback on why someone doesn’t make the shortlist. So I don’t know whether the momentum-kill 2/3s of the way through the book is why it didn’t get shortlisted, or why the agents who requested my full MS didn’t offer representation.
The rest of it might be absolute rubbish too, for all I know.
But it was longlisted, so I’m not a hopeless case. It means that my first three chapters – my arse, in silhouette, from a distance – were good enough to make reading the rest of it worthwhile, if nothing else.
So I’m going to go back to the full novel, gut it, remove that part of the storyline that stalls the momentum, tear up the weeds by the roots, and try again.
Because if I don’t keep moving forward, then where is there to go?