Stop and Smell the Roses

It’s funny, whenever I think about how I manage my mental health as a writer, the things that usually spring to mind are the negatives: how to deal with stress and isolation, how to build myself up when I’m feeling low, how to get through the disappointments and rejections – essentially, how to get back to level ground after struggling up the proverbial hill. But I think it’s equally important to recognise and develop the ways in which I deal with the positive times as well, because without those it’s much harder to overcome the challenges.

This week, I’ve had one of the most exciting experiences any aspiring author can imagine: signing with a literary agent!

If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that last month I was quietly (or maybe noisily) optimistic that the agent I had submitted my novel to would want to take the project on and help me develop it to the point where it was ready for a publisher. Well, that’s exactly what happened, and the elation I felt after I received an email asking if I wanted to sign with her was one of the highest highs I’ve ever experienced. I had to re-read it several times to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, but there it was, the same every time. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I lost the better part of a day phoning and messaging my closest friends and family (my mum was my first phone-call, of course, and she promptly burst into tears – love you Mum), and I think it was sometime that evening that it really started to sink in. That I am, in fact, finally within arm’s reach of getting my debut novel published! Eeeep!

The contract came through via email the same day and I read through it a few times to make sure I understood the legal jargon, then asked my dad to check it as well as he has a background in Law. I asked a couple of questions and got the answers I needed, and I have just now posted off the signed document to the agency to make it all official.

There’s still work to do on the book – part of an agent’s job is to work through the MS and suggest anything that will improve your chances of a) attracting a publisher and b) satisfying the reader – and my first instinct was to focus on what comes next: what I still need to do to move on to the next rung up the ladder.

But then I reminded myself to pause and take a breath. Signing with an agency is a big f*cking deal! How long have I been dreaming about that? How many hours have I spent researching how to give my book the best possible chance of being picked up? How much work have I put into drafting and re-drafting letters and synopses, never mind the book itself, just to get to the point where an agent will be interested and want to take me on as a client to help me build my career? The answer is: too long/ many/ much to count! It’s been my primary focus for years now, and I need to take the time to digest and celebrate the fact that it’s actually happened, and that it’s a huge achievement in itself.

I remember when I first came across the concept of neuroplasticity and its significance in regards to mental health, about 18 months ago in an article on the ‘Forbes’ website. What I took away from it was that the parts of our brain that we exercise the most grow stronger, and the parts we neglect grow weaker, just like our muscle tissues. This means that if we’re constantly focusing on negative things, it becomes easier to get caught up in negative thinking because the neural pathways that access those thoughts become dominant. Similarly, if we focus on positive things, it’s easier to access positive thoughts. Discovering this completely changed the way I perceived mental well-being, because it means that you have the power to reshape and redefine your own general state of being, and that’s a very empowering thing. It doesn’t mean you’ll never feel rubbish again, but it does make it easier to start and continue feeling better, and to have a more positive outlook overall, which makes life far more pleasant and means that you’re more likely to take steps to improve your situation than if you’re always expecting bad things to happen.

One of the things I think we all do too much is focus on our failures, and this makes us miserable because we begin to see those as the defining points in our lives. But how much better would we feel if we spent as much – or more – time dwelling on the achievements? I’m not the kind of person who likes to brag or show off when something good has happened – in part because I’ve had a lot of hard times in the past and I don’t want to make other people feel bad in comparison – but I have come to understand that it’s vitally important to stop for a moment and take a deep, delighted whiff of the sweet smell of success when it comes my way, because that’s the best way to counteract the rancid stench of failure, which – believe me – is all too familiar.

There are so many clichéd expressions for taking the time to enjoy the moment you’re living in right now, but ‘stop and smell the roses’ is my favourite. So bask in the glory/ savour the moment/ have your day in the sun/ live in the now/ seize the day! There will always be more challenges and hardships and battles to overcome, but what’s the point in striving for those things if you don’t stop to appreciate the victories?

So that’s what I’m doing right now. Revelling in the warm fuzzy feeling in the middle of my chest when I think about what I’ve achieved after years of working without any guarantee of reward. I’ll get onto thinking about all the hard work to come in a little while, but for now I’m going to focus on, enjoy and internalise this feeling, because I’ve earned it and because it’s bloomin’ marvellous!

Follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor if you’d like to keep up with book-related developments. It looks like there will be many more to come – yaaaay! 😀

 

Exciting Times!

It’s amazing what a difference a week can make!

Last Monday I was really starting to wonder whether my career aspirations were just delusions. I felt like nothing was ever going to go right, and I was convinced that my novel had been rejected by the publisher I had submitted it to.

If you read my last post, you’ll know that I was just about holding it together. I hadn’t given up, but I can honestly say that it was starting to feel like nothing was ever going to come of it and that maybe it was time to start considering other options.

Well, on Tuesday, that all changed.

Not only had the publisher not rejected my submission, but the agent I had been in contact with emailed me back with some of the most glowing praise I’ve ever received in my life, and we arranged to speak on the phone on Friday to discuss what I should do next.

Let me give you some background about this novel. Anyone who knows me will already know the history, pretty much, but for those of you who don’t, here’s the basic outline.

I first got the idea for this book in about 2011, the same year I got married and then began my English Language and Literature degree with the Open University. I started working on the book, and in the meantime I began working as a freelance writer doing corporate content for an independent publisher.

By 2013 I had a fair chunk of the story written, I guess around half of it, maybe a little less. My mum was part of the Richard and Judy Book Club at the time, and she told me they were holding a competition for unpublished novelists, with the winner receiving agent representation and a publishing deal. It was free to enter so I thought I’d give it a bash, without really expecting anything to come of it.

In March 2014 I was contacted by the Richard and Judy team to say I had made it to the shortlist of the final seven, and I was sent a page of feedback from one of the fiction editors at Quercus to help me finish off the rest of the book in time for the deadline at the end of September.

Ultimately, I didn’t win, but the editor very kindly took an interest in the book anyway, and gave me some amazing notes to work from so that I could develop it further.

During the next few months I lost a very dear friend, my marriage broke down and I moved into my own place; at 31 years old, it was the first time I had ever lived by myself, and it took a lot of adjustment! I had to defer my English Literature exam in June because, well, I was mildly traumatised from ending a 14-year relationship, and I took the summer to recalibrate and start putting my life back together.

In October 2015 I started the first Creative Writing module of my degree, and I learned a massive amount over the next two years – the course covered so many vital aspects of writing including structure, narrative voice, dialogue, pacing, character development, tension and conflict, status, subtext, editing and the writing process as a whole.

Sadly, both my grandmothers died in the early part of 2016, and I was also working towards my driving test, which I passed in August of that year. The book ended up being put on the back-burner with so many other things swimming around in my head. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about it anymore, but there’s only so much energy a person can find when they’re working full-time and doing a degree, and I just didn’t have the focus to figure out what to do with it. I decided that it would make sense to finish the Advanced Creative Writing module before going back over it again, so that I would have the best possible chance of editing it to a publishable standard.

So, after I finished my studies last year and gave myself the summer to recover, I sat down with some sheets of A4 paper and wrote down every major plot point, then stuck them all onto a plastic board and worked through the whole thing with a red pen. I made some massive cuts – to whole sections of plot, parts of scenes and even characters – and reworked a lot of the material to create a more cohesive story, develop the narrative voice, give the settings more texture and the characters more depth, and expand on the use of imagery to give it a more ‘poetic’ feel. All that took a lot of time and effort, but I loved every second of it because I felt that I finally had the tools to craft a piece of work I could truly be proud of.

By March of this year I was ready to send it off again. I worked really hard on a cover letter and synopsis (very, very important things to get right!), using advice from online articles and ‘The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ as a guideline, and I was ready to go!

I got back in touch with the editor I’d worked with, who had been so supportive and encouraging, and submitted the book to the publishing company she is now working for. She also put me in touch with an agent friend of hers and suggested I send it to her as well, which of course I did immediately!

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Then, due to a problem with the publisher’s submission system, I thought it had been rejected. And I still hadn’t heard from the agent, so it seemed as if all was lost…

Until…

Last Tuesday I had a message from the editor apologising and asking me to re-send my email address, and later that day I had the email from the agent, who was incredibly enthusiastic about my writing, my characters and the concept as a whole. She said some really flattering things and I genuinely made myself read through them several times to let them sink in. It was such a wonderful moment, to know that someone else believed my book was something special and I wasn’t just running head-first into a dead end.

After a couple more emails back-and-forth, she explained what she felt needed changing and I got my thinking cap on! It’s difficult when you’ve been invested in the same project for so long to look at it objectively and shift your perspective, but I had a few ideas and I jotted them down, scribbled some out and developed a couple of them that I thought had promise.

Our phone-call on Friday was amazing, and by then I’d come up with some potential solutions to the things she was concerned about. She agreed with my suggestions and said she’d be in touch with the publishers, who said they were of the same mind and that once I’d worked through the fixes we should all get together and discuss it.

Soooo… from Friday night until Sunday night I was glued to my laptop, reworking parts of the story (again!) and reading it through from start to finish to make sure it still flowed the way I wanted with all the amended sections – which was a task in itself, the current version is around 142,000 words! Lucky I read fast 😀

This morning I sent the latest version off and I’m waiting to see what the agent thinks about it. I’m so, so excited – basically, I’m a heartbeat away from not only having an agent but possibly my very first publishing deal as well!

I don’t want to jinx it by getting carried away, and I’m sure there’s still more work ahead of me – it’s possible that this will only be a starting point and nothing is certain at all –  but even if this particular opportunity doesn’t work out, I no longer have any doubt that I have what it takes to be an author. Receiving positive feedback from someone who spends all day every day working with writers and publishers has lit a fire in my belly, and I know that I just need to carry on working at it for as long as it takes to make things happen.

Even that won’t be the end of the story, just the beginning of another. My next novel will essentially be my thesis project for the master’s degree I’m starting in October, and although I know it’s really hard to get published even once, they say the second novel is the real goal because it means you have the potential to build a proper career.

I think over the years I have become one of those people who is always more concerned with reaching the next achievement than celebrating the last one, but I feel that sharing this is important because it’s vital to acknowledge to yourself when you’re on the right track. Celebrating your successes helps you get through the low times, and reminds you that hard work really does pay off eventually, even though sometimes it can seem like you’re putting everything in and getting nothing out.

Keep the faith, people. Keep working and keep dreaming.

There’s an amazing quote I’ll always remember (from the film ‘Rat Race’ – weirdly!), that ‘good things take time, but great things happen all at once.’

If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m at @RoseJamesAuthor. As soon as I have any more news, you’ll see it first there!

I promise I’ll get the second part of the structure post out as soon as I’m able, but for now I hope this might inspire some of you to pick up that project you’ve been avoiding working on, or to begin something new with a little more enthusiasm, or just to carry on plugging away with the knowledge that good things do happen.

You don’t need to be the most talented, or organised, or educated, or imaginative person to make something of yourself. You just need to make a decision that you’re going to succeed at achieving your goals, and then work your ass off until you do! Nothing worthwhile is easy, but if it was then everyone would do it 🙂

Begin at the Beginning: Key Characters and Plot Outlines

Starting work on a new novel is one of my absolute favourite things to do. It has all the magic and promise of Christmas Eve – anything is possible! There are new characters to meet, new places to see, new lessons to learn and ideas to explore. It’s the beginning of a whole new adventure.

There’s an immense rush of excitement and it’s really tempting to dive straight into writing, but over the years I’ve learned that if I do that I rarely get any further than the first few pages. I find it’s better to hold off until I have a destination in mind – a clear idea of where the narrative is heading. Otherwise I go off on a random tangent (or several), after which I generally lose interest and the whole thing falls apart. That’s happened to me many times, which is why I go about it differently now.

Some writers prefer not to know where the story’s going to lead them, including some of my favourite authors, but after years of trying and failing to write that way I’ve found that this method is a lot more effective for me. Finding a method that works for you is far better than trying to stick rigidly to someone else’s, but if you’re like me and you find it difficult to stay motivated without a clear plan, maybe give this a go.

Drawing up a plot outline is a great way to capitalise on that initial rush of enthusiasm for a new idea, because by the time you’ve completed it you have a concrete plan that will allow you to direct your writing towards a specific end. I find this helps with motivation because you have something to work towards.

I will say at this point that the stage after the plot outline is developing the structure, which I’ll be explaining in the next post. Structure is hugely important for fleshing out the details more fully, but a plot outline gives you the key points of beginning, middle and end so that you have a framework to start building on.

My ideas for novels always centre on a character, usually inspired by a conversation I’ve had, a book I’ve read, a film or a song that has prompted me to ask a question about the way humans interact with the world and each other. I love people and I love delving into their minds to see what makes them tick; for me writing a novel is the ultimate exploration of the human psyche in all its beautiful complexity.

Other writers prefer to start with a place or a situation, a concept they want to explore or a particular feeling they want to examine. Regardless of what inspired you initially, you can apply the following method and it will give you a rough framework around which to develop your story.

One cautionary note: I find it’s best not to go into too much detail with plot outlines, because that can restrict spontaneity in your writing (which is really important) and expel whatever feeling drove you to tell that particular story. Stay brief and concise, just a sentence or two to cover each of the major plot points, with no peripheral detail unless it’s an important sub-plot that you don’t want to forget.

The following is the process I use for longer stories. For short stories I usually map it out in my head rather than on paper because I don’t go into so much depth, but it’s just as useful for either.

First off, before drawing up a plot outline, I always work on who my central characters are going to be and identify the main obstacle or source of conflict I want them to overcome.

Here are some questions I would recommend asking yourself before you go any further. You don’t necessarily need all the answers, but at least considering the questions will help you figure out what kind of story you plan to tell.

  1. Who is your protagonist?

Get to know them like they’re your new best friend. What’s their name? What do they look like? What do they do for a living? What kind of music do they like? Where did they grow up? Where do they live? How do they speak? How do they move? Do they have any habits or fidgets? What are their best qualities? What are their worst qualities? What do they like/ dislike about themselves? What’s their biggest secret? What’s their biggest regret? Who do they love/ hate? What are their eating habits? Do they have pets/ friends/ romantic partners/ family/ a car? What are they proud of? How do they come across to strangers?

Glean as much of this information as you can before you begin to work on the story. If you want your characters to jump off the page they need to be real people, and real people are complex. You will learn more about your protagonist as you go along, and your perception of them may shift; don’t worry if your answers change later on, that just means you’re getting to know the character better. If you really know them well, they will do things that surprise you and sometimes say things you didn’t expect them to. Writing becomes really easy once you know your protagonist, because you can just drop them into a situation and they do their own thing.

  1. What is the main challenge your protagonist will encounter?

This could be an internal conflict or an external obstacle, but either way you need to know before you begin to write. This is the main point of your plot and you’ll use it to drive the narrative forward. Once you know what this is going to be, you have progressed from having a character to having a story to tell about that character, and everything else will be built around this point.

  1. Who is the antagonist?

This could also be the protagonist if you’re writing about internal conflict, or it could be another person/ group of people or an obstacle that needs to be overcome. It’s great to have a second character as a physical manifestation of the problem because that gives you tension, and tension drives narrative, but you don’t have to. Even if it is a person they don’t have to be an ‘enemy’ of the protagonist, just someone who prompts the protagonist to act.

If you’re going for an external antagonist you need to ask all the same questions about them as you’ve asked about your protagonist. They are the opposite and equal force to your protagonist, so you need to give them equal weight in your mind.

  1. How will the story conclude and what will the protagonist learn?

I find this is a vital point for me to know before I begin, even if I only have a sketchy idea. Will the protagonist achieve what they set out to achieve? Will they fail but realise that was for the best? Will they fail and learn an important lesson that helps them to grow as a person? What changes will they go through between the beginning and the end? Will they make peace with the antagonist? What will they lose or gain through the course of the conflict? Will they go back to the same life they have in the beginning or will it be impossible to go back?

It’s ok if this last one changes by the time you get to the end, but it’s a good idea to know what you’re aiming for before you start so that you can direct the action towards that goal. It gives you opportunities to drop hints or plant false clues for the reader, work in subtext and tailor the behaviour of the characters according to how their roles will play out.

Once you know these four things, you can draw up a rough plot outline, with all the major plot points from beginning to end. It might look something like this:

1922, Shropshire – PROTAGONIST lives in a small rural town with her family on the large country estate where she grew up.

One day she meets ANTAGONIST who is her sister’s boyfriend, and who dreams of moving abroad. They stay up all night talking – sense of possible romance.

ANTAGONIST moves abroad unexpectedly and PROTAGONIST decides to follow him, abandoning her life and the family fortune. She departs from Liverpool docks.

PROTAGONIST journeys alone across the continent in pursuit of ANTAGONIST, coming across various barriers as a lone woman with no experience of travel. She makes friends with another woman who helps her, and they travel down the Suez Canal to reach India.

She arrives in India and her friend helps her locate ANTAGONIST in Ceylon before they part ways. She learns he has a tea farm but has been struggling with money/ business issues.

She travels alone to find him and is met by him at the train station in Kandy.

Their reunion is stormy. He tells her to go home but she refuses. He has received a letter from her family, threatening to disown her unless she returns. She ignores it and sets herself up in his house, taking charge of his finances and communicating with the local people on his behalf.

After months of working together, ANTAGONIST falls in love with her and they get married.

Years later, after India’s independence, they return to England with their children, alone and destitute. Liverpool has changed beyond recognition, as has the country they both knew.

ANTAGONIST dies less than a year after returning. PROTAGONIST is devastated, but doesn’t regret her decision to follow him. She sets up a small tea shop in Liverpool, watches her children grow up and watches the ships come and go from the docks, reminding her of her adventure and the years of happiness she shared with her husband. One day she is visited by the friend she met on her travels and they sit down to tell each other their stories.

 

As you can see, this is a brief summary without any detail or in-depth character motivations. It’s essentially a minimal synopsis, but it contains all the important information you need before you start: who the main characters are, where they start and end, the key turning points, what research you need to do, what themes might develop as you continue. It allows you to start imagining scenes you might want to include, the dynamic between the characters, the imagery and the tone. I’ve found this is by far the best way to begin writing a book, because you know right from the beginning that you can build a complete story that will work.

Let me know how you get on with writing a plot outline for a new novel, or if you have another method you’ve developed that works for you 🙂

Follow me at @RoseJamesAuthor to keep up to date with daily goings-on – best of luck and get writing!

Next Monday we’ll look at the next stage: Structuring a narrative.