Five Things I've Learned While Getting My Debut Novel Published
My ‘first novel’ is not my first novel at all. Truestory is actually my second novel. My first novel, Chickendust, was short-listed for the inaugural Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition but remains unpublished. Despite this it got me an introduction to my agent, Joanna Swainson of Hardman & Swainson, who eventually signed me up for my second novel. Chickendust was written during the first year of a two-year part-time MA at Edinburgh Napier University and it taught me a lot – about plotting and pacing and viewpoints, about themes and purpose. I wonder if I could have written Truestory at all if I hadn’t ‘practised’ on Chickendust? Chickendust remains on a memory stick but I live in hope that some day, with some serious rewriting, its time may come. Which leads me onto…
When you’re creating a novel, getting 80,000 words on paper is only the beginning. I didn’t start writing fiction until my mid-forties and was under the impression that writing a novel was a case of telling a story in around 80,000 words. I didn’t realise there are many ways of telling any single story and getting your 80,000 words in the right order might take a long time and a lot of reworking. In my case it took a year of re-writing with the help of a mentor provided by Scottish Book Trust who guided me as I recreated Truestory using a completely different viewpoint. It was a daunting task to start afresh with a blank word document, but it had to be done.
You need to get to grips with the essence of your story and be able to squeeze it into a sentence or two
Writing is only a part of it. Since embarking on life as a fiction writer I have developed skills in performing spoken word, writing blogs, pitching and writing articles about me and my fiction work, networking, using social media to make writing connections, being interviewed on radio and vlogs and on stage, filling in competition entries and writers’ Q&As, putting together the content for a website, and delivering writing workshops. One of the reasons writing appealed to me in the first place was because it was an activity carried out alone and mostly in your head. I’m glad I didn’t know then about the rest of it (particularly the spoken word) or I may have run screaming into the night.
It’s easier said than done to explain what your book is about. When you’re writing the novel it’s easy to fob people off when they ask what it’s about - but once it’s finished that won’t do. Particularly not with agents or publishers. Nor with potential readers. So you need to get to grips with the essence of your story and be able to squeeze it into a sentence or two. So here goes: Truestory tells the tale of Alice, who is struggling to raise her son, Sam, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and refuses to leave their isolated farm. Alice’s marriage to Duncan is collapsing and their farm verging on bankruptcy when Larry arrives, claiming he has a solution to all their problems. The novel explores the ways we are all trapped in our own ways and how we rewrite our lives in the tiny spaces available to us. No, that’s three sentences. Like I said, it’s not easy.
Try to be mulling over the next big thing before you let this one go. I was given this advice as I worked on Truestory, but the characters were so noisy there wasn’t room for any more in my brain. I wished I’d tried a bit harder, though, because when your novel is accepted for publication (and the euphoria has worn off) you are left with a gaping hole where those characters used to be. For weeks afterwards all I could hear were the echoes of the Truestory characters milling around and dragging the furniture back to where they found it – like they’d just had a party in the village hall and were tidying up before they left. Now at last my brain is filling with new characters and it’s wonderful to have them.
If you have written your novel and are ready to send it off, check out our advice from an agent and from a writer on how to craft a killer cover letter. For more from Catherine Simpson, see her wonderful list of Books About Mothers and Sons.