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The writing life is not an easy life. Despite the romantic ideals of the author locked in his garret as he pens his masterpiece, or the more contemporary myth of the single mother haunting the cafés of Edinburgh, baby daughter in tow as she furiously scribbles away at the work that will one day liberate her from poverty and make her the most successful author in the world, the reality for most writers is very different. Writing a novel, an enormous achievement in itself, is merely the tip of the iceberg. There follows the excruciating process of trying to hook an agent and interest a publisher, a process fraught with rejection, disappointment and heartache which can last years. Nine years in the case of Eimear McBride whose debut novel A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year after spending almost a decade languishing in the slush piles of London’s literary agencies and publishing houses. Even if you manage to clear these hurdles with relative ease and achieve the hallowed status of published author, according to a recent survey by the Authors’ Licencing and Collecting Society, you’ll still be scraping by on an average annual income of around £11,000 which means you’ll probably have to endure the day job a little longer while labouring under the torment of writing the notoriously difficult second novel. There are certainly easier paths in life to follow.
However, all is not lost. Last month, Foyles Bookshop launched the first of their New Writers Evenings, a series in which a panel of newly-published authors discuss their work and offer their wisdom to an audience of rapt hopefuls, spilling the secrets of how they secured industry support and managed to navigate the choppy waters to publication.
Co-hosted with Vintage Books, Foyles’ inaugural New Writers Evening introduced three diverse novelists: Eva Dolan, debut author of the celebrated crime fiction novel Long Way Home which was published in January; Hermione Eyre, whose historical fiction debut Viper Wine was published in March; and Nicci Cloke, who is about to publish her second novel Lay Me Down in February next year.
After taking our seats in the sixth-floor auditorium of Foyles’ fabulous new flagship store on Charing Cross Road (they moved next door from their old premises over the summer), the talented trio explained how they each came to be published authors.
Nicci Cloke and Hermione Eyre both approached writing via the well-trodden path of an English degree followed by a career in publishing. Cloke had been working in the rights department of Faber for some years, secretly penning a novel in her spare time before eventually showing her manuscript to an editor who was full of encouragement. Likewise, Hermione Eyre had a successful career as a journalist for the Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Magazine before she began writing her novel, serendipitously meeting her agent at an industry party. Whilst a career in publishing isn’t a sure-fire route to literary success, it can certainly help in terms of the circles in which you move, and the opportunities of being in the right place at the right time are substantially increased.
However, Eva Dolan’s unorthodox path to publication proves that dogged determination can equally pay dividends. She wrote her first novel at the age of fourteen and has continued to write a novel each year since then. Although she cringed at the recollection of her early work which she admitted was not very good, she regarded these early attempts as essential in the process of honing her craft. By the time she had written Long Way Home in her late twenties, she had fourteen or so unpublished novels behind her, and she finally felt she had written something worthy of submission. It didn’t take long for a publisher to snap it up.
They all believe luck plays as important a role in becoming a published writer as talent, but equally, they all stress the importance of planning and research beforehand.
“I’m an obsessive planner,” admits Nicci Cloke who writes the first few thousand words to get a feel for it, before plotting out the entire novel chapter by chapter. Eva Dolan is equally assiduous, creating an initial ten-page outline before planning twelve to fifteen chapters in advance.
Although Hermione Eyre conceded to not planning ahead quite this rigorously, she is a great believer in research and keeps a meticulous file of cuttings when preparing for a novel. She was inspired to write her historical fiction Viper Wine after viewing Van Dyck’s deathbed portrait of the 17th-century socialite, Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby. Although Lady Digby’s death, at age 32, was officially attributed to a brain haemorrhage, there were rumours at the time that it could have been caused by her predilection for a potent concoction called viper wine which was a popular beauty tonic of the day. Eyre’s novel imaginatively reconstructs the final year of Venetia’s life and plays with the historical fiction genre by peppering the story with pop culture references and time-travel.
Eyre’s research methods were extensive; aside from hours spent in the library, she admitted to deceiving an estate agent by feigning an intention to buy one of the luxury flats at Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire, once the family home of the Digbys, in order to recce the building first-hand.
She acknowledged that her journalistic background has furnished her with an ability to write anywhere and at any time, a skill which isn’t so readily shared with Nicci Cloke or Eva Dolan. Cloke admitted that the constraints of having a part-time job at the time she was working on her first book helped enormously in focusing her attention during her free mornings. Now that she writes full time, she confessed to how easily she can become distracted, but the morning is still her preferred writing time.
Eva Dolan, on the other hand, is a nocturnal writer, favouring the hours between 11pm to 5am. Working through these dark and lonely hours, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved to be the perfect conditions for creating her chilling crime thriller, Long Way Home, which focuses on the murder case of a migrant worker set against the bleak landscape of the Cambridgeshire fens. While the main protagonists DI Zigic and DS Ferreira try to identify the perpetrator of the crime, Dolan forces a spotlight on the harsh realities of modern Britain, exposing the racism, poverty and exploitation that are so widespread and yet, sickeningly, go largely unnoticed.
The story came about after she overheard two men discussing the casual cruelty of a gangmaster that one of them worked for, as she sat in a country pub. Dolan was so incensed by the level of brutality directed towards the workers that she felt compelled to write about it, initially as a short story, which she eventually developed into a full-length novel.
Long Way Home is set to be the first of a series featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira and Dolan spoke quite candidly about the challenges of producing a follow-up, stressing the importance of focusing on the writing and trying to ignore the sense of expectation around you, admitting that “if you give into the fear, you’d be paralysed.”
Cloke agrees: “When you get your first book deal, you think you’ve done it,” she explained, “but there is no finishing line.”
Nonetheless, the constant pressure of the treadmill doesn’t seem to have impeded her writing ability; after the success of Cloke’s first novel Someday Find Me which was published by Fourth Estate in 2012 when she was just 26, her second novel Lay Me Down will be published by Vintage next February. It tells the story of Jack and Elsa, two twenty-somethings who, after a whirlwind romance, move to San Francisco when Jack is offered his dream job working on the Golden Gate Bridge. However, when Jack is confronted with the tragedies of the men and women who jump to their deaths from the bridge, he becomes increasingly withdrawn and the secrets of his past threaten to unravel his relationship with Elsa.
Whether she will exploit the advantages of digital publishing to promote her new book, as she did with her first, remains to be seen. With Someday Find Me, she made the savvy decision to self-publish a collection of short stories featuring the characters from the novel, via the popular e-publishing platform, Smashwords. Although she generously donated the royalties earned from sale of the e-book to charity, the stories acted as a helpful taster, encouraging Smashwords readers to buy her novel.
“I think it’s fabulous!” enthuses Eva Dolan who is equally excited by the new opportunities the e-publishing revolution has introduced. She thinks self-publishing platforms offer writers the chance to experiment or try out new genres, and readily admits to being a total convert to Kindle, after initially hating the idea of it.
Hermione Eyre, on the other hand, is more old-school in her approach. She’s not a fan of social media (“I find it bewildering and terrifying and I’d rather spend the time writing”), doesn’t own an e-reader and has no desire for one, preferring, like so many of us, a physical book. However, she regards the developments in digital publishing positively, believing they’re altering the landscape of publishing for the better, pushing traditional book publishers to become ever-more inventive in their efforts to keep up with the digital side of the industry.
The evening proved that there are no hard and fast rules for launching a writing career. Whilst a job in publishing, an ability to lie, a propensity to eavesdrop and a familiarity with digital publishing and social media can all help, what works for one person, may not work for another. Rather curiously, the only writing habit that the three authors shared was a preference for showing their first drafts to their mums for initial feedback.
Foyles’ next New Writers Evening is scheduled for spring 2015 and is a gift to those interested in discovering new authors. Although I didn’t come away from the evening having learned anything new (there are enough author blogs and Twitter feeds offering the same dizzying array of advice to the would-be author), the evening was a real treat. To be warmly welcomed with wine and pizza on a chilly October night rather exceeded my expectations for a free event. Better still were the complimentary goody bags provided by Vintage, each of which contained a promotional edition of one of their forthcoming titles and I’m certainly looking forward to reading mine, an advance copy of The Room by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson. It was a pleasure to be introduced to three exciting new novelists, none of whom I was familiar with, and to hear these authors speaking of their own personal writing journeys in the company of other hopeful writers: certainly preferable to Googling author blogs alone in my garret.
Surprisingly, the most encouraging words of the evening came from the Guardian journalist, Alex Clark, who chaired the evening with aplomb:
“Yes, agents are inundated with manuscripts,” she said, “but equally, they’re always looking out for new material.”
So take heart, my fellow writers; hold your heads high, file those rejection slips with pride, and persevere with that manuscript. (Just don’t forget to run it past your mum first.)