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Lessons: An Author’s Journey

May, 2018
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When we think of lessons, we tend to think of school. We think of classrooms, exercise, books and teachers. The truth is, though, that we never stop learning lessons. Life is a constant teacher, and when I took the first steps along the road to becoming a published author, there were many new lessons for me to learn. I want to share some of these with you, and to pass on what I have discovered in the hope that they may be useful to you in your own journey of writing.

I had never really considered being an author. I had no connections with the publishing world, and no knowledge of how it worked. When I made the decision to begin writing down the story burning in my heart – Ferryman, my first novel – I was like a child, curious and ignorant. The first thing I learned, is that writing a novel is very different to writing a short story, which is what I had previously concentrated on creating. Imagine a short story to be the Usain Bolt of the writing world. The 100m sprint. It is an explosion of language. You have so little time to make an impression on a reader that you have to make every word count. Writing a novel is like undertaking a marathon – it requires endurance and patience. What I have learned, after writing more than fifteen manuscripts over the last seven years, is that you need to have a burning spark of inspiration to keep you going when times get tough. It is not enough to simply want to write a story, you need to want to write this story…so much so that it will not let you rest until you get it out. That flame within you will keep you strong when you are tired, or uncertain, or feel like giving up.

The second lesson I learned during the writing process is that writing the words THE END does not mean a story is finished! If you can get to that glorious point, you will have completed a first draft of your novel – and that is something to be immensely proud of. However, you aren’t finished. The first thing you need to do is give the manuscript a little time to rest. This means that when you come back to it, you’ll be able to look at it more objectively. You’ll be able to see the plot holes, the bits where the pacing starts to drag, or the main protagonist acts out of character for no reason. This is where you do the first edit. When I first wrote Ferryman, the opening chapter was what is now the beginning of chapter three. I realised, looking back at it, that the story started too abruptly. That there was no introduction to Dylan and her world, and no explanation of why she was making the journey that would have such a dramatic impact on her future.

Once you are as happy as you can be with your manuscript, you’re ready for the next step. And be warned: it’s a scary one! You need to find someone to read your novel and give you feedback on it. Choose wisely! Your best friend is usually not a good choice, because they are your best friends. They’ll tell you it’s amazing (even if it isn’t) and they’ll tell you they love it (even if they don’t) because they are your best friends and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. You also don’t want anyone too blunt, either. Your story feels a bit like your baby, or a piece of your soul. You want someone who’ll treat it gently, but honestly. Try to open yourself up to listen to what they have to say, and then look again at your manuscript. Are they right? They might be, even though you may not like it. This bit is hard, but important.

You have a novel that you think is ready to go out into the world. So now what? That is exactly the question I faced when I had a finished draft of Ferryman and was contemplating trying to get it published. I discovered that there are three routes to publishing: to self-publish, to send your work directly to a small, independent publisher, or to try and get an agent. Note: the following is about my experiences within the UK publishing industry, and things might work a little differently in other countries. I decided not to self-publish. It is a very difficult way to become a writer because, although putting your manuscript up online is very easy and inexpensive, it is hard to spread word of mouth about your book, and a lot of people still prefer to shop in book stores, so your work will be invisible to them. I also decided not to pursue smaller publishers as I hoped to make a career out of writing, and I thought a larger publisher would make that easier. Unfortunately, you cannot send your work directly to the big publishers like Harper Collins or Penguin. Well, you can, but they won’t read them. They just don’t have time. They will only accept manuscripts that come via an agent.

So, you have to get an agent. How do you do that? Well, in the UK you send a letter introducing yourself, the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis of the whole storyline. If you’re very lucky, the agent will ask to read the full manuscript. And if you’re even luckier, they’ll want to represent you! This stage sounds simple enough, but it isn’t. Most agents already have lots of clients and aren’t always willing to take on more. No matter how good your work is you’re likely to face rejection. A lesson I learned during this part of my journey was to have faith in myself. To understand that they weren’t rejecting me, they just couldn’t take my manuscript on at that moment, for whatever reason. It still stings, though; I won’t pretend it doesn’t. You need to knit yourself a thick skin that you can pull on, and some days, when it hurts a little too much, allow yourself a big, indulgent slice of cake!

It took me over a year to sign on with my agent, Ben Illis of The BIA. Once I did, though, things happened quite quickly – and I learned that there are some wonderful, exciting, rewarding moments in publishing. Things were worth waiting for. The first was receiving a proof copy of my novel; seeing my words, bound in a book. Then, the day I was sent my cover. It was beautiful, and it had my name on it! At last, the special, special day arrived, and my book was released out into the world. People paid money for something I had written, and then they read it! They were moved enough to write reviews, to talk about how my story had inspired them. How it made them feel love, happiness, excitement. And that they liked it, even loved it. And that, readers, is the most rewarding thing of all. The thing that makes all the hard lessons so very, very worth it.

 

By Claire McFall

Claire McFall is the lead judge for LittleStar CISB Short Story Competition “A LESSON”. She is a writer who lives and works in the Scottish Borders. She spent ten years as an English teacher before leaving to concentrate fully on writing. Her first book, Ferryman, is a love story that retells the ancient Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who transported souls to the Underworld. The novel has been Shortlisted for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards and the Grampian Children’s Book Awards, long-listed for the Branford Boase Award and the UKLA (UK Literary Association) Book Awards, as well as being nominated for the Carnegie Medal. The novel is a bestseller in China, selling two million copies since June 2015, and the film rights to the novel have been bought by Legendary.

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