First off – writer’s block is HARD. It’s MEAN. And it’s COMMON.
All writers suffer from it to differing degrees. So, if you’re suffering from writer’s block right now, the first thing to do is to stop beating yourself up about it. This is such a normal thing and it doesn’t mean you’re failing or never going to write again. It’s just harder right now.
Writer’s block, for me, is quite debilitating. It’s usually a confidence thing – I decide I’m no good and that my writing is appalling and that I’m stupid for doing it. All those negative feelings spiral and clog up my brain.
This is the case no matter what causes your writer’s block – deadlines, personal struggles, outside pressures, disappointments… the list goes on and on. These negative things take up the space in our brain that’s usually reserved for writing, so it’s much harder to make the words flow.
But again – stop beating yourself up.
No matter what’s causing your writer’s block, it needs to be tended to, not denied and shoved to one side. There may be some personal stuff you need to deal with, or some circumstance you need to come to terms with. Do it gently. Writing is not the only thing in your life – don’t let your brain tell you that you’re failing just because you’re not writing right nowTend to yourself, be gentle and kind, and the words will begin to flow again.
There are some ways I combat writer’s block – the first is taking a break. During these breaks (which I set a time limit on from the start so that I know when to get writing again, rather than letting the break stretch FOREVER) I take writing off the table completely.
This means that there is no cruel voice in the back of my head taunting me for not writing – I can’t write because it’s not even an option. Usually, after these breaks, I am raring to go again.
Another tactic I use is mini writing sessions. I’ll write for just ten minutes each day. Usually I’ll end up writing more, but on the really bad days writing for just ten minutes is enough.
But I’ve done it. I’ve written something. And gradually, I build up to longer writing sessions again.
Sometimes you HAVE to write – there is a deadline looming and writer’s block is not an option. At these times, I remove the distractions. Carve out time in the diary and don’t let anything encroach, hide your phone, sit somewhere with only what you need to write. Make writing literally the only thing you can do with that time – and don’t worry if what you’re writing is utter shit. Sometimes, we have to wade through some crap to get to the good stuff.
One last thing I like to do is record my progress. I’m intimidated by watching my word count go up while I’m writing so I’ve hidden the word counter, but at the end of each session I love to check what I’ve done and add it to a list/chart. All those little, sometimes painful, writing sessions add up to a book in the end!
No matter how you get yourself out of writer’s block – be kind to yourself. You’re not a machine, and you deserve rest and gentleness.
A grand reading month in December helped me finish the year on a high AND I completed my challenge of reading 100 books – I actually read 101! There were two clear favourites this month…
Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade was just as fun, fat, and (struggling for a third F word) feisty (?!) as All the Feels. Dade is a new firm fave author of mine. It’s so lovely finding a writer whose work connects with some part of who you are – I love these rom coms and can’t wait for more! They are great for fans of Mhairi McFarlane and Sophie Kinseller (I read my first of her books this month and it was also a corker!)
A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas is actually the fourth book in a series, so really you need to go away and read those first… BUT this is so worth the wait – all these books are fun and action packed. I have really enjoyed dipping into some fantasy – and can’t wait to read her other series!
I had such a great reading year in 2021 that I really struggled to whittle my favourites down to just 12 books. I discovered wonderful new authors and returned to some old, comfortable reads. Choose any of these to add to your TBR and you are in for such a treat.
All the Feels by Olivia Dade is a glorious rom-com for those longing for a leading lady who isn’t stick thin. The fat rep in Dade’s books is phenomenal – the realities of living as a fat person aren’t shied away from but these women’s bodies are celebrated without reservation by their partners. And the love interest in this novel is also so real and flawed and loveable.
Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane is another intelligent rom-com – the characters are so well written and the friendships complex and messy. I went back and read McFarlane’s other books after picking this one up at Sainsburys and none of them disappoint – there is love, hurts, and humour by the bucket-load in all of them.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers is beautiful. I love Chambers (GO AND READ EVERYTHING SHE’S WRITTEN PLEASE) and this is a continuation of her wonderful ability to pull apart what makes us human. There is also a lot of tea drinking, which made me want to go out and conquer my apathy towards it (recommendations welcome!)
My Broken Vagina byFran Bushe is one of the few non-fiction books I read this year – and it is a corker. I read it in a day (I always feel bad when I do this, since it takes authors such a long time to put their books together!) and was both smiling and cringing all the way through. This is a great read for anyone who has experienced discomfort during sex and wants to feel seen.
Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is a mishmash of family drama, thriller, mystery, love story, and so much more. Somehow, she makes baking a batch of brownies into an incredibly gripping and tense moment. If you loved The Husband’s Secret and Nine Perfect Strangers, then you’ll enjoy this – I’d say it’s her best yet.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro is sad and hopeful in equal measure. Told from the point of view of an incredibly advanced robot, this novel delves into the wonderfulness and awfulness of what it means to be human. I really struggled to put this down, and recommend it to fans of Never Let Me Go who want something just as well written but a little lighter.
Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland was a reread of an old favourite and it was like walking down an old path you know and love. This book deals sensitively with the damaging after-effects of trauma and the complicatedness of loving our parents even when they make huge mistakes. Plus it’s set in a second-hand bookshop – always a win.
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker gave me a genuine book hangover. I was thinking about this crime novel for weeks afterwards. I feel a little bit bad recommending it because it will stick with you for a long time and not let go. It’s beautifully written and compelling – great for anyone who loves getting stuck into a complex mystery without too much gore.
The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley is phenomenal. A time-twisting love story that I was stressed to put down because I had to know what happened at the end. It’s full of such well written characters that it’s a struggle to let them go, and a snappy plot that will keep you guessing. Plus there’s a broken sailor that I defy you not to fall in love with.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is a creepy story of what happens to a group of strangers at the end of the world. It’s tense and carefully described – flitting between the characters seamlessly and showing both their best and worst sides. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Strout or Ingrid Persaud.
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is great – I have discovered a love of space fiction this year and this has to be the best I read. There’s a really relatable main character and (tiny spoiler but not really) a freaky looking alien who it’s impossible not to fall in love with. If you read The Martian and were sad it ended, then check this out.
And finally, The Comfort Book by Matt Haig is pure hug in book form. It’s not a book that has to be read in any specific way at all – so dip in and out, sit down with it for a day, just read the chapters that appeal to you – and you’ll come away feeling known. I loved Reasons to Stay Alive, and this is more of the same.
I am overly giddy to report that I am currently on-target to complete my challenge of reading 100 books in 2021! And there were some great stories that helped me edge ever closer in November…
The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan is the perfect read for a cold afternoon spent beside a blazing fire. It’s a standalone, so you don’t need to have read any of hers before, and it’s a good one to start with if you’re slightly intimidated by her towering list of books. It’s not only a fun rom-com, but also a love letter to Edinburgh – a city I am now desperate to visit – and it’s got some great sisters-who-hate-one-another-but-grow-to-love-one-another moments in there too.
All The Feels by Olivia Dade is another fun rom-com but for those who would rather stay with the characters than fade to black, if you know what I mean (THERE IS HUMPING). I loved this not only because there is a fat main character whose size isn’t the overall focus of the novel but still dealt with sensitively, but because the love interest isn’t some perfect, muscled hero. Okay, he is VERY muscled, but he’s also a flawed individual that I dare you to try not to fall a little bit in love with.
A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers is another glorious novel from such a talented author. Honestly, if you haven’t read any of her books yet GO OUT AND BUY/BORROW THEM ALL. I am incredibly jealous of the joy you’re about to bestow upon yourself. But back to Psalm – it’s wonderfully immersive and will remind you of what is potentially good about people. I love Becky’s books because they let me fall into a world of infinite kindness, plus there’s often some kind of cool alien or robot.
I read so SO many good books this month! I feel like I’m back in the groove of reading, and if you need some help here are some great stories to throw yourself into…
Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty is fantastic. If you liked her other books, you’ll love this. She takes all the incredible characterisation and intriguing plots from her other novels, and levels it the heck up. I was gripped even when part of the storyline hinged on two competing batches of brownies, so couldn’t put it down when things really hit the fan.
My Broken Vagina by Fran Bushe is a warm hug in book form. I don’t read much non-fiction but I FLEW through this because every chapter was just as breathtakingly honest and kind and funny as the last. It’s perfect for anyone who has experienced pain during sex, or for anyone who wants to understand a bit more about the realities of having a vulva (that’s the outside bit) and vagina (that’s the inside bit). You’ll learn stuff, you’ll wince at the anecdotes, and you’ll feel less alone.
The Summer Job by Lizzie Dent is an odd one – if you told me one of my fave reads this month would be based around the experiences of a pretend sommelier then I would have done some eyebrow raising. BUT this book is lush. Set in a hotel in Scotland, with enough romance, angst, and great female friendships to make all the wine stuff actually seem fun… I guess if you like wine, this would be the perfect uplifting book!
Ottolenghi Test Kitchen: Shelf Love is the latest cookbook from a team that has already brought me so much food-based joy – which is the best kind of joy there is! The book itself is a pleasure to flick through – all the recipes are photographed beautifully and recipes for things that look complex are broken down into simple steps. I have a curried cauliflower pie in the oven RIGHT NOW and I can barely type for salivating.
Why, when, and how to include menstration in your writing
I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about PERIODS. Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.
Disclaimer number one:
Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.
Disclaimer number two:
Apologies to any Americans out there who have gotten overexcited about a thread about the little dot at the end of a sentence. Sorry – but today I’m chatting about MENSTRATION in novels.
This is something I’ve given feedback to clients about numerous times, but always with the caveat at this is an area that is frequently overlooked and ignored in all kinds of published books (and films and TV series).
Who knows why this is? I have a few theories – periods are still the kind of thing we should whisper about, so why would we want to mention them in novels? Periods are a bit icky and dirty, so should be dealt with in silence. Women should be sex-ready machines, so this monthly break many of them take from intercourse is unacceptable.
Just in case it’s not clear – I think all of this is total bullshit. Periods are natural and are a regular part of life for a huge part of the population. Yeah, they can be painful and unpleasant – but that makes it even more important that we include them in our stories and tackle the tough stuff in an authentic way.
However, please don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to include periods in your writing. When something is being systematically ignored it can feel unnatural to buck the trend, even when what you want to add into your stories is something undeniably natural that desperately needs to be normalised.
But wasn’t it incredible when a bloody tampon was shown in Michaela Coel’s fantastic ‘I May Destroy You?’ I was so pleased that the ‘period sex’ song was included in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.’ These moments hold power because they’re breaking down taboos and shedding light on an area that’s still being held in darkness.
I still struggle to think of examples of books that tackle periods in a realistic and honest way. ‘Blood Moon’ by Lucy Cuthew and ‘Diary of a Confused Feminist’ by Kate Weston are both fantastic examples, but we need far more.
Growing up, I didn’t read a single book or watch any TV show or film that even hinted at someone having a period. It meant that when I started menstruating, I was poorly educated about it and felt totally alone. I think we’ve come a long way in the past few years, but there is still work to do. I would hate for any young person or not-so-young person to feel the way I did about my periods for a hell of a long time – that they were weird and a shameful monthly pain that couldn’t be spoken about.
I want to be part of breaking down this stigma. I hope you do to. I’ve compiled a few questions to help you decide whether periods could be included in your story and how to do this in an authentic way…
QUESTION ONE: Could your character be having periods?
Firstly, have a think about the age of your main character. If they are, roughly, over 10 and under 50 years of age, then they could be having periods.
Secondly, have a think about the sex of your character. Remember, it’s not just women who have periods, and not all people who present as female have periods either.
I don’t often think about my character’s genitals but when thinking about properly representing people who have periods, it’s really important to. If your character has a womb and a vagina, then they could be having periods.
QUESTION TWO: Is your novel set over a stretch of time when a period could occur?
On average, periods happen every 28 days. Now, this varies from person to person and from month to month, but you can use it as a general rule. So, if you’ve got a character who could be having periods and your novel is set over a more than 21 days, it would be reasonable to expect menstruation to be mentioned in one way or another.
They might be on the last day of their period on their first day at a new school, so some of their brain is taken up by wondering where the nearest toilets are and whether they’ve remembered tampons. Or they might start crying more than they normally would and realise, as they solve a murder, that they are due on soon.
Even if you decide that your character is on some kind of contraception (remember, there are way more options than the pill), they may still have a monthly (or in some cases more regular) bleed.
QUESTION THREE: How would being on a period/contraception affect your character?
For some people, their period or bleed is just something they need to account for and remember to buy pads or some paracetamol. Bless these people. However, for others, it is an EVENT.
Personally, I have headaches and gut ache for about three days before my period. I’m also incredibly emotional and irritated easily. I have a weird burst of energy the day before my period starts, and then come crashing back down to earth. I have to take three different types of medication to keep my periods to a manageable pain level, and even then I often feel sluggish and can’t stand for too long. This lasts for about three days, but bleeding lasts for up to seven.
This is not an extreme example. Think of anyone with a chronic illness like ME or MS, and all these symptoms (and more) could be exacerbated. If you’ve got a character who can have periods, then you need to think carefully about how this will affect them on a regular basis.
And this problem isn’t magically solved if you decide they’re on contraception (and remember to mention them taking the pill if that’s the route you go down). Some people do report lighter or even no bleeding when on contraception, but this is not always the case.
This is the point when you might have to do some research or find a trusted friend and ask some questions. I honestly believe the work will be worth it. If we can talk truthfully about how periods affect all different kinds of people, then we can lift stigma and misplaced shame.
One other thing to remember is that people think about their period even when they’re not bleeding. They might have it marked on their calendar or have to remember to get in pads on the weekly shop. It’s a regular part of many people’s lives that they think about regularly. And there might be extra things going on in their life that makes their period hold more emotional meaning. Do they feel under pressure to have a child or are they struggling to find a well-paid job? These circumstances (and many others) add a whole other layer to starting a period.
QUESTION FOUR: What genre are you writing in?
Depending on your answer to this question, your approach to describing periods will vary drastically.
If you’re writing historical, then you’ll need to do some research not only into how people managed bleeding each month, but how society treated people at these times. If you’re writing sci-fi you could have some nanobot that stops periods, but does it have any side-effects? Fantasy could be fun – what ways would other creatures menstruate and how would it be treated culturally? It’s particularly important to speak openly and practically about menstruation in YA, as your main audience will still be forming opinions about what’s happening with their bodies and the bodies of those around them. If you’re writing a rom com, where sometimes the ultimate aim is to get busy, then you’ll need to think carefully about how you write about periods. When will your character have one, and how will it affect their relationship with their partner? How do they feel about having sex whilst menstruating?
I really hope this blog has been helpful! Let’s work together to write beautiful stories that celebrate human beings exactly as we are, not as some strange, sterilised ideal. Let’s acknowledge the secret things that need to be brought into to the light and help readers know they are not alone.
Giving feedback to other writers on their stories is such a rewarding and beneficial thing to do. It not only gives them a boost and sharpens their skills, but it will also hone your writing practice. Partnering with other writers will give you friends that understand the highs and lows of creating imaginary worlds and trying to make them make sense on paper. Essentially, it’s just a great thing to do!
However, we’ve all had those people read our books who make those kinds of comments. It may have been someone you loved who was totally well-meaning but didn’t understand your vision and kept making distracting suggestions. Or maybe it was a more experienced writer who littered their advice with so many shoulds, musts, and alwayses (totally a word), that it felt like they were proclaiming rules rather than making suggestions. And you may have had some advice that simply didn’t make sense – it was vague and confusing.
This kind of feedback helps no one. It makes the writer feel confused and can create a block for further creativity, and it will alienate them from the feedback-giver. Let’s not be those people!
I love giving feedback to other writers – so much so that I do it for a living – and I try so SO hard to make sure that the critique I give is helpful and practical. I want my editing reports to be a launch pad for writers to dive into their stories and make them shine. And, understandably, I’m equally passionate about other writers honing their skills as feedback-givers so that we are all lifting one another up.
Below are my top tips for giving constructive feedback and avoiding the pitfalls.
Always, always, always.
Someone has trusted you with their book baby. Or maybe they’re not as dramatic as me, but they have at least trusted you with something they’ve worked really darn hard on. That deserves gentle handling.
Even if there are major issues with a story, make sure to point out the great stuff they have done too. Frame any negative feedback with practical advice and reassurance that you can work through the problem together if they’d like to.
Some of this is around wording – which is so important when giving feedback. Telling someone that a scene was boring is mean and unhelpful, telling them it was a bit slow and that they could tighten the dialogue is kind and gives them something to work on.
An aspect of kindness when giving feedback is being thorough. Vagueness is unhelpful and, at worst, can be interpreted as disinterest. Tell the storyteller everything that jolted you out of story, every time a character shone and made you smile, all the odd moments when the plot seemed to fizzle out – but always do it with kindness.
Kindness is the blanket that covers all the feedback I give to editing clients. Yes, I will point out the flaws and issues in a story but I will also help writers to see the way to improve and I will always tell them all the stuff they are really great at. Feedback should give people things to work on, but if it’s delivered with kindness then they will leap into those revisions with renewed energy and a smile on their face.
Kindness shouldn’t be confused with niceness. A nice person wouldn’t tell you anything that was wrong with your story. They would let you believe it was utterly flawless to avoid having to tell you something you might not want to hear.
Kindness means that issues are raised, but in a non-confrontational, humble way. A problem is spotted and it’s talked through without judgement or blame, but is honestly pointed out and explained.
Niceness means that a story will stay stagnant, but kind and honest feedback will help the story soar and the writer develop their skills.
An important part of being honest is being specific. It’s important to tell another writer they lost you when explaining the layout of their extremely important and very convoluted castle, but unless you can tell them exactly when and how they lost your interest then the comment can feel a little unhelpful.
This is often a point, when I’m reading client’s work, that I might have to set it aside for a bit. Sometimes, when you’re reading a story, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s becoming jarring or causing it to slip from your grasp. A bit of time away usually helps me to figure out that it was the moment when measurements started being used to tell me about the bricks of the castle (so the writer was perhaps trying to show off too much of their research), or it was that I didn’t understand why I was being told about the castle in such rich detail (so I didn’t feel informed about the character’s aims and how the castle fit into them).
But sometimes, you will simply be unable to tell the writer exactly what doesn’t feel right. You’ll just know that something doesn’t fit. In these cases, I’d suggest giving as much detail as possible and making sure to reiterate that this is how it feels for you – it may feel totally different for other readers.
That’s one important thing to remember as you’re giving feedback – everything you’re saying is informed by who you are. You might find a character totally unrelatable or think a situation is unbelievable, but that may not be the case for other people with different experiences to you. This is one reason that giving feedback needs to be done in gentle way, because you could be totally wrong. Actually, for some readers, that character would feel like a blueprint of their mum or the situation might feel uncomfortably real.
This is why it’s best to honestly acknowledge your limitations as a feedback-giver. We can’t know everything, so some feedback needs to be given with the caveat that you actually don’t know much about this type of person/setting. This is when suggesting a sensitivity/authenticity reader might be best – as they have lived experience that can really enrich a story and make characters real.
REMEMBER IT’S NOT YOUR STORY
I craft what I hope are incredibly thorough and honest reports for my editing clients. I throw everything I’ve got at them, give them the best of my knowledge and understanding of how stories work, and provide workable examples of how to write themselves out of any issues that have cropped up. I talk specifics, and make sure I’m driving in the direction they want to go for this story. Kindly and honestly, I tell them all I think they are great at and point out those things I think might need to change.
But before all that, I tell them to feel free to totally ignore everything I say.
I say this first because it’s super important. As soon as someone asks for your advice about something, you’re put into a position of trust and power. They trust that you won’t steer them wrong, but you have the power to do so.
I recognise that I am a flawed individual and I will not always give perfect feedback on stories. It’s really important to acknowledge this. I will give feedback that I believe will help improve the story, but the only person who can really figure out if it should be taken on board or not is the writer.
This is their story, and it needs to be told their way.
So it might be frustrating if you keep giving a critique partner the same advice and they’re just not listening, or you might think of the perfect plot twist to end a friend’s novel but when you tell them about it they just shrug – BUT that is their right. They are the writer – they are in total control. All we can give are suggestions, we can’t make demands.
Let’s build up other writers. When giving feedback, let’s be kind and honest, and always remember that it is their story, and they can do whatever they please with it.
Two stonking crime books take the top spots this month – they couldn’t be any more different OR brilliant…
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker left me reeling. It was days before I could pick up another book because anything else would be an utter disappointment after reading something so beautifully written and completely absorbing. Told from the alternating points-of-view of an unwell small-town police officer and a teenage girl trying to protect her brother from her mum’s neglect (both of whom you can’t help but love), this story will grip you from the first page and won’t let go. I’ll be recommending this to everyone for a long time – go out and read it now!
The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman won’t disappoint fans of his debut. It’s rich in his humour and wonderfully unique way of making even an evil diamond thief seem human. Osman’s books are like a hug – if that hug is being given by four elderly crime solvers who really would rather check out a bloody crime scene than play Scrabble. Lines will leap out and make your heart clench with sadness, but overall I recommend Osman’s book for a cosy afternoon by the fire.
This is a long one, and a very personal one. I’ve tried to provide action points and comfort, but sometimes life is just messy and hard. I hope that showing you some of my mess is helpful.
I want to tell the truth about this, because I’ve gotten fed up of not doing so. This lack of authenticity is grating on me. It’s making me feel like what I’m going through is shameful and should be hidden, when in fact I think it’s incredibly common but we feel we shouldn’t talk about it.
In April, I parted ways with my agent.
There. I’ve said it. Saying it doesn’t make me feel good, in fact it still feels massively shit.
Friends, very rightly, advised me not to speak about this openly when it first happened. I was completely devastated, reeling in shock for months. I spent a whole weekend crying, and weeks afterwards unable to write anything new. I clung to my writing friends (who are the most beautiful individuals in the world), who kept gently telling me to take my time, that my writing would come back to me, and sent me gifts that made me cry all over again.
They weren’t ashamed of what had happened to me, they didn’t want me to hide, but they knew that working through this would take time. Sharing what had happened immediately would have been brutal. I couldn’t have coped with people’s kindness, or with their censure. I couldn’t have held hands with anyone else that was experiencing the same.
I needed to huddle into myself, hold myself tight. I had to grasp onto the things that remained – my love of books, my wonderful friends and family, long walks and even longer cries.
And I guess that’s the first thing I want you, if you’re going through a similar experience, to hold onto – it’s okay to not talk about it for a while. It’s okay to comfort yourself however you need to. BUT, that doesn’t mean you need to stay silent forever, and you don’t need to be ashamed.
There is so much secret pain in the realm of submitting books, either to agents or publishers. This secrecy breeds shame. I know I’m not the first person to speak about this, and I really hope that I’m not the last. There is no need to bear these wounds to the world if you’re not ready, and some of us may never be, but telling your story, letting others know that what’s happening is common and normal and no reflection at all on their talent – that’s incredibly powerful and validating.
So I’m going to tell you my story.
A disclaimer first though. At no point am I going to name my agent. I’m rather hopeful that most of you will have forgotten who they were. And this is because I really don’t feel like what’s happened was their fault. They had their part to play, but so did I. There were things I should have spotted along the way, and there were things we both should have been more honest about. They are also a genuinely lovely person and I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off submitting to them – they are a champion for their authors (and continue to be for me), and our parting was a painful but necessary eventuality.
I’m not telling their story. I’m telling my story. This is the tale of someone who thought they had got their happy ending, but was having to ignore a whole lot of flashing red lights to keep up the illusion.
I submitted my first book to agents and got over 100 rejections. I submitted my second and got around 40 rejections. Didn’t have quite the same stamina for that one. I didn’t submit my third book at all, didn’t feel like it was query ready, but I did book an agent one-to-one.
That agent fell in love with my book. They asked for the full and offered representation. I met with them in their offices in London and talked through our vision for this project. We signed the papers, and started editing.
And that’s where it started to go wrong, at least on my end. I asked all the right questions before I signed so felt like I was clear about where this book was headed, but I didn’t have a detailed edit report from my agent about the things they felt needed changing. I got that a little while later, after we signed, and it was gutting. There were some concerns raised that were incredibly valid and helpful, but there was also a gap that had formed between my vision for this novel and theirs.
My novel was a VERY quiet YA story about two boys who fell in love against the backdrop of the end of the world. Despite that setting, it was never going to have explosions or moments of intense peril. It was about two boys finding the best in themselves and each other, and delved into the difficulties of loss and trauma.
It became clear, in that edit report, that this was not what my agent wanted my book to be. Instead of challenging their ideas, pushing forward my vision and being clear about the limitations of where I felt this story could go, I kept quiet. I thought that perhaps I could keep both of us happy.
The pandemic saved me, in a way. When COVID hit, I felt incredibly uneasy about writing a story based after most of the human population had been wiped out by an infectious disease. So we parked it, and moved onto other projects. Over the next year, I produced two more stories for my agent to read. Both of them were too quiet, too strange, too sad.
So many big red warning lights. So much blackout fabric needed to keep them from interrupting my desperate attempts to please my agent and somehow keep my integrity in my writing.
I came up with a new way to end the world (in my story!), so early this year we returned to the original novel they had signed me for. I reworked it as best I could, added more drama (as much as I was comfortable with, but more than I wanted), and polished up the voice.
I want to pause here to chat about two things before I go on to talk about breaking with my agent, as that is a whole horrible thing all on its own and I don’t want it to distract from a couple of things that I could have done differently and perhaps gotten a different outcome. That outcome might have been that I didn’t sign with my agent in the first place, but I genuinely feel that would have been less painful than losing one.
I asked all the right questions, but I could have been more patient – I had read all the blogs, I knew what I had to ask. What will happen if this book doesn’t sell? Do you want to represent me for all my stories or just this one? How do you see us working together? Where do you see this book going? Who are you thinking of submitting to? And they gave all the right answers. What I didn’t do was wait until I had a comprehensive report on where they felt this novel was going. I wanted to work with this agent because they had extensive editorial experience and I knew they would make my stories as strong as they could be before we went to publishers, but I really should have waited to see what changes they wanted made before I signed with them. This would have gone against the grain, as getting an agent is the main goal so as soon as they put the paper in front of you then SIGN IT, but it would have saved me a lot of pain. I would have, perhaps, attempted a rewrite, but it would have become clear, to both of us, that my writing was never going to get to the place they wanted it to. That would have been hard, but this business is so subjective and I could have gone on to find someone who would love my sad little stories. So I guess my advice here is to make sure that you and your agent are 100% on the same page with where you want your story to get to and what the heart of it is
I was far too in awe of my agent to be honest – I think this is a common problem. We try so desperately hard to get an agent that once we have one, we have to keep them happy and make sure that we continue to be what they want. I didn’t tell my agent that I was shocked by the edit report, I didn’t speak out for my quiet stories, and I didn’t fight for the heart of my writing. So, if you can, be brave. Talk to your agent honestly and openly. Don’t try too hard to please them
These are both lessons that I will carry forwards to when I next have that exciting conversation with an agent. I’ll be way more honest, patient, and exacting. I’ll want to know specifics, and I won’t move forward until I have them.
Now for the painful part.
I rewrote my story, making it as dramatic and exciting as possible. I felt, in some ways, that it was better. I had greater clarity about the characters and I fell back in love with their awkwardness. But I also felt like the story was getting away from me. There were elements I didn’t like. I could see clearly where I could ramp up the drama even more, but I didn’t want to. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. But I felt like I had wandered from that as well.
Hoping for the best, I sent it off to my agent. We had agreed a date for feedback, and on that day they sent me an email that crushed me. They were honest and as kind as they could be, but told me that the story simply wasn’t getting to where they felt it needed to be and that they didn’t feel that they were the right person to represent me anymore.
I had to read the email twice before I understood. Then I started sobbing. I couldn’t get the words out, so my husband had to read the email to understand what had happened. He held me as I cried for a very long time.
I felt like an utter failure. I thought this was the end of my writing career. I was heartbroken – someone I thought was with me for life had monumentally let me down. I hated myself, hated my writing. I felt like the biggest reject ever. I thought I was a loser.
It was a horrible weekend. It was a tough week. It was a hard month.
Talking to my agent helped. I aired the things that had really hurt me, we chatted about what had gone wrong right from the start, I began to understand that this decision was prompted by forces outside of our control, and we chatted about next steps. I want to be clear and say that although this experience has completely knocked my confidence and saddened my very deeply, I do not blame my agent or feel badly towards them. They have always acted with kindness and generosity, but this is an incredibly tough business we are working in.
Quiet YA stories were a hard sell before the pandemic, they are an even harder sell now, and it had become apparent to my agent that I simply was not going to be able to write the story they saw mine becoming. I truly believe that I eventually would have come to the same conclusion – that we weren’t quite the right fit for one another. They might love my writing, but my stories couldn’t get to where they wanted to sell them in a difficult market.
I had a really tough few months, things are still pretty tough if I’m honest. I ditched everything I was working at the moment I split with my agent and leapt into editing something new, something I knew they wouldn’t have been interested in. I have to say, that felt very liberating. My confidence is still low and I think it will be for a while yet, but I’ve managed to start writing something new. Two new things, in fact.
I thought I would write this blog post when I was at the heady heights of having a new agent. I believe that will happen, someday, but I don’t think I’m going to be trapped in the valley until then.
I really believe that I was in freefall towards the bottom before I got that gutting email. I may have smashed into the rocks then, things may have seemed very dark, but they’re not anymore. Almost immediately, dragging one leg behind me and one arm hanging uselessly, I started to pull myself up the other side.
I don’t care if I’m labouring this metaphor. I’m climbing up the other side of the valley. I’ve made it a good way up. I can see flowers and light. The air is fresher and my hurts are healing.
I didn’t want to talk about splitting with my agent only once I had the perceived happy ending again. I wanted to write about it when it was still raw. I didn’t want to feel ashamed anymore. What has happened to me, and countless others, isn’t shameful. It’s okay to feel sad and broken. But I hope you’re able to pick yourself up. I hope you’re able to climb out of the valley.
This is still pretty hard to talk about, and thank you for indulging me in my ramblings. I hope they are helpful. I want to finish by saying another final thank you to my friends, wonderful husband, and all the other kind people who have stood with me in this tough time. You have carried me more than you know.
I always felt we should write for the love of it. I feel that more than ever now. Writing is my solace and my joy, let it be yours too.
A summary of my August – had two weeks off work, got pinged, read all the books instead of seeing people. Here are my faves…
Any Way The Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell completes the Simon Snow trilogy, and what an ending it is. I don’t want to say too much because of spoilers, but it was everything I wanted it to be and, in a world that’s been full of grimness for while, it was lovely to read a book that had drama and mystery but also found family, dealing realistically with mental illness, and loads of cuddles. All the characters are in their twenties in this final volume, and it’s been great fun watching them change and grow from angsty teens to perhaps-slightly-less-angsty young adults.
Hail Mary by Andy Weir blew me away. It’s got the classic opening of someone waking up in a room with no idea who or where they are, but with the twist of them being a scientist on an Earth-saving mission alone on a space ship. I’m not science-y but even during the geeky moments explaining how a sun-eating alien works, I was hooked. I actually struggled to put this down – it was so compelling. If you liked The Martian (film or book!), then you’ll love this.
The Comfort Book by Matt Haig is a hug in book form. I read it in one go on a rainy morning, and I will be returning to it any time I need a boost. Matt Haig speaks from a place of experience and compassion about the dark moments we all suffer with. I’d recommend keeping it beside your bed and dipping into it whenever it’s needed.
Below is one of my favourite parts of The Comfort book, but read them all and we can be chums 😊