31.1.2014 - 'From Mslexia Novel Competition to HarperCollins'
Someone out there loves your work. Maybe they just haven't seen it yet.
Here's my blog on Women Writers, Women Books. Get submitting. Then the person who loves your work might actually get to see it.
This month, three judges decide the winner of the 2nd Mslexia Unpublished Novel Competition. Someone is about to receive a life-changing phone call. Two years ago, I was that woman.
I never imagined I would be. Fairytales are for other folk. I'd lost faith in my writing 'getting anywhere': indeed, I'd lost faith in my ability to write. But my winning novel, The Palace of Curiosities, was published in March 2013 by HarperCollins UK, one of the world's largest publishing companies. It's still a shock.
Like many writers, I've been writing for as long as I remember (I have a cough-sweet tin filled with miniature books I wrote for my dolls). By the end of the 90s I'd had poetry and short stories published, and I'd built up a following on the performance poetry circuit. I got an idea for a novel and was buoyed up by a run of early success: commendations in two fiction competitions and interest from a small publisher.
The crowning event of 2000 was a letter from a major London literary agency. They'd seen my competition entry, were impressed, and wanted to represent me. I danced around the room! I showed them my first novel, expecting wild enthusiasm. The agent advised waiting for a mainstream deal, so I turned down the small press. Naively, I waited for lucrative deals to come flying in. They didn't.
Over the next twelve years, I wrote four-and-a-half novels. Not one was 'good enough', however hard I tried – and I tried very hard. Then I was passed to a different agent who regaled me with stories of the terrible state of the publishing industry. No-one showed interest in what I was writing.
I stopped telling friends about my novels, humiliated by rejection after rejection. I regretted turning down the small publisher. It was a tough job to keep going during those long, slow, arid years. Then I got throat cancer and everything stopped while I put my life-energy into recovery. But there's nothing like a peek at your sell-by date to give you a boot up the backside. So, after I got the all-clear I emailed my agent and said, Let's Do This Thing. He didn't even reply.
His final rejection was my lowest point. I needed to move on. I could not continue putting my life into something that was giving me no nourishment. I didn't regret those twelve years, because no writing is ever wasted. But it was time to stop banging my head against a brick wall.
In 2011 Mslexia announced their Inaugural Novel Competition. As a last-ditch-last-fling, I dusted off novels #3 and #4 and sent them in, figuring I had nothing to lose except the entry fee. Both made the shortlist of ten. I was astounded: perhaps I could write fiction, after all. And one of the judges was Sarah Waters. A writing heroine. Liked. My. Work.
Novel #4, 'The Palace of Curiosities' won outright. Within a week I had an enthusiastic new agent. Within a fortnight she sent it to fifteen UK publishers and I was at the heart of a bidding war. The result was a 2-book deal with HarperCollins UK. It was bizarre – the same words in the same order, yet a year before I couldn't get it through the door of one publisher, let alone fifteen. I spent a long time pinching myself.
To say winning the Mslexia Novel Competition boosted my confidence is a vast understatement. I've proved to myself that I can write fiction: it was just a case of finding the right people to read it. The competition was judged anonymously and that makes me particularly proud. I am not This Year's Bright Young Thing, have not attended a fashionable Creative Writing Masters program, nor do I have industry connections. I won because of the quality of the writing.
It was the best £25 I spent in my entire life. I strongly encourage writers to enter as many competitions as possible. Someone out there loves your work – but they need to see it. So get it out there. Do it now.
Yes, I still have crises of self-doubt. But I've discovered a sense of validation, a punching-the-air 'I did it!' The win - and the resulting two-book deal – have given financial choices I never thought to have. I've given up my day job to focus full-time on writing. I've received writing commissions, invitations to lecture on University courses, been nominated for and won awards, toured book festivals...
I still subscribe to Mslexia. I still get up every morning and write. I take nothing for granted. I'm not a rest-on-my-laurels gal. I've built resilience, learned humility and discovered the extent of my determination to keep going in the face of rejection and failure. And I have regained a belief in my writing.