The first five years are the hardest…

Five years.  That’s how long it is, this month, since I stepped off the corporate ladder and became a freelance consultant or interim, specifically to free up time for writing.  I had a book in my head that was fighting to land on the page.  There had been false starts and scribblings before, but this time I’d do it properly.

There will be other posts to follow but here, in writer-speak, is the back story.  Because it’s the back story it will probably be of most interest to fellow writers, so savour, skip, or share at will.

It took:

  • Two years to write, polish, and submit that original novel, before the wall of rejections made me realise that it was a turkey which would never fly.  That was a hard lesson.
  • Well over a year to write Saxon’s Bane to the point where I was satisfied enough to start submitting.
  • And another year of rejections, polishing and rewrites before a literary agent (Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates) was satisfied enough to take me on.
  • At which point it became Ian’s job to sell the novel and mine to write the next one.  He managed my expectations to a longish sales cycle; it’s a brutally tough market for a debut novelist, unless you’re a celebrity, particularly of the overtly curvaceous variety, or writing ‘romance’.  I don’t qualify on either count.

Five years.  And if I’d have known at the beginning what I know now, it probably wouldn’t have taken much less.  There are some lessons you can only learn through the cycle of composition, submission, and rejection, such as:

That first book vented some autobiographical baggage, but the world ain’t interested in baggage unless you’re writing a misery memoir.  It’s interested in characters with tension and plots with jeopardy.

Every aspiring author rails at the agent system until they ‘bag’ one, but agents seem to reject for just 3 reasons.  Either their list is full, or they don’t work in your genre, or the novel/submission isn’t of publishable quality.  Research will filter out the first two, but finding out why it isn’t ready can be hard.  Very few rejections come with feedback.  I had three crucial sources of help that told me why:

  • Litopia, (www.litopia.com) and other friends who offered objective critiques.
  • The Verulam Writers’ Circle.  Feedback, writerly company, and libations.
  • And most significantly the writing consultant Debi Alper, via the Writers’ Workshop, whose professional advice was invaluable.

Finally, I had to learn to balance the hubris of self belief with a willingness to accept that my baby was ugly.

But it grew to be beautiful, I think.  With a lot of help from my friends.

And years of polishing.

Published by

Alex Chiltern

Author of DRACA; a novel of the sea, a war-damaged marine, and a vintage sailing boat with a mind of its own.

2 thoughts on “The first five years are the hardest…”

  1. Good advice. I write first drafts then am too scared to look at the again or if I do wilt at the first negative comment. I think after many years I know what to do but am too afraid or lazy to get off my backside. So, I’ve got a good idea of the effort and pain you’ve been through and your post may, just may get me moving. Congrats!

    1. Clare, I think writing is a state of mind as much as a vocation. Part of that state of mind is to roll with the crits, to absorb them, to learn from them but never be crushed by them. Sometimes you can reject them because it’s your work, your voice, and your decision whether you adapt to the negatives or blast through them. I’m a beginner in ‘published author’ terms, but I think every writer has to balance hubris and humility. The trick is to find the point of balance.

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