How to Keep Going & Get That Book Deal!

(This article was originally written for Writing.ie, but I’ve had a very positive response, with lots of people saying it’s really helped them to sit back down and write…So I’m posting it here, just in case it’s of use to even one more person. Apologies if you’ve already seen it! Otherwise, happy reading & happy writing!)

Just six months ago, I was sat in front of my computer, feeling like I was banging my head off the wall. I hadn’t written just one book to a publishable standard, I’d written two – different genres and for different age groups – and although I had faith in them both, it felt like I was never going to succeed in getting them on the shelves.

I had the agent, I’d put the work in (twice!), but other than sell my soul, what the hell did I need to do to actually get a book deal? And if it didn’t happen soon, how was I going to keep going and face more disappointment?

And so, I opened my computer, took a deep breath, and started another book.

The Book of Learning by E.R.MurrayThis was seriously the most challenging time in my life. I’ve had my fair share of tragedies and difficulties – who hasn’t? – but this was different. It was something I really cared about, something that I believed in, that I was desperate to make happen. I’d developed skin like a rhino, but after four years of writing every day, that toughened skin began to wither. Every slight knockback felt like an actual physical blow and I began to wonder – what if the truth of the matter is, I’m not good enough? Sound familiar?

Well here’s the good news…

After much frustration, several false starts and meltdowns, I received an offer from Mercier Press in autumn 2014 – a three-book deal for Nine Lives, my Middle Grade fantasy trilogy, and Book One, The Book of Learning is due out in August this year, with sequels to follow in 2016 and 2017.

And this week, less than six months later, I signed a deal with Alma Books for my other book, Caramel Hearts; a Young Adult novel about a girl with an alcoholic mum, that will be out in May/June 2016.

Two book deals in six months; I can still hardly believe it. And the reason this is good news for you, fellow writer, is because…

If it can happen to me, it can happen to you too.

I’m no different to anyone else; I just kept going. I put in the hours, writing every day for four years (including Christmas, birthdays etc), made some severe lifestyle changes to accommodate my writing, and deleted any form of social life. I attended the writing workshops of writers I admired, so I could learn more about my craft. In short, I gave my writing the focus, dedication, and determination it needed. And if you do the same, I believe you’ll get there.

Writing requires a lot of patience, and a lot of waiting. An irritating fact, I know, but the only way to improve is to sit down, write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Then, put the manuscript away, pretend it doesn’t exist for a while, and reread it before… you guessed it, rewriting, and rewriting and rewriting…

The two books I’m about to have published aren’t the first two I ever wrote. There is an awful abandoned manuscript no one will ever see (I’d die of embarrassment, I really would), but I’m proud of it because it was my first attempt at writing something of that length. And if you speak to most authors, they’ll probably admit the same.

So don’t give up hope! After lots of practice and determination, the time will come when you know you’re close, that you’ve polished your manuscript to the nth degree and have written a really good book that’s ready to be sent to the agent or publisher of your dreams.

When you reach this point, push the pause button and do some thorough research. Make sure your manuscript fits what your choice of agent or publisher is looking for, and that you’ve matched all their requirements in terms of what to send, formatting etc. Trust me, you don’t want to get this wrong.

You must rein yourself in and stay focused because the worst thing you can do is to send out your manuscript too early, before it’s ready – or to not send it out correctly. You only get one chance with a publisher or agent. Screw it up by being too hasty, and there’s no going back.

That feeling when you hit send is incredible – it’s exciting and scary both. All you will want to do is hit refresh on your email account, ready for that instant reply that tells you how wonderful you are and how the book world will be fighting over you. But guess what? You’re back to waiting. And the rejections will probably come first.

Lots of writers get frustrated at this time. And pushy. I know I certainly did – and I believe that this is perfectly normal. Why? Because you had to believe you were good enough to keep going and write the damn book. And you also had to want it badly enough to have enough staying power to make your manuscript good enough to be published.

But remember – publishers and agents have massive piles of manuscripts to read. Their time is split between finding new authors, and supporting the ones they’ve already published. There are so many facets to the industry, most agents and publishers are overworked and tired; but trust me, they love their jobs and they are looking for new writers. They will get round to your manuscript and give you an honest reply – just not in the five minutes (probably not even in the five weeks) after you hit send!

So, bearing all of this in mind, how do you stay sane and motivated, and keep going when

1) you’re finishing your manuscript, or

2) you’ve been rejected, or

3) you’re waiting to hear back from an agent or publisher?

I’m no expert, but this is what worked for me at all three stages. If it helps you in any way, I’d be delighted…

Multiple Projects: Personally, I can’t bear the waiting process when you’re giving your manuscript some space, so I work on multiple projects at a time. I bring one novel as far as I can, then when it’s time to put it away and let it breathe, I immediately switch to another. I continue by switching between the two projects until they’re fully completed – which, I’ve found, is never at the same time. But that’s part of the fun. Sometimes, I even write another first draft in between, to mix things up a bit, so I can enjoy those feelings of joy and hope and freedom you experience when starting a new project. (I have three more first drafts lurking, waiting to be rewritten – or not. We’ll have to see if they still seem interesting in a year or two.)

Create a Personalized Routine: I’m allergic to actual routine – as in, I can’t even promise myself that I’ll sit down and have a cup of tea every morning before I start working – but you need to establish some form of routine that suits your personality to make sure the writing gets done. This needs to be measurable, so you can see your progress. It could be an amount of time, or a specific daily word count – you’ll probably find you need to adjust your routine when you switch from a first draft to a rewrite/edit – but the important thing is to know how you work best and to set yourself a daily goal. I honestly don’t believe in procrastination, and I don’t believe that successful writers suffer from it. After all, you’re the only person who can write your book – so if it’s your dream, why wouldn’t you just sit down and write?

Try Shorter Pieces & Submissions: Give stories, poems, or flash fiction a go. Writing something else keeps your brain interested and lets you enjoy a separate sense of achievement. I find short stories extremely hard to write, but there’s something magical about them – and about the idea that you might actually complete something sometime soon! Entering competitions or submitting to magazines gives you achievable deadlines, so you can feel like you’re enjoying some measure of success. There’s a great sense of achievement when you hit send on a magazine submission or competition entry – and an even bigger sense of achievement when you get longlisted, shortlisted, or published. Successes like these are a great way to build your profile, and possibly even get noticed, and any writing you do will improve your skills. As for rejections; don’t worry, they’ll help toughen your rhino hide for when you’re facing agents and publishers.

teaching Cambodia rural living

Volunteering in Cambodia for a month certainly helps you get perspective!

Get a Life: this might sound like counterintuitive-advice, but I believe it’s really important that you do something other than writing so you can restore your energy levels, enthusiasm levels, and stock up on ideas. Work, family duties, gardening, exercise, theatre, films, travel; these will take time away from your writing, but in truth, you can only write well for a certain amount of time anyway. All writers are different, but it seems the average daily word count is between 1000-2000 words. And besides, lots of the important stuff really does happen when you’re not at the computer. I find walking and gardening particularly meditative – and I often figure out plot issues or characterisation flaws when I’m absorbed in these activities. This ‘down time’ is the area I really didn’t give enough credence to when I started writing with a view to getting published and it’s still the area I find hardest to maintain – but it really is worth it, so I’m giving it a damn good try.

Every few weeks, I hear about another friend signing a deal with a publisher or an agent, and it makes me so happy. It also goes to show that achieving your publishing goals is not impossible – though it will probably take a lot longer than you initially hoped for or expected.

None of the above suggestions are particularly difficult or original, but they do require dedication – and balance – and they really did work for me.

It’s not long since I was feeling the heartbreak of wondering whether I was ever going to be good enough, so I’m writing this in the hope that if there’s a writer out there feeling as stressed and frustrated as I was, then maybe something will resonate and help to alleviate some of the suffering so you can keep going and get one step closer to your book deal.

 

How do you do enough?

Since I’ve returned from Singing Kites, it feels like something is missing. It is lovely to be reunited with my wonderful husband, and to be back in beautiful West Cork, but when I was in Cambodia, I felt like I was useful, like I was doing something truly worthwhile.

A young Cambodian boy rocking his baby brother to sleep - no money for education

A young Cambodian boy rocking his baby brother to sleep – no money for education

Now I’m home, I’m loving my work, my writing, my home, and my life – and I’m feeling extremely grateful for what I have – but I also feel, in some way, useless. Not unworthy, but like there’s a void. That’s the best way that I can describe it.

The more you delve into conservation or charity work, the more you realise how endless the need is for help. So where do you start?

Do you help defenseless animals like at the Elephant Nature Park, or do you teach voluntarily in developing countries? Do you look closer to home and volunteer with wonderful organisatons like Inner City Helping Homeless, or do you look even closer still and adopt a rescue dog or make sure you remember to do the little things that help your loved ones and neighbours? All of the above, probably, but how can you ever do enough?

There is no doubt that I will return to Singing Kites next year (I can’t wait!), and I have an exciting charity project brewing that I hope will come to fruition soon enough. But we have to pay the bills and can genuinely only do so much, so in the meantime, I’m left wondering, how exactly can I help?

The simple answer is, that as a writer, I hope that by creating I can provide something useful – whether it’s a blog post that raises awareness, a story that allows for hope or escape, a fun children’s adventure trilogy, or a poem or piece of short fiction that reaches out to someone or simply entertains.

It’s not much to offer but I hope my writing will be read and enjoyed and will somehow affect the reader. I guess that’s what we want as writers, and, while I try and get my charity project off the ground, I’ll have to stop questioning whether that’s enough.

Looking for writing advice? (Part 1)


Over the last month I’ve received over forty emails/tweets/messages asking for advice on writing. This is a pretty high number – and more than I’ve received before in such a short space of time – so I’m guessing there’s something in the air that’s making people feel extra frustrated/blank/exhausted/lost.

mayaangelou

Although I’m hardly an oracle, I love that people feel they can come to me and that I can help in some way. It’s a real honour and a pleasure every time. But I suspect that for every writer that manages to ask another for support, there are several others struggling with aspects of their writing career suffering in silence.

I know that I’ve relied on other writers to vent frustrations, ask advice, get a second opinion. But I also know that I’ve worried/stressed/suffered in silence from time to time. I can’t say why exactly – I don’t know why but sometimes, that’s just the way it is. I’m guessing fear is probably the culprit. Fear of failure, of success, of *insert worry here*.

So, in an attempt to help anyone that’s feeling a bit lost but doesn’t know where to turn, I’ve compiled a list of my most popular posts – the ones that seem to be helping people most with the questions/difficulties they’re facing – below. I hope they help.

  • For the love of writing, keep going! – a look at overcoming the feeling of failure by enjoying what we do.
  • The Wolf We Feed – a post about taking responsibility for our writing and writing career.
  • Is your routine good enough? – drawing on other writers’ experiences, this post considers how we write, whether it gives the results we’re looking for and what we can do to make positive changes.  (PS My routine has changed completely – maybe it’s time for an updated version of this post?)
  • Writing without payment – should we or shouldn’t we?
  • Thick-skinned – can rejection ever be positive?

Feel free to post links to some of your own useful posts below. Next time, I’ll be posting a list of recommended blog posts from other writers that offer further advice, inspiration and encouragement.

Writing goals, not holes

writing goals 2014It’s that time of year again when people start making resolutions and worry about sticking to them, but as far as I’m concerned, this is not healthy. Yes, it’s great to set yourself up for the year ahead with some ambitious dreaming – after all, without goals and deadlines it would be difficult to maintain regular, quality output – but not when said goals are to the detriment of your sanity or your confidence.

New Year’s resolutions are usually broken in a very short space of time because they are typically unrealistic and add too much pressure. They’re also usually fuelled by negativity – don’t do this or stop that or reduce something or other. They encourage you to look for flaws and pick holes in the baby steps you’re making towards progress.

Whether it be your waistline, the amount of time spent in front of the TV or your writing time that’s in focus, resolutions tend to add a negative feel to whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. And who can work well under those conditions? I certainly can’t.

But that doesn’t mean we should float into 2014 with a devil-may-care attitude because that won’t get us anywhere. It’s our life, dreams, ambitions, careers – we have to care. But what we don’t need to do is set ourselves up for immediate failure. Instead, I suggest we first take a look at what we’ve achieved over the past year, identify where improvements need to be made and also pinpoint areas that are going well that need to be stretched/challenged even further.

beautiful writingMy blog has been quiet for the last few weeks and that’s because I’ve been doing just that; assessing, evaluating and planning. I’ve eased myself into the new year and taken a step back to see exactly what I did well in 2013 and what I would like to improve upon. As a result, I’m raring to go and even though I was working and writing throughout the festive season, I feel refreshed and invigorated.

So what are my writing goals this year?

Securing a publishing deal is a given. I will continue to write novels and try to get them published until it eventually happens. And then I shall continue to write novels and try to secure a deal for them. And repeat. So the following 2014 writing goals are a sideline/addition to the novel writing and submission process.

  1. To expand the reach of my short stories with publication outside of UK & Ireland (I have researched a list of eligible journals and competitions, and recorded the deadlines & start dates in my diary)
  2. To build up a short story collection (the above goal will have an immediate, positive influence)
  3. To overcome the fear of performance (we all hate the sound of our own voice & reading my work in public makes me want to gibber in a corner. So I’m working on performance to music with my singer/songwriter husband – now we just need to get it out there!)

Three achievable and measurable goals that can run alongside the novel writing without detriment. Easy to monitor with opportunity for expansion; no room for picking holes, thank you very much.

What about you? What are your writing goals for 2014? 

apostrophe-man

Big thank you

This is a quick festive blog post to say thank you all so much for your continuing support in 2013 – for taking time to read or comment on the blog, for feedback when I ask and for moral support when I don’t.

I wouldn’t be able to be as productive, focused or happy without you and I really appreciate your friendship. We all know writing is a solitary affair, and I think it’s as important as ever to maintain a friendly, supportive and inclusive environment. Thank you for the part you play.

Happy Christmas to you all and see you back here – refreshed, renewed & full of cheer – in 2014!

victorian art

The Folk You Meet: Words & Whey

Living in West Cork, I meet a plethora of interesting folk and the latest to join the village is a rather interesting young woman who writes the What A Whey to Go blog. A kindred spirit in terms of being willing to take big risks for a passion, desire or gut instinct (whatever you want to call it), I am both excited and intrigued by her presence and her current journey.

We’ve only spoken a handful of times and have literally just exchanged numbers for a future coffee date, but after reading the blog of this ‘London corporate escapee turned apprentice cheese maker’, (love it!) I’m surprised to learn there are many similarities between us.

Perfect place to visit in West Cork

A picture perfect village on the edge of the Atlantic

From her decision to leave her well paid job in London publishing (mine was a well paid Dublin job in online poker) to follow her cheese-making dream (mine, of course, is to be a published author) to the sudden move to the same village, it seems a truly fortuitous coincidence that our paths have connected. We’ve made similar decisions, completely unawares, and ended up here.

Inspired by Pauline’s blog, I decided it was about time I dared to take a look back at my own journey. It’s almost three years since I made that dizzying decision to take the leap, so has it turned out to be what I hoped? Have I accomplished what I set out to do? Here’s the truth…

I have not secured a publishing deal (yet). There I said it. In my first year here, I completed a book, received excellent feedback from publishers with plenty of interest, but no deal. It was a hard truth to swallow at the time.

Now I can  see the benefits. That may seem like a ‘yeah right, she’s just saying that to save face’ kind of thing to say, but it’s true. Of course, a book deal would have been amazing – and I still have complete faith in that book – but along the way I learned a hell of a lot about myself as a writer, the world of publishing, my writing habits and my stamina.

Thankfully, part of that learning curve involved a deletion of the arrogance that initially fuelled me, and I also figured out pretty quickly that weeping into my porridge wasn’t going to get me anywhere.

So I went away and wrote another book, a couple more 50-60K first drafts, a series of poems/short stories/flash pieces, and a couple of picture books. Far from dampening my spirits, the failure only made me more determined, and now, as my next book goes on submission, (it’s taken another two years to get here) I feel a certain amount of peace knowing that

1) the chance for publication is once again close and

2) if it doesn’t make it this time, I have another book in me. And another, until I achieve my dream.

Irish sunsets, West Cork

Clouds really do have silver linings!

I know it’s possible and over the last couple of years I’ve seen some wonderful friends (both real life and online) go through similar emotional rollercoasters and eventually secure book deals – Laura J Cassidy, Louise Phillips, Susan Lanigan, Maria DuffyHazel Gaynor (to name but a few).

From the bottom of my heart, I couldn’t be more delighted for them and every time I hear of another signing, my heart leaps for joy. Because they deserve it, because it makes it all real and tangible.

So what does all this have to do with Pauline? Simple: I’m delighted to have met yet another intriguing, vivacious and gutsy person, someone who understands what it’s like to want something so badly that they’re willing to take risks. It’s always a joy to meet someone that reminds you of why you’re here and how far you’ve come; that although the end goal is what you’re aiming for, it’s the whole journey that counts.

If, like me, you’re still chasing your dream, keep chasing. I believe with enough dedication to your craft, determination to improve and a little bit of luck, you’ll get there. Enjoy the journey – it’s going to be wonderful.

Writers write, don’t they?

seagulls and fishing

I took this action shot out fishing a couple of weeks ago. I get a real kick out of watching them feed as we gut the day’s catch and share our feed with some feathered friends

To be a writer you have to write, that is true, but I believe that you also have to live life to the fullest to be able to write well. That means looking after your health and mental health, stimulating your curiosity and experiencing new things. You also have to make sure you have enough time out to let the ideas, characters and stories in your brain settle. Like Helen Moorhouse wrote recently, perhaps you don’t need to be writing to write!

This is a concept that I’ve struggled to come to terms with. When I gave up my city job to pursue a writing career a couple of years ago, I thought I had to sit at my desk for eight hours every day, slogging away no matter what the outcome. True, some writers do work like this, but for me, it’s not productive.

It’s taken some time to figure out and lots of jiggling and reworking of schedules, but I’ve found that after a certain amount of time, my writing suffers and my ideas channel themselves down one dull, lonely path.

Like Niamh Boyce and many others, I’m an intuitive writer, so I write a ‘draft zero’ without any planning and see where the characters and story lead me. I often have a name or a feeling, a sense of what a character is experiencing in my mind, but other than that, it’s a free for all. And sitting there for eight hours in a day does not work if you write this way.

Sometimes I get a powerful writing bug and my bum-glue seems more adhesive than usual – I can certainly edit/redraft for long periods of time –  but when I’m starting a new project, I tend to write in bursts. An hour here, half hour there, two hours later. I split the writing up over the day (especially in winter when the nights are long) and let my brain unwind and tick over in between.

autumn in ireland

Sometimes I’ll be helping with hay bales, sometimes I’ll be taking walks and admiring the newly cut silage or painting big X’s on the wrapper to deter the crows.

I take walks, swim, garden, cook, read, watch films and documentaries, I go fishing or meet up with friends for tea, then start all over again. This means that each time I sit down, my brain is recharged, my body energised and it’s like I’m writing for the first time that day.

I do work as well – part time in a bookshop and part time with my own social media business – and these provide a good distraction, balancing out the hours spent alone at a computer. Work makes me appreciate all the free time I have to write, but I still dream of the day when I can just write.

I attempt to take days off from both writing and work to fully recharge, but I find this extremely difficult to do and if I don’t elope from the village for the day then I’ll find myself doing one or the other (usually both).

So what’s this post all about? I guess it’s two things. Firstly – it’s OK not to be writing sometimes and secondly – we all have to find a way to write that works for us.

I’m always interested in the writing process and how other writers handle their work/life balance, how they keep motivated and get the best possible results. Does any of the above sound familiar to you or do you work completely differently? Are you an eight hours a day person or a short bursts devotee? I’d love to hear all about it.