Sunday, 13 March 2016

Marching On Without My Shimmy

ABBA-wise, this is my new year. That is, it’s the second anniversary of my monthly blog posts, and March has come to feel a bit stock-takingy and back-lookingy.

This time two years ago, for my very first post, I was new-fangled with having left the day job, with a work-in-progress (Still Falling) set for publication the following year. It was scary getting used to a portfolio of small income streams after nineteen years of a ‘real’ job, but I was up for the challenge.

March 2015. The mood was even more buoyant: I’d just had two book launches for Still Falling, and was busy and upbeat. I was solvent, enjoying tutoring at Arvon, and looking forward to being a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, a role I felt confident and enthusiastic about. And most importantly, I had a contract for another novel, Name Upon Name.

A year on?

I’m still solvent, thanks largely to that Royal Literary Fund Fellowship, which, as I expected, I really enjoy. Name Upon Name came out in August and has just gone into a third printing. Both it and Still Falling received excellent reviews, and I can look back on 2015 as a busy, fulfilling year.

I still love tutoring at Arvon, and I’m still busy with workshops, running a young writers’ network, and lots of school and library visits. I’m typing this in a gorgeous hotel in Dun Laoghaire, where I've just done a YA Masterclass event with fellow writers and all-round-superstars Deirdre Sullivan, Sarah Crossan and Dave Rudden. It was the kind of event that reminds you why you love writing and talking about writing. I’ve just returned from visiting all the libraries in County Wexford. Last week I visited five Waterford schools who’ve read Name Upon Name as part of a One Book, One Community project. Next month I’m off to Clare to judge a county-wide writing competition based on Name Upon Name. Of course I’m proud and thrilled to have my novel chosen for these ventures.

I mentor several young writers, who are delightful, appreciative and improving all the time, and I get great satisfaction from that, not least because of how much I benefited from that kind of support when I was starting out.

I’ve written six short stories, which are all out  in the world taking their chances in competitions. As I blogged here three months ago, I loved reconnecting with this genre. And out of the stories came an idea for an adult historical novel I really want to write.

I should be happy. So why, in this stock-take, am I feeling mainly discontented and pessimistic? (And, to be honest, rather shocked at having admitted that. Online. In public. I feel like Scarlett O'Hara when she says that Captain Butler 'looks as if he knows what I look like without my shimmy.')

It’s because, for the first time in a few years, I don’t have a book deal. I know I’m writing better than I used to, but as we all know, that’s no guarantee of success. I have a YA novel on submission; I’m excited about the adult project, but can I sustain the energy to keep it going with no guarantee that it will ever get out into the world?

Can I live on hope alone?

This week there’s been a rejection of one sort or another every single day. As I tell people on author visits, that’s part of the writing life. Which doesn’t make it easier to take. Being a writer means I have an overactive imagination and am given to doom-suspecting and worst-case-scenarios. 

I asked some writer pals what they felt about all of this, and am grateful for the honesty and wisdom of two lovely Emmas.
Emma Pass

‘One thing I've learned about the writing life is that it's a total rollercoaster,’ Emma Pass says. ‘I used to think that once I'd got that first novel published, life would be plain sailing, but it hasn't been! Two years ago, I had my debut novel, ACID, under my belt and my second novel, The Fearless, was about to come out. Things were going great! Fast forward to a year ago, and I'd left my agent (although we're still on good terms!) and was struggling to find the confidence to finish my WIP. Twelve months later, I have a wonderful new agent (Ella Kahn at DKW Literary), and The Fearless has just won the 2016 Concorde Book Award. The ups and downs are never easy to deal with, but accepting that they're going to happen does help a bit – and also helps you prepare for the next swoop of the roller coaster, whichever direction it might take you!’

YA thriller writer Emma Haughton (Now You See Me and Better Left Buried) agrees that the writing life is full of ups and downs:  ‘The toughest part of being an author is the part you least anticipate pre-publication – that, essentially, publishing is a lottery. Great stories languish through lack of attention, while other books are thrust into the spotlight for the flimsiest of reasons. Dealing with that, not succumbing to rage or misery, requires a great deal of fortitude. Being a writer is not for the faint hearted.’

I don’t want to be faint-hearted. My childhood reading, if nothing else, prepared me for better things. The heroines of my favourite books would have poured scorn on such feebleness. Noel Streatfeild’s characters would all ‘have made noises as if they were being sick.’ The Chalet School would have reminded me that it didn't educate its girls to be spineless jellyfish. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s redoubtable Ma would have said, ‘For shame, Sheena!’ 'This earthly life is a battle,' she once reminded Laura. ‘The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and more thankful for your pleasures.'

One of those pleasures is definitely the support of other writers who understand these ups and downs. And the other main one?

Easy. The writing. Telling the stories. Getting to know the characters. Building the worlds. Even if it is, at the moment, fuelled by nothing more than hope and self-belief. After all, that’s all I started with. That wonderful sense of having a secret with yourself, and the secret is your story. 

And maybe, like Gatsby, I can learn to ‘run faster, stretch [my] arms out further… Until one fine morning…’

And, to go back to Scarlett O'Hara, 'Tomorrow is another day.' 

Let’s see where we are next March.


Sue Purkiss said...

Tomorrow is indeed another day! You have lots of really good things happening - enjoy them! You may not have a contract at the moment, but your other books are doing really well, so it's most probably only a matter of time.

And I think sometimes we can forget that it's possible to feel down for no specific reason - just something in the air, or in the water. And it's easy to attribute that feeling to the ups and downs of the writing world, and to start to despair. But - it will pass. And my guess is that, in your case, it will pass quite soon - you have so many good things happening. Enjoy them, and enjoy the little moments too.

Here endeth the lesson!

Emma Barnes said...

Wise words, Sheena - I think we all recognise what you're going through in the up-and-down back-and-forth writer's life. And I love that your confidence boost comes from Ma Ingalls!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks, both of you! Wise words xxx

C.J.Busby said...

Oh, I can really relate to this! But you sound as if you are doing great things on the 'other' side of writing, the tutoring and school visits and mentoring side, which is, lets face it, the more lucrative bit of the job for those of us who aren't JK Rowling! And you still love the writing. Getting rejections is horrible and undermining - but it sounds as if you are doing all the right things. Good luck!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thanks! I'm now deep into the planning of a new book -- one I REALLY want to write -- and trying not to let thoughts of its fate interfere with the joy of making up.