Sunday, 22 July 2012

Aurora: Rejection is a challenge

As promised, this week's post will be all about my first attempt at getting a novel published. I've been very open about the existence of my rejected first novel, but I've never really told the whole story. I've been surprised by the amount of interest people have shown in Aurora, even asking if I can self-publish it as an eBook. I hope this post will explain why I don't want to do that.   

First, I just want to clarify that this isn't intended as a sob story. Countless writers go through the draining process of rejection. I haven't gone through the years, sometimes the decades of struggling to get published that many writers go through. I'm telling this story because [a] I've been asked to tell it and [b] because I hope it will give aspiring writers some hope that it isn't always "first time lucky"; sometimes you just have to scrap and try again. Aurora's rejection eventually made me much stronger as a person and as a writer. It made me appreciate it all the more when The Bone Season was accepted by an agent. I look back on it not as a waste of four years, but as a stepping stone. It gave me a lot of strong concepts for The Bone Season, and when it didn't work out, it helped me rethink my direction as a writer and gave me the confidence to try something new.

I got the first spark for Aurora when I was about fifteen years old. My passion at the time was for sci-fi: Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, John Wyndham and so on. I was struck my how much leeway for creativity it offered. New worlds, new theories, new ideas. With near-unbreakable optimism, I took on the task of writing a "romantic sci-fi epic". The trilogy I designed was written for a YA audience, and was intended to make sci-fi more attractive to young people, particularly young women. It followed an eighteen year-old female protagonist, who happens upon a wounded but devilishly-attractive alien and goes on a quest with him to find his eight lost companions. There are various different versions in my computer, the last few being attempts to make the novel darker; the first was much more light-hearted. The protagonist of the first version was insanely world-weary for her age (my beta reader for Aurora said she thought she was in her thirties when they first started reading), while the second version was much more fragile and dependent on her love interest. Looking back, I really don't like either of them.

In 2007 I was preparing for my GCSEs. I got to work on the planning the novel during that year. I planned it between classes in my notebook. Many of my friends knew I was writing it. I loved that they were interested maybe writing was something I could do and soon set about creating characters who resembled them. I wanted to create an adventure we could all share. I filled a notebook with draft scenes and character profiles. I remember opening a Word document a few months later and staring at the blank page, with my notes in my hands and a head full of ideas, and wondering how I was ever going to express it all.

Aurora was told in third person from multiple perspectives. I typed every day, as soon as I was home from school, sometimes before I left in the morning. I typed all through the night. I only went out rarely, and that was with a lot of coercion. I'd discovered my passion for writing stories, a fire that wouldn't go out. You know the drill after that; I've spoken about it in previous blogs. I was exhausted, I was ill, my mum was beside herself with worry. Writing it was still a bitty process, broken up by school, homework, my weekend job and so on, but a day didn't go by when I didn't do some work on it, whether it was planning it or writing out a chapter. I worked on other projects alongside it, but Aurora was my primary focus.  

But I had a vision. I was going to publish. I looked up the proper way to present a manuscript  font size, margin width, everything was perfect  and printed off several copies of the first three chapters. I wrote up a synopsis and drafted a series of letters to agencies around London. I went out on foot and delivered the first few manuscripts by hand, hoping to impress the agents with my dedication and drive. I sent queries. I sent more manuscripts out, this time in A4 brown paper envelopes. I spent a small fortune on stamps, envelopes, paper clips and white labels. I spent £45 printing off the entire MS in case an agent wanted to see the whole thing.  

And then the rejections started to roll in. Not right for our books, not quite what we're looking for. I wasn't put off. "The Help was rejected forty-five times," I would say when people asked, "and now that's being made into a film". I didn't get forty-five rejections in the end, because I didn't send out forty-five queries. But I started to get worried after I'd sent out about 20. I ended up with a total of ten standard rejection letters. The others got no reply. It wasn't many, in the grand scheme of things – writers can rack up hundreds – but it was still emotionally draining.

That was when I saw a light: David Godwin, one of the agents I'd written to after he was recommended to me by someone who knew him. A real live breathing agent was going to look at my manuscript and give me some feedback – human feedback, not just a slip of paper. I emailed him the manuscript and zipped up to London in a puff of smoke. That was my first time in Seven Dials. I was ready to spout all my plans to David, all my designs for the sequels, all my thoughts about marketing the worksDavid was lovely about the manuscript; he said he'd read the novel and enjoyed it. He promised he'd pass it onto Kirsty, the YA representative at DGA. I was walking on sunshine all the way home. It wasn't a "yes", but it wasn't a "no".

I got the red card from David a few days later. He couldn't represent Aurora. He thought the writing had potential, but he was unfamiliar with the genre and felt he wasn't the right person to properly critique it. When I checked DGA's website, I noticed something I'd missed before. DGA didn't represent science fiction. My chance for proper feedback had slipped through my fingers. It was back to the drawing board – and, for Aurora, back to the bottom of the slush pile. Desperate, I leafed through the pages of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, determined to find an agency that specialised in science fiction. By this point, however, my morale was low. I was making myself sick with nerves every time I sent out a new query, knowing I was going to be stonewalled.

I remember the exact day I realised Aurora had to be shelved for good. My flame for the book had long since started to die out, but I couldn't bring myself to let go of it. In February 2011, however, the teen sci-fi novel I Am Number Four was made into a film. The teaser trailer was released in September 2010. I hadn't heard of the novel before the trailer appeared, and although Aurora didn't have the most original plotline, I was devastated to hear that somebody had published a story so similar to mine (the similarities were unnerving: nine exiled aliens, the alien-human love story). I was already distraught, and on that night, I came to the conclusion that Aurora had been a failed project. I'd wasted years of my life writing a novel that no-one wanted. I burst into tears. I carried on for a few weeks, but my passion for the book was gone. I packed away the manuscript I'd printed and shoved it into a cardboard box. It was only self-control that stopped me blasting all evidence of it. I just wanted to pretend it hadn't happened. Now everyone would know that I'd been rejected, that I'd failed. I packed the box away and buried the files in my computer, out of sight. 

A few months passed. I'd been used to writing every night; there was an empty space in my evenings. I returned to some old writing projects and entered a few short story competitions, but my enthusiasm had taken a beating. I wasn't sure I was brave enough to try another novel. Early in 2011, though, I started playing with a vague plan for a brand-new story called Luna Moth, which would explore a topic I'd become interested in: dreams, prompted by reading an Old English dream-vision. I'd read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and fallen in love with it, and I thought it might be interesting to try out a dystopia that incorporated dream theory. I roughed a few chapters with a first-person narrator, a dissident in an Oxford controlled by a supernatural race, but something felt wrong. I had something, but the fantasy elements weren't quite clicking with the setting. My ideas were all over the place, not quite taking form, and my progress, consequently, was slow. I turned my focus to my Prelims, the exams I'd have to pass to stay at uni for another two years. I did my internship with David that summer after asking if he had any room for a temporary assistant, which, fortunately, he did. I thought about self-publishing Aurora a few times, given that I still had the manuscript, but that route didn't appeal to me. My passion for Aurora was stone-cold dead, and in any case, I didn't have the money or time needed to publish and promote the book effectively on my own. But after working in DGA for a while, I realised how much I loved Seven Dials, the junction in London where the agency was based, and I wondered if I could do something with it. I'd always been a London girl, but discovering that junction was like finding buried treasure. It gave me a burst of confidence and inspiration. The New Age shops in the area made me wonder what London would be like if it was inhabited by a secret society of clairvoyants, a concept that intrigued me to the point that it was all I'd think about during my lunch breaks and when I got home.

And then it hit me: a vivid image of a clairvoyant girl, in another Seven Dials, in the not-too-distant future. Paige Mahoney. The unifying fantasy element, the kernel I needed to create the world, was that single word that came to me: clairvoyance. I saw Scion in my mind. I saw Monmouth Street with blue lights, humming with colour. I couldn't help but start scribbling notes for what would soon become the draft chapters of The Bone Season. And, as you all know, I eventually succumbed. I wrote the whole book – this time as an intensely personal, private project, letting my imagination run wild in its own playground. It is, to this day, the best decision I've ever made.    

So that's the story of Aurora. Although its rejection was devastating when I was in my teens, I'm now very glad that it was never picked up by a publisher. It wasn't a particularly unique story and it had far too many external influences. I've thought about the mistakes I made, and I've come up with a short list of things that killed it. Remember, these apply only to me  other authors may have done these things and been perfectly successful but they're worth thinking about. 



1. I wrote in response to a popular genre. In other words, I was trying too hard. I knew paranormal romance was popular, so I wrote one. I tried to squeeze my story into the parameters of a popular genre, complete with a broody hero and a girl that falls in love with him in the blink of an eye, despite the obvious risks (and, naturally, a hero that tries to push her away for her own safety)    

2. The characters resembled people I knew. It's fine to use characters in your novel that are inspired by people in real life. You might even do it subconsciously, using their quirks or flaws to create a realistic individual. But after writing Aurora for a while, I realised that the other characters, many of whom were modelled on real people, were starting to interact with the protagonist the way my friends interacted with me. This steadily turned the heroine into a parallel version of myself. G. K. Chesterton said some golden words on the subject: "A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author"

3. I used purple prose. And boy, did I use a lot of it. I was certain that being a good writer meant I had to use lots of flowery description, convoluted sentences and interesting metaphors. The novel was stuffed full of them. Every sunset had to be described in at least 20 words. Every small movement made by a character, like turning round or sitting up in bed, was worthy of a few sentences. I've since learned that the modern style favoured by most writers is much more economical. I should write what happens and convey it. I should leave the rest to the reader's imagination, because that's what reading is all about: imagination.

4. I wrote from too many perspectives. Some authors can do this very well. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of changes in perspective, which gives the story its incredible breadth. But for me, the third-person multi-perspective style just didn't work. I couldn't properly balance the four characters and make each of their voices unique. I needed to write in first-person to create symbiosis with my narrator.  The only way for me to connect with Paige, my new protagonist, was to speak with her voice. 

I really hope this post has been helpful, and that it's satisfied any curiosity you might have had about Aurora. Questions welcome for next week. 

PS: If you want to see me looking a bit like a Star Wars character, check today's You magazine with the Mail on Sunday. The 'Go for Gold' Olympic special. Page 26. My own grandmother didn't recognise me. 

14 comments:

  1. This is very helpful to an aspiring novelist!

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  2. Fabulous post :) Thanks so much for writing it!

    Does You magazine have a digital Go for Gold edition? I did google it, but no luck.

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    1. It's here http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-2175991/Meet-talent-GB-The-rising-gold-stars-song-screen-fashion-food-.html :)

      I look absolutely nothing like myself, but they have their vision of how they want the shoot to go. They were trying to give me a 'sci-fi' look...

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    2. Thanks so much for the link :) You're working that gold! It's incredible how different you look. I can see why your grandmother had trouble :)

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  3. Hello Samantha, your posts are very interesting too read and I hope you will continue writing them.
    I have two questions, which I wanna ask you. There the are:
    -How do your writing session looks? Do you make a plan what will gonna happen in chapter you will start to write and you
    have planed whole book, or you are more unpredictable and you write all by your inspiration wtihout any plans.
    -You were writing here a lot about making your novels "darker" and I'm interested how you do that. Do you go through
    whole novel and change some parts or you do something else and of course what do you change.
    P.S.: I hope for Slovenian version of your book too ;)

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    1. I'll answer these in my first August blog, thanks for asking them!

      I haven't been approached by Slovenia for rights yet but hopefully soon ;)

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  4. Hey, Samantha! Been following the blog since I first found it a couple weeks ago. Great stuff so far, and congrats on The Bone Season. It's genuinely remarkable to be so young and achieve such a thing.

    I was just wondering about your writing routine. Do you write every day? Do you shoot for a certain number of words, or a certain number of hours, or do you just sit down when you feel like it? Do you work better early in the morning or late at night? And how close is that writing routine to the routine that you would ideally like to have?

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    1. Thank you! I'm so glad you're enjoying it. I've answered your questions in my new blog entry.

      Samantha

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  5. I ended up shelving (for the time being) my second novel because Joanne Trollope released an almost identical one just as I sent mine off to an editor. As it turned out, mine was terrible, but oh well.

    410 days seems like a long way away...

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    1. I feel the same now I look back on Aurora. I haven't read 'I Am Number Four' but it was probably better . . .

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  6. You said you listened to the Underworld track from the Opening Ceremony, do you often listen to music when you write? Does it have to match the rhythm or the style you're writing in and does it impact your actual writing? I'm not seeking advice, it's just some writers find it blocks them up, but some get a great deal of inspiration from it. It's just an interesting merging of the two mediums...

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    1. I'll answer this in the next blog, good question!

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  7. Just because no one wanted to publish it doesn't mean no one wants to read it! Publishers and fans are two separate species. Fans are loyal and love their authors! Publishers just want their wallets fattened. I'd love to read more of your writing while waiting (very impatiently) for The Mime Order and I'm sure thousands of others would too! If Aurora's left shelved, at least speak the threnody.

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