It is said that everyone has a book in them, and I tend to agree with that sentiment in the sense that everyone has an interesting life story to tell.
Given a quiet room, a laptop and a few thousand hours of solitude, I think pretty much everyone could produce something compelling, or at least interesting.
Then, there are other people (who we shall call ‘writers’) who have several books in them. To be a writer of fiction means that, at some point (or perhaps from the beginning) you must go beyond your own life as a source of inspiration for your novel.
But what book should you write?
This is a question with which I’m struggling. I have recently finished a manuscript, re-drafted it and am now in the process of sending it out to agents – a process that moves with glacial pace.
I know the best way of making the time move more quickly is to move onto the next project. But what is that project going to be?
For my first three manuscripts I have write the stories that I thought I wanted to read and thought I could write. Using the old ‘write what you know’ I mined my own life and experience of motherhood and of loss.
But, to an extent, I also wrote the kind of manuscript I thought I should write. The first was super-serious and rather depressing, the second was less-so and the third was less-so again.
It would be easy to write-off those first two manuscripts as failures. After all, they haven’t been published.
But I don’t see it that way.
I see those books as being critical learning experiences that have made me a better writer and helped me discover my natural voice. Each one has been an improvement on the one before.
And while I have learned a lot about the process of writing, I’ve also learned the importance of beginning with a great idea and getting the point of view right. In other words – getting right the big decisions at the start.
But how do you do that?
Agents always say it’s pretty simple – they are looking for a good story, told well. But it’s clearly a little more complicated than that.
Clearly there are trends in publishing. The tricky (almost impossible) part is in writing for them. Firstly, there is the fact that many trends are over by the time you’ve finished the work. Secondly, writing a book takes huge amounts of passion and perseverance that can’t be faked. There is no point in me trying to write sci-fi because I simply don’t have the passion for it.
All of that said, I do want to be strategic about what I write next because I want to give my manuscript a fighting chance. Unless you are writing potential prize-winning literary fiction (which I am not) a manuscript has to make commercial sense to a publisher. It has to be marketable. It has to be comparable to something else, but distinct enough to make it stand-out.
Recently, I discovered a fantastic website – ManuscriptWishList.com – which, as the title suggests, is a compilation of American literary agents along with lists of manuscripts they want to see. The twitter handle, where agents put ‘wishes’ on-line (#MSWL) is equally fascinating.
The word I see popping up all the time is ‘diversity’. While the advancement of previously unheard or marginalised voices is clearly a terrific step forward for publishing (and society in general), it presents somewhat of a problem for me. I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman. I have had a privileged life and without getting into Lionel Shriver territory, I feel uncomfortable about trying to appropriate the voice of minorities. The other ‘trend’ I’ve observed is one generally towards ‘dark’ fiction – thrillers, suspense, horror. Perhaps it is to do with the post-GFC, terror-addled times in which we live. ‘Chick-lit’ just doesn’t seem right in such a bleak environment. Again, a slight issue for me as I tend to love stories that blend light AND shade.
Recently, I re-read ‘Ballet Shoes’, by Noel Streatfeild – a book I absolutely adored as a child. To my utter delight, the words were like old friends and we picked up exactly where we left off.
Despite a few anachronisms, the book (written in 1936) still holds up well today, mainly because its protagonists – Pauline, Petrova and Posy – are all about self-determination and succeeding on their own merits. Streatfeild’s heroines are women ahead of their times.
As a child, all of that was a bit over my head. I just loved all the talk about dancing at the Academy and performing in Richard the Third and dressing in Organdie dresses and earning two pounds per week.
If I had my own manuscript wish list, it would be to write an adult book that’s set in the world of dance. It would be funny and dark and set in Paris and include a dash of romance as well. That is the book I want to read.
I’m just hoping others do too.