Blood Orange was my first published novel. It was not, however, my first completed manuscript. I started writing back in 2009, beginning with a short story about a man who deliberately killed the tree that he and his wife had planted in memory of their dead son. Its hold on her was too great, so he gouged at its roots and poured in salt. Thinking about it, it wasn’t a bad story, although I had no idea how to present it on the page. Despite years of reading, and a degree in English, I couldn’t work out how to present dialogue. And at barely two thousand words, it gave me no confidence that I could complete a longer narrative.
My next (and last) short story gave me a little more encouragement. I was very proud of the first line, ‘It was the twelfth of August, and the grouse were preparing to die.’ Sadly, no one else appreciated that genius, nor did the rest of the story live up to it in any way. But at five thousand words, it showed I could go on for longer (even if the story didn’t warrant it).
By this stage I had applied for a well-known writing course, and been rejected. It was my first taste of rejection, and I didn’t like it. That was game over, as far as I was concerned. Until I spoke to a friend who made the observation that other writing courses were also available. It might sound like obvious advice, but at the time it struck me as an epiphany. I’d been very blinkered in my thinking, convinced that there was only one route for me, which way was now barred. But at that point I did some more research and applied to an evening course at City University.
This course was well taught. We learnt about the mechanics of how to present the text, about characterisation, about story arc, about how to outline an idea from the start. At the end of the course, we had a showcase, which gave us the opportunity to read a short extract of our work to an audience which included some agents. The manuscript on which I embarked was called Motherland (yes, I got there first). It was a feminist dystopia that looked at ways of controlling pregnancy and it involved an incestuous relationship (very tastefully done). And it wasn’t very good. Not in its entirety. But the beginning was strong and some agents were briefly interested. This was my first taste of the dopamine hit that comes from receiving a positive email from an agent.
It was also my first taste of waiting for replies, the first few weeks so fraught with promise, when nothing is yet impossible, the veering from fraught optimism to abject despair, as I refreshed my inbox over and over again. And finally, by the end of that summer, it was my first proper experience of sustained agent rejection. ‘Loved the premise, but not for me’ a common refrain.
I had the hunger now, though. A bit like gambling. That beautiful moment when you throw the dice, when you buy the lottery ticket. But instead of planning my fantasy home, my private jet, I wanted to hit send on a submission, and dream about what my life might be like as a writer represented by Curtis Brown. That wasn’t going to happen via Motherland, though. I rolled up my sleeves and started again.
The next manuscript I wrote was called Three for a Girl. The title bore no relation to the text, but as this was now 2013, titular 'Girls' were beginning to make their presence felt, and I didn’t want my psychological thriller to fall at this first hurdle. I worked on this with a mentor, producing some ten thousand words a month until it was complete. Or as complete as I could make it. It had two timelines, a Then and a Now, and I merrily juxtaposed them at will, making full use of the functions provided by the writing programme Scrivener to move blocks of text around with gay abandon. I thought this approach would add tension and suspense. Sadly, agents didn’t agree.
But I got my dopamine hits again. I got the anticipatory buzz from sending the manuscript out, dreaming of my future as a writer with an agent, the thrill of refreshing my inbox, each click on 'Get New Mail' redolent with future promise. Sure, there were downs, rejections first in the tens, then the twenties, the thirties, but there were also flashes of joy which made the process worthwhile, requests for the full manuscript arriving at unexpected moments. And sure, in the end, these requests all ended up as rejections. But the rejections were getting better every time, not just standard responses, but personalised, complimentary. Helpful, too, with feedback on which I could act.
There was no getting around it, though. Three for a Girl was a busted flush, as unwanted as Motherland. I needed to start again. So I signed up for another course.
It was 2014. We went round the room saying what our ideas were for our novels. I said that I had this idea about a psychological thriller involving a barrister whose life was very complicated. The teacher looked unimpressed, as did the rest of the room. I parked the idea there and then, starting a manuscript about climate change and cannibalism instead. Literary in conceit, it was as depressing as it sounds, though it did touch on some of my perennial themes of motherhood and coercive relationships. The teacher didn’t like me or my work and the whole process was very depressing. No dopamine hits at all… (I am glad to hear The Novelry is averse to peer-based review of work at first draft.)
It was over. I hated what I was writing, and the course had descended into chaos where some students were on the cusp of revolt against the course provider and others were fixated on the psychodrama that was playing out as one student dumped their spouse unceremoniously, pledging undying love for another student in our cohort who was somewhat nonplussed by the whole thing. There was a lot of rage and angst, not all of it mine, and I think it will make a fine novel one day. But at the time, it felt like I’d come to the end.
There is a method of story structure outlined in a screenwriting book called Save the Cat. (An approach included in those recommended in the new Plot Workshop for members at The Novelry.)
Very near the end of a movie, there should be two scenes, the first All Is Lost, the second, the Long Dark Night of the Soul. I lay awake one night until dawn. This had been meant to be my chance finally to get an agent, but my final throw of the dice had failed. The course I took was a shambles, and I wanted nothing to do with what I was writing. Should I just give up?
But the draw was too great. I’d come too far. Surely, I should give it one more go? I looked at the website for the University of East Anglia. They had a new MA in creative writing on offer, one specialising in crime fiction. I put my application in there and then, dropping out of the disaster course with a huge sense of relief.
I started that MA in the autumn of 2015. The idea of a book about a barrister who was a hot mess met with approbation. The teachers liked my work, smiled at me, gave me encouragement. My confidence regrew as the words built up in the manuscript. I put aside thoughts of all the words I’d written before that had led to nothing – it was all practice, none of it wasted, even if it hadn’t led to publication. I wasn’t going to be put off. What’s the book about, a friend asked. I told him. What’s it called? Long Shadows, I said. The way the past casts a pall over the future. He looked at me blankly. I’ve got a better idea, he said. Blood Orange.
It was the mentality of a gambler that drove me, the lure of the dopamine hit from receiving positive feedback for a piece of work, a request from an agent for a full manuscript. After each rejection, I’d swear off writing, say I wouldn’t bother anymore. But every time, I’d get back to it the next day, nursing the hangover that inevitably accompanied the disappointment. But where it would be wiser to walk away from the roulette wheel, that one last throw a one-way route to ruin, in this enterprise there is no last chance.
Halfway through the MA, I received the final agent rejection. There was an opportunity for a scholarship. Anyone on the course who was unrepresented could submit the first ten thousand words of their work in progress to the agency David Higham Associates. I thought I might win. For weeks after submitting my application it was Schrödinger’s Scholarship; mine and not mine. As the day of the announcement approached, tensions grew, the whole cohort more and more fevered in their anticipation. By now I’d spent the scholarship money mentally a thousand times over, and perfected my acceptance speech.
Hubris is a dangerous thing. I did not win the scholarship. I downed a bottle of wine and kicked several trees, swearing that I wouldn’t write again, that it was all over. Even when I got back to it, deciding to change everything I’d written so far from third person to first, my heart wasn’t in it. I’d been so sure, but it was another failure. Perhaps I should give up. But over time, I started to feel better. I reminded myself there would be other chances, different agencies. I just had to finish the damn book.
And three weeks later, I received an email from an agent at David Higham. Veronique Baxter. She’d read what I’d sent, loved it. Would I like to meet? I was pretty much straight out of the bath and over to the offices within seconds of reading it. But I restrained myself. ‘That would be great,’ I replied. By this stage, I had been trying to get an agent for about seven years. The week before I met her dragged for what felt like as long. But finally, we did meet. Within two hours I had an agent.
I had spent so long focused on getting representation that I hadn’t thought at all about what would happen next. Being able to say I had the agent, that my writing had a level of validation – that had been the sole end. So it came as rather a shock when Veronique said that the manuscript was ready to be sent out to publishers. It had taken nearly seven years to get representation, it took a further seven months to finish the final draft of Blood Orange. It took ten days for Wildfire, an imprint at Headline, to make a pre-emptive offer.
It didn’t take long at all for me to say yes.
Within two years, Blood Orange was published, in February 2019. It’s done a lot better than I ever hoped it might. My second novel, The Lies You Told, was published in August of this year. I still can’t believe it’s all happened (and nearly didn’t, but The Difficult Second Novel is a blog post all of its own).
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that each new manuscript is a speculative punt, rich with possibility. It’s only over if you stop writing. I’m glad I didn’t. It’s always worth another go.
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