These days, I think a lot about my writing. Through meeting several inspirational people through connecting in NaNoWriMo communities to talking more openly about pursuing a career of writing in daily life, the topic of wanting to be a published author and trying to improve my stories is a constant one. I am also a new fan of ‘The Bestseller Experiment’ podcast – and am clearly late to it, as I’m only on episode 24 out of 124+ already existing episodes. Still, I love the podcast, I love the guest speakers, and most of all find it incredibly inspiring and useful.
What the podcast also makes me do is look back at my writing ‘career’, if you can even call it that, so far. Even in Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’, he discusses several events in his childhood that made him the writer that he is today. For him that was being sick and picking up comics and watching horror movies, and for me it was writing plays that heavily plagiarised Scooby Doo episodes, writing a ‘novel’ about my crush when I was a mere eight years old, and of course reading wonderful books such as the literary marvel ‘Judy Moody’.
Flash forward a few years, and we reach seventeen year old Eleanor who knows that being an author is something she really, really, really wants to do. And what follows is several months of my life which for a long time have made me want to curl up and hide away in embarrassment from the world. Although I still want to do that, I do also see that this was extremely important for the writer I am today. (And it makes for a good blog post.)
So by the time I was seventeen going on eighteen, I had spent years writing. I had evolved from scripts about young kids and a golden retriever solving crimes and tragic love stories about my eight-year-old self’s crush into writing the fiction that I loved to read. There was always a fantasy element, an element that I never talked about to other people because seventeen year old me was so self-conscious and worried about what others thought that she believed they’d think her lame if she said she liked reading fantasy. So despite seventeen year old me having written many many many many pages of various fantasy novels, some with vampires as an homage to Twilight and some with werewolves as yet another homage to Twilight, I decided to write something different in a genre that I didn’t ever read: contemporary, young adult fiction.
The concept was this: we’re in a high school (because every book I read about teenagers was set in America and they all went to high school, not secondary school) and there is a dorky girl who likes the boy who lives next door. Now, I know what you’re thinking – what genius concepts did seventeen year old Eleanor conjure. Such brilliance, such originality – I’ve heard it all. This wonderful little novel – which I think didn’t even reach 40,000 words – was called ‘Fizzy’, because the main girl’s hair was frizzy and someone once calls it ‘fizzy’. Again, I know, sheer brilliance.
What seventeen year old Eleanor did not understand, is that you can’t bash out a novel in a few months and not read over it again. Younger me thought the book was done as soon as I wrote ‘the end’. And so began the embarrassing part – I sent this piece of ‘literature’ out into the world to agents who are real, who exist, and some of who actually replied. I sincerely hope future me does not have to speak to an agent who read ‘Fizzy’, because I know that I will either faint, be sick, or run away screaming.
As you may have guessed, I received a lot of rejections. What I know now is that seventeen year old me was not ready for the world of agents and publishing – because seventeen year old me could barely think about receiving dislike over what genre she liked to read, so could certainly not take any kind of criticism well. There were plenty of ‘no, but thanks’ messages, a few plain ‘hell no’ emails, a couple of ‘there could be something but no’ notes, and then there were two emails that I remember incredibly well. And it’s these two emails from agents that I wish I could track down, so I could send them another email to thank them – except I will not do that at all, because the thought of letting ‘Fizzy’ resurface in my life is one I don’t want to entertain for even a moment.
One of these emails, my second favourite looking back, was from an American agent. She actually asked me for the whole manuscript. This was the moment when I was picturing book deals, red carpets, and lavish parties, but of course didn’t end in anything of the sort. The reason I remember this is not only because it was one of the best moments, and emails, ever, but because it was a moment that gave me hope that writing was something I could do. It was the first time I’d had positive feedback about my creative writing that wasn’t from a friend or family member. No, it didn’t end the way I wanted, but it was a boost that seventeen year old me really needed.
The second email, the one that I am the most grateful for even though it’s the one that seventeen year old me hated the most, was from an agent who actually wrote back to me with feedback. It wasn’t just a ‘no’, but a ‘no, and here is why’. Younger me thought it was a bit much, seeing it as a ‘no, and now I’m going to tear your creation to shreds’, whereas I can now look back and think actually, he was absolutely right. He told me that he felt my main characters, although they said they were seventeen, felt much younger. He also told me that the book was far too short in word count to be a piece of young adult fiction, and that it would need a lot of reworking. He told me that he thought I had a nice voice coming through in the work and he could see some good elements, but overall it wasn’t for him but I should keep trying.
At the time, all I saw was the no and the criticism. I definitely cried over that email. This is why seventeen year old me was not ready to be a committed writer – because then, and even now a lot of the time, I could not take any kind of negative feedback. Here was an agent who had read my first three chapters and had taken the time to write back with constructive, useful feedback, and I was an utter wreck. When I hear about authors with their grand journeys to published glory, nowhere did I see any mention of a failed novel attempt that was so shameful they never mentioned it. Of course now we all know the many times authors get rejected, especially with the classic go-to rejection story of J.K Rowling with her Harry Potter series. But back then following the disaster of ‘Fizzy’, I thought my life was over. I thought my first draft of a book that wasn’t even in a genre that I liked to read with some pretty one dimensional characters and lack-lustre plot, would do well. Or, at least, do better than it did.
The experience as a whole taught me a lot. I of course now know that one draft does not a novel make – nor does 33k words. I know that writing ‘the end’ does not actually mean you’ve reached the end. I know that I should write what I enjoy, and that if someone gives me grief for a genre I like, then they aren’t someone I want to be around. I know that when someone writes to you and gives you feedback, you need to take a deep breath, detach yourself from this work you have created, and take the advice to heart. Writing isn’t easy, especially when you’re seventeen. But if I’d taken that feedback and worked with it and moved on instead of sulking around for several months and vowing vengeance on various agents, ‘Fizzy’ might have become something that I felt proud of.
Everyone has to start somewhere. For me, that start was terrible mystery-solving plays, not-quite-so-epic love stories, and a terrible little book called ‘Fizzy’. At the very least, I know it can only get better from here.