The time I emailed agents when I was seventeen

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.


Pursuing the dream of writing

When I first set up this blog, its purpose was to serve as a platform on which I could share my stories. It could be a chapter of a book I was writing, a few scenes of an idea I liked – essentially anything that I was working on. I’ve always been terrible at sharing my creative writing work, and still am to this day, so ‘alwayslovetowrite’ became an exercise in letting go of my fear and hitting that upload button. Somehow, it was far easier to do – I could publish that piece online and then shut down my computer. Whilst I wanted people to like it, I wasn’t concerned by how many, or how few, actually read it or commented.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in primary school. I remember writing terrible plays, writing part-biography part-fiction stories about my life, and even once trying to write songs. One piece of advice I’ve heard countless times from authors is that you don’t need to be published to be a writer – the only way to become a writer is to write. In that way, I suppose I have always been a writer, but my dream has always to be a published one.

Every now and then I get the urge to write again – normally up to and surrounding November due to NaNoWriMo (if you don’t know about NaNo, check out my 2017 blog about it here). No surprise, last month I had a huge resurgence of energy and motivation to get back to writing, and ended up returning to the book I wrote over a year ago now. I loved the story idea and the various characters, but it definitely felt unpolished – even after I went through and edited it last year.

Before returning to it this time, however, I picked up On Writing by Stephen King. If anyone reading wants to be better at writing or is just interested in Stephen King and his writing history and process, I would highly recommend picking this one up. It starts with his ‘CV’, as he calls it – a section filled with episodes spanning his whole life that has made him the bestselling author he is today. Following this are his pieces of wisdom and advice on what is in his writing ‘toolbox’, and how to apply the various tools into creating a brilliant piece of written work. This is a book I’m sure I’ll go back to read again, if only for King’s engaging and entertaining writing style. It feels like you’re in an elusive writing masterclass with this author baring all of his writing secrets, and there are so many of his tips that I am now constantly using.

As I now work in publishing, there is so much I know about and yet still so much that I have no clue when it comes to getting published. Following successful authors on Twitter and Instagram is similarly helpful and not helpful at all, but it all helps to build a picture in my mind of what to aim for.

I won’t get published this year – most likely not even next year, or the year after that. But whilst I still love writing, and am proud of what I create (after many, many edits), I’m determined to keep trying. Who knows, maybe by the time I’m in my forties I’ll have a book that has my name on the cover which I can find in a bookshop. Maybe even a book that people have read and a few of those have liked. That’s the dream I’m pursuing.

Potty for Podcasts

Well, it’s been a while – two months, in fact, since I last wrote on this blog. I have a million excuses, ranging from inspiration to work to health, but excuses are boring, so let’s just get on with it.

As we all know by now, I want to be a writer. No, scratch that, if there’s one thing everyone says is that you have to stop saying ‘I want to be a writer’. So let’s rephrase: I want to be an author. More specifically, an author who is traditionally published and has a physical book out that generates some money. At this stage in my life, I’m not worried about being a full-time author – I very much adore my current job, and if I did somehow miraculously become published, I would want to keep my current job and write on the side.

There’s just one small problem with my pipe dream, and that is that I don’t give it enough attention. Sure, there are moments when I do so much writing I end the day feeling smug and accomplished (mainly during November when I participate in NaNoWriMo). But for most of the year, especially since starting my new job, I hardly ever write. It’s not that there aren’t any chances to write, but I seem to pick other things like reading, watching movies with my friends, going out socialising, and just plain ol’ relaxing, especially in the hot weather England has been having recently.

Once you get out of the practice of writing everyday, it’s difficult – or at least, it is for me – to get back into the habit. I love writing, I really do, but it’s got to the point where I just don’t prioritise it anymore.

Enter: podcasts.

The only podcast I listen to regularly is My Dad Wrote a Porno, and incredibly funny podcast that I’m sure many of you are aware of. My only issue is that, like with audiobooks, I don’t know when to actually listen to podcasts and audiobooks. I’m trying to get into running (if the crazy hot weather will actually let up for a moment so I don’t die trying), and I’ve found that listening to podcasts and audiobooks on a run works perfectly for me. I can’t listen on my commute (damn you noisy tubes), and I can’t listen as I work as I can’t concentrate on writing and listening to people speaking at the same time. This is why I haven’t been very good at keeping up with the podcast scene, and why I’m so late at discovering podcasts about writing.

Honestly, after listening to a couple of episodes from different podcasts all about writing, I felt the urge to grab up a pen and notepad or whip out my laptop to get back to writing. Whether it’s people talking about books, interviewing authors, discussing techniques – all of it I adore. In particular, I listened to The Bestseller ExperimentThe Riff Raff Podcast and The Honest Authors’ show. Listening to discussions on everything from the industry and what readers are looking for to general writer worries and efforts to get published is just so motivating for me. Listening to authors talk about how they struggle to fit writing in everyday, or listening to wannabe authors talk about juggling work and writing is reassuring and, strangely, uplifting. Here are other people going through the same thing I am, all of us with the same goals and dreams in mind, all navigating the world of writing and publishing – most of the time without really knowing what we’re doing.

I’d highly recommend looking into a podcast for whatever you’re interested in – be it book reviews and writing like I am, or not. Little episodes of thoughts and ideas from other people, all at your fingertips to discover whenever works best for you. When I listen to people discussing writing advice and thoughts on how to improve feels like being in a brainstorm session, as if I’m included in the conversation. Helpful, entertaining, and motivating, I’m a new podcast fan.

Let me know if you’ve listened to any podcasts recently that you think are fantastic, whether they’re about writing or otherwise. For me, podcasts create a chance to look at the world from a fresh perspective and listen to the thoughts of someone else, instead of having mine clambering around inside my head looking for attention. A brilliant medium, one that from here on out I’ll be sure to recommend.

Commenting on Creativity

I originally started this blog because I wanted to share my creative writing with the world. I deleted most of the first posts I made, as looking back the writing I did then seemed terrible. I’m sure if I look at the writing I did a couple of years ago I’d think it awful, but that’s the point of learning and growing – hopefully, you’ll always get better.

It’s never been a secret that one day, somehow, my dream is to be an author. Or, more specifically, a published author who can earn a steady income from books written alone. I love my current job, and if I could quit tomorrow to just write books I wouldn’t – I’d rather stay in the job I have now and write books for fun. But this isn’t what I want to talk about today. No, right now I want to write about commenting on creativity, and how that can help and hinder someone.

I was talking with my flatmate the other day about creative writing, as I sign up to so many free courses to get hints and tips for writing well. There are so many documents on my computer of half-finished stories, bullet points of ideas, and even a couple of ‘finished’ books. I have so many notebooks (which I hoard to an excessive extent) with hastily scribbled musings and random scenes, as well as several jottings on the notes app on my phone. When I was in university, it made sense to me to pick a creative writing module in my second year – it was, after all, what I dreamed of doing one day and happened to be doing most days anyway.

It’s safe to say now that this isn’t exactly a happy story.

That creative writing class was one of the worst classes I ever took at university, partly due to the terrible teaching and partly due to the soul-crushing, heart-wrenching trauma of losing faith in your dream and what you love. Yes, it sounds melodramatic, but creative writing is something I’ve done all my life – from terribly written plays when I was tiny that ripped off Scooby-Doo, to the very short book I wrote when I was 16 and foolishly thought that it was good enough to be published – and to go to a class all bright-eyed and hopeful only to come out with my work torn apart with vicious comments circling around in my mind, I thought that was the end for me.

There is a difference between constructive criticism and just criticism. Telling someone ‘your characters are a bit weak, you should try building up their backstory more to reflect a more complex character as a whole’ is very different to saying ‘your characters are awful’. And that’s what that class was for me.

Each week someone would have to bring in their response to a task – there was writing a short story based around a recent news piece, or writing a story that happened over the course of an hour. We spent the class focussing on that person’s work, and giving feedback on how we found it. I ended up with the task to rewrite something that happened to you from someone else’s perspective, something that I spent a long long time on just because I was so excited about it.

I like to think I’m not completely naive. I’m not very good at taking harsh criticism as it is, and very much like the sandwich tactic where you give a bad point in between two nicer comments. Still, I went into that class and braced myself, repeating a mantra that it was all good constructive criticism. And then the teacher opened up the conversation with “So who knows who Jonathan (my main character in the story) is? No one?” She turned to me and immediately said, “And that’s why your story isn’t any good. Because we don’t know who the main character is.”

It felt very much like a slap in the face, especially as I tried to say that I had tried to gradually introduce him in a way through first person narration that didn’t feel like a paragraph of him looking in the mirror and describing himself and his life story. Still, the teacher insisted, it was very bard form that you didn’t discover his name until the third paragraph, and the fact that you don’t get his full background in a 1,000 word piece just isn’t good enough.

And so it began. On and on she went, with some of the class chipping in with “your style just doesn’t work”, “your language choice is poor”, “I just didn’t like it at all, really”. I remember being given back 15 copies of my work, with scribbles all over it. There were some kinder ones, with comments every now and then saying “I love this bit!”, but those weren’t the ones I thought about afterwards.

So after that class, I ended up keeping my head down for the rest of the module. Frankly I felt useless, and didn’t really care to continue it. I don’t like sharing my writing even on a good day, and after that I’m loathe to share even a paragraph of something I’ve written to friends who I know wouldn’t even dream of saying anything in a nasty way.

Commenting on someone’s creativity can change the way they are creative altogether. I’m very much of the belief that a comment, remark, or critique made in a way that’s meant to be positive, or rather something said by someone who means well, is always good. When 16-year-old me had an email back from an agent saying my story needed more developing, as the main character was said to be one age but came across as another, I was at first mortified. Then, after ten minutes of thinking my life was over and plenty of chocolate, I realised that an agent had taken the time to look at my work and give me some feedback. Good feedback, at that. Looking at that terrible book now (a moment of silence for ‘Fizzy’, who will never see the light of day again), the agent was exactly right. The main character does come across as a different age, but they didn’t write back to me saying ‘This is crap, burn it, your character is terrible’. They gave me constructive criticism – which really, is a critique with guidance. Yes, the character was terrible, but I was told why and most importantly how to make it better.

Creative work is a tricky beast at best, and critiquing creative work is even worse. You know, as well as everyone else does, how much heart and soul and effort you pour into creative work. I’m sure everyone in that class felt as precious about their work as I did about mine. But it’s difficult to comment on someone else’s creation in a way that is helpful without being unkind, which is something that I think my old teacher needed to be taught. She would quite happily tear work to shreds, but offer no form of guidance for how it could be better. On another person’s work she’d just occasionally write ‘no’ next to certain paragraphs, which was as illuminating as being stuck in a cardboard box in the dark.

So the next time you comment on someone’s creativity – be it someone’s song, a rhyme they made up, a story they scribbled on a napkin – take a moment to form whatever thoughts you have in something that is helpful. You can be positive and critique someone at the same time. Even if what that person has done is a flaming pile of cow dung, you can still say something nice before you deal that blow – like the fact that the flaming pile of cow dung is a really good first step, there’s just a few changes you’d make….

NanoWriMo ‘Wrap Up’

So. I won.

Yes, you heard me, I actually ‘won’ NaNoWriMo and managed to write 50,000 words in a single month. For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, please check out my previous posts including this one here.

I first participated in NaNo two years ago, in which I reached 30k words (something I was very proud about). I started off really strong and kept to the word count every day, but it tapered off halfway through the month. After stressing out last year with dissertation and various essays, I decided to skip out doing NaNo and instead just tried to write a little more in that month. Ever since I’ve been itching to do it again, needing that extra drive and excuse to write write write. So, this year, I started off NaNo in high spirits with twitching fingers reading to write like I was running out of time (which I was) Hamilton style.

Like two years ago, I started out very strong and stuck to my word count, even going above it on some days. Feeling pretty smug about it, I was rather chuffed with how it was all working out. Instead of reading on the tube, I’d be typing away on my phone. On my breaks at work, I’d jot down some ideas, and my time at home was spent writing away. It’s very freeing writing for NaNo, knowing that it doesn’t matter whether it’s perfect or not, you just write as much as you can every single day. I know the vast majority of what I wrote will need serious editing, but I equally know that there are a few gems there. It helped me work out the plot of a story I’ve been thinking about for the better part of a year, and it’s the first time I’ve found that I didn’t need to forcibly stretch my plot to reach 50k. Instead, I feel like I’m only two thirds of the way through the book, and think it could easily reach 70,000 or even 80,000 words if I put my mind to it.

I talk a little about the benefits of NaNo over on my reading blog (which you can read here), mainly about how I’d been in such a reading slump and the break from reading meant that I felt revitalised when I could finally go back to it. NaNo showed me that it’s not about finding time to do something you love, but making time – something which I now know I can do, and really there are no excuses.

About mid-November, I was thrown way off track with NaNo due to some exciting things going on in my work life, which has resulted in me getting a new job! All very exciting, but it meant that on my day off I wrote something crazy like 5000 words just to get back on track.

Towards the end of November, I managed to keep up and even keep ahead at times, until finally on the last day I reached that elusive 50k, and couldn’t have felt prouder of myself. It was a great goal that I didn’t for a second think I’d reach, which only made the win even sweeter.

So even though I know what I wrote is mostly tripe, and may never see the light of day outside of my computer, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

NaNoWriMo Midway Update

Up until a few days ago, I have been right on track with writing for NaNo (National Novel Writing Month, see here for more details). Unfortunately the last few days have been unbelievably hectic, so whilst I have been writing everyday I have fallen a bit behind with the goal of hitting 1167 words every day. Still, I think I’ve been doing pretty damn well (especially compared to the first time I took on the challenge a couple of years ago), and currently my word count is at 24,000 words. To be ‘on track’ I would have to be at 28,333 words, something which I don’t think will happen today.

NaNo is such an interesting challenge to be taking part in, because part of me is itching to go back over everything – checking names, small information, edit sentences, craft a few beautiful similes I’ve thought of – but that’s not in the spirit of NaNo. It’s difficult to remind yourself that this isn’t about being perfect, because at least for me I want to just go over it again and again to fix things I think read badly or don’t work. Then I remind myself that you’re not meant to stress over these things, and really it’s far better to save your stress for your word count.

It’s amazing really, how much you can do when you change your priorities, as usually in my spare time I’m dedicated fully to reading. As I’m participating in NaNo this month, my reading for this month has been so terrible I can’t even think about it without feeling guilty and slightly sad. Every spare moment has been filled with writing, and whereas I spent a lot of my time on the tube or waiting around or on my lunch breaks reading, now I’ve had my phone out typing away. Whilst in a normal scenario I’d rather read on the tube and save writing for sitting at home with my computer and a cup of tea, it’s been fun to try it out this month.

And that’s my mid-way update for NaNo 2017. A little bit behind, but still enjoying it and having fun with the story.



NaNoWriMo 2017

Let’s do this.

I am officially participating in NaNoWriMo 2017 – which, for those of you who don’t know, is National Novel Writing Month where many attempt to write a novel in the month of November. The main goal is to hit 50k words, and whilst I have never ‘won’, my goal is always to write as much as I can and just have fun.

I have only participated once before, back in 2015, as last year I decided not to stress myself with hitting that word target every day and instead focus on my dissertation and final year of university. All month – heck, all year I have been so grumpy that I couldn’t join in last year, so I’ve been so excited for November 2017 to roll around.

I made a post about my experience in 2015 (click here to see), but I think there are several reasons why I’m so excited to participate again. Firstly, NaNo gets you into the routine of making time for writing every single day. I always say how much I want to be a writer one day, but I never manage to ‘find the time’ to knuckle down and write. NaNo teaches you to make that time, whether that’s only five minutes before you head to work or during your commute or just before you go to bed, you get into the habit of making that time.

Secondly, NaNo isn’t about creating a masterpiece. It’s simply about hitting that word target, hitting those 50k words, so of course it’s a very very rough first draft of a novel. It’s not about editing or musing over sentence structure, it’s about typing away at that keyboard and doing your upmost best to hit that goal. That in itself is so freeing – you don’t worry about whether your work is any good or that it doesn’t flow right. All you have to do is type type type, and worry about editing later.

There are several other things I’ve got going on next month (one of them may or may not be Sims 4 Cats and Dogs stop judging me), but I’m determined to throw myself into NaNo and have fun. So let me know if you’re participating, and definitely add me as a writing buddy – my name is Stammydodger, and no, don’t ask.