Me and Billy Elliot; we’ve loads in common.
I want to be a ballet dancer. Granted, I might have left it a bit late, but age is merely a number and Barre Concept is my new favourite exercise.
Whoever came up with the idea that femmes d’un certain âge should do pliés to pop music was a genius.
I’m not immune to the fact that I look faintly absurd. And it amused me to suggest that we put on an end of term show. For our husbands. The teacher and I thought I was very funny. But on the whole, laughter and I haven’t been much of an item lately.
Not moving forward fast enough. Not contributing. Not achieving. These are a few of my least favourite things.
On paper I’m ticking all the boxes: submitting the novel to agents for representation, applying for jobs, sorting out volunteer work. Training to be a ballerina.
What I’ve not been doing is writing. It’s not writer’s block. Not at all. Merely apathy. What’s the point? If I’m going to be a ballet dancer, there is none, clearly. But on the off chance that doesn’t work out either, well, recently, it hasn’t felt like I have a lot to fall back on.
Job hunting is a thankless task. As is submitting manuscripts. Applying for volunteer work less so. But all three simultaneously? You need a rhino’s skin.
The novel: I’ve written it. I’ve edited it. I’ve rewritten it. And written it again. (And again). And rearranged the chapters, and renamed the characters, and altered the ending. And the start. And the opening chapter – because that’s the hook. Beta readers have read it and critiqued it. I’ve made those changes, and the ones suggested by my reading group. And the ones suggested by my writer friends. And now I’d like to get it published.
But there’s a process. Create the Submission Pack To Beat All Submission Packs. Send it to some agents. If one likes it, they might represent you. And submit your book to publishers. If one likes it they might print it. Less simple than it sounds, it’s not for the sensitive or faint hearted.
The Submission Pack To Beat All Submission Packs contains a cover letter, a synopsis and some of your manuscript – the manuscript teaser if you will.
The Cover Letter, should (generally) comprise three paragraphs – the first to introduce the book, its genre, your reason for writing it, how many words you’ve written and who it might appeal to when Jupiter’s aligned with Mars; the second, to summarise the book – this time back-cover blurb style. Only better, longer, more captivating, encapsulating the essence of your baby, its themes, its characters, its outcome. The third? A bit about you: your previous writing experience, your inspirations, your interests, who might want to read your book, what an incredible writer you are. (No, not that last one). Round it off with a final little line that says, without a hint of desperation, for the love of god please like my book.
Cover letter (for the human agents) smashed!
There are a few though, heady with the power they wield as gatekeepers to the publishing world, who believe they are demi-gods. Their demands are different. “You moron,” their websites imply, “Do not for one second think that your writing is good enough. You have as much chance of being accepted for representation by us as you have in being accepted as a prima ballerina by the Bolshoi Ballet. But should you be delusional as well as stupid, feel free to jump through hoops and waste a submission. Fetch us a one-line summary (of your 100,000 word novel), a three-sentence description, and a 20-word sales pitch, as well as a cover letter encrusted with diamonds, your name signed in blood and the head of a goat. And never finish your letter – ‘I hope you like what you read’ – because, Fool, we won’t.
Moving swiftly on, time to tackle The Synopsis. Not Back-Cover blurb, nor a précis, this is a comprehensive but concise, chronological outline of your novel. Summarise every chapter into one line, then turn that into 300 words, 600 words, 1 page, two pages, 1.5 spaced, double-spaced (something a little different for each agent) and you’ll have a range of synopses.
And finally, The Manuscript Teaser. First 2 chapters, first 3 chapters, first 5 pages, 10 pages, 30 pages, 50 pages, first 9000 words, 10,000 words, in 12 point font, double spaced, without a cover page, with a cover page, in the body of the email, as an attachment. Every agent…something different…(pedantic as hell).
Eventually, the proud creator of a Submissions Folder stuffed with every conceivable submission permutation known to man (and demi-gods), it’s time to send an email.
Insert ‘Submission’ in the subject title, or the word ‘Query’ (for the States) and the title of your work, and your name, and the name of the agent you are targeting, and the names of your children and your mother’s maiden name (joking!) – but crucially important, for EACH and EVERY email, remember, when you forward the previous one (as an aside – you are going to send a lot so it’s easier to forward previous emails you got right than recreate a new one each time. And though some agents don’t like you making multiple submissions, ignore. Imagine employers stipulating that you couldn’t apply for more than one job at a time? Exactly!) Anyway, and this is basic stuff, but good manners too – when you forward the previous email, edit the subject title, remove ‘Re:’, change the name of the agent in the cover letter to match the name in the email address, and alter what you are attaching/including in the body of the email, according to the demands of said agent – the first 3 chapters and a synopsis, or the first 10 pages and a brief synopsis, or the first 10,000 words and no synopsis. (Every agent…pedantic as hell…driving you nuts). Get it wrong and they’ll delete without reading.
So, 20-40 minutes later (depending on how practised you are at submissions), after you’ve trawled through online directories, read up about agencies, scrutinised their submission requirements, identified which authors they represent, and which authors write most like you, and which agents represent these authors and therefore which agent you want to target, and you’ve wobbled and stressed that perhaps they’re not right for you after all, but FFS if you procrastinate any longer the agent will have retired, you psych yourself up…
And spend another 10 minutes alternating between your email and the agent’s web page, the subject title, and the attachments, backwards and forwards, up and down, like one of those toy dogs with the springy necks on the back ledge of a car, checking and checking, again and again, until, on the verge of a full-blown panic attack and a serious case of OCD, you finally, finger trembling, heart pounding, eyes watering, press ‘Send’.
It can take up to 12 weeks for a reply. Some only respond if they’re interested. And others not at all. But for now you breathe a huge sigh of relief, pat yourself on the back and brim with pride at your abilities as a writer. You’re On Your Way.
To reaffirm your brilliance you re-read the first few pages of the manuscript teaser you sent out. To discover a word in line two is repeated in line five.
You can’t breathe. How? Can? This? Be? How did you and your beta readers and your writing group and your writer friends and your Search In Document device all fail to pick up this foolish, foolish error, after 170 rewrites and rereads, before you created the Submission Pack To Beat All Submission Packs.
All those submissions a total waste! And worse, you have to go into each submission manuscript teaser –first 2 chapters, first 3 chapters, first 5 pages, 10 pages, 30 pages, 50 pages, first 9000 words, 10,000 words, with and without the cover page, and the full manuscript as well – 1.5-line spaced and double-line spaced – and make a change in every one.
By now, less Margot Fonteyn, more Baby Jane, Hunting for A Job’s the perfect antidote. Part time or freelance (or both – like I used to have in the Middle East), I’m not fussy. Just one. A little one. That’s salaried. That’s all I want. A fully subscribed member of every single media recruitment search engine In The World, every morning and several times a day a stream of emails notifies me of potential jobs. Never part time, or freelance. But jobs nonetheless. Some of them suitable, others – when the search engine gets muddled, like Electrical Building Services Design Engineer or Senior Architectural Technician/Commercial Interior Fit Out – less so. But never Ballerina, which is odd as that must be closer to my skill set than the Building Services jobs that I’ve never applied for.
So, onto Volunteer work, when job hunting and submitting manuscripts do what Rainy Days and Mondays did to Karen Carpenter. More rewarding by far! These companies are grateful. They respond to my applications. They give me interviews. The interviewers are charming. They make me feel valued. They offer me work. Two jobs! Running a Creative Writing group at Mind, and News Editor for Herts Talking Newspaper.
I’m thrilled. Not least, because my colleagues are so damn nice. But there is something wrong here. Does wanting to be remunerated for my work disqualify me from receiving respect? It would certainly seem so. It’s an employers’ and agents’ market out there. You need them more than they need you. And that gives them free rein to be as rude or as indifferent as they like.
Some buck the trend of course. One agent has read my full manuscript and has entered into a dialogue with me about how to improve my book and how she would like to read it again when I’ve made those changes. And any future book I write.
It has been suggested that this is a good thing. Certainly I’m more encouraged than I’ve been in a while, and as a consequence, have started work on my second novel – set on the wild Essex coastline – The Dengie Hundred, rich in history with a landscape of saltmarshes that inspired not only H.G. Wells’s Martian landing in War of the Worlds, but also me – to create a story in which my character, recently moved to a village not dissimilar to North Fambridge on the River Crouch, experiences a timeslip. There’ll be grief, PTSD and a romance… Thanks to twitter, I’ve connected with some great people from the area who’ve provided me with a wealth of information. A field trip is on the cards – to learn about my character’s world and maybe try my hand at wild camping like she does.
But before I go east, and play around with time travel, and on the off-chance that my talents as a dancer are overlooked, I have to jump back into my first book Splintered Lives and its West London world of multiple personalities, misunderstandings and complicated family relationships, to do the rewrites.
The great thing about change is that it makes everything different. (Philosopher is another career option). But taking into account that two years ago walking made me breathless and my job was left behind with my life in the Middle East, and one year ago I could barely do a press up and was editing my book, it is most pleasing this year that I know my demi-pliés from my grand-pliés, can get my leg up and onto the barre without an injury and am starting to work again.
I was going to end this blog with Nina Simone’s words (or Michael Bublé’s if you must):
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
But that’s too schmaltzy.
Then I considered Bob Marley’s: Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights! But that’s too militant.
And so I went with The Killers’ Human:
And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes, clear your heart
Cut the cord
Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?
Because it’s just right.