5: Rejection and Writers’ Block

If you are a writer and reading this chapter, then I know you will understand. If you are not a writer, you might question my sanity!

At the beginning of January 2009, I had more or less finished plotting the novel I had entitled “Going Back” (later to become The White Cuckoo). Just before Christmas, Sunlight on Broken Glass,  had been submitted to a publisher by an agent.  It had been a long, hard journey to get to this point – the family saga had originally started off as one long novel, but the publisher in question had commented that it would work much better as a trilogy and Sunlight was the first novel.

It was on a Wednesday in mid-January 2009 when the news came that every writer dreams about. One of the biggest multi-national publishing houses in London had asked for the full manuscript of Sunlight on Broken Glass and synopses and chapter outlines for the other two novels in the trilogy. Could I quickly draft up a synopsis and chapter outline for Melody of Raindrops and Twisted Garlands (the other two books in the trilogy) my agent asked?  My reply was “how quickly do you want them?”

For the next few nights, I somehow managed on only three hours sleep each night. I worked full-time at the Council during the day and then spent all night on my writing. I kept telling myself that the only way to succeed in this life is through hard work, and that it would all be worth it in the end. I emailed off the required documents to my agent, and braced myself for the inevitable nail-biting, hand-wringing wait that I knew would follow.

The next week I received an email. Sunlight was to go to an acquisition meeting. How I kept this news to myself, God only knows.  Only my family and two good friends knew about it, but I must have appeared to have become an incomprehensible, doddering moron to anyone else.  I’m sure my work colleagues must have thought I was going senile because I couldn’t concentrate on anything else at all.

Then I had some more news. My novel had to go to three more meetings – I think they were sales, finance and marketing – something like that.

I tried to put it all to the back of my mind and write something, but all I did was stare at a blank screen.  Not only was my mind curiously dyslexic, but my fingers were, too.  I was unable to write a single sentence apart from on my blog where I wrote this post entitled ‘Losing It’ which describes exactly how I felt at that time (just click on the highlighted link if you would like to read it).

Another couple of weeks passed. One day my intuition kicked in. Instinctively, I knew Sunlight on Broken Glass was going to get rejected. My head told me not to be so silly – no news was good news – but I am rarely wrong when I get these raw, primal feelings about something.

Sadly, I wasn’t wrong,

The rejection came at just the right time, though.  Emily’s due date at the beginning of March 2009 was looming closer, and my family life took priority.  The reason the publishers had rejected Sunlight was because of the credit crunch: I was a new writer (risky), it was a family saga (risky because there was talk in early 2009 of family sagas becoming less popular) and I was previously unpublished (extremely risky). I also had no unique selling points as an author (true).

The trilogy was subsequently submitted to other publishers right up until the summer of 2009, but, because of the recession, nothing came of it. I was told all publishers were being very careful about who and what they took on and. because I was previously unpublished, Sunlight was not a good business proposition.

If I said the initial rejection came at the right time because my mind was on other things, the timing was deadly to my writing. Demoralised and disheartened I thought seriously about giving up. It was as if my brain was encased within an impenetrable, hard steel vault. Every time I tried to write, the sabre-toothed Writers’ Block appeared with a vicious, stomach-churning scream and slashed through my creativity with its constantly waving machete.  There was no way in and no way out. I was well and truly stuck.

“Just shelve the trilogy and write something else,” my agent said helpfully. On the other end of the phone I was silently shaking my head.  Nothing in this world was ever going to make me feel this horrible worthlessness again. I was a failure – just like I had been at eleven when I failed my eleven-plus. This traumatic event had been made a hundred times worse because of other people’s expectations. My parents, teachers, friends and family had all expected me to pass my eleven-plus easily. When I failed, the shaking of heads, upturned palms and exasperated, unbelieving shrugs of shoulders had made me feel as useless as if I had been permanently stamped with “reject” on my forehead.

Now, forty years later, I had well and truly arrived on the scrap heap like a burnt out old car – not even worthy of a publisher’s slush pile. Everyone would be laughing at me because I had this misguided notion that I might just be good enough at writing fiction to become published. I tried to console myself – at least I wouldn’t have to read horrible, nasty reviews about Sunlight. I wouldn’t need to go on a diet, either, ready for my book cover photo. I could eat chocolate, crisps and dunk packet upon packet of biscuits into endless mugs of tea as often as I liked. I could become fatter than ever and no one would care.

I cried. And cried. And then cried some more. I felt a massive weight of blame on my shoulders, just as I had done back in May 1981 when I had conceived a precious baby boy who, because of something I had done (or failed to do) would never take his first steps, utter his first words, go to school and learn to read, write, get a job, fall in love, get married and have a family of his own. Back then, I had failed to take proper care of my firstborn son as he grew in my womb, and now I had lost the only thing in my life that had ever made me feel better when things were too tough to bear – my writing. To be unable to write when writing was the only thing that could drag me from the depths of despair was the most soul-destroying feeling I have ever experienced.

My family, although sympathetic, didn’t understand because they weren’t writers. Only other writers understood, but they all lived miles away – my only real-time contact with them being through the computer screen. My husband tried to throw me a lifeline. He told me I wasn’t useless and I wasn’t a reject. I earned a good salary – more than lots of people who had passed their eleven-plus and then gone to university.  I had written three novels when some people (and he was including himself in this comparison) couldn’t even string a paragraph together that made sense.

It didn’t work. Nothing worked. I still felt like a failure. Nothing else I had achieved over the years counted for anything – I had wanted to be a writer all my life, and now the Writer’s Block monster had taken it all away from me.

On 11th March 2009 Sophie Rose Ireson-Vaughan was born. As I held my perfect, beautiful granddaughter in my arms for the first time and she nuzzled her soft, fuzzy newborn head into the crook of my neck, I breathed in the unique smell of a brand new life. I closed my eyes and the aroma infused every cell in my body with a happiness so complete, I knew that nothing, not even writing, was as important to me as my family. Not only that, it dawned on me that my family WAS my unique selling point. Getting published was the pink icing on the cake of life. A nice-to-have rather than an essential ingredient. Being a good wife, mum, mum-in-law and granny was what was important.

Sophie Rose Ireson-Vaughan

At that moment, as I cradled the precious, freshly-opened flower on our family tree, I knew her birth had validated mum’s glorious last words to Emily in a simple truth. Sophie had come into the world in her place – and somehow, as she lay dying, Mum had known.

My lovely mum

I knew beyond doubt there was much, much more to this life than human beings have ever discovered, and as Mum had balanced on the fence between life and death, she had glimpsed another dimension the rest of us have yet to see. Mum would never have told Emily she would have a little girl in the future had she not been certain it was true. When I was growing up, Mum always told me the truth, no matter how unwelcome and unpalatable it was. Everyone trusted my mum because of her honesty. She was a truly unique, good person in this complicated and frequently evil world.

I knew I owed it to Mum to carry on writing and seeking publication. She always believed in me, and it was high time I started to believe in myself. A couple of days later, I fired up my computer and said to my youngest son “give me a prompt to write something – anything”. He had been studying at the dining table and pointed to a text book, which was open at a page of complicated formulae. “I bet you can’t write anything about this,” he said with a wicked grin. I just opened my mind and typed. A few months later, those first tentative paragraphs about circles and triangles eventually became the short story A2 + B2 = C2. The story was published in Telling Tales (a charity anthology) which, ultimately, attracted the attention of Moonworks Publishing, who will publish The White Cuckoo on 31st October 2012.

(Next week’s chapter will be published on 15th June. Back to The White Cuckoo this week, as the Writers’ Block monster is well and truly slayed – hopefully forever – but if it ever returns, one of my children will just have to quickly produce another grandchild!)

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