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Kate Armstrong on book critiques
Guest author and blogger Kate Armstrong shares her story of publishing The Storyteller after a manuscript critique from us.
It was 2013. Summer. I was a nervous management consultant who had once, a long time ago, been an English student. I was opening an assessment report on the draft of my first novel.
I’d sent it off for a professional reading a fortnight previously. In that fortnight I’d obsessively researched Jessica Ruston, who would be writing the report. The subjects of her books were very different from mine; maybe she wouldn’t get what I was trying to do. But then again, maybe she would read it and be astounded at my debut genius.
In my wildest dreams, Jessica would declare this was the best writing since Plath – better even than Plath – and I would be turning away agents dangling golden contracts. In my nightmares, the report would come back dripping with pity and rejection.
The reality was of course neither one nor the other. When I summoned my bravery to open the file, I found a thorough, balanced, extremely helpful set of comments. Jessica had understood the novel perfectly well. She pointed out both its strengths and where it was not yet good enough, and mostly I agreed. She found it ‘unusual and thoughtful’, praised the writing, and recommended more work on character and plot. I breathed a sigh of relief, and got to work on the next draft.
Fast-forward three years, and that novel, The Storyteller, is being published by Holland House Books. It has, as they say, been a journey.
Along the way I’ve learned how to take rejection, and how to accept graciously while keeping my hysteria in check. I’ve learned that an agent response of ‘you write incredibly well’ can be immediately followed by ‘but we don’t think we could place this’. I’ve learned how to do social media more effectively and how to write a blog that is true to who I am. I’ve pitched articles to magazines, and some of them have come off.
I feel that I’ve been learning a new trade. Because that of course is what it is; both the writing and the ‘being a writer’. I’m published by a passionate literary independent, but passion does not go hand in hand with a huge marketing budget, so much of the marketing responsibility is mine. That was an eye-opener.
The other eye-opener was how fast the book became an object separate from me. Other people had views on how it should be edited, what the cover should be like, how to market it. Cutting the umbilical cord – seeing it as a product in a market – was something I was unprepared for.
The Storyteller is a very personal book in many ways. It draws heavily on my experiences of mental ill health and its aim, so far as it has one, is to share those experiences with others. It is also a coming of age novel, and a story of friendship, first love and betrayal. Whatever your definition of ‘literary’, it is certainly in that camp. It is, for my sins, narrated in the second person. (I had written it before I read articles advising against.) It is fuelled by atmosphere and character and not so much by plot. It has unsettled many of its readers. I hope it will continue to do that.
But regardless of what it does for its readers, it has already changed my life. That life change is nothing external: I have no idea how it will sell. My dreams are of a prize-winning best-seller, my nightmares that only my mother-in-law will buy a copy. Neither is likely to happen.
No, the change has been inside. Before I wrote it I could not share my life long experiences of depression, and I didn’t believe that I could write. When my publisher offered a contract it took me 18 months to accept; I didn’t think the book, or I, was good enough. Once the contract was signed I was too embarrassed to tell anyone, too ashamed of the content, too scared of what exposure as a writer would mean.
Over the last year I have moved past all of those blocks. I am definitely now ‘a writer’, and that is where I want to be. I have risked sharing some of the things that go on deep inside. I have welcomed other people into my world. Most of all I have built the psychological platform to keep on writing honestly and openly, and in the way that is most true to who I am.