“I’ve been on many aeroplanes in my life but I wouldn’t think to fly one.”
By Dominic Brownlow
I read recently on Chris Bonnello’s blog those distant and, until now, impossibly unreachable words ‘Then it happened to me’, and had to sort of shake myself, not because it has also happened to me but because I realised it is not as simple as that.
It is not something that happened to me, or to Chris for that matter, I imagine, but because we’d made it happen. We’d shortened the string on that wild, flailing kite and pulled it out of the sky.
This is not gloating, by the way. My journey to this point has been as long and as painful as everyone else’s, I can assure you. The writing part, or so I thought, finished a year ago. Those endless, fey evenings at my desk pretending to be an actual writer were, and are, some of the happiest, if not most distraught moments of my life.
I loved it. I still do, but whether we care to admit to it or not we all crave for our stories to be in print, for the ‘It happened to me’ moment and so at some stage we must prise them from the confines of our computers and send them out into the dark, unknown world of agents and publishers. If you’re like me you’ll do this far too soon and potentially blow all your chances of publishing something that is fundamentally, so you believe, as worth publishing as anything else.
As with many people here my writing was a secret affair. After a while, many years in fact, you tire of people asking you how the book’s going and people tire of asking. Eventually, my first draft completed, some five or six years ago now, I sought the advice of an editor. He was fantastically honest and I owe a great deal to him. He stuck with me as very slowly, scraping hours between work, I would once a year send him a new draft and he would, at the same time as encouraging me and persuading me I had the potential to write something publishable, quite brutally put me in my place. ‘I’ve been on many aeroplanes in my life,’ he once told me over coffee, sitting outside the British Library,’ but I wouldn’t think to fly one.’
This resonates with me still and I think is the best advice, as a wannabe writer, I have ever been given. Yes, I could write pretty sentences, often staring at them for hours, freely swapping the words around as though they were jigsaw puzzle pieces, and I had a decent story up my sleeve, but in order to write it I had, at first, to learn how to write.
And so I did. With these words reverberating in my ears and what I believe to be the best writers’ guide available, Release The Bats, by DBC Pierre, positioned like a Bible at my side, I started again. I deleted the entire folder, 149,000 words, and started again with the same idea but a different outlook completely.
It was slow, fastidious work, as we can all appreciate, finding hours here and there and forever being tired, but over time something clicked and I knew, in practice at least, I was doing it right. And I was loving it. If anyone had asked me how the book was going I would have told them with the fervency of a new father that it was going well, that I was getting ready to send out to people, but they weren’t asking anymore. Best to keep quiet about ‘the book,’ they most likely thought, but it didn’t matter, not now. A publishing deal was a dead cert. I even, lofty in my own self-belief, entered and was long-listed for the Bath Novel Children’s Award. It was surely only a matter of time. A quick trip to the York Festival, to get out of my house and into the publishing world at last, and I was in.
But I wasn’t, was I? I wasn’t even on the starting blocks and I’d been going at it, one way or another, for nearly seven years. What I got, though, from the York Festival was encouragement from a couple of agents. They very kindly told me I could write well but, and here’s the cruncher, they didn’t think they were would be able to place the book. Was it a children’s novel or a literary novel? I had purposefully, and somewhat foolishly as it happened, set out to write a literary novel for young adults. Confused once again, disheartened and at a bit of a loss, I took the plunge of seeking professional help, to learn how to fly. I found the very fantastic Susan Davis at Jericho Writers and everything from that moment changed.
Susan instantly took to the manuscript, concurrently instilling confidence but highlighting some quite major issues. More importantly she encouraged me to stick to my guns, that this was a novel that didn’t need categorising, even when others were telling me it did, that in order for it to progress it had to have a clear and definable place on a shelf.
I never doubted her, even after making the changes and sending out to near enough two dozen agents and receiving some of the most glowing yet fundamentally worthless rejection letters imaginable. They all claimed they liked the book but couldn’t place it. Frustrated as I was with the responses, I turned again to Susan who contacted a friend of hers, Louise Walters, who had recently set up a small imprint, Louise Walters Books.
In August this year I sent her the manuscript. She came back to me, saying that on first reading she loved it but, here we go again, she couldn’t categorise it. However on a second reading, back to back, she knew just how to resolve this situation and was in complete agreement with Susan about its potential. By this stage a couple of other small publishers were showing interest, but nothing now would stop me signing with someone who was not only willing to read the novel twice over in one sitting but to look at it with such vision and optimism and, dare I say, bravery, and we signed a few months later.
Relief and, yes, a general air of purpose gild now the hours I spend at my desk but I am acutely aware, also, of the temporal nature of this solace. In order to retain ‘this thing that has happened to me’ not only do I have to keep learning but I have to pack my bags and leave for University. For, as I am fast learning, the lessons are getting harder, my lecturer is not simply a voice in my head and whilst I am unreservedly enjoying Freshers’ Week I understand that, really, all I have learnt so far is how to take off.
The Naseby Horses is set for release in paperback and ebook in December 2019 with Louise Walters Books.