By Helen Fisher
In this blog post, Helen Fisher tells us about her journey to finding a literary agent for her debut novel, Spacehopper
Did I Always Want To Be A Writer?
I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t do it until I was 44 when a friend bullied me into it. She told me to write a chapter a week and send it to her. Clocking in with her was a great incentive, although I realise a lot of authors like to write the whole thing before they let anyone see it.
About 30,000 words in, I panicked: I DON’T KNOW HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL, I thought (constantly) and – realising I needed help – I bought Harry Bingham’s book: How to Write. I read it cover to cover and quickly discovered I wasn’t alone in any of my thoughts – neither the negative ones (I CAN’T do it) nor the positive (I CAN do it). As well as practical support, that book provided the emotional support I needed. I read it and went back to my novel, and – with steam coming out of my ears, and springs coming out of my head – I finished it. I commissioned a really useful editorial report via Jericho Writers, and submitted it to a few agents. But ultimately I shelved it.
A year later I wrote my second novel, Spacehopper, the one that’s going to be published. I was in a better place to do it, because this time I had some tools in my belt before I started: the ones I didn’t have until I was 30,000 words in the first time round: I’d read How to Write, been to a JW Getting Published Day and used the resources I found on the JW website.
What I Learnt And How I Learnt It
I learnt a lot from reading books about how to write. Not just Harry Bingham’s book, but the famous On Writing, by Stephen King, and other books like that. Reading about writing inspired me and made me believe I could do it; I needed that. Mind you, the feeling would wear off quickly, it wasn’t long before I’d start thinking I can’t do this, again. It was like a drug I had to keep topping up to get the same effect, so I kept reading.
Reading novels also helped. I found I was reading more attentively now, really looking at what I loved best in novels, so I could more knowingly make an impact on readers through my own writing. I took out a month’s membership at JW as a birthday present to myself, it was a luxury I found hard to afford – it is fantastic value, but I was skint – so I made the most of it: joined up when I knew I could make best use of the online videos. I immersed myself in the information, made notes, and soon felt like I had a bag full of stuff to help me get through the writing process.
Unfortunately, at that stage, it did feel as though I was simply trying to get to the finish line, rather than enjoying the process. I’m an impatient person, and novel-writing isn’t ideal for the impatient. Now, I’m getting there: learning to enjoy the process. With my new novel, Gabriel’s Cat, my agent asked for a synopsis early on, something I’d never done until the book was finished. Being clearer about where the story was going has helped. I feel less frightened about what will happen next when I sit down to write. I have never enjoyed writing more.
I learned a lot at a JW Getting Published Day. There were lots of really interesting and practical sessions during the day. I left with more inspiration, and was buzzing because I’d spent a blissful succession of hours with people who could talk all day long about writing novels, without glazing over once!
My First Draft
It took me four months to write the first draft of Spacehopper and I gave it to four friends to read in chunks. These were the same friends who read the novel I cut my teeth on the previous year, and this time was different. They didn’t really have any criticism, just wanted me to get on with it, so they could find out what happened next. This boost to my ego was essential: much as I wanted honest feedback, I think I would have crumbled, possibly stopped, if the feedback had been bad. I wanted them to be honest, but I wanted them to honestly love it. Spacehopper has a big twist; I didn’t think of it until I was more than halfway through writing the novel, and as soon as I decided on the ending, I couldn’t write fast enough. I wanted to hear what my readers felt about the ending. When I made them cry, I punched the air.
When the first draft was done, I did the same as last time, and commissioned a full editorial report through Jericho Writers, from the same editor as last time. It was a stretch on my finances, and I knew I would only be able to afford one round of feedback. The report I got back was worth every penny, not only in its practical suggestions, but because the editor said she was certain it was a novel that would be published. Hearing that from a professional, gave me the confidence to keep going, make a few adjustments and start to get ready to submit to agents.
I think I would have enjoyed writing Spacehopper more if I’d planned out the story in more depth before starting, and followed more of the plot structures that make stories work. Not just because there is something nice about knowing where you’re going with a story, from beginning to end – indeed I truly believe you can know too much about what’s going to happen in the novel you’re writing: things that you don’t plan will be some of the best bits. But when you understand the plot structures that make stories work – even if you don’t follow them strictly – you will surely have more confidence that your story is going to be better told. Understanding what makes stories work, makes us better storytellers.
From First Draft To Final Version
The editor who conducted a full editorial report, via JW, suggested I make some changes. I’ve looked back in my notebook and I see I made 39 changes to Spacehopper based on her recommendations. It might sound like a lot, but the majority were fairly straightforward. Essentially the novel remained unchanged (in comparison, when I made changes to my previous novel, it was a huge task and I felt I had a different book by the time I’d edited it).
I worked for a couple of weeks tweaking Spacehopper, and after that, without the finances to put it through another round of editorial revision, I started getting ready to submit to agents. I didn’t give it to anyone else to read at this stage. As I mentioned, patience is not my strength, and I had to get it out.