Tor Udall on patience and passion in writing

Guest author and blogger Tor Udall shares her story of publishing A Thousand Paper Birds with Bloomsbury after her time at the Festival of Writing, plus how patience, perseverance and passion were key to success.

The Festival of Writing had a transformative impact for me. After signing with my agent, what happened next?

More drafts. Another four to be exact, since A Thousand Paper Birds is a many layered thing.

Based in Kew Gardens, with five characters, two love triangles and a mysterious death, it’s told from multiple perspectives and two time-frames. Add in a speculative thread and the folds of origami, and you can imagine why it took a while to pin this girl down.

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I learnt a lot in those two years – not just about my characters and craft, but also about perseverance and passion. There were days when it felt like I was entering a boxing ring, wrestling the pages, and leaving the desk with my jaw bloodied. In one particular draft, I tried so damn hard to please that I took on every suggested edit and ended up with a Frankenstein manuscript, the stitches so coarse you could see the seams. It had no blood in it. No heartbeat. I had to go back and lovingly unpick it, gently resuscitating it back to life and asking it to forgive me – and thankfully it did. It’s a delicate balance – taking in other people’s advice, but also staying true to the world you’ve created and to the book’s anima, or spirit.

In September 2015, the manuscript was ready, and we sent it out on submission. What a terrifying process!

Within 24 hours, an editor in Italy had read it overnight, fallen head over heels and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer. I thought this is it, we’re on a roll. Then nothing happened, for days. Slowly, other offers came in – Portugal, Netherlands, Russia – but nothing from the UK. The rapturous declines were wonderful, but frustrating (it made me laugh to discover that while agents send ‘rejections’, publishers send ‘declines’ … it’s all so much more civilised!).

Finally, we got a bite from one editor (followed by a great meeting), then a few more showed interest, and suddenly editors were taking A Thousand Paper Birds to acquisitions. This is not an easy hurdle – the entire team must love it and in the run-up to Frankfurt Book Fair, a lot of books are vying for attention.

Trying to keep positive, I took myself off to Kew Gardens (the book’s location) to hear the Director’s Talk. As I left the event, my phone rang and the moment happened. Bloomsbury had put in an offer.

I was standing outside the famous Palm House, in the perfect spot. A couple of times I had to ask Jenny to repeat herself – partly out of disbelief, partly because the ducks were quacking, but there I stood by the glasshouse, my dream solidifying in the trees, the lake, the sky, my body.

This elation continued in Frankfurt when Random House in Germany offered me a 2-book deal (without even seeing a synopsis for the second). Signing for a second book felt like the start of a career, a validation.

So guess what happened next? Yup. More drafts. Two more.

It’s pot-luck on who you get as an editor, but thankfully Alexa von Hirschberg is one helluva talented lady. Sensitive, funny, wise, stylish (we even share the same taste in musicians), she was a joy to work with. The copy-edit, too, was a wonderful experience. The copy-editor’s attention to detail was love-filled. It’s the fine work of the scalpel: ‘do you really want ‘in’ twice in a sentence?’ (see, I’ve just done it again), ‘should it be ‘garden’ or ‘Gardens’? Did you realise that you swap between imperial and metric?’ After the large-scale edits, it was a pleasure to focus on the miniscule.

Ten drafts in all. So many different versions, characters cut or changed, whole passages gone, and for a while I worried that I would grieve for all the different ‘Paper Birds’ that had vanished. But when I read through the final edit it was the book it was always supposed to be. Everything had come into focus.

During this period, there was a lot of other stuff happening, too. While I was writing the draft(s) of my life I also had to set myself up as a business, dealing with foreign tax forms, complicated contracts, asking the Foreign Office to certify certificates of residence. An illustrator was working on a map of Kew Gardens to go at the front, copy for the blurb and catalogue were needed, copyright permissions required for quotes and lyrics, author photos taken, the jacket design approved (oh my, it’s so flutteringly gorgeous!). Then there was also a pregnancy that involved me injecting myself in the stomach for 9 months daily, a premature baby and the usual sleeplessness and chaos that comes with a new-born – but that’s a whole other story …!

And now I have a year to write my second book (the first one took seven years, so you can understand why my eye is twitching!).

There’s a host of unknown and wonderful things ahead. And I’m frightened. Of people reading it. Of people not reading it. The author events, the promotion – all challenges for a publishing virgin. But in the end, away from the noise of twitter, book sales, reviews, I know my main job is the work itself: to write the next book better, using everything I’ve learnt. The landscape of language, the puzzles of plot and pace, the intimacies of character – this is where I’m happiest, and how privileged I am to be able to spend my day at the typeface, conjuring up things to believe in. This passion (obsession? endless curiosity?) is both anchor and fuel.

So, yes, since York, life has changed. After years of writing alone, it’s amazing to be part of a collaboration with some of the most talented, brilliant people in the world.

Good luck to all of you ever coming to the Festival of Writing, and remember, too, so much can happen in the one-on-ones, in the coffee queue, at the bar … the quickening of fate can happen in the most unlikely places.

Who knows? The roller coaster may be coming for you, too.

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