Saturday, 31 October 2015

I Fail, and Get Over It

Courtesy of Daily

So the middle of October approached and I still hadn’t heard from Mslexia, whose Women’s Novel competition I had entered. This was the one I was pinning my hopes on, the one I mentioned when people said, ‘So how’s the writing going?’ (into which I read, You’re not STILL working on that same novel – how can it not be finished?)

Even in fantasies, I did not envisage winning the competition: my ambition was to get long-listed which would mean that:
1)      My endless revisions were finally getting me somewhere and had produced a good first 5,000 words and
2)      Someone would ACTUALLY READ the many thousands of words after that and get to the really good bits.

Then an email arrived entitled ‘Sorry’. Sorry but the standard this year was so high, blah blah, don’t be discouraged, blah blah, best of luck in your BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!

 I had a few hours of deep self pity. I saw all that hope and all that work coming to nothing. I pictured people’s faith in me slumping. Alone in the car on the way home, I ranted about how upsetting it was and asked God, ‘Why?!’

I emailed my writing mentor. Her answer was my first consolation. She was sorry, and she knew how it felt. She said that getting anywhere with Mslexia was tricky. However, entering the competition had accelerated the final stages of composition and made me look at the novel with a judicious eye. This would all help with further revision and submission. Finally, what about the Exeter Novel Prize? You had to submit 10,000 words and a synopsis. The deadline was in a few days.

But after such a knockback, how was I going to find the get-up-and-go to revise the beginning in time? Well, failure, it turns out, has a bracing effect. I now looked at the start with a totally new attitude. Previously I had tinkered with it, but on the whole it had seemed carved in stone – because everything else flowed from it. To change it would be to disrupt the whole. Now though, it was totally up for grabs. It had failed. It wasn’t working. So start again!

I did start again. I reimagined it, as though it were a scene from a new piece of writing, something infinitely malleable and full of possibilities. I rewrote it. I quite liked it but left it to marinate for a bit, and then I tried something else instead. That seemed good for a day or two, but then I read it again and saw that it didn’t quite work. I reordered it so that it flowed better. Now it was working. 

Then I rewrote the rest up to the 10,000 word mark. I loved the way the 10,000 words ended on a good bit, a bit that caused an intake of breath. Then I realised that I had to fit a 500 word synopsis into the word allowance. Sigh of frustration. Swear words. Then back to work, cutting and recrafting the sample and chopping back an old 900 word synopsis to 500 words, with just about recognisable syntax. And off it all went to Exeter on the wings of an email.

Maybe it still won’t win a competition. Maybe it won’t even get long-listed. But it is much better than it was. Failing freed my thinking and boosted my creativity, which had subsided into tinkering because so much work had gone into the novel that it had become like scripture in my head – something holy and not to be tampered with.

But that’s not how writing works. Reading of my setback on social media, some lovely, well-meaning people implied that I need to wait for the world to wake up to my talent. In truth though, until I produce something that makes people want to read on, my writing isn’t good enough to be published. Until then - though it baffles people that it is taking so long - the novel isn’t finished. But it will be! And it will be worth reading. And I’ll be proud of it.


  1. Inspiring words from an inspiring mentor. Working with you since April your advice has consistently been invaluable to me. I am holding thumbs for you in the next competition!

  2. My friend Jen asked me to post this as the site wouldn't let her for some reason. She is a fellow writer and blogger, and great friend from Hong Kong days: "I totally hear you, Sophie. I'm at a similar stage - just sent out a batch of queries and am waiting for rejection. ha ha. I recently worked with a mentor/editor on my first five chapters and tried very hard not to be precious about the work i.e. constantly asking myself, well, is it good for the story? It does seem to be a never-ending process but I think if you are still energized, still finding new angles and aspects to the story and still feel like your writing is improving with each draft then keep going! It can only get better, right? Jen x"