Shelley Harris won the Friday night competition at the Festival of Writing 2010, spent the weekend being wooed by numerous agents – and ended up with a wonderful book deal with Weidenfeld & Nicolson, after a hotly contested auction. Her book, Jubilee, is out now.
In one of my favourite lyrics, the Sundays once sang: ‘I was blind, but now I’m still blind.’ It’s witty, a verbal double-take – and it’s also a pretty good formulation for what it feels like once you’ve crossed that watershed and become published.
Jubilee came out in hardback at the end of December; I celebrated New Year as a published author, and in many ways my life has changed completely. Those changes are longed-for and wonderful, and they give me much joy. But here’s the thing: most of my life, all the really important creative aspects, remain absolutely unchanged.
What gets writers published, despite all rumours to the contrary, are the workaday qualities of tenacity, doggedness, sheer hard work. There’s talent too, of course, but you can’t control that. What you can control is whether you rewrite something you’ve already drafted three times before, because you know it isn’t there yet. Or whether you thank your writing group colleagues with a smile when they take apart something you suspected wasn’t quite working. Before you’re published, it’s hard to see beyond the beaded curtain. But those mundane virtues are as essential once you’ve signed that contract as they were before.
The contract came, for me, in July 2010, after a whirlwind three months during which I read an extract of Jubilee at the York Writing Festival, had offers from several agents, chose one (Jo Unwin: cracking) and then, thanks to Jo’s good offices, had a choice of four publishers. When I signed with Weidenfeld & Nicolson that summer, my feelings stretched cliché to breaking-point: it was better than my wildest dreams, it was a fantasy come true, I was over the moon.
From the outside it looked as if publication had come my way easily, as if I’d clicked my fingers for it. But Jubilee took six years and several rewrites, each one delivering a shot of spirit-sapping self-doubt. I wrote for a year and then started again; I restructured a second time after feedback on an Arvon course; I came at it once more, ripping out some of my favourite bits because they just weren’t doing the story any favours.
During this period I would look at published authors and know that there was something fundamentally different about them, not just because of their contractual status, but because I assumed that ‘real’ writers were sprinkled with a sort of fairy dust which had somehow passed me by. I thought that, for anyone good enough to be published, the writing would come easily. I wonder now whether anyone might read this and make the mistake of thinking the same thing: please don’t.
Because this is what has changed for me: I am now paid for what I do, I have access to expert help from my agent and my editor, I work to a deadline (more or less). I know that, bar flood, fire and act of God, my second novel will be published. All of these – except the deadline – are great things, and fundamentally different from the way my life was before.
Here’s what hasn’t changed: I still have to work really, really hard. That might not surprise you, but maybe this will: I agonise over the writing as much as I ever did. I still revise, and revise, and go at it again. I am most of the way through the first draft of my second novel, a story I am unrestrainedly in love with and I have amassed, to date, a list seven pages long of all the things with which I’m not yet happy.
People, I am here to tell you: there is no fairy dust. There’s just hard work, a measure of joy and the enormous comfort of doing the job I’ve always wanted to do. I am still happy, still tenacious and…still blind.