Patience, Perseverance & Passion: A guest post from Tor Udall


Photo by Jonathan Ring for Bloomsbury Publishing. Please do not reproduce without permission

As this year’s Festival of Writing draws near, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be judging the Best Opening Chapter competition with my fabulous agent, Jenny Savill. I wonder who will be in the shortlist and what they are doing right now. Perhaps they’re commuting to work, or hanging out the washing, pouring a second glass of wine, or changing a nappy (or perhaps doing both at the same time). In this very moment as they glance up at the sky, or put on the kettle, they don’t know that, in a few weeks, their life will be transformed.

The festival had that impact on me. So, after signing with my agent, what happened next? More drafts. Another four to be exact.  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 particular girl down. 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! But 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 has to love it and in the run-up to Frankfurt Book Fair, there’s a lot of books vying for attention.

KeyGardensTrying 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 2nd). 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 & insightful lady. Sensitive, funny, wise, stylish (we even share the same taste in musicians), she was a joy to work with. The copyedit too was a wonderful experience. The copyeditor’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 all 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 Book 2 (the first one took 7 years so you can understand why my eye is twitching … *nervous giggle*).

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 coming to the Festival, and if you aren’t shortlisted for any of the competitions don’t be disheartened. I didn’t and I still came away with interest from 8 agents. So much can happen in the 1-on-1s, in the coffee queue, at the bar … the quickening of fate can happen in the most unlikely places.

As for the six chosen for the Best Opening Chapter, I’m so looking forward to reading your work. And for one of you (or more), hold on tight, the roller coaster is coming to get you…

A Thousand Paper Birds will be published by Bloomsbury in June 2017. You can follow its flight on twitter @TorUdall)


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  • Open-mouthed at all the drafts – and that you, apparently cheerfully, survived them. Best of luck with the book and, if you want to know what this sender-in of a to-be-judged chapter is doing at this very moment, it’s suffering from apple indigestion and listening to an angry magpie.

  • Tor Udall

    Hi Sandra, yes, it is rather jaw-dropping. Apparently The Miniaturist was 12 drafts so I don’t think it’s that unusual. But yes, most writers need the stamina of a marathon runner. Thank you so much for letting me know what you’re up to right now – it really made me smile. Wonder what the magpie is angry about (did you eat all his apples?)

  • Trisha Lord

    Congratulations on not only achieving perseverance through your passion for producing a work of art (cannot wait to read it!!) but also for sharing the journey in such an authentic, vulnerable and humorous way so as to encourage those coming behind you on this courageous journey. Beautiful!

  • Tor Udall

    Thank you Trisha. Knowing you are the goddess of authentic expression, I’m very touched x

  • That was inspiring, encouraging, challenging. You may notice I’m trying not to say daunting.
    What am I doing now? Writing this comment with my head still full of bits of research, some scenes planned but not yet written and odd snippets from months ago that may find their way into this book or some future story.
    But mostly I’m congratulating myself that I managed to write almost a complete chapter today – and proof and edit. Never done that before. York is getting to me before I get there. Can’t wait.

  • Tor Udall

    Sounds like you’re doing exactly the right things, Don. I’m a big believer in snippets left to simmer for the future. They’re like messages in code. I often think writing has both the large-scale and fine-detail weaving of a tapestry. So hold onto each thread – you never know when they’ll be useful. Congratulations on your complete chapter. Great to hear York is already working it’s magic. I look forward to seeing you there!

  • I really enjoyed this post, Tor. Always amazed at the number of drafts a novel goes through before publication – it’s quite overwhelming. I recently attended a talk by Alison MacLeod where she admitted reading through ‘Unexploded’ literally hundreds of times before it was published. This will be my first Festival of Writing and I’m nervously excited about this competition, but chuffed just to have made it this far. Already using the #FoW16 I’ve met some new writing pals and look forward to meeting them for real at the w/e. Hope to meet you too. Am in awe of you working with Bloomsbury – my dream publisher.

  • Tor Udall

    Oh, I’ve only just seen this, Tracy! Thank you so much for your lovely comments. Yes, Bloomsbury have always been my dream publisher too! Glad that we managed to say hi at the very last moment possible … we were cutting it a bit fine there! Best of luck with your submissions. Got my fingers crossed for you…