A week ago I got an email telling me a friend’s first novel had been longlisted for the Booker Prize. The Booker is the pre-eminent prize for literary fiction written in English, and winning it is generally reckoned to be career changing. Just getting as far as the long list is pretty major, especially if, as is the case in question, you have never published a novel before, and it has taken you twenty years to get publisher. It certainly came as a surprise to my friend.
But not to me. I had seen the novel in all its various stages from the earliest version. I had been saying it was brilliant for twenty years. I helped find an agent who agreed, and he found the small independent publisher who took the plunge and published it. If only I’d put a tenner on its success all those years ago, I would now be planning a pretty lavish late summer holiday.
Given that this is a blog about ghostwriting, you might be forgiven for imagining I had some part in the writing of the book. Not a bit of it. The author, as she has proved, has more than enough talent to write her brilliant book herself. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of helping. Writing is tough, especially when you are starting. No one is asking you to do it. No one is paying you to do it. Everyone will tell you that the percentage of manuscripts that finally make it into print is somewhere around 2-3%. (And, needless to add, the percentage of those that get shortlisted for a major prize is even smaller.)
And then, when you’ve found enough free time in a busy life of earning a living, bringing up a family, and so on, you finish the book and send it off – to an agent or a publisher. And you suffer the intolerable wait, at the end of which you get a rejection letter. Rejection letters range from brutally brusque to paragraphs of faint praise and hints of encouragement. Whatever form they take, they deliver a massive blow to your confidence.
And that’s where help and support can be so vital. Aspects of the book can be revisited; possible alternatives to the structure or the conclusion can be explored. It’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years – with creative writing students, friends, clients. The vital thing is keeping the flame burning, the belief in the intrinsic quality of the work. When it comes down to it, persistence is key.
And there are so many examples of globally famous writers who have bounced back from rejection after rejection.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was turned down numerous times and was famously plucked out of the slush pile by an editor at Faber to read on the train home at the end of a busy week. Result? A heavily edited version was published to universal acclaim, setting Golding on a stellar path to a Nobel Prize.
JK Rowling similarly found her first Harry Potter manuscript returning like a razor-edged boomerang. For goodness’ sake, who’s going to want to read a story about a bespectacled boy who happens to be a wizard? And even when a publisher, Bloomsbury, did decide to take a punt on it, the first print run was so small that first editions are now incredibly valuable.
And so it goes on. Publishers and agents are not perfect. But the important point, from the writer’s perspective, is that there are a lot of them, and, hard though it may be to believe, every single one of them is looking for a book they want to fall in love with and publish to great acclaim. So your one duty to your own book is to believe in it, keep the faith and keep going.
The same applies to those authors who, recognising they don’t have either the skills or the time to write their own book, still want their story told. And that, of course, is where the ghosts come in.
If we’re convinced the story is worth telling, we will outline the best way of telling it and help you tell us what we need to do so.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about a film script I’m writing with a client. It’s a great story and will make a great film. We already have a script and some serious interest in it. But as it’s based on my client’s experience, I am seeking out documentary evidence of the events we describe.
At first it seemed there wasn’t much. I certainly had enough to write the first draft of the script. But then there came a moment when it became apparent that ‘based on a true story’ needed to be backed up by some hard evidence. I asked again. There was talk of a box in the loft. And just the other day an email arrived with a picture of a kitchen table spread with letters, documents and even a diary which had never been mentioned – a treasure chest I can’t wait to get my hands on. It’s extraordinary how things work out, if you keep believing.
See you at the Oscars!