Diary of an Unpublished Writer aged 33 ¾
I’ve kept a diary since I was 13 – and twenty years later, I documented the highs and lows of writing my first book, looking for an agent, finding a publisher, and preparing for my debut novel to be launched…
At last… the one! Not the perfect man, but the first idea for a novel I’ve had that I really want to write… The idea occurs to me at Christmas and soon replaces repeats of The Sound of Music as my main source of entertainment. I’m a frustrated author, but this book will be all about things that fascinate me – schoolmates and enemies, TV docu-soaps, Friends Reunited… It seems to have the right ingredients, and the moment I start writing about my heroine, Tracey, her personality takes over. It’s a brilliant feeling – just hope this love affair lasts a bit longer than the average man…
Tracey and her school friends are dominating my life – and my real life mates are feeling left out. Everyone knows I’m allergic to mornings, but I’m setting my alarm clock an hour earlier to write and scribbling on the train and in coffee breaks. I’ve set myself a daft target of 750 words a day but amazingly I seem to be exceeding it. And who needs a social life in January anyway? Now if only I can come up with a catchy title… Feuds reunited? The trouble with Tracey? This is harder than writing the bloody book.
That elusive title came to me in the shower! Old School Ties. I hope it suggests what the story is about: the joys and horrors of school – and the way the things you did in class can come back to haunt you years later… Talking of ties, I’m having great fun designing the worst possible uniform for my poor characters; navy a-line skirt, mint green acrylic jumper and a canary yellow tie. As someone who had to wear a tangerine tie for five years, I know the horrors of school dress.
Done it! First thing this morning, I wrote The End. I never thought two words could be so exciting. Mates have read it and say they love it, but then they would, wouldn’t they? I always rely on my online writing ‘buddy’, Russ, for a more honest opinion. He’s another aspiring novelist and is always critical but fair. His email said: ‘I loved it – and if it was on the shelves, I’d tell my mates to look out for the next one by Kate Harrison.’ Awww…
Euphoria’s definitely worn off. Have gone through the Writers’ Handbook, chosen five literary agents with kind-looking names, and sent each one a little parcel with the same things: a sparkling letter to convince them not to chuck my beloved manuscript into the nearest bin, plus three chapters of the book and a synopsis. Oh, and a stamped addressed envelope for them to return it all – otherwise I could be in limbo for months. It’s agony. Am having crazy time at work, travelling all over the country, and every time I get home, I dread finding that brown envelope on the doormat. One is a standard photocopy, which seems polite the first time you read it, but then I realise they really mean, ‘you’re rubbish and you know you are.’ All the other replies have been friendly and even encouraging, but no takers so far… I’m starting to think the only people getting anything out of this are the Royal Mail.
Work’s still bonkers so the agent letters are on hold. I’ve read an article saying that publishers think ‘chick lit’ is dead. Well, try telling that to all the women on the Tube clutching their colourful paperbacks. I feel irritated for two reasons – why are most books by women in their twenties and thirties bracketed together under the same, slightly patronising heading? And why didn’t get my arse into gear five years ago? But I’ve always loved writing, and am not about to stop now, so I start on a new book. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of an author friend who teaches creative writing, I sign up for a weekend’s conference where you get to meet those elusive agents in the flesh.
Arrive at the writing conference, which is full of retired ladies trying to sell their gothic romances, and tweedy men clutching their hand-written spy thrillers. Actually, everyone’s very friendly, but the message from the professionals is the same. Chick lit RIP. Feel really disheartened as I’ve entered my book in the ‘opening to a novel’ contest at the conference. If chick lit is so out of fashion, it won’t stand a chance. I wonder if I might win something in the short story category, but when that doesn’t happen, I sulk… The judges are going on about how the novel competition had more entries than any other (over 400) and I’m wondering if I can sneak off… when they say: ‘And in first place, Old School Ties.’
Nearly fall off my chair. Then the woman in charge says: ‘And the publishers who helped judge the competition say they’d love to see the whole manuscript.’ I have rather a lot of drinks, even though I feel drunk with excitement already. Some miserable git in the bar says ‘huh, doesn’t mean anything, they’re only leading you on.’ I leave the conference with some new friends – and a determination to prove him wrong!
Just gone for a meeting with MY publisher! That’s right, they’re going to publish my book. Went to a central London coffee shop with the senior fiction editor, Gillian, who I expected to be in a twinset but was actually funky and younger than me, and she bought me an Americano and told me the best news ever. Even weirder, when I came out of the café, I switched my mobile back on, and there was a message from a literary agent I’d contacted, at the suggestion of a fantastic author I met at the conference. The agent loved the book too, and wants to meet me. So, within one day, I’ve found myself an agent and a publisher. I don’t come down from the ceiling for days…
I’ve been rewriting the bits my editor (‘my’ editor… it’s as exciting saying ‘my’ agent) thinks don’t quite work, but fortunately she likes most of it. Finally get a contract, and while it’s not making me a millionaire, it’s still wonderful to get a big wad of cash for being a bona fide writer. And MY agent (there I go again) is talking about foreign rights and film options…
Things have gone a bit quiet… Piatkus say the book will come out in September 2003, which seems an age away. Publishing moves soo slowly, but they want to bring it out to coincide with the new school year. Biggest excitement comes when, in the middle of a work crisis, I get an email from Gillian with my cover design attached. As I click on it to reveal a lovely turquoise design with a tie floating in the sky above, it finally sinks in. My book is going to be on people’s shelves. My friends – who are thrilled for me but getting a teeny bit bored – say the main reason I like the cover is because it has my name on it in VERY BIG LETTERS.
January – March 2003
Yippeee. This is the year I become a published author. But it’s not all glamour, you know. I spend a couple of dull weekends correcting spelling mistakes in the manuscript. On the plus side, I get to thank all my friends and family in the acknowledgements. I worry about sounding precious and luvvy-ish, so writing that bit takes forever.
The ‘uncorrected bound proof’ arrives. This is more exciting than it sounds. It’s actually a copy of the book as it will look, except it’s got a black and white cover, and a few spelling mistakes. But it looks like a real book, with an amazing 356 pages. I can’t believe I wrote it all. On the cover there’s a quote from the lovely Chris Manby who I met when she judged a short story competition I entered a couple of years ago… One of the surprising things about this business is how generous other writers can be with help. Big shock is realising that despite hours writing acknowledgements, I’ve left out one of my friends. Beg the publishers to add her name. Whoops.
My first ever interview… felt pretty nervous. The guy asked about my ideas and then about why I write humour. I don’t do it consciously, I just can’t help seeing the funny side, however grim the situation. Also had my photo done. I have been allergic to having my picture taken since I was about 8 so this was as bad as trip to the dentists… my face aches from grinning. Dread getting the picture back, am feeling rather fat. Bridget Jones eat your heart out – I make the plumped-up Renee Zellweger look like Kate Moss.
The calm before the storm… planning my launch party – no, sadly, your publisher doesn’t do it for you – and keeping my eyes/fingers/toes crossed that someone buys the book. Oh, and then there’s the tricky bit. Trying to write Book 2. I’d always thought it would be so much easier to motivate yourself with an agent and editor waiting. WRONG. I have found an idea I love, but getting down to it when the sun’s shining outside is not easy…
A new school term… and Old School Ties is let loose on an unsuspecting world…
Post-script: June 2011
Re-reading my diary, I can’t believe it’s almost ten years now since I had the idea for Old School Ties. The time really has flown by. I’ve now had eight novels for adults published, and am finishing off my ninth – plus I am about to become a ‘debut’ writer all over again with the Soul Beach Soul Beach trilogy for teenagers. By the end of the year, I’ll have more than a million words in print!. In 2007, I was able to realise my dream of becoming a full-time writer, and I still can’t quite believe I earn my living making up stories.
Old School Ties was re-published two years ago – and I actually went back to the original book and edited it from scratch: I think writing and editing those million words between 2001 and now has taught me a few things along the way. I hope that I’ll still be writing in another ten years … it really is a hard habit to break!