Divorce, Mortality and Debut Novelists – by Rob Palk

Posted by writingschool on 25th June 2018 in Tutor blog

The typical debut novelist is no older than twenty-four. Writing was something they fell into really. At Oxford, they accidentally showed a single sentence they had written to a friend. On the strength of this sentence they were awarded a six book deal. Now, they sit, terrifyingly photogenic, in the pages of your Sunday supplement. They are an important new voice. That single sentence they wrote is found on tea-towels, tattoos.

None of the above picture is true. But as a myth it is strong enough to deter plenty of once hopeful writers. The older, the less shinily educated, the unfortunately faced, we look upon the debut myth and we are cowed.

My own route to publication was, like most routes, more ramshackle, with detours into failure and wrong turns. At first, I believed in the myth. I wrote a novel straight out of university, eagerly posted it to various agents (this was a long time ago) and was stunned to find it rejected. I was so stunned, that I spent the rest of my twenties arsing about, rarely setting to work. I still called myself a writer though. I felt like a writer. I even looked like one. The writing part could wait.

At thirty I decided it was time to begin. In the time I had spent arsing, younger writers  had emerged, astounding audiences with the potency and clarity of their voices. I started to write. Unfortunately at this point I had a brain hemorrhage. Novel writing is not as hard as people say it is but it is still quite hard and harder still if you are temporarily broken. I was trying to write Great Literature. My model was Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon is undoubtedly a genius, which is why he is a bad model. I sweated over every sentence, trying to reach a Nabokovian perfection. In the end I had a manuscript. The sentences were perfect, but the rest of it was a mess. It was around this point my marriage ended.

I was thirty-three. I was reeling. My novel was being rejected by everyone. I realised that my next attempt would have to be my best. I remembered that I slightly knew a novelist, the comedian and writer Mark Watson. I asked him if I could send him snippets of my work in progress, thinking that if I knew a published author was reading me I would have to write something good. At least I had some material now. I couldn’t even think of much except illness and divorce so I had little choice but to write about them. I no longer had to strain for a subject, The subject had found me. For two years I went every weekday evening to the Ideas Store near my flat. I put my headphones in and sat for an hour, near the language students and GCSE panic-revisers, working on my book. It would be a comedy about illness and divorce. Also, I decided, badgers.

Eventually, I finished, just as I was made redundant from work. Because I had been stagnating in the same dull job for a decade I got an unexpectedly big pay out. I was ready to join the literary world. Soon I would live a life of impossible glamour. I hoped it didn’t spoil my writing.

For a month I sent out sample chapters to five agents a day, every day. They started getting back, and this time the responses were largely positive. I was taken to the Groucho Club. I was told I might be the next David Nicholls, something I did not want to be. I signed with one of the agents and they started sending out my book. I stood on the precipice of fame.

Unfortunately things didn’t work to plan, I started to get rejections. These were heartening rejections, in a way, in that they tended to praise the book. Of course, they said, my book was very good. But publishing is a business and while we like it very much, one has to think of the average reader. The averagel reader is not like us. The average reader is thick. I began to feel disheartened. A very good editor at a big publisher did a full edit on my book but couldn’t persuade her colleagues to take it on. An editor at an even bigger publisher said she liked it but could I remove the stuff about divorce, mortality and badgers. I pointed out that the book was about divorce, mortality and badgers. She suggested that I rewrite it in its entirety “to make it more like One Day.” Unreasonably, I refused. My agent then vanished off the face of the earth.

I contemplated giving up. I spent a sleepless night. I got drunk. Then, in one important morning, I checked that my agent was still alive, sacked her when she said yes, and sent my opening chapters off to five indie publishers. Two of them offered to publish it and I chose to go with Sandstone Press. It had been three years since I started writing Animal Lovers and finally it would be read. Perhaps this would change my life forever. My life still felt the same. I went back to my desk and started another book.

Rob will be delivering his course Getting Started on Your Novel, this October & November for Writing School East Midlands. Click here for more information.

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