The Long Road to a Novel – Part 3 – The Secret Ambition

Hopeful sunshine and swirling clouds of ambition

Welcome to the next post in my blog series about the road to publishing my first novel, The Art Trip. This time I’m looking back at the long period I spent secretively working away and how I finally arrived at the time it felt right to break cover, share what I was doing and feel proud of my work. So it’s a post about confidence, I suppose – building it, taking people into it and sustaining it. For any aspiring writers out there, fellow writers or creators, I hope you find something in my experience that resonates and encourages you, and I’d love to hear about your journeys too!

So, about those secretive years. I’ve never found writing a lonely experience, but for me, and I guess for a lot of novelists, at least, it is a solitary one. I’ve benefited from a huge amount of support along my journey so far, but the actual writing part of that journey has felt like a solo voyage of discovery. Some days are a joy, others are more challenging, but on the whole I enjoy that sense of ploughing my own furrow, creating something of my own. In work or sports, I’ve often been part of a team, and I enjoy that too, but my writing projects are my personal outlet and escape, mine to nurture and shape.

As soon as I even entertained the dream of publishing my writing, though, I knew they wouldn’t always stay that way. As I set about developing my novel-writing skills and experimented with different genres, I began to think much more about the reader. Whilst I doubt it’s possible to delight all readers, since they all come with different expectations, of course I’d never want to disappoint one. That meant I’d need some help. Even if I self-published as an indie author, as I’ve gone on to do, it was unlikely my work would see the light of day, or be the best it could be, without the input of others. So I knew that some time, at some point on the far horizon, I’d need to begin to talk about my writing, ask for others’ opinions, and be prepared to stand by my work.

The prospect was daunting, and as with a lot of daunting things, it was easier to delay than to do. I wasn’t ready to call myself a writer, but if I wasn’t that, then I felt I was just someone scribbling things, perhaps slightly foolishly. Through my first two unpublished novels I kept quiet, worked away in my burrow, with principally biscuits for company. I told my immediate family a little of what I was doing, but even then, not a lot.

By the time I was beginning The Art Trip, you might think I would have gained in confidence. Perhaps I had a little, at least in my own skills, which I’d honed somewhat, but then I faced other doubts. Now I was writing a romantic comedy and I don’t know why, but that seemed to come with some baggage. I love romcoms, they can be brilliant reads and, done well, can become classics. After all, the novel form itself has its origin in romances. I was unsure, though, what others might think. I had a vague idea, I think, of someone finding out one day and saying something like ‘Oh that’s great! I never thought of you as funny but…’ or ‘Oh well done you!’ but with a look of sympathy on their face that said I was some kind of lonely fantasist. So still, I kept quiet.

Meanwhile, there was the business of living to attend to. At a certain point, when you’re spending a lot of your spare time by yourself, it becomes quite tricky to account for your movements! It’s not that my social calendar was particularly packed before I began to write seriously, but I had a sense that some of my family or friends might be worried that I seemed ever more home-bound. My colleagues would ask what I’d been up to at the weekend. Not being much of a fibber, it was easier to say not much.

So how did I begin to emerge from my shell? Well my first steps were to engage with the writing community from the sanctuary of my own living room. I started, of course, by reading. From my local library I borrowed books on writing by all kinds of authors and academics. Steven King’s On Writing had as big an impact on me as on everyone who reads it. John Yorke’s Into The Woods made me reassess my approach to plotting. A great many others all taught me something. I gleaned tips on technique and process from each, but overall the biggest lesson from my reading was perseverance. It was reassuring to read how even the best writers struggled and doubted themselves, and despite their success, continue to struggle and shrug off those doubts at least enough to publish.

From there I began to watch online lectures or interviews with authors and screenwriters on YouTube. To pull out some highlights, interviews like this with Zadie Smith were always massively insightful, and the BAFTA Guru series with screenwriters was too, even though I was writing a novel. I also began follow some of the countless fantastic blogs from other writers – too many to mention here, but I’ll write a future post on some favourites, I promise! Hearing writers sharing their experiences, seeing them trying making sense of what they do, was even more heartening. No-one had all the answers. Even the most successful writers seemed vulnerable discussing their work.

I then heard about and subscribed to Mslexia magazine, a fantastic publication on women’s writing. Landing on my doormat every couple of months, it was a another boost, bringing a dose of outside inspiration and making me begin to feel part of the writing world. The pages of Mslexia were a doorway to the next stage of my growth. As well as the insightful articles, work and letters from other readers, at the back there’s a catalogue of opportunities which are open to anyone. There are competitions, events and courses on all kinds of writing genres and topics. Some of these caught my eye.

One particular scene from my second unpublished novel had stuck with me, and I was tempted into crafting it into a flash fiction story and entering it in a contest. Quite an illustrious one, as it turned out, The Bridport Prize, though I wasn’t aware of that then. It was an excellent exercise in editing, if nothing else, and posting off the entry was another little toe in the water. From time to time I entered things like this, with flash fiction, poetry, or excepts from my novels, and I still do. Most of the time I don’t hear anything back, which in itself is good training for the rejections that are part of writing. But each time I tried something new and ventured to share it, it got less daunting.

Sometimes, only occasionally, I do hear back, and when it happens that’s wonderful! My first flash fiction entry, long after I’d forgotten about it, brought me some lovely news. Months later, in the middle of taking a little break, I got an email to say it had been shortlisted, and although it didn’t win, it was such a confidence-building thing. I even had a poem selected for publication in Mslexia magazine. It was something I wrote about an experience which had moved me, nothing like my usual work, something I only did for the challenge. Still, someone liked it and saw merit in it, and that meant a lot.

By this point all the books and interviews, blogs, articles and competitions were doing their work. I felt ready to meet the writing community in person, to fully join it, if you like. A big step in this for me was attending an Arvon Foundation creative writing course. In place of a holiday, I booked myself a week in lovely remote cottage with a bunch of people about whom I knew nothing except that we all wanted to write, guided by two excellent author tutors Tiffany Murray and Tom Bullough. The course was called ‘Work in Progress’ and I kept telling myself that’s what I was, and what my work was, and so I might belong there after all. Still, rolling up the track to the cottage, I was full of trepidation. I’d never done anything like it before. I’d never said to anyone in seriousness that I’d like to be a writer, let alone arrived anywhere presenting myself as one.

I needn’t have worried. What a brilliant, transformative week it turned out to be. Through creative exercises, group discussions, sharing work and author talks, I grew so much alongside my fellow writers. Without internet or mobile signal in the cottage hideaway, there was only writing, talking and eating. Despite our different life experiences, interests and genres, there was nothing but support on offer. The short exercises Tiffany and Tom set at the start of each session were for me particularly enlightening. It’s amazing how much you can write, how well and how happily in a few minutes if you just clear your head, take up a theme, a pen and go. I’d never thought about warming up at the start of a writing day, but it turns out the creative brain works like a muscle. After a week of doing nothing but exercise it, I was fizzing inside. I finally felt I was a writer, not because of how good or otherwise I was, but because writing made me very happy, and because I’d met other writers, all on the same journey.

It was time to break cover. When I returned and people asked about my holiday, I shared where I’d been and what I was working on. No-one was unsupportive. Whether they liked the sound of what I was writing or not, whether they thought I’d make a good writer or not, almost everyone recognized something of the guts and commitment it takes to try. I did get the occasional funny look, but by then I had the self-confidence to let it bounce off. There were the people who wanted to know if I was writing what they’d call a ‘bodice-ripper’ or a ‘bonkbuster’! I wasn’t, The Art Trip is a light romcom novel, but so what if I had been! I’m sure some people thought I was a fantasist, and some people probably still do. It doesn’t matter.

There were other people, more people, with whom I forged a new kind of connection through my work. They were often people with their own passions, photography, baking, whatever, and a dream of taking it further. Sometimes I stumble across another writer. It’s amazing how many of us there are out there! It’s lovely to discover another side to someone, even someone you thought you knew quite well, and it’s a really special thing when someone decides to share their own creative dreams. Some of these people were kind enough to offer more than support. They became my first readers.

Moving from sharing my work with a few readers to sharing it with the world was a whole other challenge, that still lay in the future, and it’s a topic for another time. What I’ll say for now, though, is it hasn’t been half as difficult as first learning to share and talk about my work. I still find something of the same apprehension arises when I’m talking to someone new about my writing, or when I share a new project, but each time it’s a little less. Writing is still something I do alone, but for me, being a writer is less and less solitary. If you’re a fellow writer or creator with a secret ambition, all I can say is nurture it, and don’t hurry it, but when you’re ready to share, I’m sure support will be waiting!

The Art Trip

If you’ve enjoyed my writing and would like to check out The Art Trip, that’d be lovely! The ebook and paperback are available from Amazon, and for any Kindle Unlimited members, it’s available within your subscription. Do let me know what you think!

Lisa Graham The Art Trip St Peter's Cupola

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