Debut authors who’ve published during lockdown give tips on staying motivated

Keep track of your failures
Philippa East, author of Safe and Sound, has a spreadsheet which tracks her various short story submissions. ‘I did the maths and less than 25% resulted in an acceptance,’ she says. ‘When writing my debut novel it took over 20 drafts to get it “right”. My agent approached 15 publishers, and we received offers from three. Sure, publishing a short story, writing a novel or releasing a book are amazing achievements. But guess what? I got there by failing 75%-95% of the time!’

Creative visualisation – with a twist
‘While I was writing The Smallest Man,’ says Frances Quinn, ‘I had a mental Fuck Off List. On it was everyone who’d ever patronised or dismissed me. When I needed motivation, I’d picture one of them wandering into Waterstones and seeing my book on the shelf, sitting there with my name on the cover.’

Others’ success = rocket fuel
Andreina Cordani spent most of her adult life telling herself she wasn’t quite ready to write that novel. ‘I got to a point when I had this rush of bitterness, loss and anger at myself every time I heard about someone who had written a book (as a journalist that was often!).

‘It was eating me up and I had to do something. So I imagined that I had no more time to think of a better idea, take another course or read one more book on craft. No excuses, I had to do it now.’ And she did. Her debut is The Girl Who…

‘Today when I get doubts and wonder, “why am I even doing this, I’m never going to be a bestseller,” I stop and ask myself if writing this book is what I want.’ If the answer is no, she has to put the manuscript in the trash there and then. ‘If it’s a yes, then my bum goes back on that chair and I keep going.’

Accept that luck has a part to play
After a flurry of rejections, Beth Morrey, author of The Sunday Times bestseller, Saving Missy was about to put away her novel for good. ‘But, just to show I was a proper writer who could take it on the chin,’ she says, ‘I decided to send it to one more agent. It was a last roll of the dice – I didn’t expect it to work.’ But as it turned out, that last roll was the one that counted.

‘That made me realise how much this business relies on luck. Right person, right time. If I think about that too much I feel a bit shaky.’

Find your tribe
The encouragement of someone who understands what you’re going through can be invaluable. And you don’t need to have contacts before you start.

‘Just immerse yourself in the community you want to join,’ says Nikki Smith, author of Look What You Made Me Do. ‘Follow people in the industry you admire on Twitter, interact with them, ask for tips. Join groups – virtual or in real life. I belong to a group of debut writers who have provided the greatest support through some of the most challenging times.’

They’re not roadblocks, they’re stepping stones
‘Change how you view it all,’ says Louise Mumford, author of Sleepless. ‘Rejections aren’t roadblocks, they’re part of the pavement. Each one means you’re further along and closer to your goal. They’re opportunities to learn, too. Each time I was rejected I picked myself up, surveyed the pavement ahead and set off again. And give yourself a treat after any rejection, even if it’s a piece of chocolate – that really helps too!’

Focus on tomorrow, not next year
‘I would have given up if I’d looked too far ahead,’ says Louise Fein, author of People Like Us.

Louise started writing whilst caring for her daughter who had a severe form of epilepsy, and was experiencing up to seventy seizures a day. ‘Once we’d got her seizures under control, I wanted to commit one hundred per cent to her recovery. But it was so hard. She was incredibly difficult to look after, we also had two other children who needed attention, and my husband worked long hours.

‘Writing became my haven. I embarked on a Master’s two evenings a week. I was on my knees with tiredness but
took it step by step – just like my daughter’s recovery. I focused on the little wins, and tried not to get pulled down by thinking too much about the future, which at times felt bleak.’

Five years on and Louise has an agent, and her novel has eleven foreign translation deals. ‘Even better,’ she says, ‘my daughter has built on those little steps and has exceeded doctors’ expectations.’

Step away and start something different (but similar)
Instead of plugging on, Victoria Dowd, author of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder, stepped away when her novel wasn’t going well. ‘I’d put it aside and write short stories, instead,’ she says. ‘It was really a way of writing for the sheer enjoyment of it and gave me an opportunity to experiment with different genres. But then some of the short stories started to be published and I eventually won an award (the Gothic Fiction Prize). I’m sure mixing it up like this helped my novel-writing, too.’
The success she had with the short stories helped her gain the attention of publishers and get her book published.

Stop calling them dreams
‘Dreams are ethereal, fleeting and hard to believe in,’ says Cat Walker, author of The Scoop. ‘So why not call them “goals” instead? They’re tangible, and you can take measurable steps towards achieving them.’
It took Cat thirteen years to get her debut published, finally securing a deal just before her 50th birthday. During that time she refused to stand still. ‘Alongside courting agents and publishers (and having a day job and a family), I sought ways to make my writing better,’ she says. ‘That’s what kept me going. For example, I joined a writing group and that had a big impact as it forced me to write regularly and listen to constructive feedback.’
And…when it’s time to stop trying

‘I gave up on my first book,’ says Eleni Kyriacou, author of She Came To Stay. ‘One agent asked me to meet her then told me everything that was wrong with it. She did it nicely – praising
my writing, saying I had a much better book in me and that she’d like to look at that instead if I wanted to write it – but all I could hear was that this book I’d spent two years writing should be ditched.

‘I went home confused and upset. Should I persevere just to show her she was wrong? The next day I read through her notes and knew she was right.

So I threw it out and started book two. This time the story was closer to my heart, one I felt I really wanted to read myself – that of immigrants coming to London in the 1950s, just as my parents had. I could have carried on rewriting the first book, sending it out, trying to make it work – but giving up on it was freeing, and meant I was able to write She Came to Stay. Leaving one path meant I could walk another.’

Words: Eleni Kyriacou
She Came To Stay, Hodder, (hardback, audio, ebook out now, paperback Feb 25)

All books mentioned can be found in the Debut 2020 bookshop, except for The Smart Woman’s Guide to Murder which is available on Amazon

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