This Writing Life

I was wondering if you would like an update on my writing endeavours? If you don’t, no worries, do feel free to move right along and I’ll be saying something about proper, existing books in the next post. It’s a topic I feel rather shy about myself, as if I’m not really qualified to discuss it. But, to recap: around about 2007, strictly under the heady influence of blogging, I began to think how nice it would be to write in a way that wasn’t academic and I started to try my hand at commercial non-fiction. What I wanted to be able to do was to bring all the wonderful ideas and concepts and stories that I’d been teaching my students to a wider audience. For decades now, academic writing has become more complex and inaccessible to the general reader, its conventions obsessed with intellectual rigor, with straining to express the furthest reaches of thought, and with sounding terrifically clever. This all makes it jolly hard to read, and not always a great deal of fun to write. I had always been a shameless populariser, because I think ideas are beautiful and all that really matters is to keep people open-minded to them, and I’m enough of a soap-box prophet to feel inclined to foist my particular interests on the public in the name of the general good. And so the first thing I did was start writing a book about how important stories are to us, and how they crop up in everything we do.

So I sent this first book around a few agents and struck lucky. One was interested in working with me, but didn’t think that the book I’d begun had sufficient commercial interest. She’d noticed in my covering letter that I had also mentioned an interest in writing on motherhood, and could I put together a proposal on that topic? Naturally, in my first flush of enthusiasm, I could. She liked it, I started to write it (and the chapters I wrote are available on this site, linked from the side bar), she liked it less. There then followed a long, long series of proposals written by me, which only went to show that I was not good at writing proposals for the commercial market, after all those years of academic rigor. Editors want to be teased and seduced by a dirty trick of a concept; they want to have their imaginations provoked, as it’s the only way they can envisage a book so marvelous that they can actually sign it up. I wanted to set out a nice, clear, coherent structure of what I was going to do, showing how the ideas jigsawed together in satisfying ways – far too easy to argue against. Anyhow, eventually I wrote a proposal that the agent did like, I started writing while she showed the proposal to the other agents at the agency, and they shook their collective heads at it: too academic, not sufficiently commercial.

Well, after a few more proposals I decided to go back to this one, as it was the only idea I personally liked, and at that point I hooked up with a writing coach. This was probably the best thing I ever did. Although I felt very enthusiastic about my project, I had a sneaking feeling that the narrative wasn’t coming out quite right. Jacqui, my coach, read my first (huge) chapter and made a remark that carried the force of an epiphany. ‘I’m wondering,’ she said, ‘what you want non-fiction to do for you. Because it really feels like you want something from this, but I’m not sure the material is giving it to you.’ At that point all the tumblers in my mind fell into place and the inner sanctuary swung open. Of course! What I really wanted, I realized, was to express myself. I didn’t want to compress masses of research material into some arbitrary shape, I couldn’t bear the thought of another footnote (you know the image in Tom and Jerry cartoons of Tom being dragged along the floor, face down, his claws gouging corkscrews of wood out of the parquet? That’s me on the day when I can no longer put off doing my footnotes). I wanted to write something straight from my experience and from my heart.

I put all thoughts of motherhood to one side and embarked on a book in August of last year that I finished in July 2010. It was about my experiences of teaching literature at Cambridge while suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. It was a lot about learning, about how hard it is to learn in ways that promote real, deep change, and how satisfying it can be when we do. It was a chance for me to try to put this invisible but infuriating illness into words at last, so that others might understand it better. And it was a way to talk sneakily, on the quiet, about how important stories are. Finally I had found a way of combining the things that really mattered to me in narrative form. And the book wrote itself; I only had to show up at the keyboard.

So, back in summer I passed the manuscript on to an editor I know, who passed it on to her non-fiction colleague and we talked (I liked her very much). Her verdict was that it was ‘brilliant but unpublishable’, which was an interesting comment that has held something in it for my every subsequent mood. Her feeling was that it had too many themes. If I could fillet out the chronic fatigue material and just write about teaching at Cambridge, it might work. But she quite understood that I didn’t want to do that. And I don’t; one of my main points is that if you work constantly at the furthest reaches of your capacity, there is damage. Waste, idleness, rest, contemplation, mistakes, doodling, dreaming, in fact these things are more important than we think to maintaining emotional balance and essential to learning in a long-lasting, fulfilling way. Show me a driven workaholic and I’ll show you someone who probably doesn’t feel very well or very happy most of the time. But I digress. I’m coming gradually to realize that the commercial market is even more rule-bound and regulated than the academic one. In academic writing you can try anything, so long as you observe the conventions of form (more or less). In commercial writing it really helps if what you want to write looks like something out there already.

That puts me in an awkward position because I’m never going to want to do that. I always want to do something different, something new. But not all hope is lost. I still think of myself first and foremost as a reader rather than a writer, and the reader in me knows that if you want to do unusual things, you have to pad them out with reassuring familiarity so as not to startle or confuse. I’m letting the book settle for a little while, and taking in the excellent advice I’ve received from people who have very kindly read it (heartfelt gratitude to you all), and then I shall do some editing. The real problem now is what to write next. I’ve certainly learned a great deal from the experience of writing a book from start to finish. I’ve had to realize that all the things I want to talk about are not considered commercial and require much creativity from me to make them appeal to the modern market. I realize I have a fatal tendency to want to pack too much into everything I write (although I love that! I protest from the sidelines). And I learned that it’s worth my while to take the time upfront to find the right project. Last year it didn’t feel like I was Writing A Book; it just felt like I was doing something I had to do. That there was nothing else better I ought to be doing. It’s all too easy in the commercial publishing world to be lead astray by what everyone else wants (and there is a barrage of suggestions, not all of them equally helpful) that you have to figure out how to  recast in ways that make sense for your own integrity and creativity. But I’m very impatient to be writing again – as you can probably tell from the amount of blog posts I am churning out!

24 thoughts on “This Writing Life

  1. “In commercial writing it really helps if what you want to write looks like something out there already.” That would do for fiction as well. Why its so very difficult to break through with work that doesn’t quite match up. Eight years writing my first novel, ten trying to get it published and still at it. I’ve heard that “brilliant la la … but la la …” line. They must keep in a shelf for recycling.

  2. That’s wonderful, LLove. And you know — selling a book to a commercial house isn’t the only way to publish it. In most cases, you’re expected to promote the book yourself anyway, so for someone who has something big or important or non-commercial to say, self-publishing (or very small house publishing) can be an option. Write your truth in all its multithematic glory.

  3. Litlove, I really enjoyed this post, and I hope you write more about your experience of writing! Whatever you end up doing, you know I will buy your book when it inevitably gets published. I will order it from England. I think you’re a wonderful writer.

  4. Litlove I’m so happy you gave us this update. You are a wonderful writer and I am going to read those chapters you have posted links to. “In commercial writing it really helps if what you want to write looks like something out there already.” Yes that’s true, at least insofar as the publishing industry is concerned, and I think it’s idiotic. But it’s also understandable because the whole industry is running scared right now.

  5. This is fascinating. I think you make a great point that it’s much easier to get published if what you write looks like something already out there. It makes sense because publishers need some evidence something is going to sell before they spend money on it, but it’s also disheartening. Is there no market for something a little unusual?
    Personally, based on your description here, I can’t imagine filleting out the chronic fatigue material from the teaching material. It seems like the fatigue helped you see some important truths about work. I love, for example, what you say here about the problem of always working to your fullest capacities. Here in the uber-driven Washington DC area, pretty much the only acceptable response to “How are you doing?” is a big sigh and the phrase, “So busy. I’m…[insert list of a million projects you’re working on].” If you aren’t busy, you aren’t doing your part. That can’t be healthy.

  6. “In commercial writing it really helps if what you want to write looks like something out there already.”

    I think that explains why every second book is marketed as the new Dan Brown, the new Harry Potter, or the new Stieg Larsson!

  7. Interesting! I’m always happy to hear about how your writing is going. I admire your ability to write as much as you do, and to do it so well! I’m also frustrated because I love books that do new things, especially nonfiction books that do new things, and I know I’d love your writing. Sigh. But you have tons of creativity, so I’m sure you can figure out how to market/edit it properly, and I hope we can see your work in print before too long. And enjoy figuring out what to write next — and share it with us when you feel like it!

  8. You are the second blogger I read regularly who is writing creative non-fiction and struggling to work out how to sell it. It is making me very impatient with the publishing industry. I really like non-fiction books that are about one subject, but really consist of a lot of different things – as not a very good non-fiction reader it makes it much easier for me to stay engaged. And yours sounds so interesting, a whole mix of subjects and a personal element too.

    Publishing is a business and publishers aren’t paid to take risks so the closer someone can make their work look to existing books that have sold the faster it will get published. More and more I notice how some books that don’t really fit with a trend get jacketed and blurbed so that they look like they do – very annoying for readers who don’t want to read the next Dan Brown etc having to sort through, but I guess very reassuring for publishers and I guess a good way for them to take risks while attempting to ensure the widest market picks up their book. Perhaps you could suggest banging it in a black cover with a red image on the front and mentioning how Cambridge might have a few vampires knocking about in the older colleges? Sure to put your book on the shelf🙂

  9. Jacob – I’m sure! But it was the kindest rejection I’ve ever had so I was very grateful for it! The very best of luck with your novel. I’m sure it’s wonderful and that you WILL find a home for it in time.

    David – ‘multithematic glory’ – love that! It’s true that publishing is changing shape rapidly at the moment and who knows what will come out of that? The cfs angle does give the book a bit of a niche feel, so there are other possibilities for me down the line.

    Jenny – oh hugs to you! If I ever get published you can have a free copy for that!🙂

    Lilian – it must be so difficult for publishers to know what to do at present, when it’s confusing enough for authors! Publishing is in such a state of flux. I am so appreciative of your support and it means the world to me – thank you.

    Teresa – well, exactly. It was exactly that kind of mad rushaholic tendency that I wanted to talk about. I think that education encourages students to overachieve rather than learn, which is to say push themselves to get stupendous results rather than following their passion and curiosity with the patience necessary to learn in a longterm way. If I hadn’t have suffered cfs, I could have been one of those people saying ‘well if I can push myself this way, anyone can!’ and being obnoxious about it. I think you can do different things, but you have to be very careful and very clever about it. And I think the editor was right, in that my book isn’t ready yet, there are very useful changes I can make and I do hope to get it to a point where it works (without giving up the cfs dimension!).

    Kimbofo – and no one can deny that you see that sort of comment around far too much! I worry it puts off as many people as it attracts…

    Dorothy – oh thank you. You know I love the same kind of quirky non-fiction you do, and have found lots of it thanks to your excellent recommendations! I think that I have further to go with my book before it’s ready for publication, and that the editors comments do point to problems that I need to iron out. But I am hoping I can do that and retain a bit of unusualness!

    Jodie – I am SO curious now to know who the other blogger is – I can sympathise! I have this problem with non-fiction books in that I love the early chapters, and then, once they have established their argument and set up a formula for each chapter, I lose all interest because I can see exactly what lies ahead. I wanted to do something that had a narrative arc as well as non-fiction information. Ah well – with some work I hope I’ll get there in the end. I LOVE the idea of adding vampires. That is so clearly what I have been missing! But seriously I am not at all impressed by the misleading covers that have been appearing too often on fiction novels, even when they are not committing an ethnic outrage but just suggesting a book belongs to a genre or category that it doesn’t. I respond to attractive covers in all shapes and forms, not formulaic ones.

  10. It’s Colleen at Chasing Ray. She’s trying to sell a book that contains a personal history and stories about Alaskan flying history (you can read her writing related posts here: http://www.chasingray.com/archives/categories/ak_flying_book_the_map_of_my_dead_pilots/). Right now she’s working on selling excerpts as essays to lit journals, which means we all get to read snippets from her work in a slightly different form – hurray.

    Glad to know the vampire comment was helpful – I’ll look for my name in the acknowledgements when the book comes out😉 I am so over the idea that publishers can gently trick us into buying books. I get really het up about the books I almost miss because their covers make them out to be something standard I’ll have read a million times before, when they just aren’t.

  11. It is no good that all fledgling writers are expected to mimic something already written yet be completely unique at the same time. This makes no sense to me…and I see it with fiction as well as creative non-fiction. However, I have no doubt, Litlove, that you will find a way to sharpen and shapen your manuscript to make it work, for you and for a greater audience, and I wish you lots of patience and creative energy for that process. And I look forward to reading it when it does come out (because it will!)

  12. Always interested to hear about your writing but it sounds very frustrating that the process of publishing a book that doesn’t fit the mould is so difficult. I like David’s idea of a more niche publisher. Am also glad that your writing coach is helping you to make it even better.

    Will be very interested to see what you tackle next. Best of luck with the next project.

  13. Those publishers are all crazy, they don’t know what they are missing out on. But keep at it Litlove, there must be some publisher out there with a shred of sanity left!

  14. Litlove, you are such a wonderful writer, with a precise and graceful way of making complex ideas accessible without watering them down, I have no doubt that you WILL be published. Maybe your coach is right, and you really have two books there; I don’t know. But I have faith in you and know that you have enough faith in yourself to go with your gut. (Will not cite again your statement regarding commercial publishing; just know that I agree with you!)So, onward!

  15. How disappointing that commerical writing is expected to be just like everything else. I applaud you for not wanting to do that.

    When I was young (teenager) I thought I wanted to be a writer, but I’ve found that I definitely am a reader. Maybe some day I’ll try my hand at writing again but I think I’d be similarly disappointed in the market for anything I could possibly want to write…

  16. This is my advice to you, and I think it’s the best route to take. First, you must be part of a reality TV show. Your family won’t mind as it’s for the good of the cause. Then, do something hugely embarrassing or obnoxious–preferably on live TV. The masses will be addicted. Give it just a little time, let the dust from the tabloids settle a bit (oh, why wait–let the dust rise) and the publishers will be knocking down your door asking for a book from you. Seriously, that’s how it happens over here anyway. Okay, just kidding–that’s a nightmare, but I honestly think that is how it happens to people who don’t deserve it and others have been working away so diligently for a long time and have real talent, writing really good stuff and they are turned away. Sorry to hear you are still not where you want to be with this, but from an outside perspective, as frustrating as it seems for you, I think you have to be making progress. You have them interested–it’s just finding the right publisher with the right material. I think it’s amazing that you’ve written a book–it’s just a matter of time, I’m sure, before some savvy publisher snaps it up.

  17. I’m so excited to hear about this. I absolutely think this is what you should have been writing and what you should be publishing. Your writing here on this subject has been the most lucid and moving I’ve read anywhere.

    The one thing that occurs to me, I guess, is that, at least in this blog post, you seem to give equal weight to the illness and to your work as a university lecturer. While both are absolutely essential to the book for the way they illuminate one another, perhaps one needs to be foregrounded, or one has to constitute the frame. Very likely this is in fact how it is, though, even if it’s not clear form a brief blogpost.

    I’m also emailing you.

  18. LL! This entry rocks. I am so glad to hear you talk about your writing life. Don’t get me wrong; I love book blogs (reading them) but it’s grand to hear from a serious student of books and writing. Yes, yes, feel grand that you wrote your first book. There. You’ve got that out of the way. Bravo on that – it’s terribly important.
    So is writing what you want, need, feel. Commercial is fine. Yes, we writers aspire to it and in the meantime, will pursue publishing in various ways and guises (journalism, help others self publish, yes, even NaNoWriMo!) You’re going to hit the next idea and roll on that one, too. And it will be even better, if not completely different, than your first. And in the meantime, of course, blogging is excellent writing practice. But you know that. And thanks for sharing this.
    And write more about writing!

  19. I’m passing the link to this post on to a good friend of mine who has been laboring over his novel for the last couple of years and trying to get it to fit what the publishers want. I think what you wrote was very cathartic for you and in that sense is more important than anything else. It sounds like a book that I would enjoy reading and what frustrates me sometimes is all of the books we as readers don’t get to read because decides it is “brilliant but unpublishable”. Good for you for continuing to soldier on and who knows what the future might hold?

  20. Mmm, yes please, I would love an update! Wonderful, fascinating post, LL – I understand so much of what you’re talking about even though we’re writing such different things. Look, I just think trying to jump through all those hoops is so hazardous, and I can’t help feeling happy and hopeful that instead you’ve written the book you needed to write and stuck to your guns. It doesn’t sound like your search for a publisher has been remotely exhaustive, either, so this, my friend, is only the beginning. But you sound so strong and sure and I am truly excited about that, because it says deliciously promising things about what I don’t doubt is a very fine read from a very fine writer.

  21. As someone who lived through 8+ years of chronic fatigue in tandem with an academic career, I would LOVE to read your book. Please tell prospective publisher/s that there IS an audience…

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