Em's place

Writing, anxiety-wrangling, tea.

A writer’s rutter

By Emma on April 21, 2010

I spent half of my childhood either in or next to the Atlantic Ocean. I love it, I’m terrified of it and I miss it dreadfully. In my more fanciful moments, I suspect that if someone were to peel back the skin above my heart there wouldn’t be ribs and muscle, there’d be Cornish granite, and the roar of the beating sea.

With most of my family in the Royal Navy at some point in their careers, it’s no surprise that anything to do with sea faring adventures has always captivated me. Ever since I read Shogun several years ago, one historical aspect of sea faring has fascinated me: concept of the ship pilot’s rutter.

The rutter was a book written by ship pilots in the middle ages, before such clever things as detailed navigational charts, reliable maps and GPRS. The pilot kept detailed notes, close observations of currents, rocks, weather, in fact anything that took place during the voyage, and carefully preserved it for the next time the journey was made. One of the most precious books in a ship pilot’s life, a good rutter could literally be the difference between life and death.

Looking for guidance through dark waters

A few months ago, a fellow writer got in touch and asked for advice on getting published. I freaked out, then tried to offer what paltry wisdom I could – with the caveat that I know nothing about getting published, but I do know what it is like trying to get published, and what mistakes I could avoid if I did it again.

Then yesterday a friend got in touch asking for advice on behalf of a friend’s relative about getting published. There is a hint of something worrying here:

People might think I have helpful advice about to get published, just because I have a book deal.

It’s not true, and furthermore, I read so much conflicting and downright unhelpful advice about getting published when I was trying that I am reluctant to add mine. But I can’t get away from the fact that I have made observations about the journey, and those observations may be helpful to others trying to cross the same wild sea.

Here be agents dragons…

So my offering is this; a writer’s rutter; a set of observations, not a guide or ‘how to’ in any sense. It’s my hope that if there are any other aspiring writers navigating these difficult waters, they can read my first entry, take away what they wish, and hopefully avoid reefs…

Five things I had to do before being published

1. Finish the novel

The correspondent I mentioned before wrote asking if I felt this was important. This is what I said to him:

“The received wisdom out there (if there is such a thing in publishing) is to complete the novel first, then find publishers afterwards. And, for a change, I actually agree with this.

Why? Well, a novel changes shape during the writing of it for starters. You may not end up with what you think it is now, and that makes it hard to sell it to anyone. And there are thousands of people who start and never finish, so publishers very rarely consider anything unless it exists.

And can you imagine how stressful it’d be to sell it half way through, ten find that the planned ending isn’t working? Ick.

 2. Step back from the novel

I wrote the first draft of Twenty Years Later in 26 days. It was an orgy of writing, a glorious psychosis, I was only partially in the real world the whole time.

Then the hard work really began. That first draft was almost picked up by a publisher, but the top guy rejected it, and rightly so. The novel being published now is so different in terms of plot arc and POV, and I needed distance to be able to see that.

I think we have to write for the sake of writing, write to get the story out of our skulls for nothing else but our own sanity. Then when it’s down, reintroduce yourself to your partner and friends and leave the manuscript in a drawer for at least 3 months. Believe me, when you come back to it, you’ll see how much it needs to change.

Now I am writing book two on a schedule that builds in enough time for me to ignore it when it’s finished.

3. Figure out how to boil it down into one sentence

…and if you really want to be hard-core 140 characters or less really gets the cogs working.

The glorious Query Tracker blog runs competitions along these lines, and one of those gained me a chance to wave my synopsis and three chapters under an agent’s nose. He took 6 months to reply, his rejection arriving two months after I had signed my contract. Funny old world.

Anyway, summing up 20 Years Later in one line forced me to tease out the most important theme, the apple core of the book around which the juicy flesh and shiny skin is wrapped.

If you’re curious, my winning one-line summary was:

Gangs, blood oaths and loyalty test three teenagers searching for a kidnapped sister in post-apocalyptic London, unaware that as they unravel the mystery of her whereabouts, they are uncovering London’s darkest secret.

And for the Twitter fans amongst you, here it is in less than 140 characters:

3 teenagers search for a kidnapped sister in post-apocalyptic London, as they discover her whereabouts they uncover London’s darkest secret

Once I had that core line, I could build out to a summary paragraph for query letters that was punchier than any I had written before.

4. Learn to see it as a product, rather than my baby/lover/reason to live/dream/insert other inappropriate identifier

That was hard. I had to step out of my head – no, out of that world I had created, and see it in the same way that people who want to make money out of it see it. Otherwise, how could I sell it to them?

Urgh. Painful. Hard. Awful… necessary.

5. Be brave and get out there

Staying in my comfortable little world was doing nothing for my ability to get over the anxiety of sharing my work with others, let alone learn how to promote it. This blog started when I was considering self-publishing, nine months later I had a contract.

In those nine months alone I learnt so much about being an author in the modern world, and finding my real ‘voice’ online (good grief, did I just write that?!) that I am so grateful that I started blogging before I had the deal. I’ve seen so many writers asking on forums whether they should blog before they have the contract. I cannot say “Yes!” passionately enough.

If I hadn’t dived into this brave new world online I would not have the book deal in my desk drawer right now. Simple as that. But more importantly, I have an online community full of people I find supportive, helpful, generous, exciting, intelligent, oh the list goes on. And for us lonely writer types (especially ones living out in the country) finding other people who ‘get it’ can help you through the tough times. You know, the days when you’re convinced you can’t write an interesting sentence, let alone a decent novel.

So there you have it, an entry in my writer’s rutter. But I reiterate – these are simply observations; rocks and safe waters observed on the journey, not a guarantee of a smooth and easy voyage. Is any of this vaguely useful? Do you agree? Disagree? What would you add?

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{ 7 comments... read them below, or add one }

  1. Laura Eno says:

    The way that you present your own observations is a refreshing change from the many contradictory blogs out there that tell you how to go about it. I think that the journey is different for everyone and the how-to pundits end up hurting or discouraging people, driving them away from listening to their inner voice.

  2. I agree with Laura, Em. I think the journey is so different for everyone and the points that you make, consider this.
    I love the “writer’s rutter” as it relates to your journey:-) Your metaphor for your journey gives a writer the chance to see it from inside THEIR heart and not as a list of do’s and dont’s.

  3. Emma, I think you’ve set this out in a really helpful way. You’re not saying ‘this will work’, simply, these were some of the things that you neded to do. I have to confess to being fascinated by your writing about your writing process, so I enjoyed reading this, even though I (thankfully) have no novel I wish to write or publish.

  4. Marisa Birns says:

    I agree with the others that this is a very helpful “rutter.” While the journey may be different for everyone, some conditions do apply universally, and they seem to have been discovered by you!

    You are the pioneer in this, and I am grateful to hear about and learn from your experiences.

  5. Gracie says:

    You are so generous with everything you experience. Thank you so much for sharing them. It IS confusing to read all the different “experts,” and it’s so refreshing to see what an actual person has gone through.

    I’m not ready for any of this yet, but it helps me already, especially with the uses of my little blog. Thanks again, Em. 🙂

  6. danpowell says:

    Great post, Emma and very helpful. I have a first draft of a young teens novel sitting waiting for redraft and will be taking your advice when I do, particularly the boiling down into 140 characters.

  7. […] saying “This is how YOU SHOULD do it” (if you’re not sure what a rutter is, the explanation is in this post) but rather “this is what happened to me” with the hope that it’s interesting and […]

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