Posts Tagged ‘stories’

How I stumbled into my career.

Friday, August 20th, 2010

In general it can be interesting to learn how people ended up in their chosen career. In general.

However, when you’re talking about writers, that makes the leap from interesting to fascinating in my opinion, because you can’t just choose to become a writer. There is no ready-made protocol to follow, nor job vacancies with a sheet of interview questions. From experience I can tell you that you need talent, determination, tenacity and luck. Not necessarily in that order. And virtually no two writers will have entered their profession in the same way.

For myself, I always assumed that I would become a writer. This isn’t quite as arrogant as it sounds because I wrote stories from a very young age, in a classic torch-under-the-bedcovers type of way and I was an A-student in English throughout my academic career. The same cannot be said for maths. I was seven when I wrote my very first story, it was fifty notepages long and called ‘Once in a Blue Ribbon’. Most of my early stories involved ponies. Throughout my childhood I wrote lots of little stories and poems and plays; in fact I was probably always writing something or other. However, whilst I took for granted that I would write books one day, I also thought that I would have a proper career before that. You know, one that needs qualifications and that you get paid for, that type of thing. So I thought I might be a lawyer. I took 11 GCSEs, an AS-Level and A-Levels in English, Spanish and History, gained good grades (A, A, C) and went to Southampton University to study Law.

Sarah Haynes wearing a Southampton University Top

At the end of my first year I took the unusual step of having a baby. You won’t find it as an acknowledged option for undergraduates, but I took a year out to stay at home with my new daughter, and then returned to studying, graduating a year later than planned. And right up until my graduation I fully intended to become a solicitor. I had a place at the College of Law in Guildford and everything. But something niggled at me. And then one day shortly before I was due to start I had a conversation with my husband which ran a bit like this:

“Darling, I think I might not become a solicitor and go out to work after all.”

“Right. And what did you think you might do instead?”

“Well, I thought I might write a book.”

And he’d looked aghast, as well he might. I was exchanging potentially well-paid, permanent employment for what was little more than a whim. But sensibly, he did not voice that thought and I suppose he must have agreed because look where we are now.

And so I bowled headlong into writing my first, rushed manuscript which was a potted history of – at that time – the most eventful period of my life, namely being at University, studying Law with my baby in tow. Plus one or two other more salacious elements which don’t need to be mentioned.

When I’d written roughly half of it, I began sending it out to agents and I had a very encouraging response. Without actually being signed up. I was utterly determined though and took no notice of the rejections that poured through my door like lava out of Vesuvius. Every would-be writer knows that you don’t take any notice of rejections until you have literally exhausted every agent in the Writers & Artists Yearbook. For every ten agents that I approached, I would have a positive, personal response from perhaps one. The rest hadn’t even read it; you can just tell.

What I have covered in a few lines actually took a surprisingly long time. I was disciplined towards my writing (a skill learnt from studying and taking my finals with a baby; time management is essential) and refused to let the rejections knock my confidence. I knew I could write. But the process of researching appropriate agents, learning whom they already represented and writing personalised, covering letters with a measured amount of information, putting in a soupcon of arrogance and a handful of confidence with a sprinkling of determination all takes time. Then you have to be able to afford the postage for ten lots of three chapters, double-spaced and a brief synopsis to all these London-based agents, which as graduates we struggled to do. And then you have to wait. And wait. And after you’ve done that you wait a bit more. It can – and frequently does – take up to eight weeks for them to get back to you, often with a crushing response. But as a writer you cannot let that affect you, you must have confidence in your work and carry on. Unless you receive the same, negative response from fifty agents and then probably accept that your manuscript needs some editing.

It was a time of colossal uncertainty, hope and excitement. A lot of excitement about what I was doing, what I hoped to do and what I thought I could do. It did go on a bit though. I was ready for something concrete to happen a long time before it did, but unfortunately my writing wasn’t, so it didn’t come about.

However, the most exciting thing to happen to me during this time was that I came within a hairs breadth of being signed by a very good literary agent. She read my synopsis and first three chapters, loved it and rang me one evening to discuss it. However, ultimately, she decided that the manuscript wasn’t quite good enough and said no. After being so close this was a real blow. And I was so disenchanted with the manuscript after that I put it to one side and didn’t touch it for three years. I forgot about it. I eventually went back to it on the advice of another agent, read through the writing and realised that the first agent had been completely right. It was absolutely no good at all; it needed to be entirely re-written. I was so grateful for her advice (which is always spot on by the way) that I emailed to tell her, and to cut a long story short she ended up accepting the re-written version and it’s currently waiting for attention in the inboxes of various editors of publishing houses scattered around London.

I know that presented like this my route into writing sounds gloriously easy and really quite a laugh – it absolutely was not. I had years of rejections and uncertainty and I was forced to face up to the fact that I just wasn’t good enough for a long time. I had to be ruthlessly honest with myself about the standard that I was writing to. But I didn’t give up, I didn’t lose hope, I just became more determined; it’s the only way you can do it. As I said in the beginning of this post, I had to keep going, keep trying, improve my writing, continually strive to be better, understand the marketplace more and do my research. And keep taking deep breaths and diving back in to the pool of agents to try and persuade them to represent me. That was my ultimate goal and I refused to compromise. It was a good thing that I didn’t because I got there in the end.

Next challenge: persuading a publisher that they want my manuscript. And the one after it. And the one after that, ad infinitum……