Saturday, 24 November 2012

Overcoming writers' block, snivelling wimpishness and why you should never give up, by Emma Haughton

Today I am handing my blog over to my lovely friend, Emma Haughton, to tell us about her road to publication. She has just signed a two book deal and her first book will be published in 2014.

The road to publication.

I get an image of a yellow brick road when I think about the journey to publication. Long, windy, and full of steep learning curves, though like Dorothy, I’ve made some great friends along the way. When I set out, I envisioned one of those nice efficient trunk roads that take you quickly and simply from A to B. I’d been a journalist all my life. I’d written a picture book and had it been picked up by the first publisher I sent it to. Writing a piece of longer fiction – how hard could it possibly be?

Cue many years of frustration, self-deception and disappointment. I wrote a YA book. It was undeniably flawed, though I couldn’t see that. I sent it out to a few agents, collected a number of rejections. Since I hadn’t yet integrated the idea of writing being a process, something you learn to do better, I reacted to the no-thank-yous with a mix of ‘Bah, what do they know?’ followed by several years of sulking and a lingering sense of hopelessness about ever being a ‘proper’ writer.

I became deeply, almost irredeemably, blocked. I couldn’t even look at any of my fiction files in Word without feeling nauseous. I shoved the desire to be a novelist into the deepest recesses of my mind, where it festered away like a canker sore, never quite disappearing and slowly forming layers of ugly scar tissue that blighted my deepest sense of self.

Emma Haughton
In a last ditch attempt to motivate myself, I booked an Arvon course. I met other people who both wanted to write and daily confronted the same fears. I heard stories of countless rejections from the successful novelists who tutored us, absorbed their exhortations to never give up, went home, started another novel, ran into a few obstacles, and promptly gave up.

Another Arvon course a year later. Gradually I began to recognise that my anxiety around writing was actually a bone fide block – I thought I was just endlessly procrastinating. I went back to the novel I’d started. Decided the idea still had legs. I developed a strategy for facing the terror by listening to relaxation music and setting a timer on my laptop to go off in 30 minutes. Just open the Word file, I’d tell myself, open it up and tinker around with it for half an hour, then you can stop.

Initially, I could barely stand that long. It was agonising. I would hanker after the sound of the chimes that told me the time was up. Then, gradually, I got caught up with the story. I also read loads of books on writing, and found a fabulous online course that showed me – graphically – some of the ways I’d been going wrong. Within a month or two, I was ignoring the timer’s bell. I was carving out a first draft. And then a second. I was even enjoying it.

This time, submitting to agents, I was more prepared for the inevitable rejections. I’d grown a slightly thicker skin and finally understood that they weren’t confirmations of my utter crapness as a writer. I got requests for the full. I got pretty close with one or two agents. I got discouraged.

Then one agent put me in touch with a freelance editor, who did an in-depth analysis of everything she felt still stank about my book, but at the same time told me she really believed in it. I sulked. I didn’t agree with many of her points, and anyway I couldn’t see a way round them. So I shelved it.

Some months later the editor got in touch. I confessed I’d given up. She told me to ‘PULL MYSELF TOGETHER AND JUST BLOODY GET ON WITH IT’ and offered to re-read the revised version free of charge. I felt so chastened by her generosity and guilty for being such a snivelling wimp that I decided to have a go. I had absolutely no expectation of success, but I sat down and learned how to revise a novel. Discovered it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I could come up with ideas, alternatives, solutions. I didn’t do everything the editor suggested, but I did a lot of it, and the book emerged stronger.

This time I sent it out to about eight agents at once, tired of waiting for the slow trickle of responses. Got a number of requests for the full. Then, in one utterly surreal afternoon, I had offers of representation from three of them.

A tad more revision for the chosen agent, and out it went on sub again. This felt considerably worse than submitting to agents, because I knew if all the publishers rejected it, I was at the end of the road. The only way I could cope was to simply pretend it wasn’t happening. I threw myself into writing another YA novel, finishing it just as my agent was getting some initial interest back from publishers. So in the end both books went out on sub together. There was a flurry of meetings in London, and a couple of weeks later I was accepting an offer for both books.

Writing all this down, I remember how firmly I believed that I would never reach this point. Writing novels seemed impossible, a fanciful dream. Not helped, probably, by an English degree from one of those universities that regarded anything written after about 1954 to be just so much flummery. It was a long, hard and very windy road to realising that talent is only part of the equation – and not even the most important part. That passion, resilience and perseverance ultimately counted for a lot more. That writing is a craft - not an inborn gift – and something you learn to do better by trying and failing and trying again.

The Wonderful Publishing House of Oz 
Sure, some people find a shortcut to literary success and seem to arrive at point B in record time, with barely a deviation. But most of us have to trudge every step of the yellow brick road with just a dream to sustain us, and three words tattooed in capital letters right across our foreheads: NEVER GIVE UP.


  1. Thanks Emma. I couldn't agree with you more about passion, perseverance and resilience counting for more than talent, and that writing is a craft we can learn. I don't think we ever stop learning, either; and that's part of the joy - knowing that we can go on forever. xxx

  2. Wendy, thanks for introducing Emma. And Emma, heartfelt thanks for such strong encouragement. May you both be blessed with many more sales.

  3. Thank you so much, Elaine. Really glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Oh yes! So true. Why do we all have to learn the hard way? Your story is very heartening Emma, and a validation for the rest of us snivelling wimps! Congratulations and here's to many more books!

  5. Very inspiring, especially as I've been experiencing writer's block recently. All the best Emma and enjoy your hard earned success!

  6. Thank you for sharing your windy road! It's always reassuring to hear about success that came as a result of hard work and perseverance. There's hope for all us daydreamers :)

  7. Nan, Helen, thank you so much for your good wishes. I'm really pleased my journey resonates with others. Good luck with your writing too!

  8. Hi Emma and Wendy, a great post and gives us all hope that one day we may get to Oz also! Congrats and wishing you lots of success!

  9. Thank you, Lorraine!

  10. Anxiety around writing is something I have not been able to shed. Always there even in the best days.
    Very interesting blog, will be back often to look at the news. :)

  11. Thanks, Francis. Wishing you good luck with your writing.

  12. Yes, good luck, Francis. The anxiety never disappears entirely, I think, but you can master it.

  13. Fabulous blog, and heart-warming. Can't wait to read the books now!Sarah@IShouldBeWritin

  14. Thank you, Sarah! Good luck your end.


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