Last July, during the final session of my Curtis Brown Creative Six-Month Creative-Writing Course, tutors Chris Wakling and Anna Davis asked each student to share their writing goals going forwards. The responses included writing an ending that made the reader cry, sitting on a couch with Richard and Judy, and – at the top of my list – that writerly cliché: Keep The Faith. CBC had been a big part of my life for months and I felt a little apprehensive at the prospect of going it alone again, once the course was over. All writers have to be their own cheerleaders to a certain degree, but there are some days when it feels hard to visualise those pom-poms, much less start waving them around in time to music.
Fast-forward nine months. I’m in the middle of a major rewrite and having a few plot problems. I take time out and join a packed audience at the Daunt Books literary festival, where two of my favourite authors, Maggie O’Farrell and Deborah Levy, are talking to Virago publisher Lennie Goodings about their literary influences. I met Lennie once, almost 30 years earlier, when a piece I wrote on school discos for a Just Seventeen writing competition was published in a Virago anthology on young women’s lives. I was 15 and hugely excited to see my writing in print for the first time, despite the fact Lennie had cut some of what I thought to be my best sentences. (Needless to say, she was right and I was wrong – what does ‘the air vibrated with sexual promise’ even mean?!) Seeing her again brings back a few memories of the ambitions I held even then for my writing and I wonder whether I am destined to be an eternal member of the audience at events like these. It’s a depressing thought. The talk finishes, I meet Maggie O’Farrell briefly which cheers me up no end, and then I go home and carry on writing.
Two weeks later, a letter arrives. My submission to the Good Housekeeping/Orion Books debut novel award has been shortlisted from more than 3,500 entries. First prize is publication and a sizeable advance. After three years of working on my novel, here is validation and it feels great. I dance around the living room, post the news on Facebook and head for the pub.
I join my fellow shortlistees at the Orion offices a fortnight later, along with the publisher’s editorial team and literary agent Luigi Bonomi, co-founder of the competition. After discussing our submissions, we go to the Good Housekeeping kitchen for lunch with the editor Lindsay Nicholson. She tells us about the history of the magazine and it’s fascinating. It was first launched in the UK in 1922, when the legacy of World War One meant that a large number of women abandoned domestic service for factory work, leaving the middle classes with a distinct staff shortage. Women who had never cooked a meal or run a home before had to start learning. Today it is the UK’s top-selling lifestyle magazine, serving up reviews of the latest vibrators alongside recipes for strawberry jam. And there are book pages, too, with a dedicated slot for debuts every month. One of which will be one of our novels. Collective gulp from the shortlistees. We wish each other luck, exchange email addresses and go home to wait.
The phone call comes not long afterwards. The results are out and I haven’t won. I’m disappointed, of course, but the feeling is short-lived. I’ve been writing a lot in the past weeks, and my novel finally feels as though it’s taking shape. I can see the end in sight and that’s exciting in itself. Writing comes with no guarantees, that much I know; and each success can hold a measure of disappointment, too. But for now, I’m hopeful. And, cliché or no cliché, I’m keeping the faith.
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