When I tell people I’ve written a novel, a good 90% of them say, “really? I’d love to write a novel.” I smile encouragingly- but inwardly, I’m thinking, “no you bloody wouldn’t.” Because what I’ve discovered over the last two years is that it’s pretty much on a par with saying “I’d love to do a law PHD whilst appearing nightly on the West End stage.” It’s possible- but it seamlessly combines grinding hard work with the terror of exposing yourself to brutal rejection. I don’t mean to sound bitter- I can finally say I’m glad I did it. But I wrote the first draft in a bubble of naivety, fondly imagining my Booker Prize acceptance speech- and it turned out I was as deluded as I sound.
I’d wanted to write a novel for years. I’m a features journalist, and most of us justify the trivial fluff of our profession by believing that one day, we’ll write the Great British Novel. So all the time we’re writing “Meet the Dedicated Team behind Cheryl Cole!” or “10 ways to feel great- right now!” features, we’re brewing the big idea that will finally get us onto the A level literature syllabus.
Perhaps that’s why I had about five false starts when I actually came to write it. Oppressed 1920s woman invents feminism? No. The Devil in a girls’ boarding school? Unlikely, given that I can’t watch horror movies without hiding behind a cushion. Experimental novel that takes place in the main character’s imagination? I think not.
But finally, back in 2010, I came up with a plot that actually worked. I decided to write about something that affects everyone, but that’s under-represented in novels- friendship. I’d had a particularly hideous year (failed business, house fire, close family member caught up in a murder case- don’t ask)- and without my friends, I couldn’t have got through it. I set it in Manchester- because I live there- and I banged out the first three chapters quite easily, and sent them off to an agent.
She asked me to London to meet her, and I was beside myself with excitement. I wanted to wear a badge that said “I have an AGENT!” She was posh and blonde and she said she liked it, but had a few suggestions. I was so thrilled, I would have agreed if she’d said “I’d like you to rewrite it with a swordfish as the main character.”
As it was, I went home, she sent me a long list of what she called ‘tweaks’ and I called ‘major plot and character reassessments’ and ended her email, “can’t wait to read the whole book!”
Because that’s how it’s done now. In the old days, an agent would send a few chapters and a plot synopsis to a publisher, and they’d decide. Now, they’re so inundated, they want to see the entire thing, to make sure you don’t suddenly get to Chapter 23 then write, “and then the spaceship crashed and an alien explained that it had all been a dream”. It took me another year – I wrote between my full-time freelance job, sharing the computer with my son who was doing his A levels. It wasn’t like being a proper novelist in a Parisian garret.
But I finally finished it – and a month of nail-biting later, the agent replied. She “loved it”, but…. several more ‘tweaks’ were needed. One character needed a massive rewrite because she ‘wasn’t likeable enough’. She wasn’t meant to be likeable, but I figured my agent had to sell the book, so I’d do as she asked. Two months later, I sent it back, and waited excitedly for the verdict.
Which came several weeks later. “I’m really sorry,” it said, “I can see how hard you’ve worked..” it ended “Fiction publishing is in free fall and I have to focus on my established writers.”
I felt like Georges Valentine in The Artist, bow tie askew, staring despairingly at my reflection. But I pulled myself together (with the help of wine) and sent it to another agent.
She said she loved it. She had a few tweaks- that was fine. She told me that after Christmas, they could send it out. I waited. After Christmas, she sent me an email, that said, “I can see how hard you’ve worked…but fiction publishing is in free fall and I have to focus on my established writers.”
At that point, I decided I’d do it myself. My friend had just published her first novel on Amazon Kindle, and it was doing well. I was a bit unnerved by the idea (I had the words ‘vanity publishing’ beating in my head.) But what else could I do- send it out again, and wait another six months for a brutal rejection? So I designed a cover, realised it was rubbish, redesigned it, and then got my husband to do the (actually remarkably easy) techno-bit, and uploaded it to Amazon.
Three days later, it was listed- “The Only Friends You Need,” by Flic Everett. It was incredibly exciting- even though the book only exists electronically, rather than in the chunky piles of the 3 for 2 table.
I shamelessly promoted it all over Facebook and Twitter- I was worried everyone would hate me, but they all did my bidding and ran off to download it. By the end of week one, it was in the top 100 paid Kindle fiction. (I checked obsessively, like a new mum checking her baby’s breathing.) The best part was the reviews- “absolutely loved it”, “like Tales of the City,” “brilliant”… after two years of slavery and rejection, it was like bathing in a warm lagoon of approval. Followed of course, by icy dread that sales would grind to a halt and everyone would forget about it.
I’m still baffled and awed by those self-published American people who sell millions of fantasy books featuring characters called Thortane and Poth warring on dystopian planets, but let’s be honest, it’s not my thing. I like writing about actual people. And a month on, I’m glad I didn’t continue down the ‘traditional publishing’ route. The industry’s losing sales, money and faith in new authors- and there are thousands like me, who have finally decided to cut out the middle man and take their chances in the lawless wastes of electronic publishing, where you live or die by reviews and word of mouth, rather than Richard and Judy’s WH Smith promotions. Though obviously, if Judy happens to download it on her poolside holiday this year, I wouldn’t object. In the meantime, I’ll write the next one. And this time, I’ll save myself a year of hassle and head straight to e-reader without passing Go. I’m still practising my acceptance speech, obviously. It’s just this time, victory will be all the sweeter- because I won’t have to thank my agent.
The Only Friends You Need, £2.05 on Amazon
– We’ve read it, it’s great: SevenStreets.