Once upon a time, I had a lovely novel rejected (in fact I’ve had multiple novels rejected more than once at several times, but that’s not important right now). This novel had got me an agent. It had got me a lunch with an editor (Pizza Express, no less, and she paid). It had made it through Editorial (‘awfully excited at the prospect of a series!’) But when it got to Marketing, it stalled like a ride-on lawnmower in Spring. ‘Who is this Antonia Honeywell?’ they asked. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, no one could answer.
I could have told them that she was a teacher who’d always wanted to learn to play the piano, that she’d written two novels before this one, that Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters brought her up, that she’d written a play and a musical and read five or six novels a week and loved her little sister with all her heart and knew all the lyrics to every song Banararama had ever recorded.
‘Oh, yes,’ they were never going to say, ‘Antonia Honeywell, I know, the one who persevered with Sean in 10C even though everyone else had given up on him and is even now sobbing over the card he sent from college to thank her.’ That’s all I had to offer. It didn’t count for anything in the world I wanted to join. But oh how I wanted to join it.
Publishing, for me, was the philosopher’s stone that was going to turn the rest of my life into gold. The hours I spent writing instead of going out with friends or sleeping; the pain of working through those rejections, starting again, writing more, striving to write better; it would all be worthwhile if I should ever get published. I didn’t know any writers, or anyone in the industry; I had no idea of the many, many things at play in the fate of a good manuscript, or that the quality of the writing is only one of them. Eventually I ‘made it.’ And there, my friends, the story ends. Reader, I married him*
*The Ship got commercially published.
The nightmare didn’t start when the foreign deals failed to flood in, or when the film rights didn’t get snapped up, or when The Ship was mysteriously missing from the bestseller lists. Of course I would have loved those things, but they weren’t – and I don’t think ever will be – what I was writing for. I was writing because I wanted to write – I wanted writing to be my work, not the thing that had to be squeezed in around my work. Publication gave me the confidence to write the second novel I really wanted to write (‘oh, you’re so lucky to be out of contract!’ well-meaning writer friends told me, although I would have killed for a contract), and kind readers sent encouragement. That novel was rejected. I wrote something completely different. More rejection, at a time when my fellow debuts were bringing out their second novels and contracted for their third. My poor laptop, who really had thought its days of being assaulted with blood and salt water were over, finally rebelled and threw in the towel. And I looked at my narrowing life and wondered what I’d done to it.
How often do you get back on the horse that’s thrown you? People only write about having been thrown off when they’ve got back on. But increasingly, I find myself fascinated by those who make all the sacrifices, put in all the hours, devote themselves with wholehearted commitment to a goal and don’t make it. The Olympic gymnast who goes home without a medal. The young musician who doesn’t make it to the Royal Festival Hall. The actor who doesn’t get the role.
The time to write about failure is not in an elusive future that may never be. For most of us, whatever dream we’re working towards, it’s now. Success is a rainbow, moving ever further from us the more we chase it.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about learning to write all over again. There will be music and sourdough, a rather substantial building project and some tributes to incredible people. There is no reveal, no affirming book deal to astound you with at the end. Only the fact that I’m here, back on the horse, although riding, perhaps, a little more gently now.