What drives you? What compels you as a writer? What drives me is a need to communicate. And what feeds this drive is curiosity. Does what I write, say something to me? Does it say something to you too?
I’ve always made stories. Sometimes unclear, unfinished stories. Pieces and parts. The longer I am around, the more context I find for them. They all seem to be part of a larger story. A human story. Yet, they are particular to my life, and I am equally driven to find the people who would recognise these stories as belonging to them too.
When I was nine my mother asked me to write a note to the milkman about what we needed for the next few days. I took the job very seriously, listening closely as she dictated. Whole milk. Swiss cheese. Half and half. I didn’t know what some of these terms meant but liked the mystery of them. Half what and half what? Wasn’t all milk whole milk? And what about chocolate milk? She always said no.
I wanted this job–being a scribe to my mother, making demands on paper that caused food to appear on our back doorstep later that morning. She passed me the back of a used envelope to write on and I took a pencil and made bold letters.
Looking it over, I wasn’t satisfied. I felt compelled to make it personal. I didn’t know our milkman’s name but decided to make him dashing.
Dear Green Hornet,
4 bottles of whole milk
1 Swiss cheese
1 Pint half and half
I rolled it up and slipped it into an empty bottle, set it on the back porch in the wire basket and went off to school. All that day I tried to imagine what our milkman thought of my note.
When I got home I found the items in the refrigerator. My heart sank a little, but really, what did I expect? He left us what was on the note. We carried on like this, twice a week–me, expressing our dairy needs, only barely covering up my longing for something romantic while trying to make the list a compelling read. He was polite. He left what we asked for. I tried to tell myself this was just a job like any other–like ironing my father’s shirts, doing the dishes or babysitting. Still, I wanted to make each note different and exciting. I worked at it. Without much in the way of return. But one day there was a note on the back of an envelope, sitting on the kitchen table in a bold, mannish hand.
Dear Miss O’Hara,
I’m out of half and half today. I hope
You will accept this chocolate ice cream as
The Green Lantern
My mother came into the kitchen folding her arms and batting her eyelashes at me.
‘Can I have some ice cream?’ I asked, putting the note in my pocket.
‘Yes, you may, Scarlett. But watch what you say to our milkman.’
That was the beginning of a years-long correspondence that kept me racing home from school on Tuesdays and Fridays to see if there was a response from the Green Lantern. He became fond of using dairy puns and ‘ha ha’ when he liked one of my jokes. We kept it up until my family moved away when I was a teenager. It was a heartbreak that I could explain to no one. I still have one of Green Lantern’s notes. It thrilled me back then to have a mysterious stranger respond to my writing. It still does. I recognise this has something to do with what drives me to write, but that’s not all of it. It matters to me that I’m discovering something of myself in the writing too. This is WHY I do it. And I know this is my writing life, but there is something more, the other half of it. Finding readers. The artist Marcel Duchamp argued that both the artist and the viewer are necessary for the completion of a work of art. This feels true for writers too. I want the circuit of communication to be complete.
It’s a lonely business to write. I’ve been doing it for years and the statistics are grim. When you are finally ready, when you’ve had lots of training and written several novels, you are faced with a daunting wall before you. An agent gets 30,000 manuscripts a year and might take 1 of them, starting down a long road, which also takes years, to get published. Agents will tell you exactly what they are looking for, what genres, and what tropes and you see this is a formula they’ve learned for selling books. Yet they also want an ‘original voice.’ Whether they decide to read a few pages of your novel or not depends on if they like your email that day. Or, more likely, if their assistant likes it that day.
This process feels like I’m auditioning for the musical CATS. Pitch, please. High step here (synopsis), the splits over there(query letter). If you are over forty, forget it. If you are not ‘other enough’ or ‘too other,’ they don’t want you either. They’ve got the formula. They know the drill–what retreats you should have gone to, what awards you should have by now, what’s hot right now and what’s already past. I’ve got a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh, and thirteen years of experience with awards, but I’ve only been able to get one agent to look at my manuscript and six months later they said no thanks. That’s one shot at an agent reading some of my writing, after years of sending it out. Most agents don’t even want you to attach samples anymore. If they like the email, they’ll ask for more. They are triaging all the people who want to be writers like they’re the NHS. It’s a long wait.
Three months ago, I decided to look into self-publishing. I’m not wealthy. I could not afford a vanity press and they seemed awful and slimy to me. I did a lot of looking around and found Joanna Penn who has written many wonderful books about Independent author publishing.
Joanna Penn has been the new voice in my head, speaking with kindness and wisdom. She is also a fiction writer, a very successful one. This path has already been empowering for me. It makes sense. Writing fiction is a specific skill set that takes time to learn but so does selling fiction and finding the right readers. I understand it can’t happen fast. There is much to learn, and I need to find the right kind of help, but it is out there. If I keep at it, there will be progress and I’ll find my readers. Joanna Penn gives me hope.
Since starting this journey, I have published my novella, A Cornish Odyssey, on Amazon and other platforms and my book launch will be in Hastings at the Hastings Bookshop on the 29th of June. People in eleven countries are reading it right now. It is getting positive reviews in the USA and UK. And…(drum roll here) I had a 30-minute interview with BBC Cornwall about my novella! But that’s a story for the next blog. Thanks for reading this.