Thursday, 19 September 2013


Hello, my little muffins! Happy Thursday. Today I'm starting on the stack of reader questions which I've been feeling guilty about for the past several weeks, with a question that came as part of a lovely reader email.

Sadly, being an absent-minded professor (only, like, not a professor) I didn't make a note of the writer's name and now I can't find the email either. Yes, I'm just that awesome. I'm so sorry, Nameless Emailer! I hope you will see this reply despite my peerless incompetence. Many apologies.
My problem is: in 2011 I wrote an urban fantasy, my first completed novel, and then proceeded to edit and rewrite it until I thought it was ready for submission. I began submitting it last June to over 50 agents both in the UK and US, and got a few nibbles at it, but it was ultimately rejected. Since then, I completed two other novels which I don't think are commercially viable for agents to consider, nor do I think they are good enough concepts to warrant me spending a lot of time rewriting and reworking. I haven't had much inspiration lately, and I'm always second-guessing myself with new projects, but my mind always comes back to my first novel and its world. I love it so much, it's everything I would want to read in a novel. Do you think it's worth me rewriting it from scratch and submitting again, or should I work on new material?
Let me tell you a story, my Nameless friend. A story about a little book I called Blood Magic.

It was my very first completed YA novel. More than that, it was everything that I had ever wanted to read in a YA novel; the culmination of all my hopes and intermost dreams. It was full of amazing stuff. A main character who was plagued with incredible magical power that seemed to destroy everything she loved, and which automatically condemned her to death if anyone discovered it. A sort-of-Regency-style kingdom with a rich history that included a terrible civil war and the persecution of people with this particular kind of magical gift (Blood Mages). A sort-of-steampunk kind of magical technology developed by commoners which had cool brass gadgets and sparks. Love. Heartbreak. Kidnapping. The heroine fighting - and defeating! - bad guys while naked, with throwing knives. Epic battles. Political intrigue. A morally grey villain and a vile, He Must Die villain. Themes of self-sacrifice, redemption, and self-acceptance.

Even thinking/writing about this book now (ten years later!) some scenes still stand out so clearly in my memory that they seem to glow with a kind of jewel-like beauty. The scene on the river bank, where tumbled stones glinted gold with lichen in dappled sunlight. The tense first confrontation between a wounded heroine and the morally ambiguous villain, who almost convinces her of his cause. The agonising creep through a narrow, pitch-black crevisse deep in the mountains. The moment of supreme suffering and sacrifice where the heroine thinks she has lost everyone she cares for. The miserable return to an embattled city, carrying a mortally wounded prince under black silk banners that snap in a fierce wild. I still feel exactly the same excited little tingle in the pit of my stomach when I think about those characters as I did almost ten years ago.

I was firmly convinced that Blood Magic was exactly what children's literature had been waiting for. I just had to get it into the right hands.

Accordingly, I submitted this book to every children's publisher in the UK over a period of a year. I submitted it to over thirty agents. I even submitted it to two Australian publishers for good measure.

It was rejected by EVERYONE. I had some partial requests, some full requests, and some very nice rejections but in the end, everything came back to 'No'. It seemed like there was just no place on anyone's list for an ambitious debut novel from a complete unknown, a literary fantasy with a female hero and more than a hint of romance.

But after everyone and their great-uncle Bernard rejected Blood Magic, I wrote another book (The Swan Kingdom) that changed everything. It, too, was a literary fantasy with a strong heroine and a lot of romance, but crucially, it was a fairytale retelling. This was a niche which was just beginning to be explored in UK YA, and, after a bit of fast-talking on my part, it caught the imagination of Walker Books. Finally, I had netted an agent and a publisher. Success at long last! Hallelujiah!

Time passed, and I wrote another book, which also got a publishing contract (whoop!). But I never forgot about Blood Magic. I still loved it as much as ever, and I was still convinced it was as good as anything else I'd written.

Fast-forward to 2007. My first book's come out and been unexpectedly successful, the second one is edited and waiting for release, and my publisher loves me. Surely, it is the time for Blood Magic to make its comeback. My editor, who has worked with me on both my contracted books, will help the publisher (which had already rejected BM once) see that this book is worthy.

Obviously I re-write and revise the book. It means so much to be to get it perfect, that for the first and LAST time I get a beta-reader, a trusted friend, to read the book and give me feedback, and I act on everything she says. By the time I'm finished I know - know - that Blood Magic is ready and will soon find a home.

Guess what?

My editor rejected it. In a long phonecall (which I sat through mostly mute, frozen by shock and distress) he explained that the book simply wasn't up to the standard of my other work, even after all my revising. I had grown as a writer, developed, and got better at every aspect of my craft since I had come up with those ideas, those themes, those characters, that world. It showed. The basic bones of this book were weak. Publishing Blood Magic would be taking a step back. It would be letting my readers down, and damaging my newly minted reputation as an author. They couldn't, wouldn't do that.

I had spent about eight months of my precious time - and it was precious, because I was working full-time at my old office job - completely revising and re-writing a book which was never going to get published. I had loved it too much to be objective about it and realise that all those rejections weren't about the publishing world not being ready for my book. They were about me not being ready, at that point, for publication. My editor was right. Blood Magic wasn't good enough.

This is the last thing you want to hear, Nameless Friend. And you probably didn't expect to hear it from me because generally my writing advice can be summarised as 'Follow your heart and do what makes you happy'. But here it is: you need to let this beloved book book go.

You've half-heartedly worked on other things, but never fully committed to them because deep down inside you were sure that the book which would get you published was your favourite special book. But everyone in publishing has already seen this book. This book is already as good as you can possibly make it. These further revisions that you're considering may add a thin layer of new polish, but they will not alter the essentials, the bare bones, of the book which has already failed to find a home everywhere.

You are a different writer now than you were when you wrote your beloved book. You may not realise it now, you may not realise it for months or years to come, but you have grown and changed. Those other books you wrote, even though you didn't love them, have honed your skills and helped you grow as a writer. You are capable of so much more, so much better, NOW, than you were when you first came up with the idea for your beloved book. Your beloved book is the best you could offer back when you wrote it - but it's not the best you can offer the publishing world now. You may have the inklings of inspiration right now for the book which will achieve your ambitions. But you will never know if you keep clinging to beloved book this way.

Put your beloved book in a drawer (mental or physical) and tell yourself that it is off the table. Then turn all the passion and the love that you had for that book onto something new, something entirely different. No half-hearted placeholder books that you work on just to fill up the time before you can look at beloved book again. Search for something you love just as much, if not more, than beloved book. Something which can make a place for you in the publishing world that beloved book never could. It might take a while, and you might need to take some time off first to feed your brain with new books, music, films, and art, but eventually you'll find your new beloved book.

Who knows? Maybe in a few years time you'll have you'll have the time to pick beloved book back up again. But if you do, don't be surprised if in the meantime it's somehow become a different book, a smaller, less interesting book that lacks the fire you used to sense shimmering off the pages. I still love Blood Magic for everything that writing it and failing to sell it taught me. But I now realise that it was never meant to be my introduction to the publishing world - and I don't regret that at all.


Megha said...

This is so good Zoe :) and really true as well because sometimes you're convinced your work is amazing but it may not be seen that way by others, and that's totally okay because it doesn't mean it's not any good, it just means that's not what they were looking for and you can't give up there can you? Just keep writing, Nameless Emailer! It'll work out :) xx

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Thanks, hun :) The thing is that Nameless Emailer's beloved book may be perfect for the market in two years time, but that means it's no good to keep submitting it now. And it would be sad if she wrote nothing else new in the meantime.

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