Learning how not to impress

When I was in primary school I wrote a book.

I would love to follow that line with the story of my illustrious career as an author and let you believe that was the first of many published novels under my name, but the book I wrote was part of a school project and was a compulsory class activity.

I dedicated the book to my teacher because I loved her and also because I was sucking up to her. I inscribed ‘For Mrs. P. Feldman (complete with all the fullstops) on the front page in my neatest print. The plot of my story was dark and possibly something I should be bringing up in therapy all these years later. It began with a pregnancy announcement, a car crash and a death.

I distinctly remember the feedback I received on that book. Mrs Feldman pointed out I was allowed to use her first name, there was no need for the initials (which I thought looked very smart and literary). She also asked if everything was okay at home.

I was determined that my next book would be better. I didn’t anticipate that it would take over 40 years for me to write it.

Image via Canva

I like to think I used those years wisely by experiencing life, suffering a bit of trauma and gaining an understanding of relationships and people. And I read and wrote. A lot, especially as I got older. For more than a decade I wrote almost every day, sometimes for publication, sometimes for the recycling bin and sometimes to keep my words safe to look back on or ignore. I read more than I wrote. There’s a lot to be learned by reading.

Ticking away in my head was the idea that I would write another book. This one not compulsory, nor written in pencil and definitely not dedicated to Mrs. P. Feldman.

I knew how to write, I had a story idea but I didn’t know anything about writing a novel with characters and a plot and a structure. And so I studied — I signed up for courses, I read books on the craft of writing , I listened to podcasts and I took in everything I could about narrative arcs, character development, climax and resolution, inciting incidents and mid-point reversals. If someone offered wisdom on the writing process I lapped it up.

And I wrote and wrote. And I deleted and edited and wrote some more and deleted even more and edited and edited and drafted and redrafted and years later, I had a manuscript. Years had really passed and I had about 80 000 words I was happy with (some of the time).

I felt like I had learned so much.

I sent my manuscript to an agent who was lovely and warm and read the manuscript with lightening speed. She was kind and generous with her feedback and asked me to make some changes and resubmit.

And then I made the mistake I kept reading about and vowed I would never do, I had been writing for years now. I knew what to do. But I made the mistake anyway — I rushed.

I was so excited she had read it and liked it, I imagined she would be waiting at her computer to read my new version (this is where people in the publishing industry break into hysterical laughter).

I was so impatient. I raced to finish rather than stumbling to perfect.

Clearly the agent could see it still had work. She was so lovely in the way she told me she had to pass, I couldn’t even be upset*. I had messed up a HUGE opportunity.

So I started to work on it again and then I left it for months and started again. Again. I’m still working on it. It’s sort of finished except it may never be.

I may never publish a novel but maybe I will learn some patience and maybe, more importantly, I will learn to write not for the agent but for the best book I can produce. Something I should probably have learned when I wrote Mrs Feldman’s initials when her name would have done a better job, all because I wanted to impress her.

*that is a lie. I was VERY upset but with myself not the agent.

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