Why getting dropped by my publisher was the best thing that ever happened to me
A few months after my marriage ended I had a romantic encounter with a much younger man. I was in my early thirties with a four-year-old son, he was 22, had just left uni and had plans to travel the world.
I knew it would never lead to anything – it couldn’t – but after years of feeling trapped and living in fear, spending time with this free-spirited poet helped me remember who I really was.
I’d moved into a new home, a scruffy, terraced house in a London suburb that hadn’t been decorated since the 1970s (the dining room actually had dark brown cork covering the walls and the bathroom was a delightful shade of avocado) and my third novel was just about to be published.
I felt scared – but hopeful.
I might be a single mum, but I was making a living from my dream career as a writer and I had a budding friendship with a beautiful guy who was blasting my mind back open with all his talk of travelling and poetry and dreams. For the first time in years, I was starting to feel truly me and truly alive.
But then disaster struck.
My publisher only printed 2000 copies of my book and it was released without a whisper of publicity.
I had been dropped – the literary equivalent of being dumped – and it shook my life to the core.
It had taken me years to overcome my self-doubt and achieve my dream of becoming a published author. Now it had all turned to dust.
And, worse than that, now I was a single mum. How was I going to keep a roof over my son’s head?
As I looked at my life with gloom-tinted spectacles I felt all hope draining away.
My poet friend went off travelling and I was left suffocating in fog of gloom.
Prompted by the threat of abject poverty I started looking around for other writing-related sources of income. I called the Arts Officer at my local council and asked if he had any use for an author.
He offered me the job of running a weekly writing workshop for adults in a local library.
I’d never taught writing before and the prospect terrified me but beggars can’t be choosers and neither can freshly-dropped authors, so I readily agreed.
In preparation for my first workshop I wrote an actual script. Then I rehearsed this script in front of a circle of my son’s cuddly toys. About midway through, like some terrible omen, Bob the Builder keeled over face first on to the floor.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as scared as I was on the night of that first workshop, plagued by thoughts like: Who are you to teach?
But little did I know that I was about to start one of the most enjoyable and rewarding strands of my working life.
That’s the thing about rock bottom – sometimes it isn’t rock bottom at all – it’s merely a plot device, an inciting incident, to catapult you into a much happier future.
It turned out that, once I overcame my fear and ditched the scripts, I absolutely loved teaching writing.
I absolutely loved creating a space where fellow writers felt confident enough to share their work. I loved sharing what I’d learned and encouraging them to teach each other.
After a few months, another London Borough got in touch, asking if I’d run a similar weekly workshop in one of their libraries.
I could only get child care for one of the nights so, once a week, my son would come along with me, carrying a backpack stuffed with snacks, a pad and pens and a little transistor radio, and he’d set up camp in the kids’ section of the library, while I ran the workshop in a space around the corner. The people who came to the workshop made a huge fuss of him, often bringing him gifts or sweets, and getting the tube back from the workshops with my son are some of my happiest memories as a mum. He never once moaned about having to come out late at night – for him it was an adventure.
I ended up running those two weekly writing workshops for six years. And, faced with the challenge of keeping things fresh, I ended up teaching just about every aspect of writing. From fiction to non-fiction and writing for radio, screen and stage. The Arts Departments at the local councils were hugely supportive , funding many extra-curricular competitions and events.
I’d initially taken the work for financial reasons but it came to mean so much more.
I made a huge network of new friends and met a wonderful new partner.
My scruffy, 1970s tribute house became a focal point for writing brainstorms and coaching sessions and parties. The orange tiles in the kitchen made a great dance-floor and the cork wall in the dining room made the world’s biggest noticeboard.
And – free from the pressure of having a publisher to please – I began writing again purely for the love of it.
I started writing my first novel for young adults, breaking ‘the rules’ by playing around with the structure and having a main character who was in her fifties (this is not the done thing in YA fiction). I felt free to experiment because I’d decided to self-publish. It was a liberating experience.
When the book – Dear Dylan – came out I entered it for a national book award.
This was not something I’d planned – in fact, it couldn’t have been more random.
One day, on my lunch break, I saw a mention of the award in The Bookseller magazine and had a what the hell moment, which saw me stuffing a copy of my book in an envelope and posting it purely on the off-chance.
What happened next was beyond my wildest dreams.
Over the course of several months I received a series of emails from the book award people: The first telling me they’d received Dear Dylan and entered it into the award. The second telling me my book had been long-listed. And the third telling me it had been short-listed and please could I come to the award ceremony.
Every time I received an email I was at work, and every time I had to take myself off to the Ladies toilets to do a little celebratory dance.
On the night of the award ceremony something truly magical happened. Something that, if I put it in a novel, people would sigh and say, yeah, right.
I was making my way to the London theatre where the ceremony was taking place. It was rush hour and the streets were packed. Just as I started to cross a busy road I saw a familiar face through the crowd on the other side.
The young poet guy I’d known right at the very start of all this was making his way towards me.
I hadn’t seen or heard from him for years. And, in the passing of time, I’d come to associate him with the grim time I’d been dropped by my publisher.
Now, here we were, in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, our paths about to cross once again.
We grabbed each other in an embrace, laughing at the craziness; at the what are the chances? of it all. And then the crowds swept each of us to the opposite sides of the road.
I hurried on to the award ceremony, knowing that meeting him had to be a coincidence but wondering if there had to be some kind of symbolic meaning behind our encounter too.
Later that night, my self-published novel defied all the odds and all my wildest dreams and won the book award.
A few weeks later, it went to auction with six different publishers bidding for it.
I was no longer ‘dropped’, I was ‘award-winning’.
And the best thing about it?
I realised that it didn’t matter at all.
I’ve never been happier than I was in those wilderness years between book deals.
And I think that’s why I bumped into the poet guy the night it all changed and nothing changed.
To show me that what I’d thought was the very worst of times was simply the spark that ignited the very best of times.
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