Books Magazine

Guest Author – Rachael Dunlop: An Unpublished Novelist Faces Reality

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Firstly I want to say thank you for the phenomenal interest in Summer Reads 2014 which has already had over 2,000 hits and made May the busiest month ever on the blog.  Welcome to many new followers here and on Twitter and extra thanks to everyone who’s been sharing the list far and wide.  I love putting these twice-yearly selections together and this response really makes it feel like time well spent.

A stellar line-up of guests, from talented debut authors to Booker-shortlisted novelists, will be visiting the Literary Sofa over the summer months.  We begin with fellow unpublished novelist/published short story writer Rachael Dunlop, whom I first came to know on Twitter before our paths started to cross in the real world. And the real world – with the enormous challenges new novelists face – is the subject of Rachael’s frank and inspiring post today:

Rachael Dunlop
Twitter. The place that has simultaneously encouraged me to write a novel, and shown me in graphic detail why I shouldn’t bother. For the lone (and sometimes lonely) writer, it’s a virtual water cooler where you get to choose your co-workers. But it’s also a window into the business of publishing, getting published and staying published.

The view is not all that pretty.

Here’s what I used to think: you write a book, you get it published, oodles of money rolls in and your publisher publishes every damned thing you subsequently write, no questions asked. The key is getting published. Then you’ve got it made.

What an innocent!

Wind back to 2009 and I had just won my first short story competition. I was cock-a-hoop, and not just because of the win. I believed there was a hierarchy of writers, with complete no-hopers at the bottom, improvers in the middle and accomplished, competition-winning writers at the top. Now I had achieved that top rank, everything I wrote from then on would be solid gold.

Now, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I knew that if I entered competitions like Bridport or the Manchester, I’d be competing with other top-tier writers. So I entered smaller competitions, fully expecting to win. Yes, seriously.

There were two things I didn’t understand. One is how writing competitions really work (which I’ve explored in detail on my blog). The second is how many writers there are out there, and how many of them are just as good as, and often better than, me.

So I was perplexed when I didn’t win any of those competitions I entered. I joined a writers’ group and more head scratching ensued. So many great writers, all local to me. Was this some sort of freak cluster of talent? And then I met published writers and none of them was rolling in money. I was genuinely shocked when I discovered you could be dropped by your publisher and have to start again, at the disadvantage of being previously published but not successful enough.

None of this fitted with my deeply-embedded idea of what it means to be a writer, and I struggled longer than any intelligent person should to reconcile the facts with my pre-conceptions. And then I joined Twitter. So many writers. So many talented writers. I gave myself a hearty slap for believing I was special just because I’d won a few competitions.

I’m smarter now. I know there are thousands of us out there. I know many writers have their triumphs – a competition win here, a magazine acceptance there – and that few of these successes translate immediately into bigger things. I know getting an agent is hard and I know once you have an agent, there’s still a good chance you won’t find a publisher. I know publishers can love your book and still not take it on if they don’t think they can sell it. And if you do get a publisher, your book might be bought by a few thousand people and then disappear forever. Or it might sell reasonably well and still only earn you a few thousand pounds.

And yet, knowing all this, I’ve gone and written a novel. Paradoxically, that’s because of Twitter too. I maintained for years that I was a short story writer and wouldn’t write a novel. And then I had an idea for a novel. I tried ignoring it, but it wouldn’t go away. How to even start? I had no idea.

Following people on Twitter who were writing novels demystified the process. Bum on seat, fingers on keyboard was the main message. Plan, draft, write, edit, write more, edit more. Carve out writing time by getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning or working on into the wee hours. Writing a novel is just about getting the work done, one word after another. Writing a good novel, well, that’s another story. But until you have those words down, you have nothing.

It’s a lot of work for potentially little reward. You write a first draft. You edit it. You edit again. You send it to trusted readers, maybe get it professionally critiqued. You edit again. You send it to agents. If you’re lucky, you find representation. If you’re extremely lucky, you get published. And still you don’t give up the day job.

I know all this and still I wrote my novel. And now I’m revising it. I wrote the first draft because I had to. I’m revising and editing it because I want it to be published. Despite everything, that’s still the dream. Maybe this is madness, but there is still a little voice in my head telling me I am special. I’m not, of course, but my book just might be.

You can follow Rachael on Twitter @RachaelDunlop

Many thanks to Rachael for sharing these honest insights and good luck with the novel! This post will resonate with many and others will find it enlightening or even daunting, but I believe it’s important to know what you’re up against (and if you’ve read this, it’s too late for blissful ignorance!)  I’d be very interested to hear about other people’s experiences.


If you’re a short story fan (which I am) and are in the London area the weekend of 20-22 June (which sadly I’m not) – do check out the fantastic programme of the very first LONDON SHORT STORY FESTIVAL from Spread The Word, which is packed with masterclasses, readings and all kinds of events featuring short fiction stars including Jackie Kay, Helen Simpson, MJ Hyland, Alison Moore, Adam Marek, Mary Costello and Vanessa Gebbie, to name but a few.

NEXT WEEK: Crime makes a rare appearance on the Sofa with a visit from Anya Lipska, reflecting on some of the unexpected results of setting her novels in London’s Polish community following the recent release of her second, DEATH CAN’T TAKE A JOKE.

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