I will never forget the trepidation I felt as I awaited judgement on my first book, Welcome to Sharonville, from novelist and literary coach, Jacqui Lofthouse. I’d been an English Literature academic and, with hard work and great tutors, I’d been good at studying and lecturing, at analysing text and writing about it, but now I wasn’t sure whether the leap I’d taken from one side of the desk to the other, from poacher to gamekeeper, if you like, had been worth jettisoning my old career for. I’d quit the path I’d been following for over a decade and wandered into an unknown literary landscape where, instead of shooting off the critical salvos, I was now the recipient of them and more intellectually and emotionally vulnerable than I’d even been before.
Of course, I’d always worried about grades, prizes, scholarships and awards, and wanted my professors to fall in love with my arguments, but writing a book was different. I’d once said to one of my tutors that, “academia was autobiography,” and I still believe it is true that research specialisms come from urges which are often far more psychological than most professors acknowledge – however, novels are different, fiction is different, its personal exposure rawer and more obvious. Your neuroses, your family, your sex life, your humour are suddenly on display as if you’re sat naked in a department store window and readers are pressing on the other side of the glass, their breath hot and sour, their palms greasy and blurring all your can see of the world beyond.
So I guess you could say the stakes were high as I sat in my shabby chic bedroom and I pondered failure – the bête noire of the perfectionist and erudite prize poodle I’d been for most of my life – a failure which would also make me a cliché, that of the academic who tried to be the writerly king and landed on their arse. When I was at university, I’d been a bit secretly scornful of all the other English undergrads – so many! – who wanted to be writers. I was so glad I’d left that dream behind when I’d started studying and realised where the real meat of the literary world lay. Except now I was one of them – the grubbing, begging, please love me wannabe writer, scared to death of a phone call and an editor’s snarl.
When the phone rang and I knew it was Jacqui, part of me didn’t want to pick up, but I did and I cried when our conversation ended – but not for the reasons I’d expected. “It’s f*cking brilliant,” Jacqui had said and I knew she was a lady, so the swearing showed she definitely meant it. I still remember my disbelief that someone actually liked my book, my style, my stupid jokes. She compared the novel to Paul Auster’s work and I almost fainted because he was and is one of my literary heroes.
From the end of that conversation on, Jacqui has acted as a great cheerleader for my career 9complete with pom poms and a great high kick!) and I feel all writers need that – what Julia Cameron calls, “a believing mirror.” I know for a fact that, without her encouragement, Welcome to Sharonville would not have been published because before she read it, it had languished in the notorious metaphorical drawer for over two years after contradictory editorial advice, knock downs from agents and various life events had beaten my confidence in it to the ground. In one phone call, Jacqui gave me hope back – a gift of great price and one which kept me going through the rest of what turned out to ultimately be a journey of almost twelve years from the conception of the initial idea for Welcome to Sharonville to its publication. Literary experts told me the book was “midlist,” too quirky, would not be my “breakout” novel, but Jacqui’s and others’ faith kept me submitting, kept me somehow believing, despite all the outright rejections which hurt like a potato peeler thrust into the gut.
This is why I call Jacqui, “Yoda,” – even though she is way better looking and has much more fluent grasp of grammar! – and why she utterly deserves that name.
In the end, though, after working with Jacqui, I started getting more and more near misses with agents and major literary competitions which I told myself meant I was getting nearer – and, as it turns out, for once, I was right. One day on Facebook, I stumbled on Unthank Books and really loved their unconventional and distinctly literary approach to publishing – and, luckily, when I sent them Welcome to Sharonville, they liked what I did to.
So, I guess the point of this blog is to highlight how the tale of a book’s publication is often as lengthy and full of twists as the narrative itself, but mainly to stress the need to support others in their creative journeys. Jacqui’s belief in me and her mentorship, coming from her own intense literary gifts, plus the fact that she had already trodden the path I was embarking on, made the difference between my novel being published and not, between a dream come true or a dream bitterly lost.
Writers might sit at our desks alone, we might fight our creative battles by ourselves, but we do badly need the support of others. Because Jacqui took the novel seriously, I was able to as well, a factor which empowered me to stand tall even when the publishing industry was knocking at my knees with a two by four, as it does with most new writers.
Being a novelist is gorgeous, fulfilling and impossibly exciting, but it is also tougher and often more disappointing than most people who embark on a literary career would realise. I was lucky to have Jacqui offer praise at a crucial juncture and it made all the difference. It’s why I myself now work as a literary consultant and teach writing workshops – because encouragement is the greatest blessing you can give and the right mentor can make a person’s career progress in a way which they could never make happen alone.
So, go tell a writer you admire their work, that what they do matters. And if you don’t know a writer, but are one, tell yourself. I’m telling you now anyway – I just need you to believe me. If only for long enough to get you back at your desk.
To order a copy of Welcome to Sharonville by Sharon Zink, click here.