Eagerness, envy, hope and gratitude – an evening with Julie Cohen

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving "Dear Thing" a plug is the very least I could do...

Not that Julie Cohen will need it, but feels like giving “Dear Thing” a plug is the very least I could do…

A few short days to the European and local elections, and the prospect of voters giving their verdicts in polling booths up and down the country appears to be creating a few jitters among our elected masters.  I suppose it’s the political equivalent of learning you have a benign tumour: there’s no immediate danger, but the sudden whiff of mortality inspires a keen sense of carpe diem all the same.  Suffice it to say that the week has been filled with “creative” ideas, deadlines for new advice measured in hours or even minutes, and a creeping paranoia about who’s been saying what, when and to whom.

All of which meant that this week’s London Writer’s Café outing to hear the brilliant Julie Cohen talking about pacing your novel provided some much-needed stimulus for my poor, neglected Right Brain.  I’d planned to tell you all about it, but Mr Phipps has got there first (see http:/misterphipps.com/2014/05/18/picking-up-the-pace/ for a summary of Julie’s wise words). So instead I’ll give you the Yak version – the emotional journey that was the two hours spent in a crowded room in the basement of a London pub.

I arrived straight from work, in good time to get a restorative glass of wine before heading to the downstairs room where our gatherings take place.  Expecting the usual variable timekeeping of LWC members to mean I’d have my pick of seats I was surprised – nay shocked – to discover that instead I had to pick my way around a veritable horde of punters, already dug in with notebooks and iPads, pens poised to record the secrets of keeping readers interested all the way to the back cover. There was a buzz in the air and, as so often at LWC meetings, I got a kick out of just being out of the office, doing something with my evening beyond collapsing in front of the telly with a tray of food; felt the excitement of being in a room with a bunch of writers, the thrill of waiting to hear something I was pretty sure was going to be good.

And so it was.

Julie opened by setting out her credentials.  Now here was a woman who’d written a lot of books, including in some seriously unusual genres.  Knowing how hard I found it to finish my first (and only complete) novel, it was hard not to be impressed by someone with that kind of creativity and work ethic.  But that wasn’t all…

Because that day, Julie had learned that her most recent book, Dear Thing, was going to be part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Book Club. Or in other words, her sales figures were about to rocket like, like – well, like a really whooshy rocket. This woman was on the verge of stardom!

The room was fairly dim, so I hope the green glow my skin took on at that point didn’t distract any of my neighbours.  I mean, Richard and Judy?!! Julie wasn’t trying to hide her glee – she told us she’d been into every WHSmith between Reading and Liverpool Street taking photos of her book next to R&J’s grinning mugs.  Quite right too. If that had been me, I’d have found a busy branch and stayed there all day, accosting unsuspecting customers until the management kicked me out: “That’s me, you know. Yeah, I wrote that.  That one. That one there.  Yes, the one NEXT TO THE PHOTO OF RICHARD AND JUDY!”

I tried to concentrate: clearly this was a woman worth listening to.  I couldn’t let the acidic envy seeping into my bones get in the way of picking up some top tips!

And dammit, she was a good speaker too.  Funny and interesting and as self-deprecating as someone on the verge of having a best-seller could possibly be. And not only did she have loads of useful things to say about keeping up the pace, she also talked about giving herself permission to slow things down.  She talked about her transition from 60,000 word romances to her first 120,000 word novel, about the editor who had told her “It’s okay sometimes for your characters to reflect.”

And that’s when it happened: one of those moments. I’d thought there weren’t going to be any more with my first book.  In fact, I’d spent so long on the rewrites, trying to address the various ill-defined bits of feedback from publishers who liked it but just not enough to offer (everything before the “but” is bollocks, right?), I thought every last idea I could ever possibly have conceived had been either used or discarded.  But after a three month stand-off with my agent in which I’d tried to persuade her I was absolutely, entirely, at the end of both my creative powers and my tether as far as that bloody book was concerned, it happened.  Julie talked about letting your characters reflect and that little light bulb went “ping”.

Of course, in strict accordance with the Law of Sod, the next day I had an email from my agent telling me she was about to re-submit my manuscript. I still can’t quite believe I told her to hold off, but there it is.  The changes were small and they’re done now. I only hope they don’t initiate another three months’ wait while she waits for me to wail and gnash my teeth and then think of something else…

But back to the workshop.

Julie went on to talk about rejection.  About having got an agent, and being really excited, and having her manuscript sent to loads of publishers, and then having them turn it down. “And,” she said, “They all said different things!” But her story had a happy ending: she heard of a new line being launched by a Mills and Boon, got in touch with the editor herself, trimmed her 90,000 word novel down to 60,000 words in a weekend (yes, you read that right) and got herself her first book deal within a week.

Now there are lots of morals to that tale if you sit and think about it for a bit – the importance of keeping up with what’s happening in the publishing industry, being prepared to edit viciously, not being too precious about your work (I’m trying, but I think I’m still on a journey with that one). But the thing I felt when I heard her tell that story? It was hope.  Just a glimmer.  A little, fledgling thing, fluttering its tiny wings inside my chest.

At the end of Julie’s talk, I joined the crowd of admirers wanting to speak to her.  I’d been too embarrassed to ask a question in front of the whole room and now I was there, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to say.  But then out it spilled, a garbled account of my manuscript’s unsuccessful tour of UK publishers, the difficulty I’d had with the rewrite, how I hadn’t thought I could do any more with it except now I thought perhaps I could after all.  Julie stood there patiently, letting the gibbering loon in front of her get it all out.  At the end, on an out-breath, I said, “…and it’s 15,000 words longer than it was and I’m just so anxious that it isn’t tight any more!”

I don’t know what I expected her to make of it.  I thought, “She must think I’m barking.”

What she said was, “Well, of course you’re anxious.”

She said some other things too, and they were reassuring and perspective-giving, and kind.  But it was those words that made me want to give her the most enormous hug.  Because no matter how supportive and lovely The Husband has been, no matter how positive my friends and family, picking yourself up when you’ve had a knock and telling yourself to keep at it, and work harder, and just do the best you can – well it’s not easy when it’s something you want that much.  And having someone who’s done it, who’s gone through the rejection and stuck with it and then not only found a publisher, but carved out a brilliant career – having them tell you it’s okay to worry sometimes…

Well, that was a pretty amazing thing.

Thanks to the London Writers Café for another brilliant event, and thanks to Julie Cohen for giving a bigger boost than she could possibly have known to someone who’d been struggling more than she’d realised. Thank you.


11 thoughts on “Eagerness, envy, hope and gratitude – an evening with Julie Cohen

  1. jackiemallon

    The Law of Sod…that’s twice you’ve mentioned it recently..yes, I do hang on your every word 🙂
    I know what you mean. I followed Zadie Smith around NYC when I was writing my first (and only) and the experience of listening to her was so rewarding, like she knew the very words I needed to hear and sent them over the heads of everyone else in the room to reach me.
    My novel did a nice tour of UK AND US publishers before it even saw the light of day. But, hey, I think it’s important to travel before settling down 🙂

    1. yakinamac Post author

      That Law does see to be putting in quite a lot of appearances lately! 🙂

      To my shame, I’ve never read Zadie Smith’s books – I know, how could I have missed White Teeth, right?! It’s on my reading list, though, just as soon as I’ve got through my current Sophie Hannah, followed by Silk for the Feed Dogs!

      1. vagabondurges

        I’d be interested to hear your reading list. It seems likely that we learn(/mislearn) through osmosis, to some extent, so from whom do you opt to osmose? (And do you disqualify people who make up their own words now and then?)

      2. yakinamac Post author

        Ooh, that’s such an interesting question! And in terms of people to learn from – those who make up words are absolutely at the top of my list (I mean, it worked for George Orwell, right?). I’m going to give this some serious thought – I feel a future blog post coming on!

  2. Paul Phipps

    Reblogged this on Phippery and commented:
    A partner piece to my entry on Sunday. Whereas I wrote about the nuts and bolts, Yak posts about the feelings behind her writing, and how the workshop on pace affected her. Highly recommended.

  3. navigator1965

    What an enjoyable post. It’s so nice to realize that writers who do succeed (or are about to) haven’t forgotten that they were once or still are writers who haven’t succeeded yet.

    I still haven’t determined if, in being a self-published author, I am a cheater, or a bold adventurer who’s stuck out on his own. Perhaps a bit of both.

    BTW, loved this sentence and paragraph of yours: “And so it was.” Simple, dramatic, and effective. I love it when writers write to dramatic effect.

    1. yakinamac Post author

      Thank you! And thanks too for stopping by when my posts have been so sporadic since I’ve been back at work. It’s definitely not cheating to self-publish: I fully expect to be investigating that myself after the next submission comes up unsuccessful. As the editor on the Faber course I attended last year observed, self-publishing has shown that traditional publishers “are not the sole arbiters of public taste.”

      I see that The Mirror is now available for Apple devices – you must be really proud. Hope you’ve had a glass or three of bubbly to celebrate!

      1. navigator1965

        It is indeed available on Apple devices and all other major e-book formats. I actually held a real paperback copy yesterday, for the first time. It’s not real until you hold a real book in your hands; that’s when the book comes to life for you.

        Good to see you back. I’m sure I’ll get quite busy, starting in early June. I may become somewhat infrequent here, myself.

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