EP24: Liz Fenwick & The Crows Of Doubt

Is there such a thing as a positive rejection? This week we chat with award-winning author, Liz Fenwick about the importance of persistency on the journey to being published, why your book’s location matters, the world of literary consultancies and how to silence your inner critic.

 

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EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS

In this episode you will discover…

  • How literary consultancies work
  • What you can learn from positive rejections
  • When to listen to your inner critic and how to banish the crows of doubt circling above
  • Why it’s so important to complete your novel

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPTS (HIGHLIGHTS)

Liz Fenwick is the award-winning author of The Cornish House, A Cornish Affair, A Cornish Stranger, Under A Cornish Sky (can you spot the pattern here?) and The Returning Tide (set in Cornwall!). We were delighted to speak to her about positive rejections, the importance of a book’s location, how thirty-four drafts helped her learn to write, and her experience with the Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

What does a literary consultancy like Cornerstones do?

They can do many things: simple assessments, in-depth assessments, they offer courses and weekends away. What they provide is an editorial service. They try and match what you’ve written to the right type of editor.

What attracted you to them?

I had reached the point where I was getting very positive rejections. I had full manuscript requests at publishers and agents and they were coming back with lots of lovely comments, but nothing matched. I’d sit there, look at it and think how can I improve if this one says this is wrong, and this one says this is wrong? I didn’t know where to turn. I looked at it as if you’ve ever been on a diet and you reach a plateau and you have no idea how to break the plateau, and this seemed to be the best option to get a full manuscript assessment so that I could look at it more logically. Because, as the writer, you’re too close.

How do you keep going after so many rejections, no matter how positive they might be?

You scream, you eat some chocolate, you probably have wine, and you try and glean something out of that you can work with. It became clear that they liked my storytelling abilities, they liked my voice, but something was wrong. They kept saying, ‘I would love to see the next work.’ So, you go on and you write the next work and I think one of the things that played into the whole publishing and editing thing was when my third book was accepted, the one that went through Cornerstones, I was working on my seventh book.

We know it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but why Cornwall?

Cornwall is my muse. There’s something about the landscape. I see stories in the landscape. I also think because Cornwall can never belong to me, I try and hold on to it by writing stories about it. Which I know sounds incredibly weird. My roots are all Irish. The first time I went to Ireland I could feel my roots going down into the ground and I was at one, I was at home in way that I had never been before. When I arrived in Cornwall, I just felt this longing, but my roots just don’t go down into the ground, and the only way I can capture that is to write it.

How long have you lived there? Do you feel part of the community?

I went there the first time in 1989, and I bought a house in ’96. My daughter’s born there, and she has a Chough on her birth certificate, so one of us belongs. It depends on where in Cornwall you are how receptive the community is to you.

The area that we live in have accepted me as their token American and writer.

 

What were you writing about before moving there? What did Cornwall change about your writing?

If we go back to when I was a child, and I was writing then, it was more a desire to continue stories that I had read, or had been read to me, that desire to keep creating worlds. I went to university and I did my degree in English Literature with a concentration in creative writing and medieval studies. Who knew? And for my senior thesis I wrote a work called An Irish Woman, and I wrote three quarters of it. To describe it now; slightly saga-like in a way, but not quite. That was the goal. And my professor gave me her agent’s name and told me to send it off and I never did. I started writing fiction again in 2004, I looked up this agent and thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I just done?’ And my husband optimistically said, ‘Send her something now!’ And I’m thinking, it’s so many years too late to go back and knock on that one, but by then I had grown and the thing is I’m glad I didn’t get published at 22, because I couldn’t write the books that I really wanted to write, and I didn’t have the skin thick enough to take the criticism that comes your way.

And you get criticism in all directions as writer. Not only do you have it from readers, but you have it from your editors, agents… There’s always people coming and saying something’s wrong, so you have to be pretty comfortable with receiving that criticism and at 22 I probably couldn’t have done it.

 

At 22 would you have sought the help of something like Cornerstones?

I didn’t even know they existed.

How do the different elements of Cornerstones work? Are they linked? Does one follow the other?

The retreats, the assessments and the editorial reports are totally separate. When I went on the retreat, I did one on women’s fiction with the author Julie Cohen, who is one of the best teachers, and writers, out there that I know. It was more working on overall skill and taking books apart and looking at things that work, from dialogue, descriptions, setting, all those things that make up a novel, and breaking them down. Doing that was a retreat. And also the opportunity to talk to Cornerstones’ people about different aspects of your career.

The most important thing, apart from working on my skills, was the question: which is the book — at that point I had written six books — which is the book to launch you as a writer? And I looked at her, without a question of a doubt, and said, ‘The Cornish House.’ That really helped me think through, ‘I’m a brand, I’m writing about Cornwall, there’s something about me,’ and so forth.

 

That was the novel I then chose to work on, and invest in, because it is an investment. Any time you go to a consultancy, it’s not inexpensive, but what you get back, or what I got back, was an in-depth, 28 pages of somebody looking at my manuscript, and a marked-up manuscript that had wonderful things in it like, ‘This made me laugh… I like this description,’ along with the bad stuff. When you’re actually published you don’t get back the little rub on the back that says, ‘This is good’. You only get the list of what you need to fix.

Were you writing alone, or were you in a group?

It was more like a workshop. We had all submitted work and then what Julie had done was go through it, pick a sample from each of us to demonstrate how things are done well, and how they could be improved. It was definitely learning about your writing and then you had time to go away and think, ‘Oh my God, my head is hurting. How do I go back and improve?’

Did you find you learned a lot from the critiquing?

I certainly did. One of the most important skills you need to acquire is how to be critical of your own work, by listening to other people criticise your work in a civilised environment. It helps you be able to do that. And listening to other writers read their work out and think, ‘Actually, this is a bit wordy. There’s too much description here…’ And then you can immediately turn your eyes to your own and think, ‘Oh… damn.’ The same faults are there. I just need to fix them.

I think you have two forms of inner voice: you have the inner critic, which is going to tell you that everything you write is total and utter crap, and then you have what one of my mentors called the inner voice, and that’s the one you need to cultivate.

 

The inner voice is the one that will tell you that actually what you’ve written is good, but that thing that’s niggling in the back of your mind, that scene that doesn’t quite work, that’s what you need to go in and cut. There was one of those scenes in The Cornish House and it had gone all the way through Cornerstones, and it had gone through my agent, and it came to the editor, and she had sent me this huge editorial letter, and this scene came up, the one my inner voice had been telling me about. It was really wonderful to sit down with my editor and say, ‘These are the things it does, and that’s why I need it.’ And she said, ‘What else can we do?’ In the end, the scene that came out of that brainstorming session is probably my favourite in the book.

It was a question of making it work harder?

Yes, and again, understanding the difference between those two voices that you hear in your head and looks at the pages and goes, ‘Oh God, that’s such crap,’ and then the other voice that says, ‘Actually, there’s a lot there that’s good, but you know this scene that you love? And this prose? Really… it’s got to go. You had to write it to get the book done, but just get rid of it now.’

What advice would you have for those on their first novel and they’re wondering if it’s worth carrying on?

I think one of the biggest battles, if it’s your first book, is completion. If it’s not complete, nobody can ever judge it. So that makes it very safe. The thing is, completing a novel is a huge task and, for me, one of the biggest hurdles I had to cross was to complete it and get that done.

The first thing I would say is complete the novel and know that it’s terrible. Just accept that it’s terrible. This is the stone from which you carve something decent out of.

 

I’m at that stage. I’m in the middle of book six. I’m at the roughly halfway point. The crows of doubt are circling. What was I thinking starting on this ambitious project? Where am I going? What are the motivations? And it’s at this point that I have to just say, trust yourself, finish a rough draft.

You’ve written this draft for you. Every draft hereafter is for your readers.

 

If you do that, you can get beyond yourself. Julie Cohen has this sticker on her computer that says — I’m not going to swear — but, The First Draft Is Sh*t. Just accept that this is nothing but a massive stone for you to carve the story out of.

Did you decide on the Cornish link very early on?

All my books were set in Cornwall, but it was my editor who, after the first book, decided that we would use Cornwall in the title to brand me. The book that comes out in March is a step away from that. It’s called The Returning Tide. The feeling is that the reader base has been built and those that are drawn to that will follow me, and we can go to a bigger audience now.

Does using a location help build a following for a series?

My books are linked, but not a series. They’re all set in the same part of Cornwall, so you’ve got overlapping characters, secondary characters, and readers really enjoy this, but the books are all standalone at the same time. The best marketing tool was the cover of the first book, The Cornish House. It was different, it had blue skies and it had the cottage that everybody wanted. So they picked up the book because of the cover.

How did you end up in Cornwall?

Because of the man who is my husband. The first weekend he brought me down there I thought I was going to meet his parents, but no, I was going down for the Cornwall test. And if I hadn’t fallen in love with Cornwall, I don’t think we’d be twenty-five years married. There are other places that I’ve been to where I’ve felt a very strong pull. Recently I was up in Scotland, and I could see out of the corner of my eye little stories, but it didn’t quite move me in the same way. Whereas I can go walk the cliffs, I can go into the woods, and I see things… not literally, but I feel them and see them in my mind.

Rumour has it, you love a bit of a rewrite. Is that true?

I’m getting better. The least I’ve done is four. The most I’ve done is thirty-four. It was A Cornish Affair, the second book, which was written before A Cornish House, and that was the book that I learnt on.

I did write my soul out of that book. But each rewrite I was learning new skills.

 

I would write a book, then I would rewrite another book, and I’d go back and rewrite the other two. Because, with each book that I wrote I gained so much more knowledge. A Cornish Affair went through so many transformations and my editor at the time said she liked the concept of the story and wanted that for book two. I thought, first of all, I need a major rewrite here because it needs to be in first person. So, that was huge, and I had not written in first person before. At that time there was a ghost in the story and I was keeping him in third person, but she said no, I think you really need to have him in first person. It’s too jarring to have the two different things. Oh, great.

It’s one thing to write in the third person about a Victorian ghost, that’s a boy, that’s thirteen years old, but it’s another thing to do it in first person.

 

At least in third person there’s a little bit of separation.I could do a modern thirteen-year-old boy, because I had two of them in the house at the time. So, I really struggled with that. I read Dickens, and I don’t like reading Dickens. I like listening to Dickens, but not reading him. It just wasn’t working, so I then cut him out of the story. That’s a huge, whole plotline. What am I going to do? Fortunately, my editor was on holiday down in Cornwall and came to visit, and so I sent her husband and my husband off in a boat with the kids, and I walked her along the Helford River, and I explained all my problems, and she said you’ve obviously got to do that. I then cut seventy-thousand words from the story (out of) ninety-five thousand.

How different was the thirty-fourth draft to the first?

The basic premise of the story, and the themes of the story, were exactly the same. The key characters, bar the ghost Toby — whom I loved and some day I will resurrect my ghost — were all there. I learnt so much through that. One of the things I want to say is, when I went to go into first person I went back to my fourth draft, because I had realised I had written my voice out in the ensuing drafts, and took that as the draft to rewrite into first person. So don’t throw out anything.

How long did this all take? Months? Years?

The rewriting? I was probably on draft twenty-nine when my editor said she wanted it. I wrote the first draft in 2005, and this was published in 2013. It was a very tight timeframe because I was on a book a year, so to try and delete seventy-thousand words, rewrite, and then I had all her edits, which involved a lot of major rewrites, which brought me up to thirty-four. I had done major rewrites having been through the Cornerstones process. Through their editorial letter I had done a major rewrite at that point.

Are the writers at Cornerstones all working on finished books?

They’re on different levels. I think they (Cornerstones) offer the opportunity to have mentoring, and brainstorming, but I would say, from my perspective, that it’s a waste of time unless you’ve at least completed one draft, if not two, before you go in there. What was extraordinary was that when I did the Robert McKee Story course the first time, there were two girls sitting behind us and they had never written anything more than three chapters. I thought, what a huge investment to make on something that you haven’t completed, and to get the most out of a seminar like that it’s great to have a current book in your head because the electrons start popping and you think, ‘Oh my God, I need to do this! And that’s why it doesn’t work.’

What advice would you have when the writing isn’t flowing smoothly?

You’re in your first draft, so what I would say to you is, and in fact it’s something that I’ve done intuitively… Listening to Patrick Gale down in Penzance last week, he handwrites in the front of a notebook, and in the back of the notebook he puts his research and his questions that come up. He calls it his quarry. I keep a notebook going in my first draft, for when I think this doesn’t work, or I write directly into the manuscript, ‘This is a load of crap,’ or, ‘This is what needs to happen right now, and I need to see this whole plotline in at the beginning.’ End bracket. Then go on. Because, if I stop at this point I’m not going to meet my deadlines.

It’s very difficult, but if you intend to finish this book by the end of the year I would say get your first draft done. It is not that difficult. It’s painful, but it’s not that difficult. I use the knitting analogy. Suddenly you’re three quarters up the front half and you realise you’ve dropped a stitch down at the bottom, and you have to go down and… you either rip the whole thing out, which I don’t recommend — y’know, deleting seventy-thousand words — or, you carefully thread that piece through. It can be done.

I think editing is the worst and the best bits about writing, because I can write anywhere. First draft; anywhere. Doesn’t matter. I can be on a plane, my kids can be around. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. But for editing I need headspace, because every change you make affects something else in the story.

 

So, I need a clean desk. I need no noise. And that’s when I go in. But that’s when the story comes alive. That’s when all the things that you’ve left out, like… I do only enough research to write the first, and I leave lots of big exes in there, knowing I’ll come back.

And it’s in the research that you’ll get the twists and the turns and everything else. Expecting it all in the first draft, particularly if it’s the first time you’ve done a complete book, is too much.

 

On A Cornish Stranger I thought the historical element for the ninety-two year-old — she was going to be involved in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) — so I thought I’ll be really good at this. I did loads of research, and three quarters of the way through the first draft I thought this isn’t going to work. So I had to shove all of that out the door. And that was bye-bye time, bye-bye everything. Unless you are very much a plotter and know exactly where you are going, which I‘m not, then it’s best to do only enough research to get that first draft down.

What’s your routine like?

You’ve read the wonderful Stephen King book On Writing? I laughed like a loon when I read it. Particularly that wonderful scene — it’s a brilliant book, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it — but he talks about going into his office, looking at the blank wall, and staying in there until the words come and everything else and I thought… the man has a wife. Who does the laundry? Who does the grocery shopping? Who picks up the kids from school? That’s all very nice to think about, but I’ve learned to write as and when I can. As I say, a first draft I can write anywhere, anytime in any amount of time. When I started writing again I was tied to the school run. A great discipline. It was my youngest — she was in reception — and I’d be there on this little netbook, in the car, waiting for pickup. I had three hours when she was in school. Then there was getting there, groceries and everything else had to be acquired in that time. I’ll never forget, the first complete book when I started writing again, I tried write a Mills & Boon, because I thought this would be really easy to do… huh!

I remember sitting there at the dining room table, two boys doing homework, the youngest kind of running riot, and there I am writing a sex scene. I thought, if I can do this while answering times tables questions and everything else… Like I said, editing is another story.

 

You’re the second author to tell us she tried writing a Mills & Boon. Michelle Paver tried the same thing. It’s not easy, is it?

To write fifty-thousand words, which seems very manageable, about two people not getting together, then getting together, and having legitimate reasons to keep them apart, is very difficult, so my hat goes off to anyone who can do that.

Liz’s twenty minute tip:

I honestly feel that if you have twenty minutes a day — truly, twenty minutes — that’s your time, you can write a novel in a year. I’m not saying edit it, I’m not saying anything else, but you can get the words down, the complete novel, in twenty minutes (a day).

When I’m blocked, sometimes I put an egg timer on and say I’m going to write for twenty minutes and only twenty minutes.

 

By the time that thing goes ping there’ll be sometimes one hundred words, sometimes as many as fifteen-hundred words, because by giving myself that time it takes the pressure off. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the being perfect that stops most people, and, let’s be honest, even when it goes to publication, if you handed a book back to me I’d still be fixing it, I’d still be editing it.

My kids are now big and ugly, so they’re not really a problem, but when they were small I think the most challenging thing was when I started writing again and we had the desktop. And all of us were on it. They were wanting to do their games and everything else. The best Christmas present I ever had — and there wasn’t a lot of money around — was when they were all excited and they handed me my own laptop on Christmas morning. And it was like, we believe you can do this, mum. One of the things about that whole striving to do this is they were behind me. I wasn’t trying to hide away that mummy’s trying to write a book. And it’s a long process. I started writing fiction again in 2004, I got my agent and publisher in 2011, and I was published in 2012. It’s not a short period, and I wrote a lot of books in that time and I really made use of it. I remember one summer, as part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, if you’re part of the writer’s scheme you have to produce a book a year and it has to be critiqued by another writer. And I was facing the deadline. It was August, we were in Cornwall, we had one week of sun. I was on deadline, so the kids didn’t get out of the house, and at the end of the summer I said, ‘Do you want me to stop writing?’ And the eldest said, ‘Mum, no, that’s not what we want… we want you to be better at time management.’

Are there any other inspirational books that you would recommend?

I’m a firm believer that the right book falls in your hand at the right time. A bit like Stephen King. The first time I picked it up (Stephen King’s On Writing) it didn’t grab me. It was probably another year and a half before I picked it up and it was the right time for me to read that book. One of the lovely rejections I got was from Lucy Whitehouse who was working for (agent) Darley Anderson, and she had read A Cornish Affair, and rejected it beautifully. She said you really need to pick up Sol Stein’s Solutions For Writers. Lightbulb moments everywhere. But now, where I am, what I live for, is Inside Story: The Power Of The Transformational Art by Dara Marks. It’s taking McKee to the next level. It’s not looking just at structure it’s looking at why screenplays fail, because they’ve got too many car chases and they haven’t looked at the emotional journey. If you haven’t done Story, if you haven’t done Save The Cat, this is too sophisticated. You need to get the whole concept of Story, Save The Cat and beats and that stuff in your head, and then this takes it to the next level. Before I start a book, I read, and at the middle of the book when the crows of doubt are circling, you can see them around my head right now because I’m at the fifty-thousand word mark and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, where am I going with this?’ I pick it up and I read it again. I look at my character’s motivations and see what I’m doing. When I revise I pick up Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook. I randomly pick exercises out of the back and rewrite scenes. Normally, that’s how I warm up as well. I just open the book to any old page, ‘Oh, there’s an interesting exercise. Right.’ Open the manuscript to a certain page and do that. Then I have something in my head as I’m going through.

You’re halfway through book six. Did you ever imagine there would be a book six?

No, I don’t think you get thinking beyond your first contract. And that was for two books. You think, here’s one, I’ve got to so something about the second. Then suddenly you’ve got another one, and another one, and another one, and… you go on. I like telling stories.

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Mark D

Mark Desvaux (coach, bestselling recording artist, entrepreneur and author) is living the life of his dreams and works with people looking to live to their true potential and make a difference in the world.

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