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Blow by blow?

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "if I find out I don't have what it takes, it might take my enjoyment out of my writing"

Dear Jerusha; I am scared. I have written two books of a series, and the first is out with a couple of agents, but I know that I'm likely to get a standard rejection, which won't tell me anything except that today, that agent thinks they can't sell that novel. But I am working on other novels - I have loads of ideas from children's books, to YA, to adult. Time is lacking. Eventually, when my daughter goes to school I would love to devote my time to writing novels.

The thing is that I started writing to escape and found I loved it. I never set out to become published. Now, after devoting two years to the series and seeing how much I love to write I wonder if I have what it takes. If I don't it doesn't really matter, in a way: I do just love writing, and I'd go on. But now I'm thinking about getting an editorial report because in some ways I really want to know. On the other hand, if I find out I don't have what it takes, it might take my enjoyment out of my writing. I'll constantly think it's rubbish, whereas now I think - well, I like it! I also don't want to spend £500 unless it is worth it. I can afford it; we are fortunate. It's just - is it worth it?

I think it's very insightful of you to realise that you might rather leave your enjoyment undisturbed. There's no denying that it can be quite hard to cope with detailed analysis of what's not working yet in your writing; in some ways it's harder to take than a bland "Not for us, sorry." And it's horribly easy to read all the gory details of "What's not working yet" as piles of "What I did wrong because I'm rubbish". And it's very natural to be scared of getting an even semi-authoritative assessment and judgment of your work: Emma doesn't have the least desire to be a professional cook, but she'd still be nervous if Nigel or Nigella came to tea. I do think it's horribly easy, too, to get locked into the general assumption among aspiring writers, and also the rest of the world, that publication is what we're all aiming for, and anything else is second best. It's not nearly as simple as that.

I assume, though, that you would like to improve your writing, just for the pleasure of being able to fulfil better your drive to tell stories: to say what you want to say more effectively, to get the idea and dreams in your head onto the page more satisfyingly. Whether you have "what it takes" is a slightly different thing, and a slippery thing to pin down. "What it takes to get published" is related to "what it takes to become a terrific writer", but it's not the same thing. I do understand, though, the power of the  desire to find out where you are in the spectrum of writing. It really is very difficult to know, isn't it! It is, fundamentally, impossible to know how your writing reads to anyone else, and you wouldn't be human (though you might be super-human) if you didn't sometimes want someone to give you an idea of how it measures up against others'.

Which is why I'd always suggest that the first thing is to do whatever you really, really want to do, and are up for, to make your writing better. If that coincides with what could get it to being publishable - or if information about what sells happens to get your creative cogs genuinely whirring - then great! But if it doesn't, then at least you've created something, and you've enjoyed creating it, and you are in at least some measure satisfied with it.

One option would be to spend the same kind of money on - say - an Arvon course. One of the uses of a course, I think, is to help you get a sense of where your writing fits in the writing universe. Not necessarily in simplified, competitive terms of better and worse, but also what kind of beast it is: what effect it has for other people, how they relate it to their readerly/writerly experience. That's another kind of realism, and it can be salutary or even painful. But because it's more centred on the question of whether your writing communicates well, it might be closer than a report might be to what you need to go on enjoying your writing.

But few courses - if any - can actually pay the detailed attention to a full novel that a good report should. I'd always hope that a report would help you in a wider way than just how to knock this novel into shape: that you'd learn something about writing in general too. But if you do go for a report you need to say that what you're really interested in is making the book better in itself: indeed, it would probably be worth talking to the agency first, to make sure you get an editor who can think in those terms. I think some editors are inclined to work to a blueprint for any given genre, and talk mainly about how your book could be made to conform. Others may see the individual problems in yours, but still only offer the simple solutions which will make it easiest to knock into saleable shape. They may well be right, in the short term of this book, and that's what many writers want. But they'll be wrong for you because it won't develop the book and you as a writer in the most fruitful way. An example might be "Write it in first person because most YA is" - which might be true, but very limiting for this project. Similarly, when Emma's teaching she's often tempted to tell someone that they should stick to a simpler structure, say, because they're likely to handle it better. But it's better teaching (though not necessarily better editing) to say next, "But if you do want to use this complex structure then you should do X and Y and..."

Then imagine getting the report. How might you ring-fence the judgements of, "This isn't something publishers would want," so that they doesn't turn into, "This isn't something which was worth writing," and then the all-too-likely extension of that into, "Therefore my writing isn't worth doing"? The first is something that the editor can judge more than you can, but each of the latter two is something only you can decide about.

So I guess it depends whether you think that after the kicking-the-cat/getting drunk/eating chocolate phase, and the reading the report thoroughly twice phase, you could find your way back to having faith that your writing is a good thing for you to be doing: that it has merit for you and anyone else who you allow to read it, and is therefore worth doing, even if it's not Tolstoy or the next mega-buster.

Because, let's face it - none of us are Tolstoy, are we...