IF YOU tuned into BBC Radio Wales last week, you might have heard a no-nonsense publisher savaging my prose.
I write for the Leader every day after talking to people from Wrexham, Flintshire and Chester – telling the stories of local people.
For the last five years I’ve also been writing a novel for a PhD, with the help of (real) writers at Bangor University.
I got the qualification and, after several years of trying to get the work published – and more than 40 rejections – I finally had a straightforward critique.
Fantasy publisher Jo Fletcher gave me her opinion on a national radio show called Phil the Shelf.
The idea is that aspiring writers can put their work forward on the show – and sometimes the work will then be taken on by an agent.
The prospect would give any aspiring novelist a flicker of hope.
I was ushered into a tiny room on the Glyndwr Campus in Wrexham, handed a pair of headphones and then audio-linked to Jo.
To paraphrase a bit of famous writing advice, writers are supposed to “murder their darlings” – but she did the job for me.
I’m not going to lie: It hurt.
It hurt because what she said was true and it hurt because thousands of people heard it happen.
I couldn’t just drop it into my rejections folder and move on.
The Leader patch has a history of creative talent. We have writers like Nia Ceidiog of Coedpoeth, who brought Fireman Sam to life and Mold’s favourite son Daniel Owen.
There are hundreds more out there who have literary ambitions and will understand what rejection means.
For those who don’t, imagine you spend four years building a house. You do a lot of research and planning and then you get to work.
Occasionally, other people offer vague advice on what needs shoring up, what materials to use and what the finished article should look like, but for the most part, you build this house on your own.
It takes time, effort, a lot of planning and emotional energy. You pull it down and rebuild it several times.
Because you don't have much money, you are working alongside a full time job and sometimes it exhausts you. You lose sleep over it.
You love and hate the project, often both at once.
Finally, you think have succeeded in building a house. You are quite pleased until dozens of estate agents refuse to list it but don’t tell you why.
Then a respected estate agent looks at it, tells you it is pretty but basically unsound, all the rooms are in the wrong place, nobody will like it and she won’t be able to sell it.
The immediate temptation is to pick up a sledgehammer.
“Where are you going with this next?” asked Phil Rickman, presenter of the radio show and author of more than a dozen novels.
“To the bin, I think,” I replied.
This particular novel might be unsalvageable. Lots of friends and family have pointed out that JK Rowling was rejected umpteen times.
But then again, there’s a line between being optimistic and delusional. I am not JK Rowling.
It is actually quite good to hear from a publisher, whether the response is damning or not.
We are living in a time when it is easier than ever to publish your work. You can blog it, self-publish through pay-on-demand websites or bung it up on Amazon.com as an e-book.
On the flipside, as the market becomes fragmented, it is increasingly difficult to get noticed.
I’ve interviewed a number of local authors, including Die Booth of Chester, Marie Cope of Wrexham, and Fiona ‘Tink’ Maher, a Llangollen writer who turned to e-publishing after losing patience with traditional publishers.
Meanwhile Sophie McKeand from Mold makes a living by writing, organising events and performing poetry. She prefers to blog rather than hand her more personal creations over for commercial sale.
Some writers have been discovered through digital publishing.
The best known is probably EL James, who wrote 50 Shades of Grey and satisfied the fantasies of millions of readers and probably her accountant too. She’s a major success but noteworthy because of her rarity. Much of her success came after she was picked up by a mainstream publisher.
For that reason, I still want to take old-fashioned publishing route, but those of us trying to navigate this road are doing so while wearing a blindfold.
The most common response from publishers is ‘thanks but no thanks’ or ‘not quite what we’re looking for’.
This is worse than useless. It hints that you are heading the wrong way – without indicating the right way.
Some publishers are so swamped with manuscripts they won’t send a note.
Others don’t even look at unsolicited manuscripts. They will only consider novels that have come from an established agent.
To my horror, I discovered that sometimes you need an agent to get your work seen by an agent. This is not a joke.
I have the impression that most, if not all, fiction publishers want a polished product from the outset.
They do not have the time or resources to work with a promising writer, editing and re-editing a misshapen book on the off chance it might be an eventual hit.
So it is refreshing to be told my characters are unlikeable, that the novel is “well written” but “trying to be too clever”, that there are “too many ideas” and not enough cohesion... that it gave critics Jo and Phil no reason to keep turning the page.
It’s refreshing to be told anything at all.
I walked out of the little recording studio and tried to convince myself that I was dabbing my nose with a tissue because of my lingering cold.
With a little hindsight, I’m glad they didn't spare my feelings.
This novel might not be the one to launch my fiction writing career, but at least now I can put it aside and work on the next fantasy book.
This time, it will have have stronger characters, a better plot and a North Wales setting.
Miracles do happen in North Wales – including the signing of publishing contracts.
l Phil the Shelf is broadcast again on Wednesday at 5.30am and is available on iPlayer.