Guest post by Zena Shapter

Why is it that we only realise how bad we were at writing novels… once we’re finally good at writing them? When I finished writing my first novel, I honestly thought it would be a simple matter of promoting it to the right agent or publisher, then that would be that. I lived in London at that time. Surely one of them would take it?

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

When I started writing my second novel, I knew it wouldn’t be that simple – I figured I’d have to at least pay for a manuscript assessment this time, you know, to really polish it off. So long as the manuscript assessment didn’t identify any major plot flaws, I figured I’d use the feedback to make my novel shine, then it would be ready to send out.

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

That first assessment didn’t identify any major plot flaws, but there was still work to do on character and voice. In fact, it would take many more years until I eventually found my voice, learnt about tension and stakes, and what kind of writer I really am.

Looking back I knew nothing, really, about writing novels. But that only began to dawn on me when I started writing short stories…

I started writing short stories because I’d heard published authors say it was a great way for writers to improve their skills and that getting short stories published could help get you noticed.

They were right too, at least for me. Writing short stories did improve my writing – so much so that, as I started winning competitions, I also started to find my writers’ voice. In particular, I found myself switching from third person to first person, from past tense to present tense. I’m not 100% sold on any particular tense, that changes according to the story, but I am now hooked on first person writing. And I’m a much better writer for it.

After I’d won a few short stories, I applied what I’d learnt to my novel, and that began to shine too. So… that’s it right? My novel’s ready to be published?

Not so, younger more-amateur Zena!

After I found my voice, my manuscript was starting to get there, yet when I sent it out it was with a hope that agents or publishers might like it, or at least see its potential. I remember crossing my fingers and wishing to be lucky this time. Why luck? Luck certainly has something to do with it. But, looking back, I was hoping for luck purely because I wasn’t confident in my novel. It still needed work, only I wasn’t ready to face that at the time.

As time passed and I continued writing, I focussed on developing my characters and improving dialogue, thinking about tension and stakes. The more I wrote, the better I became as a writer of my particular style and interests. So that’s it now, right?

Er, no…

Finally, I am happy and confident in my novel – and what do you know… I’ve got an agent who loves it too. Now all we’re waiting for is the right fit, someone who ‘gets it’ like we do. It’s not about luck anymore, it’s more about finding that special someone who recognises genius when they see it (he he!).

Now when an agent or publisher rejects my novel, it’s with words like ‘clear talent’ and ‘with regret’.

Still, I know better than to think that my learning curve is complete.

For every year that we write, we come to know ourselves better as writers – which is why it’s so important to wait until you’re ready before submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers, or self-publishing. What if you think your novel writing is ready, but it really isn’t?

I’m still learning as a writer, just as authors of internationally bestselling novels say they’re always learning as writers – so why rush it?

Eek, I shudder to think what would have happened to my writing career had I self-published back when I first thought I’d finished my novel! That’s why I advise writers on my creative writing courses never to send substandard work out into the publishing world. If you’re in this for the long-term, and I’m sure you are, only send your manuscripts out into the world once you have that confident feeling.

We’re all guilty of thinking that we can write when we really can’t. But just look back on when you first started writing and you’ll realise – we only realise that we can’t write, once we finally can.