While writing my book Inscription I kept a notebook about the process. In it I thrashed out with myself ideas for how to proceed, recorded the many, many times I was stuck, agonised about how the thing was utterly impossible, followed myriad false starts and twists and turns and ideas for the structure, and wrote many times that I simply couldn't see how to do it and was on the verge of giving up. The notebook spans years. A lot of them.
Years later, the novel was complete. It's incredible to be able to say that. Often, I thought it never would be, I thought I couldn't manage it. Not only that, but the book is on the verge of publication. The proofs are done, and the cover design, which should very soon be unveiled to the world (!). This too was a moment I thought might never come. My wonderful agent submitted the book to many publishers (a process we began just as the economy started to flounder badly!) and despite complimentary comments from editors, and optimism at first, in the end no-one felt able to go to bat for it against the publishing house bean counters.
It was never quite the right time and place…eventually I submitted the book to two contests: in the UK, the Cinnamon Press Novel/Novella Award, and in the USA the Eludia Award run by Hidden River Arts. The book was long-listed for the first award, and it won the second. Part of the prize is publication, and so the book is now being published by Sowilo Press, one of the Hidden River Arts imprints.
I've read accounts like this by other writers, and, while they did help me to keep going, I could never really grasp that they had actually ever been in that place of almost no hope, of being unable to visualize the ending of the book and the writing of it, far less a published volume. That place of rewriting the whole book over and over and over again. Of being in a labyrinth with no visible exit. Of waiting and waiting for an editor to take it on. And of course, there is a tendency in us to want to make it look easy. The tightrope walker runs lightly across the rope, as apparently easily as walking down a lane, and the art is in not letting us know how many falls and failures and practices there have been. Vladimir Nabokov said that showing anyone else unfinished work is like passing round samples of your sputum.
But I was there in the midst of it, in that labyrinth. Already deep in the process, I wrote things like "I feel I am back to square one" or "I feel such fear that I can't do it at all. Then I realise that I must just try anyway…" I really was in that place, over and over, and I am here to say that it is worth it to carry on regardless, to persevere.
It's a difficult tightrope. You have to find a balance between humility and self-confidence. Enough self-belief to keep going, even when no-one cares whether your book lives or dies; enough modesty to realise finding an agent is hard, a publisher even harder, and accolades hardest of all. Self-confidence that you can do it; humility in accepting that (speaking for myself) I am not Nabokov, and the input of others during the process—though not too early—is really helpful.
It's an impossible balance really, and I found myself ricocheting between extremes. As for accolades, I don't expect my book to be widely read (though I'll try my best!). Outside family, friends, my agent Julia who loves the book and had faith from the start, and my publisher Debra, I may never have an accolade that means more than the one from Kevin Crossley-Holland. This poet, memoirist, author for adults and children (The Hidden Roads: a Memoir of Childhood; The Seeing Stone; Pieces of Land:Journeys to Eight Islands) picked a poem of mine for first prize in a contest years ago. He's a writer I've long admired. Out of the blue, I asked him to read the book, and not only was he kind enough to do so, but he wrote this:
"Clean, lean, superb prose; the quality of research; thoughtfulness; the subtle interweaving of the stories of two women divided by two millennia but drawn together by circumstance. It's not difficult to praise many components of this unusual and deeply moving historical novel, but what is less obvious, and in the end more profound, is Christine Whittemore's conspicuous achievement in writing a novel about both the consolation of fiction and of writing fiction."
Gosh. In the heart of the labyrinth, I may have dreamt yearningly for a response like this, as one dreams of winning the lottery or inheriting a castle; but I could never have imagined it actually happening. That my book not only somehow got done, but touched a chord like this with a reader of this calibre, makes it all worth-while.