The Art of Giving Up

I don’t know if it’s just because I’m being alerted to what’s most relevant to me – a bit like how, when you find out you’re pregnant, you suddenly see prams and convex bellies everywhere – but lately I’ve been seeing a lot of writers’ tweets and blog posts about rejection, and about feeling like giving up.

I’m taking this as a sign from the universe to finally share this piece, which has been loitering on my desktop for several weeks. I don’t know if it’s pride, or shame (two sides of the same ugly coin) that’s stopped me from doing so up until now. It’s possible it’s a kind of superstitious fear, because in Writing World we like to share good news, and maybe if I put it out there that things don’t always go the way we’d like, the Publishing Gods will see me as the impostor I am and never smile on me again.

On the other hand, it might help another writer or make them feel less alone, so here goes:

My third book failed to sell on submission.

For the uninitiated, going on submission is when your agent shares your manuscript with a number of editors at different publishing houses and they have the chance to make an offer to publish it, or not. In my case, the answers were all variations on ‘not’. 

Even the word ‘submission’ speaks a bit to what it is to be a writer seeking to be published. You submit yourself (I mean your work, of course, but let’s face it, the whole reason it’s so bloody painful is that your work is part of yourself. If you’re any good, anyway) to the tastes of gatekeepers, the trends of the market, the vagaries of public opinion. 

(I should add at this point that I don’t mind any of this: publishing is a business, like any other, a commercial operation, and if my book isn’t going to sell, no way should anyone take it on – why would they? To do me a favour? Because I’ve worked on it for four years and five drafts? Because I want it so badly, like a tone-deaf X-factor contestant? Don’t we all?)

My point is there’s the risk of rejection at every turn. It’s an absolutely crackers career.

I’ve recently taught a pilot ‘Aspects of the Novel’ course for writers at the start of their novel-ing journey, and in the first class one of my pieces of advice was “don’t do it, it’s a silly thing to do” – I was only half joking. Novel writing is arduous, emotional and often boring – genuinely, very similar to raising a small child – with absolutely no guarantee at the end that your offspring is going to become a Premiership footballer and buy you a big house with a pool. Erm.

I should qualify that I’m by no means speaking for all writers in this post, and others might be able to cope with the ups and downs of the job better than I can. I would also like to confess here that my writer-self is quite different to my self-self. Bear with me. 

As a person, I like to think I’m generally the sunny, positive sort, chatty and sociable. As a writer, I’m grumpy, contrary and often, ironically, short of words, especially when someone asks me about my work – something I simultaneously love and hate (I told you, contrary).

When anyone asks me, “how’s the book going?” I genuinely don’t know what they want me to say. My answer is either going to be so bland and undetailed (“fine, thanks”) as to be meaningless, or so specific and intense (“I’m really struggling with the untangling of the sub plot in the third act, and I’m wondering if a change in point of view would sort that out, or would it alienate the reader at this point?”) that they will wish they’d never asked and have to poke themselves with something sharp just to remain awake.

When someone asks me, casually and kindly, when’s the next book coming out (as if that were something over which I had any control whatsoever), I’m pleased that they’re interested, of course, but I’m also furious and impatient and wildly grumpy.

As a writer, I’m an awful person. I’m sorry.

When the third or fourth pass for my novel came in (‘pass’ sounds so much gentler than ‘rejection’, doesn’t it?) I was in the car, and I couldn’t speak. I wanted so much to share with my partner the feelings that were bubbling in me, but what came out were monosyllables, mumbles. And tears. It felt physically painful.

We’re always told, in the writing business, not to give up. I’ve given that advice myself. I’ve given talks, taught courses (see above), and mentored writers through my freelance editorial services, as well as working alongside so many writing friends over the years, and I genuinely want them to keep working, persist with their manuscripts, keep submitting (there’s that word again) to agents and competitions – because I’ve received a lot of ‘no thank you’s and ‘I just didn’t love it enough’s over the years but I’ve also experienced what it’s like when you get the Yes, the golden buzzer, the entry ticket to your own book launch in Waterstones, and I’m not going to lie, it’s as great as you think it will be.

Over the years since my last published novel and across multiple drafts, my wonderful agent persevered with brilliant editorial advice. I have no doubt each draft was better than the previous. I even think the end result was a Pretty Good Book.

But pretty good doesn’t cut it, and the truth, the big reveal, the secret I want to share with you, is that I think I knew it all along.

So many times my inner voice told me the book wasn’t quite right…and not in the same tone it uses for every single thing I write (I’ve actually learned to block out the general ‘you’re pretty crap at this, aren’t you?’ babble). I even mentally rehearsed writing this very blog, explaining into the social media ether how this was the book that didn’t make it, but the one I learned the most from, etc etc. My fantasies for one day talking about this book became less along the lines of Booker Prize acceptance speech and more How to Fail podcast.

There are reasons. It was never my story – by which I mean, it came from an idea someone else gave me, not from an idea I found by myself or an impulse within me. It evolved over time to incorporate those things, but the spark wasn’t mine to begin with. That might not matter to other writers, and I didn’t know until now (painful lesson) how much it matters to me.

Perhaps as a result of that, it took on many shapes and lost its way, tangled up in too many themes and not enough plot.

Still I persisted.

Even post- the many passes, a large part of me wanted to go on, give it another shot, keep submitting, put it out in the world somehow – even though my heart, my gut, knew it wasn’t quite good enough. I wanted to do that because we are so often told, and tell ourselves: don’t give up.

I recently left a part-time job that was taking too much of my time and emotional energy. It was hard. When a large part of your income comes from self-employment (and hey! Turns out you’re not selling another book anytime soon!), the instinct is to hold on, to security, to money and routine. It’s easy to keep treading water and not notice that you’re sinking. And it’s fraught with risk because it’s only when you let go, when you ‘give up’, that you know whether it was the right thing to do.

But leaving that role helped remind me that every time I’ve given up on something – a job, a relationship, in this case a novel – it’s turned out, without fail, to have been the right thing to do. Very Good Things have happened as a result. That knowledge is the life raft I’m holding onto, now.

I had to grieve my last book for a good while but I’m writing something new now and I’m loving it. I’m excited about writing again. I’m back to ‘shitty first draft’ mode (to quote Anne Lamott) and although on some days it feels like being back at the foot of a very tall mountain, isn’t that the most exciting stage – full of possibility, full of energy?

So maybe we have to change the narrative. Is perseverance everything in writing, or is listening to your gut actually the best advice and bravest course? Is giving up really giving up, or is it giving space to something else – something better?

Photo by Ryan Snaadt on Unsplash

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Small blue thing

He said I was the sun and moon. He said I shone. He said I was the world. Unchartered territory, deep oceans. I contained poles and mountains, languages and valleys he would explore. I was a spinning globe in his hands. 

Stick a pin in me and decide where you want to go. 

The thing about me is I have no sharp edges. I’ve no ’side’ to me, he said, and he was right. The corners had been rounded off me. I had learned to be agreeable; I was a smiling face, a birthday cake, the unchipped rim of a china cup. Perfect.

I could never be spiky or hurtful, I was lost in my own unending smoothness. I would slip onto his finger, his waist, a wedding ring, a belt. I would hold him in my hollow self and he would be safe.

I didn’t notice my own descent from globe to glass marble. Didn’t feel myself shrinking.

Along the way I became a football, kicked and volleyed and caught for sport. If enough force was applied, I bounced. When I deflated I was blown up again, allowed to feel strong, in time for the next game.

I became a hole, an open well, a round red mouth in a silent scream. A surprised ‘O’. A zero.

Now I am a tiny glass sphere, blue as my eye, small enough to be kept in his pocket, worried at by his fingers. I could be rolled away, down a ginnel, into a gutter, and nobody would see me there, glinting and glittering.

Nobody would know I used to be the whole world.

(Photo by Alin Andersen on Unsplash; title from Suzanne Vega)

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Need

The streets, the trees, even the bees

slept when we met.

Where they’d teemed, beeped, bled,

they were meek.

We felt free, fell knee deep:

Peeled sheets, bed.

See me next week.

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I used to worry about quicksand

I used to worry about quicksand;

Spontaneous combustion, that was a big one.

UFOs, poltergeists. The seven deadly sins,

Father Woods. Hell.


I used to worry about my skin, my hair;

Other girls who fancied my boyfriend,

Whether he’d be faithful,

Whether I’d be faithful,

Whether I’d be found out.


I worry now about big things:

The state of the world, 

The planet, the people on it,

Corruption and conspiracies,

The rise of the right,

Fascism, fanaticism.


I worry about medium things:

Can I pay the rent, is everybody healthy,

How is school, are we still friends,

What’s next, am I enough?


I worry about little things:

Did I put the bin out?

Where are the football boots, are they clean?

The fact I broke the special glass,

Lost the necklace,

Still haven’t cleared out the cellar.

I worry I don’t remember everyone’s birthdays.


I worry about the enormous things

that I can’t even put into words,

because doing that makes them real,

gives them weapons with which to skewer me,

bludgeon me, fell me to a state where

I can’t breathe, move, be.


You know what I mean.


You know the unworded worry,

You feel it too.

We all do.


Let’s just call it loss,

and gloss over it.


And instead worry about:

The bin

And the boots

And the rent

And the right

And the hair

And hell.


And tell ourselves, well,

If I keep on top of all that,

It will all be alright.

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Freedom

December is a good time of year to leave a job you no longer love. The twinkling lights of my old workplace seem to wink at me as I drive away for the last time.

It’s been a gradual, nagging feeling, this idea that I could do something else with my life and that nobody would miss me if I did. It’s a bit late for me to have a midlife crisis, the wife said, but she didn’t try to stop me.

I’m getting on a bit, it’s true, but you’re never too old to follow your dreams – isn’t that what people say?

They also say things like, ‘they would replace you tomorrow – everybody is replaceable’. I admit that for a long time I didn’t believe, deep down, that this applied to me. I’ve been in the role so long, after all, and I’m good at what I do. I work quickly and efficiently and I’ve never missed a deadline. But you do get tired of doing all the work and never being seen.

I’m also tired of the travel – it’s exhausting, and the unhealthy food that goes along with it isn’t doing anything for my waistline.

I feel a twinge of guilt as I crawl in holiday traffic past houses lit for Christmas. I’ll miss the company vehicle, that’s for sure – this one’s nowhere near as fast. I catch a glimpse of a hopeful young face pressed to a window, and then it’s gone, lured by the promise of hot chocolate, or blurred by the fast-falling snowflakes.

Maybe somebody will miss me, in the morning. They’ll have to notice the empty stockings, the space under the tree. 

Without me, maybe they’ll find their own kindness.

Maybe somebody will finally step up to fill my boots. I hope so.

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

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I like you more

I like you more than the morning cuppa

I like you more than cheese toast supper

I like you more than Sunday papers

And anchovy pizza with olives and capers.

I like you more than walking up mountains

Than cola bottles and sherbet fountains

I like you more than chilled champagne

And rainbows and getting in from the rain.

I like your smile, I like your style

The way your hair grows, I like your nose

I like that you say ‘barth’ not ‘bath’

I like that my accent makes you laugh.

I like you more than flowers and chocs

I like you more than cosy socks

I like you more than Christmas lunch

And afternoon tea and Sunday brunch.

I like your kindness, your gorgeous looks

Yes, I even like you more than books.

Next to fresh brewed coffee and hot buttered toast,

I love you more, I love you most.

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Homage to my belly

(After Lucille Clifton)

This belly wobbles.

It is warm and soft as dough.

It has rolls. It’s proved over time

It is a great place for resting a brew, this belly.

This belly held a baby. It birthed a boy

Better than any beach body bikini.

It now fits nicely into the hand

Of a spooning man,

Or into the small of his sleeping back, relaxed.

This belly is not flat. It won’t be held in.

Photo by Monika Kozub on Unsplash

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Belle

I tried to leave, but my freedom was no such thing.

Can you be said to leave someone when you carry them with you everywhere? I could hear his cries of rage, it didn’t matter how far I ran.

I missed him. Missed the heat and rawness of him. He’d been hurt and I understood what that was like. We connected.

He showed me something I’d never found in books. It wasn’t just that he gave me palaces when all I’d known was provinces. The castle with its high walls has an endless library and a bountiful garden; the village with its open meadows has whispering snides and closed minds. Which of these is the prison, anyway?

There was more than that: he showed me a new part of myself. Like the roses he kept, I blossomed, blood red. I grew thorns. We fought, tooth and claw.

I gave as good as I got.

Of course I would always go back. 

He knew it the first time he covered me with his paw. I was his. He needed me.

There was osmosis between us, a shape shift. I made him better, you see. More palatable, more beautiful to the outside world. A prince.

But what does that make me?

I look in the mirror now and see a beast.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

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This life

This life is an empty picture frame.

It waits for a wedding day, the blur of confetti, the slice of the knife.
It wants a dribbling baby, with fat cheeks and tufts of new hair.
It misses a group of friends, arms slung around necks, fishbowl cocktails and filthy secrets.
It needs a parent, their smiling approval, their smothering kindness.

My life is fancy at the edges.

Its ornate curls are carefully painted.
It is light and beautiful and it matches the room.
A stranger might pick it up and admire it.

An empty picture frame could belong to anyone.

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Sleepwalking

Each night she walked a little further. She didn’t know she was doing it at first.

It started in the bedroom. She knocked over a lamp, and in the morning the cat got the blame. She whispered sorry.

The next night she went downstairs and tried to make a cup of tea, which unsurprisingly didn’t end well. Her husband entered the kitchen the next day and stared at the broken mug, the spilled milk. He didn’t shout or get angry, only said her name softly.

On the third night she made it out to the bottom of the garden and sat in the flowerbed, not feeling the damp earth underneath her. She looked up at the stars, looked back at the house.

The next day she heard the slow approach of a car and took the longest steps yet. She walked down the path, and joined herself in the back of the hearse.

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