19 June 2020
The former PR and celebrity talent agent describes the steep learning curve that led to her debut novel
There are not many ways in which I can align myself with Graham Norton but as far as writing careers go, I seem to have started my second calling based on the same criteria as the glorious chat show host.
When Graham and I were discussing this the other day – no of course we weren’t. I learnt this little gem from watching Richard & Judy’s lockdown book show on which he was a guest. He told them (and me of course) that on turning fifty, he decided that after years of saying he wanted to write a novel, it was time to put up or shut up. I was the same. The decision hit me at fifty. That’s where the similarity ends. Graham has gone on to produce three hugely successful novels. He is now fifty-seven. I am sixty-two. My first novel was published last year. What took me so long?
For nearly thirty years I had a successful career as a TV presenters’ agent and publicist looking after people from Ulrika Jonsson to Melanie Sykes. But when that pivotal age caught up with me, I decided it was time to broach the cliché: the novel I knew I had in me. My work was demanding. I couldn’t do both. I gave up the day job.
You can’t give up a solid career and take up an unproven one without a certain amount of financial back up. Nor without a certain amount of confidence. I’ll be candid here. I had high expectations. I’m an averagely intelligent, articulate woman who can tell an entertaining story around a dinner party table. I had written articles. My novel would spill onto the page.
Lesson one: Never have expectations! They are the devil’s work.
Lesson two: There is a skill in novel writing. Sure I could tell a story but what about character, plot, structure, story arc? SHUT UP! Boy did I have a lot to learn.
Happily I loved the learning. I enrolled on courses. I met amazing people. I gained a new skill, a new understanding, a new friend (or more) at every programme I attended. I loved my new tribe. Writers. I just wanted to be a published one. We all did (some said they didn’t but no one believed them). Sadly only a tiny percentage would go on to achieve this goal despite the amount of talent in the room
Talent. There’s a thing! As an agent I would sit with hopeful young presenters and tell them that being talented was not enough. They needed luck and timing too. When those two things came together, the talent would take them forward and hopefully keep them there.
Now I needed to heed my own words.
Since turning fifty I have written four manuscripts which took me about two years each to turn around and about two months each to get rejected. Rejection after rejection after rejection. The first one I received, made me feel my whole world was over. With practice, and there was certainly a lot of it, I learnt to roll with the punches. Painful though this tenacity was, I so loved the process of story telling I felt I had no choice but to write. The only thing I didn’t love was pressing send on the emails containing my first three chapters and synopsis, entrusting my hopes and dreams in the literary agents I had diligently researched from acknowledgements in books I loved to the endless lists in the Writers' & Artists' Year Book.
Happily time threw out some crumbs. With every passing year my skills improved, the number of writer friends increased and the rejections became less impersonal, more encouraging, more hopeful.
I’ve always believed you end up where you’re meant to be. I had wanted to be on Felicity Blunt’s list at Curtis Brown since first meeting her. It took me ten years but my fourth manuscript finally hit the sweet spot. When Felicity’s reply to my submission landed in my inbox, I read through the praise waiting for the ‘but’ and when it didn’t appear and the acceptance was unequivocal, I cried.
It will be a while before I catch up with Graham but let’s not run when we’ve only just started to walk. And walking has never felt so good.
Life and Other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor is published by Transworld, £7.99 in paperback.
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