Anna starts again

GUEST BLOG: Anna starts again

7th August 2014 - 12 Midnight Anna Freeman



Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize winner The Fair Fight, set in the little-known world of female boxers in the late-18th century, where nobility and the working class meet, is published at the end of this month. But for its author, Anna Freeman, the two-book deal she signed with her publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, means that she's now faced with starting from scratch on a completely new idea. She shares some of the lessons she's learning tackling that notoriously difficult second novel.



My first novel - The Fair Fight - is finished. They've taken it away. I was enjoying the proof stage, moving commas about and checking facts I'd already checked. The manuscript had had many editing eyes on it and was polished as much as possible. The characters felt so much like people that sometimes when I couldn't sleep I imagined them talking to me. Oh, alright, sometimes I imagined they gave me a cuddle (but that was always weird because even though I know them really well, they've never actually met me). So, I finished that book. I'd have been happy sitting in my flat, rearranging the words indefinitely. But apparently they won't pay me for that. And I did spend years praying that someone, someday, would publish my work. But still. The Publishing Industry Stole My Baby. And now I have to make a new one.


I might have begun it already - I've written some words about stuff - but whether they'll end up being part of the book is anyone's guess. I have a computer folder with a working title (I can't say what it is or I'll instantly hate it), and docs inside labelled 'Draft Chap. 1' and 'New Chap. 1' and 'NEW, new Chap. 1'. Here's the problem with the drafts I've written so far: they're rubbish. They really are. I'm not being self-depreciating or falsely modest. I'll warn you if I'm going to start doing that. They just aren't very good, because, and here's a thing I've learnt, first drafts are almost never good.


Thank god I still have the first drafts of The Fair Fight. They were awful, too. Stilted, forced, unrealistic, long-winded. There were early characters who ended up in the bin. The voices were inconsistent, because I didn't know the characters well enough to hear them clearly.


So, I do know that this new novel isn't going to look promising until suddenly... it does. Or, and this is the bit that knots my stomach, what if it doesn't work and I have to throw it away and start again? And then what if that one doesn't and it turns out that The Fair Fight was the only novel I had in me? I signed a thing, promising to write another one! I will have officially failed. People will notice.


I expect, just like every 'epiphany' I ever had as a stoned adolescent, I am having a bog-standard angst-experience for new authors. Probably people will read this and yawn, or chuckle ruefully. I tell myself that. Sometimes it helps. Maybe all big projects are a mess until they aren't anymore. Maybe Rembrandt was always saying, 'This isn't art! These are just splotches. Oh. Wait. If I look at it from over here, maybe it looks like a lily pad.' I'm not comparing myself to Rembrandt. I'm not Dutch. Or dead.


I am trying to give myself permission to be rubbish. I tell my students this: just decide to write something without judging whether it's okay. You will definitely have to throw away half of what you write or be one of those writers with no self-awareness, who thinks every word they write should be carved in stone. I'm pretty sure those are the only two choices. Well - the third choice is never to write anything in case it fails. Lucky I already signed that contract. No third choice for me.


Really, though, I think a secret thing. It's a secret because I try not to think about it in case I'm wrong, but I'll tell you, because I can't see you, so it's like you're not there. The secret is this: I think it'll be okay. I think this bit is really hard, and I'm groping about, trying to build a Lego castle in the dark, but there'll come a point where it almost starts building itself. When it will feel like I'm watching, rather than creating it. Last time the story suddenly started unfolding so fast my fingers couldn't keep up and I had to get all the essentials down and go back and put the details in later. That moment is so special it makes my chest cramp up to think about it. Maybe, in six months or a year, I'll be talking to my new characters when I can't sleep. Eliza or Judith or whatever her name is eventually. I know how lucky I am to be allowed to try to do this for a living. I used to work in a call centre.


I don't really do preaching. I'm never sure that I'm qualified to speak about things outside my own experience. But I kind of hope that any new writers reading this might feel heartened. It's rubbish because it's supposed to be. That's what early drafts look like. Foetuses aren't pretty, either. We only pretend they are because it's hard to see properly on the scans and it's a kind of miracle that they'll turn into babies eventually.


Anna's previous blogs for Foyles

  • Anna and the idea: on trying to come up with an idea for her seond novel
  • Anna learns to edit: on learning how to accept her editor's suggestions and when to stop stop making changes

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Anna and the idea

From the Foyles Blog

12th November 2013

Earlier this year, Anna Freeman became the second winner of the biennial Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize, which rewards an unpublished author with representation by Tibor Jones and Associates.

In September, Anna blogged for us about the ego-bruising experience of having her writing edited for the first time and learning to trust the judgement of her agent, Sophie Hignett.

With her first novel, The Fair Fight, complete and due to be published in August 2014, she's been casting about for ideas to fulfil the two-book deal she's signed with Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Here she talks about the difficulty in forcing vague ideas to coalesce into something she can explain to her expectant publisher.

I'm still editing my first novel, while the deadline for submitting it to the publisher sidles ever closer. I'm beginning to feel okay about it, actually - I think I'll work right up to the deadline, and then just open my hands and let the book flap its covers and flutter off. I've stopped worrying so much about that novel now that I have the second one to worry about; it needs me more than the first one.

It was my idea to ask for a two-book deal. I have a friend who's written a wonderful novel and now has to come up with a second one, without a deadline to write to. My friend would have hated to have a two-book deal. She wants to write her book when she's ready, without an editor poking at her imagination to see if it's marketable. Some writers can't write under pressure; I'm not sure I can write without it. The idea terrifies me - I feel fairly sure that if I was in her position I'd just keep beginning different novels and throwing them away. Or maybe I'd just do 'research' forever, and drown.

So I asked for this, and must be grateful. I am grateful, I'm more than grateful; I'm delighted, elated and fracking* terrified. Somehow I must come up with an idea.

I can't just decide to have an idea. I can't even let the ideas know I'm interested in case they run away, into the heads of people who don't even want them. Ideas can smell desperation; they'd rather attach themselves to all those people who say they've had a great idea for a book or a film but they can't imagine when they'll have the time to write.

I caught the idea for The Fair Fight when I wasn't looking; I was lazing around in my pyjamas, reading a book I meant to give to my niece, Horrible Histories, by Terry Deary. (In case you don't know it, Horrible Histories is a series of children's books about all of history's nasty bits, with appropriately gruesome illustrations.)

I found myself gripped by the paragraph on female prize-fighting; it just seemed so odd that women were boxing on stage at the same time that Jane Austen was sipping tea. I typed it into Google and it all got a bit weird and destiny-scented - the words 'Bristol' and 'The Hatchet Inn' came up. Bristol, the city I grew up in, and The Hatchet, the pub I'd been working in for four years. Both featured heavily in almost every history of boxing I could find. I couldn't really not write The Fair Fight, after that.

I can't expect that kind of serendipity again, can I? I did have two baby ideas that I was feeling pretty hopeful about, but I think I killed them. I didn't mean to. What happened was that in asking for a two-book deal, I then had to sell the idea of a second book to the publishers. This seems fair, since I was asking them to pledge money for something that doesn't even exist yet. Unfortunately, after I'd explained my two baby ideas five or six times, they'd turned into so much drivel. I've noticed this happening to me before - the summing up of an idea often makes it sound trite and colourless.

A novel doesn't start as a synopsis, at least not for me. It begins as a feeling, an almost bodily sense of the tone the story will take, never mind what will actually happen in the narrative. Of course I can't summarise it accurately. Maybe I could if I'd said something like, 'Book two? I'm thinking it will be kind of dove-grey, you know? But like, an exciting grey that smells of swirling skirts.'

So, I got my two-book deal and I killed my tiny darlings to get it. Happily, the editor I ended up with is fairly relaxed about it - she seems to trust that I'll find a good idea, which is lovely and I just hope she's right.

I do have a miniscule spark of an idea. It's not even a baby, just a sperm half-stuck into an egg; I can't show it to you or even look at it until it's strong enough to be examined without bruising. It's a mewling, half-formed thing, like Voldemort before he returned to power. I'll feed it on my own tears and insomnia, and if it won't grow properly I'll just have to whack it into bits with a shoe. There's always the possibility that another idea will come along while I'm trying to nurture this one. Ssh, don't tell them I'm looking.

*Fracking is my new swearword - it makes me disproportionately happy. 


Anna learns to edit

From Foyles blog

30th September 2013 - 12 Midnight Anna Freeman

In 2011, literary management company and arts consultancy Tibor Jones and Associates chose the winners of the first biennial Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize, open to unpublished writers. The prize of £1000 and representation by the agency went to Gabriel Gbadamosi, whose debut novel, Vauxhall, was published by Telegram Books in May.

In 2013, the judges, including Foyles' Head of Buying Jasper Sutcliffe, selected 'The Fair Fight' by Anna Freeman, as their winner, praising its 'its vigorous storytelling, the dexterity of its language and the author's ability to create characters that live and breathe'.

Here Anna talks about the process of editing the novel with her new agent, Sophie Hignett, including the difficulties she found in accepting changes to her writing and learning when to call a halt.

I entered the Pageturner Prize because I thought it was a good place to start, I never for a moment expected to win. I was ready to spend the next god-knows-how-long trying to find an agent. Suddenly I don't need to do that. Instead I have to edit it, for professional people to think about marketing. It's surreal. Of course it's wonderful, but it's also quite scary.

The hardest part of writing a novel must be getting the first draft done. Right up until the end I was worried I'd fail to finish it. After that I worried that it would turn out to be rubbish. Those feelings seemed usual and expected. What I wasn't expecting was to find the process of editing so painful. I've been in so many creative writing classes I thought my artistic ego had been battered into submission; I was ready for editing to be fun. It's not. It hurts, despite the fact that I am incredibly, wobblingly grateful to be doing it and to have found an agent who cares about the work. This is partly me - I quite often become a vibrating string of anxiety in fairly normal situations - but I've talked to other writers and it seems that in one way or another we all struggle with editing.

It's not so much my ego that gets me as my heart. When Sophie, my agent, sends me lists of things she'd like to see changed I want to gather the manuscript into my arms and hiss at her over the top of it. I know the novel isn't perfect but I went and fell in love with it, didn't I? It's like I've got a bit of a wonky-looking baby and someone else is offering to help get her ears pinned back and her wandering eye corrected. I like my novel how it is. I'll just stay in the house and cuddle it and breathe its inky smell and no one else need ever read it. But of course, that's not fair. It deserves to fly and make its own life or it'll end up resenting me. Also, I am increasingly desperate to be a 'proper' writer, in case I ever find myself at a cocktail party and someone asks me what I do. So the editing has to happen.

All the advice suggests that it's a good idea to put the novel away for a long time, so as to look at it with fresh eyes. I can't bear to do that because of the impending cocktail party (there isn't one that I know of specifically, but it's important to be ready).

I'm trying to keep my grip on the gratitude. Here are the things I've managed to learn about editing.

Thing one was: I mustn't try to edit early drafts as I go. I had to let it be shaky and rubbish in places, write everything and work out what to do with it later. If I didn't suspend judgement I might not have written anything at all.

My early drafts either need fleshing out or major amputations. This varies, not just chapter to chapter, but sometimes even paragraph to paragraph. Fleshing out detail is easy enough, that part has actually been fun. For the over-long bits the key is to work out the purpose of the scene. How does it drive the narrative/develop the character? How do I distil that functioning part, and lose the rest? Sometimes perfectly good bits of writing have to go. The trick there is to put them in a folder called 'offcuts' or similar, and pretend to myself that someday I'll turn them into a short story.

When I really notice how imperfect the novel is I am swamped with despair at how much work I have to do. For this I have developed the sophisticated technique of shouting out loud, "It's normal to have to edit a book, you massive numpty."

Another thing I've learned is that I do need other opinions on the work, even if they can be hard to hear. So what if Sophie doesn't love the novel quite like I do, that's precisely why she's useful. I've had my face pressed up against the story for so long that I'm blind to its flaws. It turns out that my baby can lose a few limbs with no harm done. I may have to get rid of another one before we're done.

It's also lovely to have someone to talk to about the characters as if they were real. Sophie is almost as interested in them as I am. Writing can be an isolating experience and suddenly someone wants a guided tour of my imagination. It's better than therapy. If it's published maybe other people will talk to me about them. I'm looking forward to that.

The hardest part might be deciding when to stop editing and let it go out into the world to be criticised or worse, ignored. A debut novelist I once met said that every time he picks up his published novel he sees something he wishes he could change. At least when it's finally published I'll still have something to be stressed over. I wouldn't want to stop being me.

Find out more about Tibor Jones & Associates and the Pageturner Prize on the Tibor Jones website


Anna Freeman on The Fair Fight

From W&N Blog 

Anna Freeman’s debut showcases an astonishing new literary talent. The Fair Fight is a vibrant, visceral romp through 18th century Bristol, following the tangled lives of Ruth and Charlotte, two very different women with the same dream; to fight for the Championship boxing title, and for empowerment. The Fair Fight was the unanimous winner of the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize 2013 and will be out in hardback in August this year.

We still have a while to go until The Fair Fight is published, but we can share an exclusive chapter extract with you here. And who better than Anna herself to share with you what makes the novel so special? Watch her brilliantly funny introduction below, filmed at our author party last year.

The Fair Fight is published in hardback on 28th August 2014.