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Becoming a Novelist
Monaghan, Nicola
Nicola Monaghan writes about studying on the MA in Writing at Nottingham Trent University.
I used to be a real City of London chick. The rumour was, if I left the Square Mile the FTSE would crash. I loved my lifestyle, didn't want to give it up, so I gave up my spare time to write instead. I'd been sending off work to agents for ages and getting nowhere. On a good day, the rejection letter was written to me personally and contained a couple of encouraging comments. Most of the time it was a headed note. I didn't get it. I knew I could write. I knew my work was good, people at my writing groups told me so. I concluded the problem was with the agents; they weren't reading my work.

I started my MA in September 2002, part time over two years. My main reason for applying was so I had something to put on covering letters that would impress potential agents and publishers. Wrong. Many agents and publishers are put off by the mention of an MA on letters. MA students have a reputation for being arrogant and pushy. But that doesn't matter. I've gained much more than I ever hoped from the course.

Last year I did a module in fiction and something called 'Writing Practice', a compulsory part of the course. This year I wanted to continue to concentrate on prose but couldn't because our option choices were pretty restricted. None of this is very important though. It isn't about options and essays. It's about people. There's a misconception, in my opinion, of the writer as a solitary figure, hunched over coffee and a laptop. I don't think this type of writer exists anymore. These days you need contact with others, feedback. And contacts, for that matter. My sleazy City background has helped me there as I have no qualms about approaching people, or chatting up authors or agents at book launches.

Important thing I've learnt from the course number 1: Sales skills are as important to a writer as they are to any other professional.

So who have I met? Established authors of fiction, travel writing, poetry, screenplays, comedy, fantasy, science fiction and biography. New published writers a few steps ahead of me. Agents. Publishers. People who've made it, but will talk to you like you're one of them. Help you. Tell you how they got there. Also - and this feels great - they take your ambitions seriously. That little snigger we all know and love is not there. You know the one I mean. That hidden 'what on earth is she talking about' you see behind people's smiles when you tell them you want to be a novelist. Not there.

Most importantly, I've met other people like me. There are some writers on my course who I doubt will ever be published, and some who I think have a great deal of work to do if they're to make it. But there is a select group who are getting somewhere. They're hungry for it, and make it their business to know their art. They eat books, devour them cover to cover then recommend them to you like a good waiter. They notice everything. The tiniest, weeniest slip in point of view. The moment in a sentence where the tense is not quite right. Those horrible infinitives that the word processing ghost splits open when you're sleeping. Best of all, they are completely honest. This does not always seem like a good thing. One of my colleagues once called my work 'a bit too my little pony' and it was like being slapped. But I needed to be slapped. Not that I'm condoning violence, except metaphorically.

Important thing I've learnt from the course number 2: You will always have blind spots to your own work. You need someone honest to point them out to you.

Looking for these things in other people's work is fun too. It develops your skills as an editor.

ITILFTC3: You need to be a great editor to be a good writer.

Through meeting agents and publishers, I found out why people weren't reading my work. They're so damn busy with piles of paper flying in from aspiring writers, their offices look something like under the stairs at Harry Potter's when he kept getting those letters from Hogwarts. Your proposal for a novel has to be amazing. It has to blow them off their feet. Or you have to know them, or be put in touch via a mutual contact. Better still, both.

There was also a problem with my work I was not aware of. I wasn't wrong about being a good writer. I was a great writer, of words and sentences. But I knew next to nothing about narrative structure and plotting. I really was naive enough to believe the pen god would watch over my paragraphs and make them form themselves into a story that worked. Maybe some of you still believe that. I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you but there is no pen god. While we're here, there's no Santa Claus either. Honestly. Your dad ate the mince pie and your mum drank the whisky. Structure is all-important. Start writing a novel without a good idea where you're going and it will take you twice as long to get there. You'll also risk ending up with a garbled mess of ideas instead of a story. I know because I've tried it.

ITILFTC 4: Novels work because they follow a structure that appeals to the human psyche. If you want to be published your novel will follow this structure too.

Thanks to all this, and loads of work, and a fair bit of pain, and drinking with the right people at book launches, I've finally managed to get agents looking at my work. I haven't had any commitment from anyone yet, but they are reading it. They are asking for more. I'm getting paid for pieces of writing like this. I am turning, slowly, into a professional. I blame the MA for this.

Most ITIHLFTC: Writers write. They keep writing and editing until they produce something worth reading. Then they show it to people and it gets rejected. They keep writing and editing and showing it to people until someone at an agency recognizes their genius. Then the agency sends it out and it gets rejected by publishers. So they keep writing and editing...

Nicola Monaghan worked as a teacher, a financial analyst and a software guru before giving up all three careers to concentrate on her writing. She has had several short stories and poems published, and is currently talking to an agent about her first novel.

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