There is an unpublished manuscript living underneath my bed. I put it there more than a year ago, when I finally accepted that the Booker masterpiece inside my head just hadn’t quite made it on the page.
When you’re writing, everyone tells you, “Keep going until you get there,” and for many aspiring novelists, “there” is nothing less than a good agent who gets you published. Writing a novel, no matter what recognition it gets from other people, is always an achievement to be proud of – but if your final aim is publication, how can you take your writing across the finish line? I put this question to Emma Healey, a graduate of the UEA creative writing MA, whose 2014 debut Elizabeth is Missing garnered huge critical acclaim upon publication, eventually winning the Costa First Novel Award.
For Emma, staying fixed on her goal was key. “I was absolutely determined to get published,” she says. “I thought about it all the time – it gave me extra focus.”
Her book is a psychological thriller told by the ultimate unreliable narrator: an Alzheimer’s sufferer whose best friend may or may not have disappeared. In other words, it was exactly the kind of book publishers were looking for – which only spurred Emma on as she wrote.
We had agents come and visit UEA, and they kept saying, ‘People are looking for cross-genre fiction, and a strong voice,’ and I kept thinking: they’re basically describing my book. That was incredibly encouraging.”
But there’s more to getting published than simply having an idea that appeals to the market. Emma spent five years working on Elizabeth is Missing, perfecting the novel’s complex and sophisticated double-narrative structure – and finding her own writing voice. “I like every scene to speak to another scene in the book,” she says. “Everything should be picked up again, every character should be acting on their own. You can tell when you haven’t done that – you can tell when a character doesn’t really need to be there.”
Since the novel first appeared in 2014, Elizabeth is Missing had phenomenal success: it’s won numerous awards, had rights sold in more than two dozen countries, and taken Emma across the globe. But despite all of that, it’s still the process of writing that matters most to her. “Everyone says once you’ve been published, that’s when you’re living the dream. But I loved writing Elizabeth is Missing,” she remembers. “There were times when it was scary, but it was under my control. I only had one goal, which was to find an agent.”
Of course, it’s easy to forget that Emma’s experience is an unusual one. To look at an author is to see a story of success – after all, it’s not the unpublished works that get the attention. That’s one of the things that makes rejection so dispiriting – and makes it hard to admit when something you’ve spent years writing just doesn’t work anymore. Even Emma admits, “I wanted to give up loads of times… Writing is hard.” But the key really is to keep going, and to find encouragement in every place that you can.
As for me, I’m working on my next novel and reminding myself that I’ve still got a chance – that will never go away, as long as I love writing. The graveyard of first novels is crammed full of far more distinguished names than mine, and filling up all the time. And as Emma herself says, “There’s something special about the first book you get your agent with.” My persistence means I still have that as a goal – and I can’t help but think how lucky that makes me.
Charlotte Stretch grew up in Surrey, and studied English literature at Warwick University. In 2011 she completed an MA at the University of East Anglia, and was the winner of the 2012 Curtis Brown Prize. She works as a sub-editor while writing her second full-length writing project.
Emma Healey grew up in London where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together but not how to write them). She completed the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011, and Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel. She was named a Londoner To Watch in 2014 by the Evening Standard. In January 2015 Elizabeth is Missing won the Costa First Novel Award, and in June a Betty Trask Award.