From Wilderness to Waterstones
Abi Elphinstone faced almost 100 rejections for two different novels before the fourth book she wrote, The Dreamsnatcher, was picked up for publication. For any budding writers out there, here's a lesson in never giving up.
In 2006, I left Bristol University with an English degree. After two unfulfilling years in PR, I booked a one-way ticket to Africa. There I taught English and half way up a baobab tree, I wrote my first children’s book. After four months I came back to the UK and went into secondary school teaching, first in Berkshire and then in London. I submitted my children’s book to thirty literary agents – and it was rejected by every single one. I taught English for four years and in the evenings and holidays, I wrote another book. I sent it to thirty literary agents – and it was rejected by them all. Again. A few agents said they saw ‘glimpses of brilliance’ and ‘raw talent’ in my work but that my plots were unoriginal and my writing style was amateur. I wrote a third book. You can guess where this is going: it was rejected by every agent I sent it to. By this point I had racked up ninety-six rejections from agents.
But something inside me refused to give up. I kept every positive comment any of the agents gave in their rejection letters and took every bit of advice they offered: I went to literary festivals, I read more children’s books, I attended writing courses, I started blogging and I re-worked my writing until it was the very best it could be. Perhaps most importantly: I stopped putting my focus on getting a book deal and starting thinking about writing a story that really mattered to me.
I grew up in Scotland where I spent most of my childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. Together with my siblings, I camped under the stars on the moors, played monkey bars from the rafters in the farmyard barns and fished the pond for giant beetles. I didn’t have to create Moll’s outdoor world; it grew out of my own. And before long, it was filled with a cast of invented characters: a headstrong gypsy girl, a wildcat, a fortune-teller, a witchdoctor, tree ghouls and vapours. Once I’d written the words of the ancient Bone Murmur, Moll’s adventure had begun...
I wrote The Dreamsnatcher over the course of a year and I literally threw everything at it because it was finally a story I wanted to tell: I watched wildcats prowl in the New Forest, carved wooden flowers with a Romany gypsy and spent every spare second writing until it felt like there were no words left inside me. Then I sent off the book to one agent. She signed me and within two months I had a two book deal with a major UK publishing house! Really excitingly, The Dreamsnatcher has now been named a Top Ten Children’s Book Not To Miss in 2015 by The Bookseller and this week I get to see it OUT. IN. THE. WILD! But I won’t ever forget the struggle of writing before being published – of the despair, loneliness, hurt and disappointment. But I guess that if you want to embark on any sort of creative process, you’ve got to keep believing in your work and in yourself. In some cases people get lucky quickly, but for the rest of us, it’s about sheer graft. It’s about looking for opportunities and making them happen – and it’s about learning to fail and being bold enough to bounce back. As my mum said to me every step of the way: ‘If you’re not failing, you’re just not trying hard enough.'