Friday, August 22, 2014

CAREER IN PROGRESS (random musings from an apprehensive writer)

My third book is due to be released later this year. Just last month I finished the final copyedit and wrote the acknowledgements. As I attached the file to an email to send to my publisher I thought to myself, Well. That’s it. It’s out of my hands now.

I congratulated myself. I fist pumped the air. I told myself I was awesome. (Actually, I didn’t do any of these things. I can’t remember exactly what I did but a fist pump would be sadly out of character. I only wish I were the fist pumping type. I probably just sighed and flashed a small, smug smile at the computer screen.) In any case, I pressed send, got up from my desk and made myself a celebratory cup of tea and scrounged around in the pantry for some kind of sweet biscuit to go with it. I took my goodies to the kitchen table and sat down. I sipped and munched. I stared out of the window into the grey day outside and ... felt a bit lost.

I’m sure most people here know this already but writing a book is hard. Really hard. (Oh, look, there are harder things, I know. Much harder things. In fact on the spectrum of ‘hard things’ about life, writing a book is nowhere near the pointy end. In fact, writing should really be considered a luxury. A lot of basic needs—food, shelter, safety—have to be taken care of before one can sit down at a desk and worry about putting words on a page.) Still, assuming you have somewhere to live, enough food to eat, and a relatively comfortable place to sit, writing a book is a bit of a slog. It’s a long and lonely process. Wrangling between 60 and 100 thousand words into a compelling, cohesive and satisfying narrative takes a lot of hours, a lot of thinking, and (for most, if not all, of us) a lot of careful rewriting. I’m not sure about other writers but I start anticipating and longing for the end when I’m approximately 3 pages in. Problem is, the end is always so far away. Even when it’s not, it feels like it is. Finishing seems impossible, the mountain of words insurmountable, the peak so high you can’t even see it. And so, when you do finally reach the summit and type "THE END", like all feverishly anticipated events, it’s always a bit of an anticlimax.

After the initial high of finishing there’s often a comedown. The time between that final proofread and publication date can feel quite strange. Much like a terrible hangover, it’s a funny sort of unproductive, breathless, limbo-land. It involves a lot of waiting, hours and hours of hoping and wondering, a fair bit of nail biting. The book is done, the substantive work all finished, and yet it’s impossible to sit there and feel smug about it. you see, the scariest part is still to come.

On one hand, it’s exhilarating—Woohoo, I’ve finished! Hooray! Hooray! And on the other, it’s completely terrifying—Is it any good? Will people like it? Will this be the last book I ever publish?
The combination of those two extremes can leave you feeling a little unsteady, a little unglued. Paralysed and vulnerable, like a rabbit staring into the headlights of a car.


This time, writing my acknowledgments got me thinking. My biggest thanks, my most heartfelt gratitude went to my publisher, Erica, and my editor Sonja. Sonja and Erica read my latest manuscript in its very early stages. They saw its potential and helped me shape and smooth it into a publishable book. The first draft—if and when I can bear to go back and look at it now—makes me cringe. It’s so rough and unpolished I have to peek at it sideways, through my fingers. It’s too long. It rambles. The plot is loose and unstructured. There are too many unsatisfying tangents, too many voices, too many irrelevant subplots.

The thing is—I had professionals to help me fix it. I had an editor to help me rein the structure in, a publisher who set a firm publishing date and made the whole thing seem real. (I can’t tell you how motivating things like cover images and release dates are!) I couldn’t just curl up in a ball and cry. I couldn’t quit.

And it occurs to me how lucky I am right now to have people behind me who are invested in my career. There are publishing professionals who want me to produce a decent book and whose job it is to help me get there. I’m not working alone anymore. I’m part of a team.

And that thought reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. Like most people who don’t know anyone in the industry and are submitting through the slush pile, getting a foot in the door is hard. To get attention, to get people to take notice of your work, to find a publisher willing to take a risk on a debut author takes a fair bit of perseverance. you have to have enough confidence in your work to keep trying in the face of rejection (you also have to know when to give up and move onto something else,
but that’s another topic, for another time.)

My first book, Beautiful Malice, was rejected so many times I lost count. It was rejected by literary agents and publishers. It was rejected because the characters were too young, because they were too old, because they were neither one or the other. In the end Beautiful Malice sold in 52 countries. I don’t say this to brag—honestly, I know how large a part luck plays in this kind of thing—I say it to be encouraging. Amazing and wonderful things do happen. Little manuscripts become big books. Stories are pulled out of the slush pile and sold around the world.

The point is, though, that it’s hard to get a foot in the door (you really do have to keep shoving) and I’m glad to say I’ve stepped through that solid, deadlocked, heavily-guarded obstacle. I’m so relieved to be on the other side.

I don’t know where my career will go from here. My forthcoming book, Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, is due to be published in Australia in October and I have no idea how it will be received, how it will sell. Maybe it will be published overseas. Maybe it won’t. There are countless uncertainties. And so while I’m grateful to be where I am now—about to have my third book published, contracted to write my fourth—I won’t rest on my laurels. Publishing is a fickle business. Nothing is guaranteed.

All I can do—all any of us can do—is keep on writing. The best words we can.

                                                                                             (First published in ACTWrite, August, 2014)