I recently spoke on a wonderful panel of authors (Lisa Bunk, Cori McCarthy and Marty Kelley), about the beautiful ups and downs of being a published author. The moderator, Erin Moulton, an author in her own right, sent us a few questions to think about in advance of the event and here are the answers that I scribbled down for preparation. I know how much I used to drink in this kind of information when I was on the road to publication, so I hope that a few of my thoughts are helpful to writers on that journey. You can always contact me if you have more questions.
Rejection, Reviews, Resilience
Derry Author Festival, Saturday 7th of April 2018, 10.05-10.50am
Let’s start with something positive. I want to hear about what it was like when you got The Call. The call that said you were going to be published author. What was it like?
I wanted someone to hug – and dance with! My husband was at work so I picked up one of my cats and did a little jig around the kitchen. Alongside the joy, I also felt a deep sense of relief. Someone, out there, someone who knew what they were talking about, someone whose livelihood depended on getting stories out into the world – believed in my story.
Even more exciting even than that was the thought that my novel would get into the hands of readers. Some writers write primarily for themselves. I write for my readers: my readers complete my stories.
I see writing as a dialogue rather than a monologue.
For this reason, being published meant the world to me.
How long did it take to get to that point? Had you been trying to achieve publication for a while?
I’ve written since I was a little girl and spent many holidays in my twenties going on writing courses but I always had a very intensive job so I never gave my writing the time it deserved. After teaching and working in boarding schools for 10 years I met my husband-to-be and he said that I’d regret it if I didn’t give writing a real chance. So I took a one year unpaid sabbatical and wrote every day, for hours and hours. I also did an MA in creative writing. Both those things: giving writing the time it deserves and studying writing gave me the impetus I needed. By the end of the year, after a rollercoaster of emotions, I had secured a wonderful literary agent, Bryony Woods, and a publishing deal with Little, Brown UK. So, it took me both a lifetime (about 30 years) but also one year, to get published.
The lesson here, if there is one, is that if you are serious about writing you will, at some point, really need to commit.
I know I had the luxury of taking a whole year out. I had some savings. I didn’t have kids yet (the latter is a BIG point). Many of you won’t be in that position. But you can still commit. Write for an hour a day. Half an hour a day. Show the universe that this matters to you and act accordingly. It’s the first and most important step to getting published.
Was the book you sold the first book you ever wrote?
No! I have several ‘drawer’ novels that will never see the light of day. What’s more, I was signed by my agent for a YA novel that has never been published. It attracted the attention of a big publishing house but fell at the last hurdle: the sales meeting.
This is something important for unpublished writers to know: the sales and marketing teams in publishing houses have the most power and the last say as to whether or not your book will be bought. This is heartbreaking but it’s an important reality to take on board. Writing is a business. People’s salaries and so livelihoods depend on the success of your book. No one is going to do us any favours.
This doesn’t mean you need to sell your soul and write a book ‘for the market’. That usually doesn’t work, anyway, It does mean that you need to keep writing until one of your stories is saleable. Sometimes that has to do with a particular mood or fashion in the publishing industry. An editor with a vision for how your story can fit into the current publishing market. A story that will sit on the shelf and sell.
When my agent was trying to sell that first YA novel, the one that’s still in ‘the drawer’, the YA world was full of vampires. I’d written a piece of contemporary fiction. The sales teams in publishing houses weren’t looking for that: they were riding the wave of paranormal fiction. Times have changed a little. Two years ago I sold my first YA novel (a different one from the first) to HarperCollins. It’s a very different story from my first YA but it is contemporary fiction. I just had to be patient.
So, while I was waiting for the YA market to change a little – and nursing my heartache at my YA novel having been rejected – I wrote my first adult novel, What Milo Saw. I wrote it on a bit on a whim, because it was a story I liked and believed in. I didn’t know if it would go anywhere. Milo ended up being my debut and was snapped up by Little, Brown a few weeks after my agent sent it out.
And that’s another lesson I’ve learnt through this process. Keep writing. And write different things. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams and emotional energy on one thing you’ve written. That story might never go anywhere or might not go anywhere for a good few years.
You are more than one story: you are a writer. So write. Write something different. Sharpen your skill. Write something you never expected you’d write. Just write. Write. Write.
I thought I would be a YA author and ended up being, predominately, an author of adult novels. It turned out to be just what I should be doing but I would never have found that out had I not kept writing and invested in a new story.
What was the WORST rejection you ever received? (I dare you to bring it and read it)
Besides the rejection from that sales team for that first YA novel I wrote (I cried over the phone to my agent when she told me that it had fallen at the last hurdle), I think that the worst rejection comes very early on in the publication process. The kind of rejection that many of you, aspiring to publication, probably feel. Silence.
It’s when you’re writing your heart out and dreaming big and sending your stories out into the world and no one’s listening, that it really hurts.
Sometimes you don’t get a reply at all (to a book proposal, a submission, a competition). Sometimes you get a formulaic reply letter from a junior assistant in publishing house – which is as bad as silence. Overall, you feel as though no one cares. This is the hardest point to get through. But the silence is worth pushing through. Keep writing. Keep knocking on doors. Keep believing. One day, someone will answer. It might not be the answer you want but at least someone will have taken you seriously. Next, someone might give you a chance, like I got with my agent. And then you might get a few more rejections along the way before you take another step forward. But there will be a step forward and then another, and another. And one day, who knows, you might find your on the shelf of your favourite bookstore.
The reality is that, in this business, there are more disappointments than successes. And that you’ll probably cry more often than you punch the air. But then that’s the cost of doing what you love. Of singing or dancing or acting or writing or playing or running for a living rather than clocking in 9-5.
It’s hard but it’s also beautiful and, if you want it enough, it’s totally worth it.
I often hear from people that once you’re through the door, once you are published, it’s free sailing, but that’s not exactly true. Do you continue to get manuscripts or proposals rejected?
It’s definitely not free sailing – unless your debut is a best seller and even then there’s the pressure of the follow-up. Publishing houses want – and need – to make money. So they’re desperate for you book to do well financially. Which means that when you submit proposals for future books they might well be rejected (again, usually by the sales team) if they don’t think the idea will fly. But at least you’ve got someone listening and looking at your ideas, you might just need to keep writing lots of proposals, which can be quite draining.
I remember writing seven proposals for my second two book deal and felt frustrated at how artificial the process was – a bit like I was a slot machine: I had to keep churning ideas out until my publishers decided that there were two book proposals they wanted me to write. And the proposals they chose weren’t always my favourite. But again, this is the cost of being in the business. And, in the end, people are paying you to write, which is just the biggest gift in the world. You need to hold onto this through the frustrations.
Do you have any books that you have tucked away that have been through the submission process but came back without going out to print? Do you ever consider publishing it another way?
Yes, that YA that my agent signed me for. Though I don’t think I’ll publish it in any other way: I’ve moved on now and I think I’ve found a different, better and truer voice for my fiction. I see it, like a carpenter would, as my practice piece of wood.
And there’s an important lesson right there. Sometimes, as writers, we treat our craft differently from how other artists or professional treat theirs. We write a story and automatically expect (because we’ve worked hard, because we love it, because we believe in it), that it deserves an audience. We believe, fiercely, that it should be out in the world. We don’t have the humility or patience to understand that those stories might just be our practise pieces, the ones on which we learn. The equivalent of throwing lots of pots that end up as lumps of clay on the floor or of running thousands of miles and never getting a medal or of practising scales that on one will ever hear. It’s okay to write stories, poems, novels – thousands of pages and words – and for them not to see the light of day. You grow through them. You learn. You get better. They’re your warm-up.
As regards self-publishing, it’s not for me. I’m a storyteller, not a businesswoman. I could never equal the expertise of a publishing house in getting my books out into the world.
How about reviews? We all know that every person has different tastes and that no one book could please everyone. How do you feel about the review process from review journals through to goodreads?
I’m not too bothered about reviews. I’m just pleased that people are reading my books and engaging with them. Of course I love the good ones, who doesn’t? As for the bad ones? Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I feel sad when people write things that aren’t thoughtful or when people haven’t understood what I was trying to do – or make wrong assumptions, but usually, I don’t mind too much. Reading is a subjective business. As a reader, I love some books and don’t like others. It’s all part of the game!
When bad reviews and regular rejections keep bombarding you, what keeps you going?
I guess it comes down to how much writing means to you. For me, besides my family, writing is the most important thing in my life. And it’s the thing I love doing most. So I’ll keep writing.
I also think that writing is a long game – and luckily, unlike professional sport, for example, you can keep writing your whole life. If my breakout novel comes when I’m 40 or 80, I guess it doesn’t matter: I’ll just keep writing and loving the process and enjoying the response from readers who enjoy my books. The key is to keep the publisher willing to publish and to make sure you don’t starve!
The most important thing to remember – something that my husband taught me – is to love the process. If you love the process – the writing itself – then that’s all that matters, in the end. The joy of creating characters and building stories and putting words together. The thrill of watching a world coming to life in front of you. Of spending your days in your imagination.
Remembering to love what you do – rather than how others respond to it or how much money it makes or where it falls on the bestseller charts – is the true measure of success. Easier said than done. But true.