People are often curious to know how HADES happened. It was not, in any way, a straightforward journey from page to print, and therefore like all perilous journeys, its path was full of lessons and surprises. The first and most critical lesson I learned from trying to get HADES into print was not to go around trumpeting my success until contracts were exchanged and money in my hand. And even then, I wouldn’t advise it. Wait until the book is in your hands. That’s the only certainty you have in this game.
The first time I read those magnificent words, ‘Yes, I would like to publish you,’ they were in an email not from my current publisher, Random House Australia, but from HADES’s original publisher in the UK. I will not name this publisher, because I’m not sure it’s really fair. I was so angry and blinded at the time, that I didn’t ask for all the details in what occurred in my first publishing deal. There might very well have been legitimate reasons for what happened happening. I hold no resentment, and I wish this tiny publisher all the best in the future. The indie publishing game is often a dire and thankless one, and what happened I’m sure is a familiar story to people who deal with these ambitious little companies.
Basically, I was on my fifth novel with no success in the publishing game. This was around 2011. A one-man publisher in the UK offered to publish me in print and in digital form in both Australia and the UK. I told everyone I knew. I told people I didn’t know. I was in tears with excitement all the time. I was planning my book launch from the first day. I printed out my acceptance email and framed it. I was drunk with visions of opening a package and finally holding my first words in print.
The year and a half long wait to see myself published flew by. We were editing the manuscript together over email. I became quite close to my publisher and regularly chatted with him on Facebook chat about family dramas, both his and mine, books and authors we loved. I fended off contant interrogation from confused friends over when my book would be published as it was again and again pushed back. These things take time, I would say. He’s one man doing an entire company’s job. I knew my publisher had a busy work and family life outside of his publishing hobby.
I was willing to wait as long as it took.
After waiting six months for our cover designer to emerge from the mist into which she apparently descended, (with me resisting the urge to simply have my graphic designer step-mother do the job over a weekend), my publisher emailed to tell me he didn’t have the money to put me in print anymore. He’d overspent on a local literary festival. He could still publish me in eBook form.
It’s hard to describe how this felt. I was ‘crushed’, yes, but it was a private hurt, a thing so devastating I didn’t dare seek comfort from anyone on it. It happened at exactly the wrong time. I’d just separated from my husband in the most awful and heartbreaking way a relationship can come to an end; suddenly, inexplicably, shockingly. At the time, I was sleeping on my parents’ living room floor. My cat was traumatised. I was so mad. White-hot mad. The only reason I hadn’t published myself in eBook form a year and a half earlier was because I wanted to see the book on paper. I wanted, at least once, to hold my book in my hands. I withdrew from the relationship with my publisher. I hadn’t been contracted, and my publisher accepted my, rather coldly worded, withdrawal.
It sounds silly now, but I was actually deeply humiliated by the failure of this little book deal. I guess deep down inside, after the first couple of push-backs of the publication date, I was in doubt that the book would be published. The publisher had only put one book out in print before. But friends were introducing me to other people as an ‘up and coming author’ with an ‘international book deal’ and I was too embarrassed to correct them. When the book was laid out fully, I was encouraged, but then we stalled. When I finally got the cancellation email, I sort of knew before I opened it what it was going to say.
HADES found print, finally, with Australia’s largest publishing house, Random House. I did open the box, smell the fresh ink and paper, cut my book out of the plastic and hold it lovingly to my chest. I have an unapologetic affection for books in print. I got to see my first tattered and well-loved copy of HADES the other day in the hands of a man walking down the street, so used to seeing it brand new and sparkling on book shelves in stores.
I am profoundly lucky that my original publisher did not publish HADES.
He stalled me, effectively stopping me from publishing it myself with my doomed publishing deal, and kept the book off the market until the exact moment I arrived in Sydney, where I would find my new boss, who would recommend me to the woman who would become my agent, who would then find me my publisher. I don’t know if you believe in fate, but this example, this crushing, failed opportunity was so perfectly that old door closing so that a window can open, that I had to share it with you. Rejection is never, never a waste. Don’t despair, and don’t count your chickens. Just keep knocking, keep on knocking, until it’s your time to be let inside.
Something I see a lot in aspiring authors is an incredible, deeply rendered frustration. I guess I notice it because I’m only one book into my (published) writerly career, and I remember what it felt like.
There’s plenty to be frustrated about as an unpublished author. That dream of getting the phone call, signing the contract, walking into the hallowed halls of your traditional publisher’s brightly lit offices and being greeted like a star is very familiar – because when it happens it happens just like that. It’s magical. It’s miraculous. It was certainly the highest point of my life thus far. When it happens to traditionally published authors for the first time, they tell everyone about it. I sure did. I’m still doing it.
So for aspiring authors they can imagine that for themselves pretty easily. They also know how to get there. They’ve read all the books. They’ve attended all the seminars. They’ve spoken to all their idols and heard the same set of steps. Write something brilliant. Edit the shit out of it. Submit it everywhere you can. Don’t take no for an answer. Keep on truckin’, baby. Just keep on truckin’.
The problem is, that you can do that a hundred times and still not make it. And there’s no logical reason you can grasp onto. None.
A few times before, people I’ve known and loved have tried to teach me to drive a manual car. The instruction I was being given was painfully simple. Take your foot off one pedal as slowly as you can, and simultaneously, gently, press down on another pedal. Easy, in principle. One up, at the same time as one down, slowly. I tried it. The engine clunked and failed. I started up and tried it again. Clunk. Fail. Again. Again. Again. Again.
Why isn’t this working? What the hell am I doing wrong? It’s so simple. Jesus. Everybody can do this but me. Children can do this. How is it that I can do (list life achievements) but I can’t do this. I am such a loser for not being able to do this. I am the ultimate non-manual-driving loser.
At about my hundred and fiftieth rejection letter, which was around the time I was finishing up my fourth unpublished novel, I’d managed to cultivate a pretty dark and devastating aspiring author frustration. A lot of crying and swearing was involved. I hated publishers. I loathed published authors. The good ones, and murderously, the bad ones. How do these people make it? How? Who are they related to? Who are they sleeping with? What did they study that I didn’t study? There must have been something going on here that I didn’t understand, some secret that everybody knew except me.
The truth is, there is no secret. There is no conspiracy against you. You’re not personally being targeted and shut out of the party. Publishers aren’t gathering around your manuscript laughing at your work. They’re not throwing darts at a picture of your face. They’re lovely people. They work unspeakably hard. It’s the same with agents. They’re not money-hungry fiends. They care about good work and the big dreams of the writers at heart out there as much as you do. The problem is time. And money. And manpower. You know this. You’ve heard it plenty of times before. Most of the big publishing houses in this country handle upwards of three thousand submissions per year. They have room for ten to twenty new authors in their stable. This falls every years with the rise of digital self-publishing. That’s the situation. That’s how it is.
It’s good to be a bit frustrated, so I’m not telling you to calm down completely. It’s only through the unshakable, stubborn, fuck-you determinedness that you’ve developed that you will succeed in squeezing into that tiny gap, that crack in the wall that allows new authors in. It may (probably will) take you years to get there. It will probably take you multiple books. What I want to discourage, however, is that self-hating, publisher-hating, author-hating frustration that can arise out of the good frustration.
There is some joy in being locked outside the party. You’re not alone. In fact, there are so many of you out there that you’re kind of like your own party. You’re all experiencing the same thing. You’re all fighting the same fight. You are a part of a journey that tens of thousands of successful traditionally published authors have made. There’s no reason to hate or doubt anyone, particularly yourself, for not making it when book one fails. The same for book ten. It’s not you. It’s not them. This is just the nature of the journey.
And let’s face it. You’ve never been the type for easy journeys. You wouldn’t want this so bad if you were.
Don’t give too much to your frustration, because it will crush your work first, and your spirit next. Channel it, use it, thrive off it.
Don’t get mad. Get writing.
A young man approached me at a library talk in Sydney a little while ago and asked me what life is like being a ‘famous author’. So I thought for this blog post I might talk about how being an author effects my world on a practical level. This might drown some steadily floating dreams out there, particularly those belonging to young people, about publisher-funded book tours across the globe, being recognised in the street and gushed over, buying a mountain-top writer’s retreat with your first round of royalty cheques. But if you’ve got a more grounded version of the writerly dream still pumping away in your mind, this might confirm for you what you really want, what success for you would really mean. So here are the major points of the writerly life, as well as the debunking of some popular myths.
First of all: I’m not that famous. I’ve never been recognised anywhere as being That Amazing Author, Candice Fox. I’m recognised at my coffee shop as the black-coffee-milk-on-the-side-chick. I’m recognised at my local library as being The Fast Typer. I’m recognised at my nail salon as The Chewer. But for authoring – no. If you want street recognition, become an actor. Being an author is one of those jobs you can hide behind, only revealing your true self when you feel entirely safe; kind of like stripping, I guess. It’s not that it’s shameful, but I’ve found that now and then dropping the ‘I’m an author’ bomb in the wrong situation can cause some real dramas. It can cause your audience of new friends to heap reams of Hollywood cliches onto you about your bank account, your work ethic, your arrogance, and in some cases, (quite often, actually) it can inspire them to tell you their own book ideas. The heart-wrenching memoir never written. The fantasy epic mentally built up over decades, just begging to be given life. The breakout Western Shoot-em-up/Gothic Lit mashup ‘like nobody’s read before’! These conversations are usually long, deep, and one-sided, so keeping the author thing under wraps completely can sometimes be a good move.
Basically no one lives off their writing. That’s a sad fact. Sure, the money surrounding each book is a great bonus – I used my first advance to put a deposit on a modest Eastern suburbs, two bedder apartment – but there’ll be no Jaguars or private jets, unless you’re Matthew Reilly. Most writers I know surround their authorial activities with writing related stuff, like talks, teaching sessions, online courses and retreats. They are often writing teachers or lecturers. I’m a university lecturer and a PhD student, so I only teach during the semester and only for a couple of hours a week. My main source of consistent income is my PhD scholarship. Throughout my PhD, when teaching work has been hard to come by, I’ve taken other weird little side jobs – teaching kids to swim, freelance journalism, desk girl at a tattoo shop. Each time I’ve gotten a book-related payment I’ve gone out with my partner to celebrate over dinner and drinks, but I’ve stashed the rest for my future.
Getting published after the initial publication is easier, but that’s just common sense. My agent is a very good friend now, and she’s always available on the other end of the phone. Having said that, I have pitched her ideas that are not in her field, and she’s refused them – business is business, and friendship is friendship, and the two don’t mix. It’s easier to pitch, though. I don’t have to have a completed manuscript, an interesting bio or a meticulously-constructed synopsis. I’ve also proven a bunch of things to my agent that the pitcher in the slush pile hasn’t proven yet – I’m rational, professional, hard working and I always finish the book. That’s the key. Plenty of people have ideas, and plenty of them write, too, but finding a finisher is difficult. As an established author, the publisher I’m approaching knows I’m a hard worker also, and they’re encouraged by the fact that I already have a fan base and people like my style. I remember the good old days when I’d have to wait three months minimum for a rejection from a publisher, and agents seemed as hard to catch as white tigers.
Having written and published a book does not make it easier to do it again. I still have to have compelling characters, a cracker plot and page-turning pace, and that’s not something that just oozes naturally out of your head like earwax. In fact, the pressure to write book two of my series to the standard of book one nearly drove me insane with anxiety. Before my agent and publisher told me it was brilliant, I had no idea if it was any good. As an author, you don’t just discover some secret formula for writing a hit that you can go ahead and follow. You have to be inspired. You have to plot. You have to solve all the problems and make all the twists and build all the tension the way you did the first time, now on a deadline, with the same or better appeal. You HAVE to – or you’ll lose this beautiful and magical thing you fought so hard for for so long; your status as an author. And you will lose it: don’t you worry about that. Authors fall into obscurity all the time, or follow up their first cracker with a mediocre second and fade into the shadows. It’s terrifying, to be honest.
But it’s also wonderful. Being an author is wonderful, in all the ways I’ve written about it being wonderful before. The first time you open a box full of fresh new copies of your work. Seeing those fresh new copies become tattered and frayed, over and over, in loving and excited hands. Having a new idea, falling in love with a new potential novel, pitching it and seeing the excitement come over your agent or your publisher’s face – because they know what you can do already and they’d love to see you do it again. Seeing notifications that a new fan has joined the Facebook page – someone you don’t know and have never met. They join quietly, and they watch without comment. Just some stranger in the crowd who likes you.
I don’t think the novelty of that will ever wear off.