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.