Check me out on ABCNews24’s The Mix with my buddy Michael Robotham and James Valentine. We come on about halfway through the episode. Funny times! If these guys think I’m a ‘sick puppy’, they don’t know the half of it.
Don’t get exhausted with me. The blog posts for my Novel in a Year project won’t be this frequent. But as you might have guessed, yes, the writing has begun. Last time we were together, I let you know that for four or five months my daydreaming and thinking and collecting of ideas had grown to such a pressure point that I was just about ready to explode. Well BOOM! It’s the first day of the year! I have done just that, and splurted out the first 2,249 words. Only, what, 87,751 to go? Intimidation, much.
I wrote it, I read it, and I added some things. I think it’s a nice place for the novel to start, something tense that’ll have people invested. The struggle for me in the beginning is always not blurting out ‘everything you need to know’ about the main character’s backstory like that little girl on the first day of primary school who so desperately wants to be your friend. Hooky’s cool. She’s very cool. Trust me! Just trust me! You’ll love her, I promise! There’s plenty of time for a character’s backstory. I just have to be patient and let it flow out.
So plenty of you are probably familiar with this stage, the explosion stage, where you fearlessly set out and put actual words down. In my experience of first time authors and their struggles, it’s not until about a month from now when your little engine will catch sight of the mountain it has to climb, and you’ll realise there’s actually not much coal left (might not have been much to begin with). You’ll scramble to fight the fear, duck down a few dead ends and back again, and finally come to a halt at the brick wall of indecision, lack of confidence in your abilities, and an empty basket of ideas. Don’t worry, I’ve been there too. My first brick wall, when it comes, will be smaller than yours, and I’ll have the confidence to leap over it pretty quickly. I’ll help you through yours when I hit mine.
Right now though – wow! I’ve had my first date with my new literary love for this year, and I’m smitten. I’m literally only two scenes in, but I’ve spoken with my new character’s voice for the first time, and I think I like how she sounds. I’ll now switch over and write from the perspective of the girl who’s living with my killer for this book, so I’m going to stop and think about that scene before I charge on tomorrow. I’m thinking, at this stage, I’d like to try and power out 2,000 words a day, but editing tasks from my work last year might get in the way. God, I hate editing so much. I’m in a new relationship now, with a whole new book. I’m done with those other guys. Urgh. Gurgh. Surely near enough is good enough? Oh woe is me.
If you’re writing along with me, please share, either here, on my Facebook page, or on Twitter. I love to know I’m not alone. It’s going to be a long year! Hopefully a good one!
So I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts throughout the year that track my actual activities in writing a novel, so that those who are curious about how I work can get an idea of my ‘process’. I get asked the process question a lot. Here’s the answer. I do not anticipate in any way that this might stop me getting the process question in interviews. But what the hell, huh?
Everybody has their own process. There are writers who smash the first draft out in something like National Novel Writing Month, then spend 11 months fixing it up. I know fantasy writers who spend three or four years off and on putting together dictionary-sized epics, who spend whole parts of the year plotting and drawing maps and writing nothing.
Not so here. I’ve been writing a book a year for a good long while, and they’re all about 90-110,000 words. If you’re curious as to how that actually happens – in terms of word count spread, plotting time, and the intrusion of other employment activities I need to do to survive, I’ll try to paint that for you. I’m going to attempt to tell you what I’m actually DOING throughout the year so you can get an idea of what it takes for me – and how that relates to your own work.
So we’re at Stage One: Pre-writing ideas collection.
This has been going on for a little while now, maybe four or five months. Now don’t get all ‘Well, that’s cheating because it’s not in the year!’ on me – I haven’t actually DONE anything on this novel in that time, and this year I’ll be plotting the actual DOING for you. Thinking is not doing. Doing is doing.
And that’s an important distinction. Plenty of people think about writing books, and never get past this stage.
For four or five months, I’ve basically just been playing around with ideas about this novel in my head. I’ve been keeping an eye out for crimes and perpetrators in true crime books, podcasts and docos that I think I’d like to explore, and I’ve been thinking about my protagonist herself. What sort of person is she? What’s her history? I haven’t written anything down about her, or the crime, or set in stone the structure of the book. I’ve just been thinking daydreaming about it with my mind open to new influences.
Like I said, this stage is common. Ever heard someone say ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to write a book about (blah)’. I hear it all the time. When I ask – ‘So who would be your protagonist?’ Or ‘Where would it be set?’ Or ‘What’s the genre?’ Usually I get nothing back.
Ideas collection for me is kind of like this: whether I’m in the middle of writing a book or not, I have a basket on my arm and a backpack on my back. As I’m wandering around, day to day, I might come across ideas and influences that I like the idea of. I might hear about a particular poison that works well and doesn’t leave a trace at autopsy, for example. While I don’t have a use for the name of that poison, who used it on whom and how you make it, I figure it might be useful to collect that tidbit of information for use one day in a future book. So I put it in the backpack. I’ve got all sorts of weird things in the backpack, some of it decades old. Some of it is ‘how to kill a person’ type stuff. Some of it is totally random bullshit – hairstyles I like, one-liners I heard in movies, stats about serial killers I’ve known and loved.
I might come across another bit of information that I think closer relates to the project I want to work on this year. So for example, for this book, I’m interested in pathological liars, and people who suffer from Munchausens. I was very interested in the Belle Gibson affair when that happened, and I read a book on Casey Anthony early this year that was so great. I’ve decided my killer will be a Munchausens sufferer. So if I see or hear anything about that, I put it in the basket hanging on my arm. The basket is more immediate, directly pressing, and organised than the backpack. I don’t have much room in it, so it’s important that only the best bits and pieces go in there, stuff I’m fairly sure I’ll use. I might actually seek out specific sources for stuff to put in the basket. When the book is written, I dump the basket into the backpack and start a fresh one for the next book.
So I started my basket for the novel I’ll write this year a few months ago, and as I’m looking into it now, there’s a bunch of stuff in there – but not a huge amount. It’s not necessary for me to become a world-leading expert on Munchausens before I can write a character who has it. There are other puzzle pieces in there about the character that I’ve gleaned from my imaginings over the last few months – what her hair looks like, what she sounds like, where she lives.
I like to start writing when I’m sure of a few things. Firstly, who kills who, and why. So in my basket I’ve got a bit of an idea of the victim, and the killer, and of course I know my protagonist pretty well. This year I’m writing a novel about Amy ‘Hooky’ Hooku, who appeared in my novel just released. If I’d been starting with a brand new protagonist, I’d have things in the basket I’d picked up about her. Cuttings and shavings from real or fictional women I like, pasted together to create her. This woman’s hair, that woman’s smile. This woman’s upbringing, and this one’s shitty attitude toward public transport, etc.
At this stage, I don’t really know what the first few scenes of my novel will entail, or what order they’ll be in. That will come in the next stage – First Words. Right now I’m sifting through ideas for those chapters, trying to come into the story at a hugely thrilling point, so I’ll hook my reader nice and early. If I get stuck, I can always draw from my backpack of lifelong collected ideas to see if there might be a good starting situation for a novel in there somewhere.
So right now, my word count is zero. I don’t have a word doc open, blank page blaring, cursor blinking. My list of plot points reads zero. Only one character has a name, and a face, and a history, and that’s because she’s appeared on the page before. I’m hoping to start writing on January 1, just to make things nice and neat. So tune in next time for that!
I read this speech for an event connected with the New South Wales Writers’ Centre at Berkelouw Books in Paddington on Thursday night. The assignment was to talk about the ‘problematic’ nature of your literary hero. It got a few laughs, so I thought I’d share it for all who couldn’t attend. Happy reading (and writing!) everybody.
Candice Fox here. Again. I wrote to you when I was sixteen to tell you how much I love your books, and to ask you if you’d read my manuscript. You never replied. Seriously? Do you have any idea who I am? It’s ok, I get it, you were 54 at the time. You were probably lacing your cupboards with mothballs, writing complaint letters to your local paper and rubbing balm on your corns. You’re old.
I wanted to get the first part of this letter, the part where I defy logic and burn you for not replying to my fan letter, out of the way up front. Because deep down in my heart I know it’s ridiculous to expect you to reply to every fan letter you receive, even though I myself receive at least one a week and reply to all of them, even the last one, which just said ‘I love you Bae’ over and over. And the one a couple of weeks ago that told me I had an inheritance waiting for me in Nigeria, I replied to that too. You probably get tens of thousands of fan letters. I shouldn’t be bitter. I only do it because I’m good at it.
My real plan in talking about your problematic nature, the Problems with You (Capital P, Capital Y), is to criticise in the way that I always criticise, with a tasty shit sandwich. I introduced my students to the concept of the shit sandwich a few weeks ago when I told them I’d be writing comments on their assignments that way. The bread in a shit sandwich consists of friendly and encouraging sentiments. The shit, is shit. Comments on their assignments went something like ‘This is a very well formatted document. Your writing is terrible, and you will never succeed. Give up now. I like your hair.’
Stephen, you are responsible for some of the most emotional reading moments of my young life. The Green Mile set me aflame with regret and injustice. In Shawshank, the bad guys got away, which is a wonderful and hopeful thing that I think a lot of writers stray away from, afraid they’ll somehow be challenging the Disney happy ending readers are supposed to love and expect. Misery made me sweat with tension, and there was not a moment during its reading when I knew if that captured writer was going to escape or if Annie was going to eat him like a piece of birthday cake.
But here comes the shit.
I think that, despite being a funny, practical and engaging book, On Writing contains plenty of ideas that are bad for young aspiring authors.
Firstly, you describe your unnaturally prolific output as a young writer. Aside from writing for various school-based publications, and starting a home-grown magazine with your brother, you also seem to have written and submitted enough stories to choke a small horse. You write:
By the time I was 14 the nail on my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paper clips.
This troubles me for two reasons. In order to be considered a socially normal 14-year-old at present you need to not only succeed at school, but maintain a range of social media accounts with witty and topical content, be across the latest celebrity meth downspirals and keep up with Games of Thrones before some jerk ruins the whole thing for you online, not only what’s actually happening on the show but whether it’s ‘too rapey’ or ‘just rapey enough’. How many sheets of paper does it take create a downward weight strong enough to pull the standard steel nail out of a wall? I’m thinking more than five. You’re asking of the young writer too much.
You also mention that you were getting hand written notes from publishers by the time you were sixteen. The first time I submitted anything to a publisher, I was eighteen. I got a personally typed letter from a publisher asking me if I wanted to polish up and resubmit my trashy vampire novel (Twilight had just broken). I didn’t get another non-automated email from a publisher until I was twenty six. I have over two hundred rejection emails, which weigh exactly nothing, that read just like this:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript, (insert title here) to us here at, (insert publisher here). Unfortunately, after careful consideration, we have decided not to pursue the work. We wish you all the best with your writing.
See? Shit sandwich.
You recommend in your memoir that the young writer pursue their dream with a daily writing goal. You manage 2,000 to 2,500 a day, but for the amateur you suggest starting small. You write:
As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this low at first, to avoid disappointment. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.
Now in my brief and ludicrous foray into high school teaching, not once did I suggest the students get their books out of their bags without being assaulted by a thirty-strong collective sigh of both disdain and disgust at the suggestion. I once suggested to the class that they should number their page from one to ten, at which a young man at the back of the room cried ‘Oh my God!’ with all the astounded indignation of someone slapped with a fish.
Your success story is unreasonably Cinderella-esque. You describe making a dollar an hour shaking used syringes and body parts from blood stained sheets in a medical laundry and not being able to buy your infant daughter agony-saving ear medicine, when surprise surprise, the reprint rights to your first novel ever sell for four hundred thousand dollars. I’m on my forth novel and I’m still not important enough not to come to writer’s talks like the one I’m sitting at right now, and while I can afford ear medicine for my infant daughter, I don’t have one.
Don’t tell young writers that being a junky will liberate their creative spirit. You recall snorting so much cocaine in the eighties that your nose bled for days, and you were so high you don’t remember a minute of writing Cujo, which won the 1982 British Fantasy Award, was adapted into a successful film, and which has sold over 2.5 million copies world wide. I put it to you, Mr King, that you were creative and prolific despite your addiction. I know this, because I live in Kings Cross, in Sydney’s red-light district, and the most creative thing a junkie has ever said to me is ‘You think you’re better than me? You should go burn yourself alive!’ I couldn’t even return to this creative soul that I thought her use of the word ‘alive’ was unnecessary, as how could I perform the act if I were not alive, because by the time I had raised an indignant finger she’d already been arrested. Drugs are bad.
If I can have one final beef with you before I go, Stephen, it’s with this quote of yours I found among two hundred and thirty three of your sassy and sweary one-liners on Goodreads. You say:
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you… He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic.
No, Stephen, no. You can’t blame a magical cigar-smoking bowling champion for some of the shit you’ve written, because no one wrote it but you. And don’t tell young writers that anyone’s responsible for their own writing but them – because when they finally do get published they need to be able to say it was their blood and sweat that got the manuscript written, submitted and accepted and not some dickhead in their basement. Your assertions about magic are wrong. The magic of writing is in being the kid in English class who gets their stuff read out all the time. The magic is in preferring books to members of your own family. The magic is in learning how to write, whether it’s by doing degrees or having your grandmother snap your head off every time you end a sentence with a preposition.
I still like your writing, Mr King, and I also like your hair. Look forward to hearing from you.
Probably, due to my winning the Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Fiction, there might be a bit more traffic here over the next few days, so I suppose I’d better make a post! Indeed, if you haven’t heard, I’ve been added to a list of Australia’s most wonderful and exciting crime writers, paraded before my peers, and given a little statue to honour my achievement. I couldn’t be more proud of myself. Myself, and the people who had a hand in plucking me up from obscurity and making this of me – this, a fully fledged, real, actual, even slightly popular maybe, writer.
Don’t think for a moment I’ve forgotten that actually, yes, everyone and anyone who sits down to put their mind to the keys and play out their innermost stories is a fully fledged, real, actual, writer. You don’t have to be anything other than a putter-down-of-words to be a writer. I don’t believe in holding back labels, because it encourages nastiness – you mark my words. The moment anyone starts saying ‘These people are real and worthy and these people aren’t’ we’re right back in the dark ages. And when you start saying ‘these people are real’ and ‘these are real but less real’ and ‘these are on their way to being real’ you just create a class structure. Let’s not do that. At least not here.
But I suppose there are degrees of feeling these descriptors, whether they’re self-applied or not. There are times, I’ve discovered, when even the most high-flying of writers feels like a failure – feels fraudulent somehow. But there are moments, like that one in which I stood on the stage at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival and gave thanks for my Neddie, that you’re confirmed to yourself. I feel, in the wake of this honour, like I’m on the path I was meant to be on. I feel confident. I guess that’s what an award like this was designed for. To give the first-time writer a bit of a zing and to tell the long-time writer to keep going. The lovely Michael Robotham called it a ‘right of passage’ in his words before he announced my name. Unlike most rights of passage, I’ve found this one distinctly pleasant.
What news is there aside from this little gold nugget of an event in my life? Well, I’m hard at work on book three of the Bennett / Archer series, book one of which is due for release in the US in February 2015. I signed the contract for Fall (book three) just the other day at my agent’s house over coffee, while her delightful horse-shaped-dog begged me for pats. I’m eagerly awaiting the release of book two of the series, Eden, in December here in Oz. I do hope readers will enjoy Eden, because I’ve been having violent terrified conniptions of second-book-horror over it, as apparently all writers do, when they’re not on post-Neddie highs. But I’m being all zen and trying not to think about those horrors. I did it once, I can do it again… RIGHT?! I’m trying to do it for a third time here in the library right now, to the ironically loud clatter of other silent-room-workers’ keys. Sneakily, I’ve got 7k down on something exciting for you for 2016. Something outside Frank, Eden, Hades and their dark and twisted world. Still dark, twisted, and… worldy… so don’t you fret. I’m very keen to get onto it. I think it might blow your socks off. Just got to get this pesky PhD out of the way first. Oh God the friggen PhD.
Anyway. That’s it for now. I’m alive, I’m working, I feel great and I won the Ned Kelly. More news as it happens. Thanks for being here, Blogfollowers. Xx
Alright, fans. It’s not very pretty. It has no logo. I’m still learning to use it – but it IS alive. My new business venture, Foxbooks is off the ground and hovering nervously. All your manuscript assessment needs in one place right here:
What are you waiting for? Go and have a look!
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.