I read this excellent article by author Christopher Currie recently. It raises many of the issues and observations that I’ve found since becoming a published author, and those issues are part of the reason my second novel has been de-railed so many times. Chris is an excellent writer, and he has succinctly put into words many of the downsides of being published in a way that’s not complaining about success, which is one of the things that I’ve been most fearful of when discussing the same things.
I met Chris at the National Young Writers’ Festival in Newcastle several years ago, though Chris, I’m sure, either thinks I’m a total douche or an incoherent idiot – I treated Newcastle like a weekend off and was several beers into the night when we met. I’ve always felt bad about this, because I really like Chris’ work and his observations on writing – but this article in particular stands out to me because it’s talking of the negatives of the other side of publishing, of being an actual, published author.
As Chris notes, he is not complaining about success – and I too would never complain about being published. It’s a massive achievement and the people I’ve come into contact with have been amazing, and it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do. Writing, also, is almost an instinctive process for writers, it’s something we have to do. I can ignore it for periods, but it’s always there, stories being written in the back of my mind. Being published has opened up a heap of opportunities and it remains my dream to be a full-time author. But that’s where things get a little more complicated, and this is what Chris discusses in his article.
I guess the first, and main, point, is that becoming a published author will not necessarily change your life. When I first signed a book contract, the company I was working for was undergoing a takeover. People all about the place were stressing about losing their jobs, doing all they could to make good with the incoming managers. It was a pretty sad situation, a lot of good people, good employees, stressed because of something beyond their control. Me, I had a publishing contract. I thought I was going to have to leave work soon either way, heading off on book tours, doing talks. I was about to become a full-time author, so losing my job didn’t really matter to me too much. The idea in my head was ‘book gets published, you become full-time author’ – that becomes your job, your career. But I never really thought through how that might work.
The reality is not much changed. I was lucky enough to be retained at work and when the book was released I did a few launches and talks and interviews and then, about a month later, all was quiet again. It was back to normal life. The amount of money I made from my book was actually pretty good – I won $15,000 in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards on top of my book contract – but it was not enough to quit my job. I then sold the film rights, and that was massively exciting, and they signed up a director and we had meetings, wrote a screenplay, all was moving along. Then that production company folded. And by now it was several months after the book’s release so the ‘hype’ around it was gone and no other film companies were looking to pick it up (several have been interested ever since but it’s never been picked up). And life was back to normal. I wasn’t a full-time writer. Chris notes this, that you’ve only got a limited shelf life, and it’s totally true, then you’re back to where you were. I’ve seen lots of discussions and articles on this, and it’s hard to know if there is a way to fix it, but for me, I just couldn’t see how I was going to generate enough money from writing alone to be a full-time author, which was difficult to take, but that’s how it is.
The second down side, I found, was the publicity. Most of it was great, great people, good to get your name out there, have people discuss your work. But the negative reviews hurt. Bad. I only had a few, but they were in major publications. I’m pretty thick skinned with my writing, I can take people having a go at me and my work, no problem. But this was something I was immensely proud of, that not only me, but my editor, my publisher, other people had believed in and put their own hard work into. And then someone can totally trash it with a few paragraphs. It hurts, but again, that’s how it is. Not everyone’s going to like your stuff, you can’t write for every person. I’m much more comfortable with that now, but it was a learning curve.
The third issue I had was with the next book. For months after the book came out people always asked what I was working on next, and it was great, people were interested. Then the second novel got bogged down and it wasn’t working and people kept asking and in my head I was like ‘stop asking about it, it’s killing me’. This is no-one’s fault but my own, but Chris made an interesting note in his article – that he, in some ways, liked it more when he was unpublished. When there was no expectation. I can totally see where he’s coming from. I had an okay manuscript on the way by the time my first book was published. I signed a new contract as soon as it was offered, with the publication date set for a year or so later. This was what I’d always wanted, I was on my way, I could do this. I completed a first draft, had it all down, the story, everything was there. But it wasn’t great. I knew it. My publisher knew it. I went back to it, tried to fix it, but started getting myself in knots. Nothing was coming together, nothing was flowing, it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. And the most frustrating part – I knew exactly what I wanted it to be, I just couldn’t get it to work. I am still working on it, still writing that second book (among other projects), and I remain absolutely confident it’s going to be great, it’s getting closer each day. But the pressure I put on myself is what has blocked me up. I was no longer just writing something that maybe someone might read some day, maybe my friends would read – I was writing something that would be seen by a publisher. This had to be amazing. Not good, this had to be great. That expectation, my own expectation, has set such a high bar that it’s made it much more difficult to be free and flow with the story.
As I say, these are not complaints or not negative enough to ever want me to stop writing. They are more observations from the other side, which I don’t see a heap of. I can’t help but love writing. I do it every day, and I love getting that flow right, having a story form in my head, the sentences stringing together. I love having to get up and scratch around to find a pen in the middle of the night to get down some crucial sentence or note. I love everything about being a writer. And yeah, it’s hard, these points just attest to the fact that it remains hard as you go. I have no doubt that big name authors have the same challenges and issues. But it’s worth it. Nothing’s better than when everything feels right with a piece and you can’t wait for someone, anyone, to read it. When you know that you’ve been able to re-create the feeling you had when writing it in the body of another person. That communication is amazing. Nothing else comes close, for me.
And nothing beats the smell as you flick the pages of your own book.
As I work my way back into writing, getting more ideas and notes down, trying different ways to remain creative and create better work, this is what I keep in my mind. It’s tough, but you’ll get it right, it’s hard, but it’s always close to that perfect stream of a story.