Thursday, 15 October 2009

A Cautionary Writer's Tale

Hmm. My mind has been hijacked by Being A Writer mutterings, and I want to unpick it all. So here's an attempt to describe the thing, and where it all went wrong.

I started writing ten years ago, at the age of 30, with little warning. Along with millions of others, I'd always thought I might write a book (but probably wouldn't). And then... I dunno. My life was stagnant, my job was boring. I wanted to stretch my creative muscles. I arranged a weekly day of spare time, and started to write.

I expected it to be harder than I expected it to be, and it was. Often like trying to pull a dead cat through my own gut. But I'd said I was writing a book, and I'm stubborn like that, so I kept going. I didn't know what I was writing about, I started from scratch a gazillion times, I took a year out to have a baby. But eventually I had three good-ish chapters, which I sent to a few dozen agents and publishers. Who, of course, sent it back. They were the worst, or the best, kind of rejections. The "you're talented, but..." kind. I got a bit fed up, and slowed down. But then I thought, sod it. What the heck. So it'll never see the light of day, so what? I've started so I'll finish. And I did. And rather spookily, within 24 hours, I got The Call. From a (small but well-regarded) publisher I'd long since given up on, asking to have my book.

It was the best thing that ever happened. Validation of the highest order, and I floated around on an I'm-so-great cloud for well over a year after that. I threw everything into publicity. I had two launches. I started a blog. I founded a small community of fellow writers. I started the second book. Which was, of course, more difficult than I expected. I rewrote several times. But eventually, it was ready.

And then came the hard part again. The first book was out of print, as the publisher had ceased trading. I needed an agent. I sent the book out to dozens of them, and the responses were similar to the first time around. "Shows great potential, but..." I got further this time though. Some of the reasons for rejection were good ("I'd really love to but I already have a client with a similar book"), and then finally I found someone who loved and adored my baby, and was raring to show it to the world. Woohoo!

I was never convinced the book was that great, but I never am. Sometimes I thought it was pretty cool. And somebody who appeared to know what they were talking about was telling me it was only a matter of time.

So I waited. And waited. And a year later, I got the call... to tell me the book was being published... in another country, translated into their language. This was good news, and I was pleased, but it wasn't the main event. The real prize was publication in my own country, and I was assured that this was close. In the meantime there would be more foreign-territory deals. I laughed at how funny it would be, if my book was never available in its own tongue. I laughed because I didn't think it would happen.

When I was younger, I had various creative interests. Music and acting were the big ones. I knew many people who didn't attempt to get "proper" jobs, and threw everything into trying to make it big as actors, artists, musicians. They never got anywhere. I scorned them. I was highly practical, hated uncertainty, got on with the serious business of getting an education and a job. Being sensible.

And then I was published... and started to dream of being a full time writer. My job didn't fit well around my writing career, and then I had a kid and it didn't go well with that either. My shorter working hours meant that the best work was always given to someone else. Maybe... if I got a decent book deal or three... maybe one day I could make a living from my art? Wouldn't that be something?

I wanted another child, I didn't want to face motherhood AND financial insecurity... so I hatched a vague plan. I decided to finish the second book before trying for another kid, in the hope that it might find some lucrative publishing deals in the meantime, and by the time the baby arrived I might be in a position to give up work. If not, no problem. I would go back to my job.

And then it all went wrong. I had a miscarriage. I was made redundant.

Suddenly I found myself, jobless and babyless, unwilling to look for new work because I knew I might get pregnant again, and with a large redundancy payment burning a hole under the mattress.

So I thought... well, I do have this foreign book deal after all. It might not be much, but it's something. And the agent says there are bound to be a flood of other deals coming through any minute now...

I did it. I became a full time writer.

But it wasn't planned. I didn't know what I was doing. I was grieving for a lost baby. I was trying to get pregnant. I couldn't decide what my priorities were. Should I be working on book three? Trying to get freelance work? If so, what kind? Journalism? Short stories? Erotica? Live blogging? I had a spreadsheet listing ways I might earn money from writing. It contained over 20 items, and none of it seemed urgent because of that redundancy money and the fact that I might have to drop it all if I got knocked up (at which point previous health issues were likely to kick in and prevent me from working).

So I faffed and fiddled and did fuck all, and then I was preggers again and it all faded into the background for a while.

Until I found myself, nearly 40, with another baby and no job or income, supposedly a full time writer, but still with no clear idea or plan, and no new effing book deals.

I arsed about some more, flitting from one project to another, trying to do all the peripheral writing stuff (networking, self promotion, the stuff you can spend your whole life on without seeing tangible benefits).

There was so much uncertainty.

Promotion. For my first book I plastered myself everywhere I could think of. I did book tours, book festivals, multi-media launches, the internet. My Great Moment was when I hit the mainstream media in a big way, myself and my book presented positively to an audience of millions... and as far as I can tell, it resulted in less than 10 book sales. Possibly none at all.

My time and effort were impossible to quantify. What was worthwhile? Was anything? It was paralysing. I would spend a week researching women's magazine fiction, only to realise that success would take months or even years and might not happen at all. The same applied to everything I thought of. And I still wasn't earning.

The publication date in the foreign country came and went without anyone notifying me. There were no author interviews. This was standard, according to my agent. There was nothing I could do about it. There was no feedback at all, no validation, nothing like the stuff I got with my first book. It felt like I didn't exist.

And I was running out of money, and I was suffering from mild post-natal depression, and I didn't know who I was.

And then I lost my agent, after months of rumbling problems.

I made some attempts to find a new one, but nobody was interested in flogging a book that had already been shown to most of the UK publishers, who - again (it's getting familiar) - said many nice things about it... followed by "No", "Sorry" and "No."

A couple of Amazon reviews appeared. They weren't positive. I'm not a person who pays that much attention to reviews, but this is the only feedback I had. Nobody I knew could read the damn thing. Nobody could stroke my ego*.

I couldn't even blog about it. I had to remain upbeat for the sake of all those publishers (from all over the frickin' world) googling me. Constantly trying to sell myself, constantly failing... it doesn't do much for your ego.

And then I rebelled. Fuck it, I thought. I've had enough. I need an income, I need validation, I need structure to my life, certainty... I need to know what I'm fucking well doing.

So I gave it all up, switched careers entirely.

The new path I've chosen makes it impossible for me to write, or even admit that I'm an author. Was this some subconscious decision? Burning my bridges? Running away from it all in a massive great sod-you sulk?

Yes. It probably was.

And it still makes me sad, when I think of what I've lost. But what I've gained - for the moment at least - is better than what I had. And I know I'm still bitter and smarting, and I know I'm acting like a spoilt child, but the publishing industry can be a horrible, life-sucking beast. And though I miss being able to think of myself as A Writer, I also don't miss it at all.

*Before any polyglots start offering to read the book and say nice things... don't. Because I no longer believe in it. And I suspect the translation is bad. And it would be so horrible if you read it and hated it.


Megan said...

Well, not a polyglot but totally willing to read and review as, 'the best damn utterly incomprehensible book I ever read!' Labels are odd things aren't they? I mean, you're still a writer, you will always be a writer, but there's a mental divide between writer and Writer, proper noun. Almost sounds like a philosophical exercise: if a writer writes but the soulless publishing industry won't sign them are they still a writer? I say yes.

Debi said...

OK - here's my take on what's going on here. I think your focusing on the negative aspects of being an author - and there are plenty, but as with anything in life, if they become too prominent EITHER something practical has to change OR you need to switch internal focus.

Seems to me from this post that writing had become (whether by accident or design) a means of seeking money - always a Very Bad Idea - you know that only a tiny number of ostensibly successful authors actually make a living from selling books. And also, because of everything else that was going on, a means of seeking validation. But the problem with that is that it's out of your control. It means you're relying on others to make you feel good.

All of that stuff is not a good reason for writing and I'm convinced they weren't your real reasons but it all started getting mixed up so it was impossible to see what was really going on.

I DO believe you're a good writer.
I DO believe that if you ever come back to it (not gonna say I'm sure you will cos that will really annoy you!) you would eventually achieve a deal. Look - you already had a book published here, another in a foreign country, and (no matter what happened) impressed an agent enough to take you on.

There are plenty of writers who would give teeth for that amount of validation.

All of which is to say that I loves ya and I believes in ya and that whatever you choose to do is fine by me. I just wish you weren't so hard on yourself ...

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi (am now at home so can comment properly) - I think there are lots of interesting things to think about here and, as I've already told you (and got your permission for!) I'm going to blog about your story and the various thoughts that it raises. And maybe when I get Pen2Publication off the ground I can help you discover whether you may have what it takes - but that's something you have to think carefully about and definitely NOT something I'm saying you SHOULD do. Anyway, I think you've had a tough time and it's likely you are very close to breaking through. But close isn't enough to help you, is it .........?