OUT OF THE TRENCHES

When I was starting out as a writer, there were certain things I was convinced happened once you had a book contract. Most of those things involved movie adaptations, swags of literary awards, royalties, festivals and fame. In my heart of hearts, beneath my outward appearance of a fairly calm and rational individual was the same hunger that anyone in any creative field craves: recognition. I write for myself—or so I say when asked—but really, really, I want some validation that this pursuit I’ve ploughed so much time and effort into has not been a waste of time. My first book, The Ottoman Motel came out in May 2011, was widely reviewed, shortlisted for awards and is still selling. It gained me invitations to writers’ festivals, got me and my book discussed on TV, radio and in print. But the questions remains: was it everything I ever wanted?

Yes and no. Nothing can really prepare you for what it’s like. Here, then, is the distilled wisdom* of a published author.

1) Everything takes a long time.

I was signed to Text Publishing in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2011 that I saw my book released. While my manuscript underwent probably an unusual level of structural editing, I’ve since learned for a number of authors that the #1 thing that surprises them is how long a book can take to hit the shelves. Your book might be sitting, finished for 6 months before it gets a release date. It all has to do with publishing schedules, budgets, and unseen market pressures, a complex dance that involves Christmas sales, retail figures and whichever publishing trend happens to be sucking money from the publicity department at any particular moment (if your book is about the erotic escapades of an S&M novice, for instance, your book will be released tomorrow).

2) The media doesn’t really care about your book.

A month before my book was released, my acknowledgements page (in which I proposed to my then-girlfriend-and-now-wife) somehow became global news. By the time actual interviews started for my book, I felt an old hand. The realities are these: There will always be a factual inaccuracy in every interview or review (Whether it’s a linguistic barrier or psychological tic I’m not sure, but people always call my novel The Ottoman Hotel, with an H. I even did it in one interview). Secondly, you will have to contort yourself into a ridiculous position for newspaper photos (“Bend your elbow sideways! Put your leg behind your shoulder!”) and this will go on for approximately an hour, after which they don’t even use the photo, and instead use one of Nick Earls.

3) It will be over really quickly.

As my day job is working in a bookstore, I’m acutely aware of how little time any new book has to make an impression. Hundreds of new titles are published every single month, and there are only so many that will be reviewed in Australia’s rapidly diminishing review pages. While you may have slaved over a hot typewriter for decades on your masterwork, it might only be on a bookstore’s shelves for a few weeks. Don’t be shocked or outraged if your book isn’t in the New Release section of your local bookshop after a fortnight. While it is up to the bookshop’s discretion as to how long they stock your book, nothing is stopping you from placing the remaining copies at #1 in the Top Ten or calling up using various accents to enquire about the wonderful book you’ve just heard of.

4) Published life is not necessarily a better life

This might seem a galling claim, but I miss being unpublished. It’s that certain type of camaraderie you get from being the up-and-comer, and in the case of the literary world, the easy majority. Back then, you could have promise but needed nothing to back it up. You could have beers with writing friends and agree that you could do so much better than what was being currently published without the pressure of actually having to validate this claim. One of my friends once compared this time in your literary life with being “in the trenches”. As in, you can’t be seen, but you also can’t be shot at. In the trenches, I felt part of a community that practiced a solitary pursuit, but at least was all in it together. Once you’ve signed a contract, people will assume you have an “in” with a publisher. In the first months after I signed with Text, I was asked by dozens of people to pass on a manuscript or to “put in a good word” with my publisher. At that stage I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain how little sense this made. All I’d done was sign my name. I was not on the same level as the authors we’d made fun of, been jealous of, for years. In my head, I was still in the trenches, but in everyone else’s, I’d already gone over the top.

Now to any unpublished authors reading this, I’m sure I’m coming across as an infuriating dick. I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining about where I find myself (even though I probably am). I’m just trying to explain how something like a book contract can seem so unbearably important to you before you get it, but can turn out to be ultimately inconsequential in the greater scheme of a writing career. What’s great are those milestone moments when you sign on the dotted line, when you see your book cover for the first time, when you finally hold that book in your hands. What’s not great is the realities of the dream you’ve spent so long creating not matching up to your expectations. Your life won’t change the moment your book goes on sale. But that, I suppose, is the life of a writer in a nutshell.

All our writing lives there’s this cognitive dissonance between what we know we’re meant to do and the weight of evidence telling us otherwise. Writing is often horrible and boring and soul-destroying but we still do it. Whenever I complain for the umpteenth time about having to go to my desk to write, my wife simply asks me why I do it, if I hate it so much? It’s a good question, but one I can never answer. I just have to. The trick, I think, is not to think to much about it. No matter where you are in your career, the same insecurities arise. For me, it’s What if I can’t write that second book? What if my publisher doesn’t like what I’ve written? What if someone younger and more talented comes along? For any writer, at any stage of their career these insecurities are always there, just variations on a theme.

The writing world has a certain type of failure fetish that tells you to stick your rejection letters above your desk and revel in tales of famous authors who were turned down by publishers for twenty years. It’s the same logic as buying a lottery ticket every week just because you read about someone who once won it. The lesson we tell ourselves is that we shouldn’t bother, but we still do. The chances of succeeding as a writer are so infinitesimally small that it’s lucky so many of us chose this career path because we’re so terrible at arithmetic.

And that’s what it comes down to, this so-called collection of wisdom**. We do it because we love it. And whether we’ve never been published or whether we’re ten books in and can sustain a living through the written word, the same insecurities nag at us. Whatever goal you want to achieve in this impossible pursuit called writing, just know that we’re all going through it together.

* The word wisdom here, should not be considered the classical dictionary sense of the word. Here it denotes “what one questionably talented writer has taken from a particular portion of his life”.

** By now, you’ll realise that even the previous definition is tenuous at best.

N.B. An earlier version of this post appeared on the blog of the excellent writer Azra Alagic back in October.

THE PEOPLE’S PRINCESS

While I don’t often compare myself to Princess Diana*, it’s just been announced that my book The Ottoman Motel, has been selected for The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, an offshoot of the most excellent Queensland Literary Awards. The best thing about this award is that it’s voted for by you, the Australian people! I’m among fine company with two other fiction authors and three nonfiction.


Writers don’t often win popularity contests, but if they did, Nick Earls would clearly win. Unfortunately, Nick Earls is also on the shortlist, and graced the cover of the Courier-Mail arts supplement announcing the awards. Now I’m not saying don’t vote for Nick. I’m just saying vote for me instead. Think of it like a scrappy Pozible campaign, but instead of a worthwhile project, it’s me getting $5000, and the love of an adoring public. Unlike Pozible, it will cost you nothing to help me, except a few minutes of your time. This also means there are no special prizes for you, the loyal voter. Don’t worry, though, in the spirit of Pozible, here are some “rewards” you may win** if you vote for me:

  • 1 vote = The warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from supporting a first-time author
  • 2 votes = The warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from the three ducklings I will send you in the mail
  • 5 votes = A signed copy of The Ottoman Motel: Turkey’s Best Short Stays
  • 10 votes = A singed copy of Conversations with God (I will use your choice of firelighter)
  • 20 votes =  I will  track down the marketing director responsible for the Big Brother “shuffle” ads and assassinate them.
  • 30 votes = I will act out page 254 of “Fifty Shades of Grey” in mime.
  • 40 votes = I will perform a range of sex acts on a mime.
  • 50 votes = A personal reading from my upcoming collection of nature-inspired haikus
  • 100 votes = The opportunity not to attend a personal reading from my upcoming collection of nature-inspired haikus
  • 500 votes and above = What the hell is wrong with you?

VOTE EARLY AND VOTE OFTEN!***

 

* The early 90s were a confusing time for me

** I stress the “may” part of that sentence

*** Please keep in mind you can only vote once, unless you are on the run from the law and have assumed multiple identities. In which case, best of luck!

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS

If there’s one thing publishers love more than using the phrase “our in-house readers are raving about this book”, it’s a publishing phenomenon. And no doubt the zeitgeist of mid-2012 is the slap and/or tickle of E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. The book that started as a piece of Twilight fan-fiction called Master of the Universe written under the name Snowqueens Icedragon (no, really) before evolving into the erotic trilogy that has become arguably the most profitable self-published book of modern times. The book has gone into reprint several times in Australia, and many bookshops have reported selling hundreds of copies every day.

And luckily for lovers of what is cynically called Mommy Porn (a term whose offensive taxonomy ignores the fact that women buy the majority of any type of book), publishers have listened to what you’re telling them through the cash registers. They’ve got some exciting new releases for you! And by new releases, of course I mean books that have met sexy, brooding publishers who entered their lives like lightning in the darkness of a dark night, freeing them from the drudgery of everyday unpublished life until they craved the publisher’s presence like a drug, an addictive drug, the type of drug that you just had to have or you would get withdrawals because it was so addictive. The publishers and the books inexorably become part of each others’ lives, the dangerous partners in a sexy, explosive tango.

Much like a publisher, Christian Grey, the main character in Fifty Shades of Grey, requires his new protege Anastasia Steele to sign a contract allowing him complete control over his life, along with a non-disclosure agreement. At least that’s my experience with publishers. Here is the cover that you’ve no doubt seen everywhere, released through Random House in Australia in March this year:

Here is Destiny to Play (HarperCollins, July). “Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, this daring debut will leave you breathless for more …”

Here is The Secret Lives of Emma (Random House, July).”The first in a series of erotic novels that tap into our deepest, sexiest fantasies.”

And finally, Bared to You (Penguin, mid-July), whose tantalising blurb promises the reader: “This is not repackaged backlist erotica but a brand-new sizzling series.”

And maybe that’s my overly snarky point. There is, and always has been backlist erotica. You could do no better than to read Chris Flynn’s excellent piece on the Meanjin blog about the much better erotic novels that are already out there. I can’t fault people for doing well out of an opportunity, but we all know this is but the latest in a long series of publishing trends that quickly flood the market with a glut of copycat titles. But fair play to these writers, who are making hay while the mainstream sun shines on their a genre, one that is nearly always poo-pooed (but I think E L James holds the poo-poo until book three). That being said, the romance market nearly always turns a profit, but that is another blog post for another time.

Until then, it’s back to my BDSM cave for a severe caning from my publisher. My in-house whippers are raving about my next book.

MIDWEEKERY

A couple of things to keep an eye out for in the coming weeks:

Applications close July 12 for the QWC / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program. This is a wonderful opportunity for both fiction and nonfiction writers to work with professional editors on a manuscript. I was lucky enough to participate in the 2008 program, alongside Philippa Fioretti and Favel Parrett, who both subsequently saw their manuscripts picked up and published by Hachette. More details here!

Speaking of the QWC, I’ll be part of an excellent seminar this Saturday called So You Want to Be a Writer. I’ll be talking and answering questions alongside Angela Slatter and Benjamin Law. We’ll be talking about the realities of starting out as a writer, and how to maintain it as a career. It’ll be great fun, so make sure to book your tickets here.

On Monday June 11, I’ll be part of a really cool project called The 24-Hour Novel, where me and a bunch of other cool people will be writing and editing an entire book in 24 hours. Once we’ve finished, the first copy will be printed out at Brooklyn Public Library, and will also be available almost immediately after online. You can keep track of us working on the 11th at liveblog, so please swing by!

And finally, I believe I have pinpointed the exact moment when the novel died.

COLLABORATIVE STORIES ARE BACK … IN POG FORM!

If you’re reading this and you’re under 25 (although you’re probably not, because reading isn’t as radical as pouring vodka into your eyeballs, drinking hand-sanitizer or raising a Tamagotchi) you should be aware that Express Media, that tireless champion for young writers, has an excellent thing happening during National Young Writers Month. It’s a Travelling Story, where 30 young writers (under 25) from 30 different towns around Australia will each day contribute 100 words to a collaborative story. The completed story will be published in the September Issue of Voiceworks.

It’s like those stories where you write a bit and then fold the paper over and then pass it on to the next person, but so much cooler (how can I put this, young person? It’s like The GoogleTube crossed with Alf. You remember Alf, right?)! The starting 100 words have been provided by me, and it’s your job to keep the story going! Regional writers are especially encouraged to apply, so get to it, youngsters! You’ve got until Monday, May 21 at 5pm to enter. Find out more here.

Catch you on the flipside, dudes!

VINTAGE KIDS CLASSICS

Random House have just announced a range of children’s books in their continuing Vintage Classics series. They’ve had great success with their excellently designed modern classics for $12.95, and this new range will come in at $9.95. As always, they’ll go up against Penguin, whose Puffin Classics share a price point (but whose titles are a little more run-of-the-mill). Here are a few of my favourite covers from the new list:

The series is due for publication in August. You can find the complete list here.

SUNDAY DIVERSIONS

So if you’re not exploring the exciting Brisbane literary site Stilts then you really should be. The brainchild of a bunch of QUT graduates (also my fine alma mater), it’s grown into an excellent resource of essays, reviews, fiction and general goings-on about town. Over the next month or so, a bunch of Brisbane writers have read each others’ books, and are posting responses. My response to Mei Yen Chua’s “Brisbane’s Budget Bites” has just gone live, and is a brand new piece of fiction from me called All The Time. You can read it here.

And if you still have time left in the week, why not have a listen to 56 hours of David Foster Wallace.

And speaking of DFW, here’s The New Yorker’s pretty excellent take on the recent Pulitzer Prize for Fiction scandal.

Have a good week, errybody!

A BIT OF NEWS

So sometime while I was asleep last night, my book, The Ottoman Motel was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize! I’m completely stunned and deeply honoured to be part of what is an excellent shortlist. Special congratulations must go to my Australian compatriots Mette Jakobsen, Cory Taylor and Jeanine Leane, who join me on the shortlist for the Pacific Region. Mette, Cory and myself are all published by the wonderful folks at Text Publishing, whose commitment to finding new literary voices continues to be richly rewarded. Jeanine’s book is published by University of Queensland Press (whose offices are just across the river from me) and was the recipient of Winner of the 2010 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writing, an award just scrapped by new mayor of Brisbane Campbell Newman. Just another reason to support the new, Newman-Free Queensland Literary Awards. Special mention also to Nic Low, whose short story Rush was shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story prize.

Here is the list in full:

Commonwealth Book Prize

The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmad (Pakistan), Hamish Hamilton

Patchwork, Ellen Banda-Aaku (Zambia), Penguin Books, South Africa

Rebirth: a novel, Jahnavi Barua (India), Penguin Books India

The Sly Company of People Who Care, Rahul Bhattacharya (India) Picador

The Ottoman Motel, Christopher Currie (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

A Cupboard Full of Coats, Yvvette Edwards (UK), Oneworld Publications

The Book of Answers, CY Gopinath (India), HarperCollins India

Jubilee, Shelley Harris (South Africa), Weidenfeld & Nicolson

The Dancing and the Death on Lemon Street, Denis Hirson (UK), Jacana Media

The Vanishing Act, Mette Jakobsen (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, Shehan Karunatilaka (Sri Lanka), Random House India

Purple Threads, Jeanine Leane (Australia), University of Queensland Press

Sweetheart, Alecia McKenzie (Jamaica), Peepal Tree Press

The Town that Drowned, Riel Nason (Canada), Goose Lane Editions

Dancing Lessons, Olive Senior (Canada), Cormorant Books

The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud (Canada), William Heinemann

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, Jacques Strauss (South Africa), Jonathan Cape

Me and Mr Booker, Cory Taylor (Australia), The Text Publishing Company

Pao, Kerry Young (UK), Bloomsbury

HAPPY DAYS!

MIDWEEKERY

Seeing as Wednesday is the start of my writing week, I thought I might share with you a few literary diversions to get you through your mid-week (anyone who uses the phrase “hump day” is not allowed to read this blog).

And in final, really sad non-book news, I learned this morning that Levon Helm, legendary member of The Band and amazing musician in his own right, is in the final stages of cancer. His is a voice I’ve loved all my life, and it’s unbearably tragic to hear that it will soon disappear.

Here is the video I will be watching for the rest of the day: