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.