This week, an article in The Guardian entitled How I Really Feel: The Failed Novelist stirred up quite a conversation in writing circles. The response was mostly split between those who believed she’d given up too easily and those who sympathised on how crushing rejection can be. Most people, however, were agreed that part of the cause for this author to fall crashing down to Earth was because she’d fixed her expectations too tightly on the big six publishing idyll and having agent representation.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to set your sights high and there’s no reason you shouldn’t strive for that goal, but I also believe in having a plan B, because there is a huge wall around the publishing industry and it takes a mountain of tenacity and tools to break through, if ever you do.
I sympathise with the author on how frustrating it can be, striving for a goal that seems so unobtainable, and especially when it's so difficult to secure even the smallest of recognition that you are making progress. In most other professions there is usually some sort of concrete reward to keep you motivated, but with the aspiring novelist that's often not the case -- you must motivate yourself in blind faith of your own abilities and determination. Even so, many well-known authors didn’t find a publishing deal until four or seven books in. It seems to me fantasy overtook pragmatism here, and it has burned this person badly. However, what interests me more is, with all the many options available today, how this author ended up believing that having an agent and a novel published by one of the big five was the only course of play and anything less was not even deemed a worthy consideration.
Part of it, stems from the belief that the only way to prove you are any good at writing is to be traditionally published. And many people would argue that is more to do with the author’s need for validation than a real expectation of society. Perhaps, but you speak to anyone who isn’t a writer and, as much as we in the community can tell ourselves that it is more respected these days, many people still write-off self-publishing as a load of old chaff. Often, this theory is supported because at some point in their lives they have had a friend or colleague ask them to read their book (because hasn’t everyone written a book by now?) and found it was awful. So, there is a pressure to prove yourself not only to yourself but to all the doubting Thomases.
Another contributing factor is this ongoing myth — I’m sure you’ve all heard it — that you need to write for ten years to become good enough to be published, and if you are determined enough and push hard enough, you will break through. This automatically sets an expectation in the fledgeling writer that after ten years they will be published. This ‘soundbite’ doesn’t inform them that even if your writing is superb, you might not snag a traditional publishing contract. It could be that you write beautifully, but your concepts are under ambitious for the genre you aspire to succeed in, or maybe they are a little trite, or predictable. It also doesn’t tell them that no amount of determination will see a contract if the aforementioned problems exist and the writer refuses to or cannot see they must find another formula or style of story that works for them that is more attractive to an investor — because that is effectively what a publisher is. Imagine them in the same way as Dragon’s Den and you are asking for a 10-50k investment. Can you say your book is worth those kinds of figures?
There’s also so many variables that are out of your control — market, political climates, trends, tone or mood — when everyone’s feeling down about unemployment and repossessed properties, who wants to read dark and depressing fiction? When the good times abound, people can handle that grittier, bleaker style perhaps. Or maybe you wrote a story that took you years, and by the time it’s ready that boat has sailed and that type of fiction isn’t selling. So it isn’t only about if you are good enough, it’s about having the right story at the right time.
The combination of these two beliefs/myths — to prove your worth through trad publishing and that in ten years you’ll be good enough to win that deal — is likely the cause of this author’s complete collapse of hope. But it serves as a sharp reminder to any aspiring novelists out there that the fantasy can take over from the pleasure of writing, and that is surely a path to failure.
I truly hope the ‘Failed Novelist’ manages to pick herself up, dust herself down and get back to doing the thing that she obviously once loved. If she’s feeling so bruised she can’t face it, well, that’s fair enough. We all need time to lick our wounds when we’ve had a good kicking. But I suspect the writer in her will not lay dormant for long. Some character, some plot twist, some inspirational setting will whisper in her mind one day and it will only grow louder until she can no longer ignore it. With any luck, she’ll have learned from her past experiences and she will assess what her options are in regards to publishing in a more pragmatic way — one that works for her and makes her feel empowered, not diminished.
Because that’s the lesson I take from her article: do not allow yourself to be diminished. Be proud of what you have achieved (writing two novels, attracting an agent, winning competitions) and, if you are confident in your own abilities, find another way. There are so many options out there — small presses, self-publishing ebooks and POD. Or put away the two that didn’t make it and save them for another day, until after you’ve had your shining debut. Write something else better; stronger. If you truly are any good you can do it. And isn’t the challenge of taming the unknown and seemingly impossible the great thing about writing a novel? Calming the beast and making it yours? This is about how much fight you have in you, and about being the person who can’t not write.
As soul destroying as rejection can be, never allow it to define you in this way. If you do, you’ve only failed the most important person in all of this:
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