Recently I wrote a piece for an online writer’s group about how I finally achieved a publishing contract for my novel, The Night Village (out in August). It is easy to see the path to publication in retrospect, and to polish over the missteps and times when it was barely visible, or so cluttered with other things that it was impossible to keep moving forward. Like many aspiring authors I loved reading and wanted to be published, but had no idea how to make that leap into professional writing. It felt insurmountable.
But I got there, and it was the failures as much as the moments of success that schooled me. So often it’s not the writing that’s the problem, but balancing all the other stuff that goes along with it. Here are five things that helped clear my path along the way.
You have to submit your work and tolerate rejection
Submit your work when it’s ready. It doesn’t matter if it gets rejected. I have a notebook that I write my submissions in, and most of the entries have a No next to them. Sometimes, I receive an apologetic note telling me I got close, but there were 900 submissions. Or that they liked it and to submit again with something new. Sometimes I get a depressing form letter. Yesterday I got a rejection for a poem. This morning I got a yes for an essay that I thought was too scatty. Eventually, something will get through, or it may lead to another opportunity. As soon as your piece is rejected, look at it, give it another read and edit, then send it on to someone else.
In Australia, unpublished manuscript, short story and poetry awards are a brilliant way to get your work in front of editors and publishers when you’re starting out. Even if you don’t win, it can lead to a publishing contract, or some useful feedback, or a shortlisting or interest from other publishers. There are many manuscript competitions, some with age limits, others without. They give you a deadline to work towards and an opportunity to polish up a manuscript and have it land safely in the hands of experienced readers.
Be prepared to start something new
When I was studying creative writing I set out to write the Great Australian Novel. It never quite came together, mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to say. Every so often I’d tinker with the resulting manuscript and send it off somewhere, and prolong the agony a little longer.
Eventually my husband said to me (after no doubt biting his tongue for years): ‘You need to start something else.’ I didn’t even get annoyed at him because he was right. While you should never give up on writing if you want to be a published author, it’s OK to put aside a particular piece of writing that has stalled, that is stopping you from moving forward. Now I am actually relieved that manuscript never got published. This one really feels like mine.
Be careful of sharing your work too soon
One of the things that stopped my first novel getting off the ground was having my undercooked chapters workshopped every two weeks in my creative writing class. If I’d been more certain of the story’s direction myself, workshopping would have been helpful, but at that stage it was like having five people in the back seat issuing directions at me when I’d only just got my licence. Workshops are great fun and a wonderful way to meet fellow writers, but they aren’t always what you need to progress a piece of work once you’ve mastered the basic principles of good writing and just need to get on with it in peace.
When I started writing The Night Village, I was at home with two small kids, so no longer going to writing classes, workshops or retreats. I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing a novel. Between paid work and kids I had far less time, yet working on my own, even for half an hour in the evening, freed up my writing and allowed me to be totally honest on the page. The trick when you start is to write as if no one will ever read it. You can always cut the embarrassing bits later. Having said that, sensitive and insightful readers are gold when you are ready.
The editing is often the creative bit
Towards the end of the editing process for this novel my head was spinning, but I kept re-reading, tweaking scenes, cutting and adding. Some of the most important parts of the story appeared late in the writing process, when I thought the work was almost finished (it wasn’t). Some of the very last decisions, such as cutting the final scene at the suggestion of my editor at Fremantle Press, were the most important. Having your work edited also allows you to have long breaks from writing, when the manuscript is on the editor’s desk. It’s worth giving yourself breaks anyway, so you can bring all of the reading and thinking and living you’ve been doing in between to your next draft.
Remember that writing is its own reward
All along I thought I just wanted to be a published author, and of course I do. But it’s that basic practise of reading and writing about things that intrigue me that sends me back to the blank page.
The great thing about pushing a piece of writing to its conclusion (or abandonment) is that you learn what matters to you. Much of The Night Village deals with hospitals and motherhood and families and secrets, and in writing it I realised these subjects fascinate me and I get a lot of fuel from them. Not sure who said it, but ‘trust your obsessions’ is sound advice.
When I was studying creative writing I was so caught up in the idea that I had to get an agent, get a book deal, Be An Author. I had an idea of what made ‘good literature’ and tried to write that, not what interested me. And by pushing too hard, too soon, and getting nowhere I felt like a failure, and lost the spark for a long time. It was getting back to basics, to writing in my own time, alone, for my own sanity and entertainment, which ultimately gave me the external reward of a publishing contract. It is so utterly typical of me to learn this simple thing in such a long-winded, roundabout way, but I got there in the end.