Not the be-all and end-all?

'People who have what they want are fond of telling people who haven't what they want that they really don't want it.'

Ogden Nash never did an email submission only to realise in the nanosecond after pressing send that he'd typed 'Dera Ms Agent...', but his words reflect the experience of many a modern unpublished writer.

Every famous or not-so-famous author has been through the uncertainty or downright agony of being unpublished. But, for some, publication results in a sudden change of tune. It's like someone who desperately wants a baby and then gives birth to one and starts complaining that it cries a lot and actually needs quite a bit of attention. Getting published can have the same effect.

After years striving at their ambition, honing their craft, coping with frustration, crying over rejections, picking themselves up and somehow grasping the determination to keep going, a writer gets published and soon they're saying:

Being published isn't the be-all and end-all, darling!

It doesn't suddenly sort your life out!

We published authors still have problems, don't you know!

It was OK for them to work hard towards their goal, but if you work towards yours, you must be a deluded wannabe who thinks a book deal will make your bank account groan with a million quid and your letterbox collapse with invitations to soirées with JKR. You sad little person, you – sitting there in your crappy job and dreaming of being famous enough not to have a care in the world. If only you knew the difficulty of being a published author!

To be fair, authors are usually just saying these things because they're knackered and worried like everyone else, and because there's a British inclination to play down success and not to look as though they're showing off.

This is understandable. It's still bloody annoying.

Serious unpublished writers know darned well that life will go on pretty much the same but with a book with their name on it on the shelf. This does not make publication something that isn't worth aiming for. All right, the well-meaning author might only be expressing concern that you're making yourself unhappy over the submissions/rejections process, but this is none of their business.

You can give up trying to get published any time you like. No one will care. But if you want to go for it, it will require a bit of obsession and probably a lot of angst. If you're determined to carry on, what's the big deal to anyone else?

I've never read the slushpile so perhaps I'm naïve about the level of delusion and crapness out there, but I think if you’ve got the wherewithal to write something and send it out on submission, and to be with-it enough to engage with blogs like this one, chances are you are not dur-brained enough to think that a book deal will bring you permanent health and happiness, resurrect your dead hamster and stem the BP oil spill. Serious ‘aspiring’ writers are grown up enough to know that what they're aiming for is just publication, not a key to eternal sparkly youth.

Being published is actually pretty cool, and I say that as someone who is not exactly hitting the big time... or even the slightly-bigger-than-absolutely-minuscule time. Being published is several million times better than trying to get published. It's worth aiming for. So, if publication is your goal, I say: keep aiming, and politely ignore people - even the well-meaning ones - who try to put you off.


Fionnuala said...

What? You mean you don't already look younger and havent sent your solution off to BP?!
I'm sure when you get there, its just the same as the day before but a little bit better... All the published authors I know have as much angst, just different angst. I see it as different parts of a journey that is always angst ridden! Great post as always and I for one will persevere.

Linda Strachan said...

I agree it can sound that way but perhaps published authors are not so much trying to put people off as to inject a little reality into the high hopes and expectations that some unpublished writers have.

I would never put anyone off trying to get published, in fact I actively encourage new writers but I am always amazed by how many think that once you are published you are on the gravy train and you can sit back and watch the cash rolling in!

One writer actually asked me to tell her how long it would take until her writing would earn the same as her teacher's salary so she could budget for that amount of time.
She was about to stop work and was thinking that writing would pay her in the same way and at least the same amount as her job. This kind of unrealistic expectation is not uncommon.

So if published writers sound as if they are being negative it is to stop people making rash decisions like that one.

But some people don't want to hear the negative side of being published, and don't believe it either despite the often quoted Society of Author's survey that showed that 80% of published writers earn less than £5000 a year and of the other 20% only 3% earned more than something like £20,000 a year.

But if someone is serious about getting published NOTHING is going to put them off and if they are easily put off then this is not the career for them!

Keith Havers said...

I loved this post. It's words like this that help to keep me going - encouraging but, at the same time, maintaining a sense of realism.
To follow, without halt, one aim: there's the secret of success.
Anna Pavlova

Ellen Brickley said...

Reality checks are often a good thing - I'm glad that I know that signing a book deal doesn't mean I get to quit my day job. Better to find out from kindly published authors than from my bank manager two months after I've done it. . .

That said, it does assume a level of niavete on the part of unpublished writers. From experience, I know there is a lot of it about, but it does get annoying when your attitude is realistic and others keep telling you it isn't.

And it does seem unique to writing. When I was in university, no one said to me 'Getting your degree doesn't magically make everything perfect, you know!'

Anonymous said...

Well said, Caroline (and Linda too). If unpublished writers have any grasp of reality they know, like me, that getting published brings new and different challenges(like writing a book to order - that would be scary enough for me!) That doesn't mean I'm not up for it should anyone make me the offer!

Debs Riccio said...

OMG, Caroline - you were talking to ME! This has made me sit up and open my eyes for the first time in months. You're absolutely right - who give a flying f**k whether I carry on writing or not? Cutting off noses to spite faces comes to mind... Bless your little heart x

emma darwin said...

No doubt I'm guilty as charged, if you catch me on a bad day, and I agree, I'd infinitely rather be published than unpublished. But I do know, like Linda (wow, that's a scary story!), that it's frightening how much misinformation and downright delusion there is out there. If you're sensible and well-informed, it's difficult to imagine not being. Maybe it's partly because the work that goes into writing a publishable novel is less obvious to the wo/man in the street, than is the work that goes into painting a picture or writing a song.

What I think those of us who go on being in touch with lots of aspiring writers are usually trying to say is that it won't change your life, in all sorts of ways, and not just at the £.s.d. level. What it will do is change your relationship to your writing, and not always in comfortable or positive ways. We can't say more than that, and you may not hear us...

I think, though, that a) some people don't want to hear that, any more than they don't want to hear what the odds are of winning the Lottery, but would rather go on shredding £5 notes.

And b) even of the sensible, practical types who read blogs like Strictly and inform themeselves, it's almost impossible to see beyond that vision of your book in your hand and even - just maybe, since even this isn't a give - on the bookshop shelf. Books as babies, again: just try telling someone who's been trying for ages for a baby without success so far, what it's like having a couple of stroppy and slightly smelly teenage offspring. You love them to bits, but...

Poppy said...

Great post, Caroline.

"just try telling someone who's been trying for ages for a baby without success so far, what it's like having a couple of stroppy and slightly smelly teenage offspring. You love them to bits, but..." - i think Caro did an equally great post on this sometime previously.


Anonymous said...

Love it! I don't think I have unrealistic ideas of being famous, but I do look forward to my first published novel's movie deal... Maybe George Clooney will even play the lead. lol

Caroline Green said...

Yup, agree with this post 100%. It's a bit like when you're pregnant and 'well meaning' [or are they?] mums do that 'you don;t know what's going to hit you' thing.

I think I actually have done that 'Dera agent' thing before too. [blush]

Rosalind Adam said...

The strange thing is I can see this from both sides. Yes, I've had it said to me and it's infuriating but when my first picture book was published the publication day was an ordinary day. The book was lovely but somehow it was nowhere near as special as I'd built it up in my mind to be. It reminds me of that Peggy Lee song (apologies to younger readers), 'Is that all there is?'

Lindsay said...

I did the baby bit a long time ago, so now it's time for the novel! I know the reality, the hard slog, the one in a billion chance (probably is easier to stop that oil flow actually) but I must say I'd rather I had a novel on the shelf instead of a novel only on my PC. Still, as I like to remind myself, all well-read authors were unpublished once.

DT said...

Of all the delusions, I prefer the success delusion!

RosyB said...

Caro - enjoyed this. It's a bit of a difficult one. I think it's the nature of obsession that people pin all sorts of things to it that aren't really anything to do with it and perhaps that is hard for anyone to watch sometimes if that person is making themselves very unhappy in the present. Life is too short and people who care will want their friends to be happy! But, on the other hand, you do need to be a bit obsessed (and possibly deranged) to go into the minefield of trying to get your book published in the first place - not to mention needing a very thick skin.

I'm a bit of the opinion that "published" writers should cut out giving too much advice to "unpublished" or "yet to be published" ones. I don't think published writers can really speak for the "industry" (if anyone can) and everyone tends to view things a particular way that fits in with their world view and there is usually a heavy dose of right place right time - whether in terms of hitting the slush at the right time, or having the thing they are looking for at the right time or whatever - before you even get to the old thorny "is it good enough?" question.

Because of this, I do hate to see people analysing rejection letters to such an extent - because they aren't scientific documents and many might not even give the real reasons - if there are any. That's where the obsession can start to be detrimental to the process sometimes and could even lead the writer in totally the wrong direction.

But something that does make me curious sometimes is why people who really want to write and be writers tend to be so novel-focused. And sometimes it seems almost like that - in itself - is an achievement. Like running a marathon. It has to be big, long and difficult. And it has to have industry stamp of approval. Which is perhaps where the warnings from "published" writers come in. Because that marathon then has to be run over again and again - gruellingly.

People are looking for satisfying creative careers and there are only some that are really on show and others that are hidden and sometimes people haven't thought of different options that might bring more satisfaction and might even inadvertantly lead towards becoming a writer.

I suppose the point is - is getting a book published the goal or is being a writer the goal? Whilst getting a book published might be one goal, if you start thinking of the "being the writer" goal - there are other things to pursue at the same time as working on the novel and that can be incredibly fun and satisfying.

I know some incredible people doing incredible stuff. Not all of it "fits" with the publishing market - but does have an audience and finds other outlets. If people really want to do stuff, they will do it anyway.

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