by Holden Sheppard
As a boy, I was easily duped by some of the myths that swirl around becoming an author. The Myth of Overnight Success. The Myth of the Rich and Famous Author. The Myth of the Divine Muse and Her Timely Inspiration. The Myth of the Validation of Publication.
It’s easy to get lost in the myths of an industry when you’re a total noob and don’t know anything about it. It wasn’t until I became a practising author that I discovered what was really involved – and, usually, I found out the hard way.
So, I wanted to share the 10 things I wish I knew about being an author when I first started this quest. These are the lessons that helped me grow from a wannabe into a published author.
1. Writing Time is Made, Not Found
As a teenager, I would spend my summer holidays writing relentlessly, because for two months I had literally no other demands on my time. Man, I loved those days. But after I turned eighteen, adulthood struck me like a blunt shovel to the face. I found myself mired in a listless struggle. I was eternally wanting to work on my novel, but work, and study, and family, and relationships – not to mention bills and administration – all jostled for pole position in my schedule. Progress was not just painfully slow, it was often non-existent: there were a couple of years in there where I don’t think I wrote anything at all, other than notes.
The reason for my progress paralysis was that I was expecting to find those golden free months to write, but this time doesn’t happen when you’re a grown up. As an adult, one’s schedule – like nature – abhors a vacuum. Your days will constantly be full of the usual humdrum, and this won’t magically clear one day. You probably won’t get to the bottom of your email inbox. There will always be more housework to be done, or another friend to catch up with for a drink. You have to actually clear time in your diary. You have to make time for your writing.
Since learning this in 2014, I’ve made regular time for writing in my schedule. Every week, there are hours dedicated to both administration and creative time. This means that I sometimes withdraw socially, or don’t go to an event, or blow off some other work until a later date – but it’s what took me from a wannabe to a practising artist.
2. Good Writing is Rewriting
It used to really bother me that the amazing novel I could see in my mind’s eye wouldn’t just spill straight out onto the page. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Amsterdam once, feeling so inspired that I thought I would smash out half my novel in that one evening. I ended up writing a few pages of chapter one, then rage quitting. I was so frustrated. The writing wasn’t impressive. The imagery wasn’t evocative. The metaphors were limp, and so I gave up.
This used to stymie me year after year until I learned that the best writing is almost universally rewriting. You know your precious first draft? Well, it’s supposed to be a steaming pile of poo. The point of the first draft is not to be good: it just needs to exist, because then it can be made good after. The best metaphor I have found is that writing a first draft is like shovelling sand into a sandbox so you can build a sandcastle – your masterpiece – with it.
3. Your Art is a Product
For many writers, it’s hard to come to terms with the commercial reality that, one day, your precious story is going to become a product, like a shiny Maserati in a sales yard or one of those dodgy Himalayan Salt Lamps. This means you will have to sell it to someone: either directly to readers and bookstores if you go the indie route, or to agents and publishers if you want to land a traditional deal. The only way to avoid this is to keep your novel locked up on your laptop and never show it to a soul, but I’ve never met an author who wanted to do that.
I used to rail about this when I was an emaciated eighteen-year-old undergrad. I wanted to think of my writing as pure, unfettered, unadulterated art, not a product for consumption; publishers, I figured, would discover my genius without me needing to think about it. Thankfully, some of my lecturers knocked some sense into me. Nobody is going to just magically unearth your writing like an archaeologist painstakingly unearths a Mayan ruin. Your book is a product, and you are its biggest (and, to start out, only) cheerleader. You gotta hustle.
4. Confidence is King
Once you accept your book is a product, there is another bitter pill to swallow: you are a salesman. Even though I have a sales background – I worked in banking and financial sales for a few years – I still struggled with this at first. It can feel obnoxious to sing your own book’s praises. I’m Australian, and we tend to prefer humble people to braggarts, which makes it uniquely challenging to promote yourself.
What I have learned is that a quiet, humble writer who never talks about his books may be better tolerated by his acquaintances, sure, but he will also not sell as many books. Don’t undervalue your achievement. You wrote a book. It got published. You did a thing, and you should feel confident to sing from the rooftops about it. You don’t want to be pushy or relentless, of course – there’s a reason people roll their eyes at Vegans, Crossfitters and evangelists – but you should feel confident to talk about your achievement and your passion.
5. Be Tenacious
You know when you go to the mall and see someone at one of those temporary stands in the middle, hawking the latest anti-aging face cream or sexy firemen charity calendar or – hell – Himalayan Salt Lamps? There are two lessons that all writers can learn from these poor, desperate schmucks.
Firstly, you never want to be so much of a salesman for your art that you piss people off as much as these bastards do. Rein it in, and be responsive to people’s body language. If they’re shifting uncomfortably, or trying to physically escape you, stop pitching and move on.
Secondly, and more importantly, what writers can learn from these salespeople is good, old-fashioned grit. Do you know how it feels to constantly be fobbed off, scowled at and utterly rejected as a human being? I don’t. I’m a sensitive author and working a job like that would be death by a thousand cuts. But these people plaster a vague smile on their face and keep flogging their wares because, eventually, someone will buy what they’re selling. Authors need this level of tenacity: to keep querying agents and publishers in the face of constant rejection, knowing that each ‘no’ is one tiny step closer to the ‘yes’ we’re dreaming of.
6. Rejections Hurt
Speaking of rejection, it stings like a mofo and that never changes. Even if you know you’re meant to be able to persevere through rejections, and that it’s part of a career as an author, it doesn’t make it hurt any less when they come rolling in. The rejection that really torpedoed me was when I first queried the original version of my first full-length fantasy novel. After some form rejections, I had a full request from a very good agent. Then he called me, and I figured it was an acceptance, and thought, “Finally! After all my years of hard work, I’ve made it!”
Nope. He called to reject me. I curled up into the fetal position, shed a bit of eye water, and fell asleep. The next day, I got up, had a shower, listened to Marry the Night by Lady Gaga and soldiered on. No rejection since this one has ever hurt as much. As Cat Stevens sang, the first cut is the deepest.
Don’t listen to people who tell you to magically toughen up when you get a rejection. You need to feel the pain, get through it and then soldier on. Each time you do this, you become tougher, and before long, your leathery hide will get you through any obstacle. But a thick skin doesn’t come from ignoring what hurts you; it comes from being cut and letting the wound scar over.
7. Don’t Be Stubborn – Editors and Published Authors Do Know Better
I often read advice from published authors and editors. Although they always offer excellent tips, I have to admit I have occasionally found myself thinking, as artists with their egos are wont to do, “Well, yes, this is good advice, but it doesn’t apply to me.”
I once had the good fortune to meet acclaimed action author Matthew Reilly at a book signing, and I asked him for advice on getting published. He suggested I do another draft of my manuscript before querying. Even though he was correct, my first response was this advice doesn’t apply to me. After all, he didn’t know I’d already done seven drafts and worked with an editor. I was, of course, a prize idiot. Six months and several rejections later, I realised my novel did, in fact, need a significant rework. It was back to the drawing board.
The lesson for me was that I am not an outlier or a special case. I took a sledgehammer to my ego and accepted that I have a lot to learn from others – whether they are accomplished editors, shark-toothed agents, famous bestselling authors or even fellow struggling indie authors. Once you open yourself up to actually listen to and accept advice, you really begin to grow.
8. Your Friends and Family Aren’t Always Going to Get You
This is a really hard one to admit. Most authors will naturally turn to their family and friends when it comes time to promote their books. After your years of hard work – and all their needling, sarcastic questions about when your novel is finally going to come out – you ache for validation and acceptance. More: you want their congratulations.
The more I speak to fellow authors on Twitter, the more I hear how this can often be a bitterly disappointing experience. So many of us have the same let-downs. Family members who don’t even acknowledge your new release, or seem irritated by it. Friends who say they’ll read it, but never do. Workmates who ask how they can support your writing, and in the next breath ask for a free copy of your novel, not once making the connection that we are desperately counting on our personal networks to make our first sales. Even worse are those who seem to miss the point entirely that you’re clinging to their every word, longing for feedback, only to be told about the typo on page twelve.
Keep in mind that many in your personal networks may not be artists or writers and they may genuinely not understand the fragility of our egos and our desire for feedback. The reality is that you can’t make someone love your writing and that isn’t your job. Your job is to write as well as you can and tell the stories you were put on this planet to tell. Those stories will find their audience. If that audience happens to overlap with some blood relatives and high school friends, Mazel Tov. If not, don’t try to squeeze blood from that stone: you’ll only hurt yourself. Enjoy any support that does come your way, and don’t gnash your teeth about the people who don’t have your back.
9. Your First Novel May Not Be “The One”
This is probably the most traumatic lesson for any writer, but for many authors, it’s their second or third novel – not their first – that ends up getting published. The reality is that we get better at something with experience, and it is often the experience of writing a first novel that makes us good enough to write a second, publishable one.
Don’t give up on your first novel, but if you’re collapsing under an avalanche of rejections for one manuscript, or simply feel that it’s not working yet, you can always put it aside for a bit and try another project. It is unlikely your second attempt will be worse than your first. For me, when I shelved my fantasy manuscript temporarily, I worked on a Young Adult novel for my second manuscript. I was blown away by how much I had progressed as an author and how much more compelling the work was. The reactions from editors and beta readers so far tells me my second novel is in much better shape than the first.
And the comforting this is that I can always revisit the first manuscript later on. There is no expiry date on a work in progress.
10. It’s Hard Being a Writer, But It’s Much Nicer Than Having a “Real Job”
I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was seven, and in the intervening two decades, I can honestly say I have never thought about giving up on my dream. That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road. Becoming a writer is not for the faint of heart: for me, it has involved late nights, poverty, loneliness, isolation, addictions, trauma, rejection and ongoing existential crises.
A couple of times, I have been so scared about how difficult this path would be that I have delayed it. I’ve taken up full-time jobs at times, firstly in banking and later at a university. And I can tell you that during those times I was desperately unhappy. To compensate, I ate and I drank and I smoked. I once ate McDonald’s for all three meals in one day. I became a shell of myself because I wasn’t doing what I was put on this planet to do.
If you’re a writer, it’s in your blood and there’s not a damn thing you can do to undo it. It takes courage, but the best thing you can do is steel yourself and dive in headfirst to destiny. Yes, it’s a hard road, but the road of avoidance is much harder, sadder, and less fulfilling. It’s hard being a writer, sure – but it’s way better than any other job. We only live on this Earth for a very short time, so make the most of it. Write and don’t ever give up. If you get rejected, don’t stop; get better and better until you are simply too good to be rejected. Write your story and tell it to the world. You are the only one who can.