Pandora Hope|5 January 2016
This article is strictly for newbies. It’s a confession and a lament. It is about what happens BEFORE your first novel is selling millions (thousands? dozens?) on Amazon. Before you even have a novel—or perhaps even a complete short story.
It is, in other words, about beginnings.
At least, it’s a warts and all tale of my experience as a ‘beginner’, a ‘newbie writer’. I know that you are out there, fellow writing babies, sweating, screaming, or, in some rare cases, absolutely serene. The serene ones can tune out now. You’re on the side of the gods. Creation is a breeze! Seven days, pfft! You could do a story in a weekend.
This post is for the rest of us. The dispossessed. The ones with enough reject slips to paper a wall. We are not fans of the creation myth.
So if a blank piece of paper (or blank screen) brings you out in a sweat, know that you are not alone. You’re not going to trumpet your failures on Twitter or Facebook, but maybe they’re showing a little behind your brave smile. I see you (and yes, I hate those phenomenal success stories on Facebook and Twitter as much as you do). Okay, nobody said the world was fair, but no-one prepared you for this degree of suffering. Failure is a bitter thing.
The truth is, baby, looks like no-one wants to read your stuff. (Not counting friends and parents —and sure, you can blame THEM for ever giving you the idea that you could write brilliantly. Mothers are totally fatal that way—in my case it was my best buddy whose vocabulary consisted of ‘That’s wicked brilliant’ and “That’s even brillianter!” The grammar should have warned me—this was not a person I should be listening to).
So okay— here goes. My personal bitch against the world that was apparently created in seven measly days and a touch of a divine finger.
Mine is a pretty typical story. Teachers and relatives conspired to convince me I was the next Tolstoy. My English grades were pretty good. I wrote mood pieces when the right mood struck (not often). So I majored in English at Melbourne University and started working in writing-related jobs while I waited for my muse to appear and settle in for a cosy lifetime of bestsellers. I ended up as a science editor and copywriter with a folders of ‘research’ for future novels and a towering pile of mood pieces.
Depending on your level of patience and your ability to tolerate low rent rooms and a diet of cheap takeaways, you soon realise that your muse has stood you up and that sooner or later you’re going to have the make the big leap on your own.
So I did it. Without a single publication credit to my name (just a lot of obscure science articles and a pretty substantial folio of ads) I left permanent and stable employment and decided I would be a full-time writer.
Hello blank page, old nemesis. No hello to muse, which despite my sacrifice had still not emerged to hold my hand and was doubtless sitting in some cafe in gay Paree sipping absinthe and laughing her head off.
Dumping paid employment was an act of insanity or bravery—how you view it is mood dependent. Luckily I had a writing mentor to crack the whip and rub salve into my wounds when required. That didn’t make my blank page disappear, however. I’d look over at his laptop and see screeds of words pouring from those relentless fingers. The man was a machine. I figured he had a muse and just wasn’t telling. I also figured that the view from my desk was just plain wrong; my computer had a curse on it; I didn’t have the right software and I wasn’t drinking the right brand of coffee.
About then I gave up waiting. There was no muse, no best-sellers, no pleading agents and publishing houses visible on the horizon. There was just me and my blank page. I had two alternatives. Give up, or just write anyway.
So I wrote. And I wrote. And realised that no way was I in a position to write my grand magnum opus aka George RR Martin. Copy writers are an arrogant bunch and think they can out-write J.K. Rowling. Not so. In fact I had none of the skills to put together a reasonable short story, let alone a seven volume novel series. Gritting my teeth, (particularly when reading about the success of other newbies on social media—hey, could it be all exaggeration? A facade? Could they be struggling just as I was?), I just kept on writing.
In about two months of solid typing, with my judgemental editor’s eye TURNED OFF, and studying a LOT of excellent short stories, I came up with a piece I wasn’t embarrassed to show people (well, a couple of people anyhow). It was received enthusiastically. I was obviously in shock— which is when the mentor struck, insisting I send it to a REAL, LIVE magazine. To be rejected, obviously—he was mean, cruel, a writing sadist. This was obviously revenge for me blabbing ad nauseam that copy writers were natural fiction writers. (A novel, pfft! A piece of cake!) I can now see how annoying that must have been to an extensively published and successful author. Oh, how I paid for that blithe ignorance. As in ego-crushing payment (which is ultimately no bad thing, although it feels dreadful at the time).
Anyhow, the story was sent out. I was girding my loins for the rejection. Would it be a form or a personal rejection? Would I need therapy as a result? Should I consider taking up meditation and gardening? Should I put senna pods in my mentor’s tea? Write anonymous death threats to those English teachers who had set me on this insane path…
The mentor took matters into his own hands. He sent the story to Interzone. “Interzone,” I bleated. “Shouldn’t we start a little lower down the literary scale? A local writing competition being run by the local library sounds good?”
Nope. It was Interzone. The rest is history. Well, it’s my history anyway. Didn’t make a blip in the literary world, but for me…the email I received from Interzone the next day changed my world.
continued in ‘In the beginning’ Part 2.