(Photo by Susan Bradfield Photography.)
In 2016, I spent A Night With Christos Tsiolkas. No, not that kind of night, I didn’t even shake his hand. I watched from afar as he was interviewed about his writing journey at a Writers Victoria event.
I’d read The Slap (and seen the miniseries), but when he spoke about his exploration of failure in Barracuda, my interest was piqued. He made an oblique reference to That Scene, “The one my mother wished I didn’t write,” and I was so intrigued I went home and read the book …
Daniel Kelly is a working-class boy set to become an Olympic swimmer. He trains like crazy while his family makes enormous financial and emotional sacrifices to help him achieve his dream (cue Rocky music). Until it all falls apart …
It was one of the most thought-provoking books I read that year. In Western society, we idolize sports and movie stars and anything less than the best feels like disaster. We need to talk more about failure—how it feels and how to deal with it.
That night, Christos said, “How will I know when I’ve made it as an author?” I wanted to say, “Mate, you’re a guest author at Writers Victoria—you’ve got this,” but it’s comforting to know that even best-selling authors suffer self-doubt. We each define our own version of success.
So, what’s my goal? The novel writer’s equivalent of qualifying for the Olympic games is traditional publishing (let’s call this the A-team). Agents and publishers jealously guard team admission. The agent’s job is to find a publisher and to manage the author’s career. The publisher edits, produces and distributes the book. See The Book Publishing Flowchart for more detail.
Then, there’s the B-team—self-publishers—where if you have the determination and patience to actually write and produce a book, there’s no barrier to entry. Many books, notably the Shades of Grey trilogy, have made it big this way. Some authors prefer the autonomy and they can earn more without paying a cut to an agent and publisher. There are also rafts of other options such as hybrid and vanity publishers, which fall between traditional and self-publishing.
I’ve already self-published two children’s picture books and two anthologies, so when I finally got serious about writing a novel (about six years ago), I set my sights on the A-team. I now have two novels in the final stages of editing. I’ve pitched Following Betsy Sharpe, but I’m yet to land an agent. In the end, I’ll probably self-publish, but I’m still holding out. If I give up too soon, it will feel like failure. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but it isn’t my Big Dream.
People have said, “You’re just writing for fun. It doesn’t really matter whether you get published, does it?” Yes, it does. Writing is my job. I write every day and often on the weekends. Like Daniel Kelly in Barracuda, I’ve been training for my Olympics for years.
At first, every rejection letter sent my stomach sinking through the floor. When reading feedback, my heart lurched at every negative comment. Over time, I’ve trained myself to react calmly. I tell myself, I’m used to it. It doesn’t hurt anymore. I brush off rejections and sift through feedback rationally to decide what to change and what to keep. But seeds of doubt creep in. I should just give up. If I had what it takes, I’d have made it by now.
And that, right there, is Mistake No. 2: Underestimating how long it takes to learn the craft of writing and to polish a novel (see 29 Brown St). Every time I finish a draft, I think, This is it. It’s as good as it’s going to get. But after time away fro it, or fresh feedback, I see room for improvement. I now look back at all those rejections with gratitude; they protected me from going out before my book was the best it could be. The greatest risk of self-publishing is going ahead too soon. I trained for four years to become an engineer. Maybe 6 years to become a writer isn’t so bad after all.
I’m not talking about this in a bid for sympathy; I simply want you to understand. I’m incredibly lucky. I don’t have to earn a living from writing, or, I’d have starved a thousand times over. My husband keeps me emotionally grounded, I have an amazing support crew of friends and I’m not alone—many of my writer colleagues are soldiering along the same path and we swap war stories.
The point is—drumroll, please—part of the journey is learning to deal with failure. I can wallow in self-pity for a time, but then I have to pick myself up and try again. I will publish my novels. I just don’t know when or how. So here’s my thought for discussion: Failure isn’t a permanent state. What counts is how you respond when staring down the jaws of defeat.
What next? I will seek feedback, incorporate changes, continue the submission process and start drafting the next book. There’s one other important action on my list. Tell Christos, I loved the conclusion to Barracuda that at the end of the day, being a good person can be success enough. But I’m afraid to say, I agree with your mother about That Scene.
Update May 2020: Two years later, I now have an agent, for whom I also do editorial work. My first novel never got off the ground and I’m now editing the second one ready to take to publishers.
Next time: The Adventures of Sexy Legs and Pipsqueak