This week, the Starting Out* series takes a crossroad into fiction.
It takes a long time to learn to be a writer. That might seem like a strange comment in a time when anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can just… start, self-publish, whatever. But the truth is that there’s more to being a writer than simply ‘writing’.
One person who is learning this on the job is Sarah Ayoub. I’ve watched Sarah’s journey to being a published author unfold on Twitter and on her blog, and it makes for interesting reading because she’s so damn honest about it all. But I’ll let her tell the story…
Living the dream can be a shock to the system
Most people take a long time to figure out what they want to do for their careers. Some start out in certain jobs, work their way up their field, and then jump on the lowest rung of an entirely different career ladder, all in the name of pursuing a dream they didn’t know they had.
That’s what happened to me when I put journalism on hold and stumbled (quite madly) into creative writing. I was bored one night when I wrote what would become the first chapter of my now-forthcoming novel. I shelved it for years, returning to it sporadically as the story came to me. Before I knew it I had ten chapters and an-it-happened-by-luck meeting with one of Australia’s most sought-after Literary Agents. She told me I didn’t need a writing course, and the number of stories in my over-flowing bookshelves could finally be justified because it seemed like they taught me fiction by osmosis. Before I knew it, I had a publishing deal with Harper Collins, a Facebook page with ‘likers’ who weren’t related to me, and a smile permanently stamped on my face. I had achieved something I only recently discovered I wanted: to be an author.
Unfortunately, my joy has been short-lived. While I am thrilled to be living the dream, having no idea what ‘the dream’ actually involves is a lot harder than I thought. I don’t know anything about print runs or advances. Admittedly, I only just think about whether or not the advance is enough to justify a writing trip to Paris, and what kind of dress I could potentially wear to the launch. People ask me questions and I respond with blank stares. I’ve never had an interest in ‘the state of things’ where books and e-readers were concerned, and so talk of the market baffles me. I say the wrong things in publisher meetings and although I wrote a 66,000 word book, I can’t think of a title. I have no ideas for a cover and my friend has been left with the lucky task of brainstorming ways to help me promote it.
But the worst part? Having to perform to the standards set for me, and on some level, the standards I have set for myself. I’m no longer the girl with a manuscript, I am now an author. I signed a contract verifying myself as thus, and I now have gatekeepers: agency, publishers, editors, publicity people – all anxiously waiting to see if the gamble they played on me would pay off, and whether or not I could replicate that pay-off.
I’m my own gate keeper too. I’ve had a year’s notice for a second novel, and yet, six or so months out from the deadline there are less than 4,000 words to its existence and I am in a crisis of my own making.
I’ve slowly figured out that being my own sort of writer doesn’t work where contracts are concerned. I can’t have five years of writing at my own leisure anymore, and as it turns out, the editing process is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. Between changes I made, changes my agent requested, a change my publisher wanted, and the seemingly infinite markings of my structural editor, my book has morphed into an entirely different creation (slight exaggeration, but you get the gist). Worse: I have lost confidence in my own abilities, out of the fear that whatever I produce next will not live up to what’s expected of me. What I committed to, signed for, promised to deliver in my excitement of things.
So if I could sum up the biggest lesson from my start-out, it’s to get to KNOW what you’re doing. Writing my first book was like sharing a part of my life: it followed the old writing adage of writing what you know. I understood my character’s history, I gave her a school like mine, I used my own sentiments from high-school as story fodder.
I thought I’d be cool and set a challenge for myself for book #2. I thought I’d write in a way that was so far removed from what I knew and experienced, and to this day I question what I was thinking, even though my publisher’s enthusiasm for the idea means it’s not something I can change and I should just move on.
I’m watching friends who started after me progress with their stories at full speed. They’ve got plans, story ideas and excel spreadsheets tracking their progress. They know their print runs, their titles, their plans for future books. They knew what they were doing when they committed to their deadline. They follow lessons like ‘write as much as you can’, and edit way afterwards. I make the biggest mistake by editing as I go, or deleting everything that doesn’t meet my standards. Or is the biggest mistake that I am waiting around for a story instead of making it up? Isn’t that what I signed up for as an author of fiction?
Turns out, I am a lot like the person who abandons everything to climb an entirely different career ladder, only sillier. I chased the career bliss of a publishing deal in what seemed like the blink of an eye, bypassing a lot of lessons that I could have learned at each rung.
Maybe I am taking the ladder backwards, maybe I’m free-falling, but either way, I’ve taken the liberty of chronicling my journey for those who might follow it, if only to save them from insecurities akin to my own.
And in the mean time, I can take comfort in the fact that by doing so, I am writing another special story: my own, and one that only I can turn into a best-seller, if I learn to see it for what it is. A blessing for my career, despite the climb, expectations and the gamble for the characters on each rung.
You can follow Sarah’s journey to the publication of her first novel in August 2013 here.
*Starting Out is a series of guest posts by new writers/authors who are at the beginning of their writing careers and making it work. You may also enjoy What kind of writer will you be? and Learning to embrace the editing process?