Aspiring to Author by Kristin Darell (Prescott)

First published in Kindling: A Writer's Edit Anthology

Writer's Edit Press, 2014

ISBN-10 : 0994165501 / ISBN-13 : 978-0994165503

So you’ve decided to be a writer. Maybe you’ve started or even finished a story or novel. You may have even been brave enough to face the heart-pounding submission process, only to suffer the sting of creative rejection. You stare with wistful eyes at the latest bestseller sitting at the front of a bookshop, dreaming of the day you get to see your name on a cover, but fearing it will never happen. I know I have, and as I scanned the spines of some of my favourite books it made me wonder if authors like J. K. Rowling, C. S. Lewis, J. M. Barrie, Suzanne Collins, or Stephen King ever felt the same. How did they overcome their doubts and make the transition from aspiring to author? I have been lucky enough to meet some of Australia’s most successful authors, and their stories gave me hope.

Kate Forsyth, Kim Wilkins, Susanne Gervay and Pamela Freeman have published more than 80 books between them, including picture books, children’s novels, young adult fiction, adult fiction and non-fiction. In contrast, Sara Donovan is at the very start of her professional career, with her debut novel published in 2014. Each has had a unique journey, and I asked them to share their stories and advice on the aspects of writing that were key to success. 

The Road to Success

 

All of these authors had different starts to their publishing careers, but they have one thing in common – persistence. None of these writers were magically transformed into a best-selling author. Their success was the result of good, old-fashioned hard work.

Kate Forsyth’s journey started at the tender age of sixteen, when she sent off a hand-written novel and poem to two publishers.

 

"They were both rejected . . . I kept on trying all through my twenties, and gradually began to have poems, short stories, and articles published both here and overseas. I worked on a novel all this time, and tried numerous times to find a publisher for it. It was almost published twice, and long-listed for the Vogel Award once, but didn't ever quite make it. So, in my university holidays for my master’s degree, I decided to try my hand at writing something new. I drew on a dream I had had as a teenager for inspiration, and tried to turn it into a story. By the end of the day, I knew I was writing a novel; by the end of the week, I knew I was writing a trilogy; and by the end of the month I knew it would be a series. I wrote like a madwoman all summer, and before I went back to university sent what I had written off to a literary agent. She came back to me straight away and said she could definitely sell it for me. Within a few months, she had sold it all around the world, and I was turned from an impoverished uni student longing to write into an internationally bestselling full-time writer. It was a dream come true."

Pamela Freeman decided she wanted to be an author during year six at school.

"But I didn’t actually write anything for publication until I was an adult," she admits. "Even then, I didn’t send anything away for publication. I had no confidence in myself. So I was a late starter. I sent my first story out for consideration when I was 28. I had written short stories for kids, all published in the NSW School Magazine. One of those stories grew into my first book, The Willow Tree’s Daughter. I was awarded a three-week residency at Varuna where I finished the first draft… The book was rejected by two publishers before Allen and Unwin said, 'We like it, but we think it’s really a novel. Will you link all the stories together?'. I said, 'Of course!' and there we were."

 

Kim Wilkins also knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age. 

 

"For me, it’s been a vocation. I was called to it. That’s not the case for everyone, but I did write stories from before I started school." 

Her first novel, The Infernal, was published in 1997.

"I wrote ten books before that one. They were all awful,’ she says. "When I started this one I felt I was doing better so I sent the first few chapters to an agent, who sold it before it was finished."

 

Having a manuscript accepted before it’s complete is a rare feat. Susanne Gervay’s experience is more typical. She is now an established and much loved author, but her first book, Next Stop The Moon, an autobiography, was definitely a labour of love.

 

"It’s funny, teenage, real, and a testament to my father. Once I wrote it, I believed wrongly that it would be published immediately. I had no idea of the industry or how to go about it. I searched for information from the library, went through the Yellow Pages looking up publishers, and joined the Fellowship of Australian Writers … I sent out my manuscript to endless publishers, waiting at my letterbox for news. There was rejection after rejection, and it was devastating. It took two years before Cathie Tasker, publisher at HarperCollins, picked out my manuscript from the slush pile."

 

Debut author, Sara Donovan, says it took her years to find the courage to pursue her writing dream.

 

"I was a writing wimp. A few bad marks for English essays I thought were great and I ran off to uni to pursue a career in science instead of writing. It took a few decades for me to get to the point where I was willing to manage the uncertainty that comes with creative writing. I had to be in quite a lot of pain about not writing for that to happen. I actually go to the point where I couldn’t read a book I was so envious of the writer. I was suffering from what Erica Jong calls 'write or die!' It was a big relief to finally get immersed in writing my first novel."

On Not Giving Up

 

It’s comforting to realise that even experienced authors have suffered from the same feelings of self-doubt that plague those still striving for that elusive ‘break’. It isn’t an easy road. Having an idea and even writing a novel is only the very beginning. A writer then has to face the hard work of deconstructing and rebuilding their literary baby, a process that can take years. Throughout this there is the real possibility a story may never make it onto the shelves. So how do we find the strength to keep going? Kate says tenacity is the key.

"It was all I ever wanted", she says. "I had black moments of despair, when I thought I would never be able to break through into that life, but I always got up and kept on trying. I think it is that indomitable spirit which is actually the secret … people give up too easily."

Susanne agrees:

"When I’d get rejections, I’d lose confidence and think I’m not a writer. Sometimes editor comments are cruel and I’d be unable to write for months … You put yourself out there to the public when you write, so you’re vulnerable. It’s tough at times, which is why you need friends who are writing as well for support."

But she says finding the strength to keep going comes with great rewards.

"Reading and writing your own stories can help you make sense of life, escape when you need to, engage in new ideas and magical worlds … Write because it’s your passion and you want to do it."

"I write for fun," says Kim. "The writing itself is not hard for me, and I really enjoy it. I’d do it if I wasn’t being published. I’d never give up."

Sara says it was belief in her story that kept her going.

"I sometimes felt like giving up when I was writing the first draft of my book – specifically when I thought the story didn’t work in a critical section. Early plot problems made me question my entire story premise as well as myself as a writer. But I stayed open to finding solutions and a relevant idea always ended showing up – even if it took a week or two.

‘When my second draft was rejected by an agent I felt initially very sad and embarrassed about not being good enough, but I simultaneously discovered that I still believed in my story and myself as a writer, despite my disappointment."

According to Pamela, the most common reason for rejection is that the writer hasn’t done enough drafts.

"You must try to be professional about your work, and that means being objective, recognising problems and being prepared to do the work to fix them. It isn’t easy. It will bring you to tears. But if you stop thinking of drafts as extra work and start thinking of them as extra time you get to spend with your characters, it will be easier for you. It’s also much easier if you leave a good space between drafts, such as six months (which is what I try to do). You will be far more objective and doing the rewriting will be much less painful."

However, even with her years of experience, Pamela admits there are still times when she is filled with doubt.

"I feel more like that at the moment, having just had a series rejected, than I have for some time! In the beginning, I was very lucky: my first short story for kids was published, my first book was published, my first book for adults was published (rejected twice first, however!). Having an agent is a wonderful thing for keeping your confidence up," she says.

 

Handling Rejection

 

The common message that emerged from our conversations is to accept that rejection is going to happen, regardless of how much writing you’ve done or whether you have previously been published or not. Rejection also comes in many forms. It may be casual feedback from friends or family or a more formal rejection from an agent or publisher. In the end, it is how a writer chooses to handle it that will make or break their career.

"I would always think about what I could do better and then try to do it," Kate says. "I also understood that work is not necessarily rejected because it has no value, but because of a host of other reasons that had nothing to do with me, or my writing. So I'd keep on sending it out, hoping to find a home for it somewhere. And I nearly always did."

"Immediately start writing something else," says Pamela. "Also ask why. Usually, if you have an agent, the publisher will tell them why the work has been rejected. It’s important to know if it’s been rejected because it’s no good, or because it doesn’t fit the list – or some other perfectly valid reason, which does not reflect in any way on the quality of the book. If your work is always being rejected for the same reasons – pace too slow, characters not engaging – then you either have to pull your socks up and fix the problem, or accept that you are writing for fun, not publication."

Similarly, Susanne suggests: "Have the courage to learn from comments made when your work is rejected. Look at each rejection and try and find the jewel. If they bother to write any words, there is hope."

"I still hate it," says Kim. "But if you are focusing on the joy of writing, the rejections don’t sting for too long."

Sara thinks it’s important to have people read your work as much as possible during the writing process and get plenty of feedback. She worked on her manuscript with family members, a professional editor and a writing group, making countless revisions.

"To get my book to the point where I had a chance of getting the attention of a publisher, I had a lot of support … I only sent my manuscript to publishers when my third draft had been rested and revised to the point where I wasn’t tinkering with it anymore. That took real patience."

 

The Importance of Education

 

Being patient with your manuscript, and bringing it to submission maturity, relies as much on knowing how to pull that manuscript apart and improve it as it does on simply getting it down on paper. There are many writing courses available to teach aspiring authors about plot, character, setting, narrative arcs, and a host of other planning and editing tools. The authors I spoke to have a range of education backgrounds, but all agree that learning the craft is essential, however you go about it.

"I don’t have any formal qualifications in writing – but I have spent quite a bit of money on writing courses over the years,’ says Sara. ‘I was highly aware of my low writing knowledge base when I started my first book, and actively looked for a mentor who could put me on a steep learning curve. It was a strategy that really worked."

Susanne’s story is similar.

"I was already writing and published when I decided to do a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) to further my understanding of the craft."

Kim has degrees in literature and creative writing, as does Pamela who says she used her study as part of her publishing journey.

"I have a Doctor of Creative Arts in Writing. My first adult novel, Blood Ties, was my thesis."

Kate studied a BA in Literature and Mass Communications and an MA in Creative Writing. She is also in the final throes of a doctorate on fairy tales.

"I think I learned a great deal from my university study, but I don’t think a university degree is necessary to be a writer. All one needs is imagination, a love of language and story, wit, courage, and a great deal of tenacity."

 

Publishing in Australia

 

So persistence and at least a basic understanding of technique are requirements for any new writer, but they aren’t the only factors to consider. The state of the publishing marketplace can also impact whether a book is accepted or rejected. It’s a variable that affects new and established writers alike.

"I think it’s more difficult at the moment than it has been for a long time," admits Pamela. "Publishers are reeling from the closure of so many chain bookstores, and are unsure how to sell books in the new environment. This means that they are mostly making very safe choices."

With thousands of unsolicited manuscripts crossing the desks of editors every year, Susanne warns it can be a hard and slow journey.

"It’s difficult to get published. Anyone who tells you different has been very lucky or is not telling the truth. New writers need to be armed with total passion, realise it is a rocky journey, and not be oversensitive. It’s a profession; it’s not a game. You may be gifted, but new writers are a high risk."

But Sara says she’s proof it isn’t impossible to break in.

"Like most things, the publishing business is increasingly competitive. I also think it’s true that if you have a premise that’s like an itch that needs to be scratched, and you execute your story well, you have a reasonable chance of getting into a dialogue with a publisher. Publishers in Australia want unsolicited manuscripts, unlike in other countries. The door is definitely open and that is wonderful."

 

Digital and Self-Publishing

 

Sara found her open door at HarperCollins’ digital brand, HarperImpulse, and, with the growing popularity of e-books, she was thrilled at the opportunity.

"Because most women read romantic comedy on digital readers, I always thought my best chance of being published and having a significant readership was with a publisher that had expertise in e-books. So I felt nothing but gratitude when this was the offer. The other advantage of a digital contract is that a lower-cost digital model allows publishers to have a longer term view of success – which is especially important for a new writer since it can take three or four books to break through."

Sara says she has been treated with the same level of celebration as if she’d signed a traditional print deal, and seeing her book in a bookstore is still a possibility.

"If I sell enough downloads, my book will be printed, which of course is now my dream."

Susanne also believes digital publishing is becoming a serious option.

"The practice of print to digital is reversing and I predict this trend will continue to grow," she says. "This is giving aspiring writers more opportunity, as digital is less costly and publishers tend to give much higher royalties, but the RRP tends to be low and there is no advance. This is difficult for writers who may end up with no money by the end of this process. However, writers do get a shot at publication and exposure."

According to Pamela, the growth of digital reading is providing greater opportunities for writers, especially those considering self-publishing. But she also says that you have to ask yourself why you might be taking this route.

"Some kinds of books (poetry, for example) lend themselves to self-publishing; others are better served by the traditional route. A lot of it is whether there’s a large or a niche audience for your work … I’d be reluctant to publish without a rigorous editorial process. If I end up going the self-publishing route, then I would employ an editor and a good cover designer."

Sara created a self-publishing backup plan to help her relax towards the end of the second draft.

"At that point I was highly aware of the uncertainty of getting published. I also took comfort from my self-publishing strategy when I got rejected by an agent. It allowed me to believe I could find a way to share my book if I didn’t get a book deal."

 

Submission Opportunities

 

Conscious of how difficult it is for new writers to get work looked at, many of the big publishing houses have set up special submission programs.

Allen & Unwin launched the Friday Pitch six years ago, which is open to writers of adult fiction, non-fiction, young adult and children’s authors and illustrated works. You can submit the first chapter of your work on any Friday. The website states: "Through Friday Pitch we have given new and emerging writers a chance to have their work read by our publishers within a reasonable time." They have very strict submission guidelines but promise a response, if successful, within two weeks.

Penguin’s offering is the Monthly Catch. From the first to the seventh of every month the publisher throws its doors open to unsolicited manuscripts. As with the other publishers, there are very strict guidelines, which are outlined on the website, and not all genres are accepted all of the time.

Manuscript Monday is a similar initiative by Pan Macmillan and is open to submissions on the first Monday of every month. They want to see the first 100 pages and will have your manuscript read within one month.

Similar submission opportunities are also arising within the digital publishing world. Momentum is Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint and accepts unsolicited manuscripts weekly on Mondays. Momentum is also happy to accept simultaneous submissions with other publishers, with the exception of Pan Macmillan.

Other big publishers open their doors for new writers for short periods of time during events such as Scholastic’s Festival of Potential and offer short response times, so it is important to stay aware of industry news.

This is not a finite list and many publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts all year round, but the response time can often be long and undefined.

"It can be very difficult, of course,’"says Kate, "but publishers are looking for new writers all the time. The trick is to make sure your work really shines."

 

Tips for publishing success

 

If publishing is your dream, then these authors have some final words of advice.

Kate Forsyth: "Read as widely and deeply as you can. Write every day, even for only a few minutes. Be brave."

Susanne Gervay: "Don’t write for the market, fame, or riches; write because it’s your passion and you want to do it. Work on your craft and be brave. Writing mates are essential to celebrate the good times, and commiserate during the bad times. I don’t think any writer who writes alone will be successful."

Sara Donovan shares a quote from Lao Tzu: "Always be on the lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success. Always be on the lookout for ways to nurture your dream."

Pamela Freeman: "Do more than one draft. Do more than two drafts. Do more than three drafts and leave a good long time between drafts (months, not days)."

Kim Wilkins: "Read a lot. Write a lot. Repeat one and two."

 

Regardless of their genre, age or experience, these authors have three things in common: they were persistent, patient, and worked hard to achieve their writing dream. Kate Forsyth sums it up as follows:

"It was all I ever wanted. An idea comes to me, and fires my imagination, and dominates my thinking to the point that I am utterly obsessed and unable to think about anything else. That's when I know I have to write that story!"

That’s a feeling I know well. During almost twenty years as a journalist, I was continuously pursued and troubled by story ideas and characters hovering around the edges of my imagination. I’m lucky that my job allowed me to write every day, but it took a leap of faith to shift my focus to creative writing. Aspiring authors need to find the courage to pursue their dreams and to declare themselves as writers, despite fear of the stigma that can be attached to those who do so before they are published. Remember that all authors have had to overcome the same obstacles that emerging writers face today. This reassures us that success is possible, with tenacity and hard work.

 

If you have an idea that inspires you to write, don’t wait any longer. Be brave, write what you love, and don’t give up.