Image: Stella Prize Winners Clare Wright & Emily Bitto, feeling pretty darn good!
Writing, perhaps more than most other careers, is characterised by a maelstrom of feelings. There is frustration that you can’t get an agent or publisher; disappointment that your book didn’t sell as well as you had hoped, or wasn’t listed for any awards; envy of other writers who seem to get much more attention than you and DON’T EVEN DESERVE IT!; rage about an unfair review or a one star rating on Goodreads. Such feelings are interspersed with moments of giddy delight: you finished the bloody thing! You got a book deal! You held your book in your hands for the first time! People came to your launch and said nice things about you! Between those extremes of joy and pain there are more quotidian feelings: the self-doubt that is always lurking, boredom, a desire to be doing something-anything!- else. But also the satisfaction of writing a sentence that captures perfectly the feeling you wanted to evoke. Know that all writers feel these things, and most writers feel shame about feeling them. But they are normal. You are normal.
When I received a letter from UWA Publishing offering to publish my debut novel A New Map of the Universe I was at work, and I actually ran up and down in my office screaming. My husband and I blew my (admittedly small) advance with a once-in-a-lifetime meal at Vue de Monde and I don’t regret it for a moment. I was on such a high. I would be a published author! All my dreams were coming true!
Alongside wonderful moments like this (book launches, being awarded grants, being shortlisted for awards), my writing career has also included some terrible, demoralising experiences/phases. One such crevasse was when I collected three years worth of rejections from agents and publishers for my second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Another was when I decided to experiment with self-publishing my third novel The Ark and it was a commercial disaster. I couldn’t even talk about it without tearing up.
In the ten years since my first book was published, I have developed more equanimity about the highs and lows of the writing and publishing life. I have learnt to distinguish between private success (writing a book I feel proud of) and public success (sales, awards etc). Because those exhilarating and devastating moments are actually relatively few and far between. Most of the time it is just me at my desk, with my brain and my hands, trying to say something old in a new way. I didn’t begin writing because I hoped to be a millionaire, or because I want to win prizes. I began because I felt I had something I wanted/needed to say. And that is the thing I return to, that I remind myself of when I feel dispirited, or when I find myself writing my Booker Prize acceptance speech. No doubt there will be more disappointments ahead in my writing career, and probably there will also be exciting bits too. I’ll try to take them in stride, and just keep putting the words on the page.
If you are a debut author, you probably already know all about rejection. You’ll likely have had your novel manuscript rejected several times. Probably stories too. This novel might be the third you’ve written, or the tenth. Getting used to rejection is incredibly useful – it will stand you in great stead as a published novelist when, believe it or not, everyone will continue to not love you or your work nearly as much as they really should. You think your book will be reviewed, but it isn’t; or it is, but by someone heartless who doesn’t even read the thing properly and misses the point entirely. Maybe it gets reviewed well but there is that one niggly sentence about something you might have done wrong and you will obsess about that sentence forever. You aren’t shortlisted for a prize. You aren’t even longlisted. You think your publisher maybe didn’t even enter you in any prizes because your publisher perhaps thinks your book is rubbish. Your book isn’t in your local bookshop. Your book isn’t in any bookshops, as far as you can tell. That woman you kind of know has been interviewed by Booktopia and now they’re emailing the video out to everyone – such a great book! WHY WEREN’T YOU INTERVIEWED BY BOOKTOPIA???
It never ends.
I’m not a psychologist so I don’t have names for all the things you might feel or even explanations for why I felt them. Instead, I’ll just tell you a few stories about some of the things I have felt.
When my first novel was accepted for publication, I was ecstatic. It didn’t feel even slightly real. It all went pretty much as you’d except – joy, anticipation, massive self-importance etc – until the day my box of books arrived in the post. I couldn’t open the box. It felt like the box might be full of cockroaches. I wanted the box to be taken away and all of this to be over. That was my introduction to ‘weird feelings about being an author that you never expected’.
Disappointment, envy, impostor syndrome, frustration and vulnerability: I’ve had all of those (and the cockroach incident was a classic feeling of terror about having put my most private thoughts out into public), except imposter syndrome. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been working as a professional writer for more than 20 years – I’m pretty sure by now that I know how to write. It might be the only thing I know how to do.
The worst disappointment was when I got the second royalty payment for my first novel. I didn’t get an advance, so I was expecting to get some reasonable payments. What I didn’t know – what you might not know – is that after three months bookshops return all your unsold books to the publisher and they ask for their money back. This is how, in my novel’s second half-year of life, I sold minus 25 books. You can read more about how that made me feel here.
And envy is the freaking bane of my existence. No matter how well my book does, it’s never enough compared to the successes of others. This is even though I know many of those others and I know they feel the exact same way. The publishing industry will never love you enough. You will always be overlooked. You will never get the credit you deserve. You will never get the credit you don’t deserve (this is my main problem: I honestly can’t believe I haven’t won all of Australia’s major literary prizes, even though I absolutely know that none of my books have deserved to be shortlisted for any of them. But if other people can win them, why shouldn’t I?)
The thing is, you will feel a lot of different feelings. Some of them will be great. Many of them will be awful. A lot of them will be inexplicable. Try not to beat yourself up too much about them. Yes, your life would be a lot happier if you were one of those angelic souls who felt constantly blessed that you get to write, and who only feels joy for other writers’ successes. But most of us are not angelic souls. You’ll probably feel bad some of the time: try not to make it worse by feeling bad about feeling bad.
In 2015 I went to see a psychologist for a while, because I had two books coming out and I had a bunch of festival appearances and I have anxiety and being a writer is kind of an emotional disaster. He did a pretty good job of convincing me to invest as much of my feelings as I can in the things I can control: that is, making my work as good as it can be. All the other stuff is external – it is out of the writer’s hands. Do the best you can, then try to forget the rest.
I’ve failed to forget the rest, but I do remember, every day, that there are two great joys in writing. One of them is other writers. It’s worth letting (most of) the envy go because it makes you better able to enjoy the company of other writers. It lets you enjoy their books. And the second joy is writing. Writing, writing, writing – it’s what you do. The rest is somebody else’s problem.
If you tell a writer who hasn’t yet had a book published that they will feel anything other than everlasting, unalloyed joy on publication, they won’t believe you. And that’s a good thing. No one wants to hear that achieving a lifelong dream can bring anything but eternal happiness. And I am extremely happy, and fortunate, to have had a number of books published. But the reality of publication is more complex than the dream. Yes, there is the unforgettable feeling of opening the parcel containing copies of your book and holding them in your hands for the first time. And there is the thrill, and terror, of coming across a review of your book and running your eyes down the page in a few seconds to gauge if it is good or bad. I had imagined all that, and those things were just as I had imagined they would be. That was all part of the dream. What I hadn’t imagined or prepared for was the feelings of emptiness and sadness I experienced shortly after each of my books came out. It’s seems strange, and ungrateful, to feel down when everyone is congratulating you on your good luck (and getting published does involve luck) and it took me a while to work out what was going on. A book takes a long time to write, months at the very least, and most probably years of writing, revising, editing, writing, cutting, editing, revising, submitting, being rejected, being rejected, being rejected, being accepted, being edited, rewriting, revising, and proofing. For a very long time it’s there, always there, a huge part of your life, and when it’s published it stops belonging to you and belongs to everyone else, and though this is exactly what you have dreamed of and hoped for and worked so hard to achieve, when your book is done and out there, it leaves a huge gap and an emptiness and a low that, for me at least, always seems to follow hard upon publication. And the only way I know to come out of this feeling is to start a new book, and start the whole cycle going again. And maybe that’s where the real happiness lies, in the writing, not the having written.
An Agent’s Perspective on Writers’ Feelings
I’m famously (/infamously?) on record for saying that authors don’t “need” an agent; that having an agent in Australia is a choice, not a necessity. I still stand by that, but also, the longer I am an agent, the more I do see the value in what I bring to the author/agent relationship. A huge part of this is the emotional side of things – listening and soothing when an author gets angry about something (so that they don’t rant at the publisher and damage that sometimes fragile relationship), building them up when they’re insecure and full of self-doubt, just reassuring them that they’re absolutely doing the right thing and on track. Most authors have a bit of “author crazy” in them, and I like that part of my job is corralling that crazy if and when it surfaces. Saying that, each of my authors is unique. One might need reassuring when they hit that point when they think their work is terrible and no one will ever want to read it, and another might be so gung ho and confident, that they need reining in and refocusing. It’s never the same thing twice.
An Editor’s Perspective on Writers’ Feelings
Georgia Richter of Fremantle Press
For the editor, every relationship with every author is different. And every book comes with its own unique issues. What was a problem in the first book will not even be present as an issue in the second. But some other knotty conundrum will replace it. A writer’s feelings about their first, second, and third book will be vastly different too, in my experience. Some books are a painful slog, others just tumble out, ready made. But over time, the writer becomes more familiar with their own process, and more forgiving of their own perceived shortcomings. It turns out that this is just how they work and, eventually, they will make it across the line, however chaotic or shambolic or stuttering a process it may seem during the writing.
It is hugely rewarding for an author to be working in a focused way with an editor who shares their vision and who is as excited and involved with their manuscript as they are. A lot of the hard painful thinking evolving work has already been done by the author at this point, so the editing phase is a kind of roll-up-your-sleeves and get-on-with-it stage, without the attendant anxiety of having an unfinished manuscript lurking on the laptop. The editor is often like a therapist: asking the right question at the right time in a safe environment, in a way that enables the writer to move forward.
I think that authors in possession of a contract feel validated about their identity as a writer. The editorial process in a publishing house is an exciting journey – where the book begins to assume its final shape, a cover is born, and the marketing department begins to talk to the author about how they and their book will make their public debut – that transition from introvert to extrovert that will ask something entirely different of the writer.
Your turn: We want to hear about your feelings. Tell us in the comments. None are too big or small, none are too embarrassing or bizarre. All feelings accepted!
If you missed any posts in the What to Expect series, you can check them out below: