I’d like to share a fantasy that took over my life for quite a while. We’re all broadminded adults so I’m sure I won’t shock anyone. This is how it went, with occasional variations:
Scene: Flat in Sydney that looks eerily like my place
Time: Late afternoon, any day
Loud knock on door.
ME (opening door): Hello. What can I do for you?
INTERNAL EDITOR: Anna, you’re never that nice to people who front up to your door without warning. For a start, they’ve probably just got you out of the bath! Put in some snarls to deepen emotional punch.
ME: Can’t I turn off my internal editor even in my fantasy life?
INTERNAL EDITOR: No.
Anyway, to continue with this sexy little tale.
LITTLE MIDDLE-AGED MAN BEARING LARGE BRIEFCASE: Good afternoon, Miss Campbell. I’ve been told this flat is brimming with potential bestsellers.
ME: Strange you should ask, sir. But of course I have a large number of manuscripts just ready for you to take away with you so that you can make me rich and famous.
LM-AMBLB: Excellent. I’ll drop them off at Avon and we’ll ring you when you make the New York Times. Goodbye.
I shut the door then run a bath where I drink Bailey’s and contemplate life as a tax exile in the Caribbean.
* * *
What is wrong with this picture?
Well, firstly, having to think about me in the bath. Sorry about that, girls.
Oh, and the middle-aged man. I did have a version where Daniel Day-Lewis in his Mohican gear arrived at my door but he didn’t get a chance to ask about the manuscripts so I scrapped that one.
What’s wrong with this picture is it just ain’t gonna happen. Ever. Ever. Ever.
Yet strangely, for years, I worked towards a career as a writer on the expectation that something like this was indeed likely to happen. I mean, I had manuscripts piling up under the bed, I talked about seeking publication, I was writing, working on new projects and learning my craft. But if I had a light, I was definitely hiding it under a bushel.
Recently, when I sold, I made a big deal of the fact that it had taken me 27 years to sell. Which is true. Sort of. I completed my first novel, fondly called Guerillas in the Mist because it was about partisan fighters in the Hundred Years War, when I finished high school. Fiddled with it for about four years, sent it off, got a rejection, felt tragic for several more years while I worked on an unfinished sequel to book one, nicknamed Troubadour Without a Cause. Planning a sequel was a bit silly as I never actually sent book one out again. Probably a good thing. I was only monkeying around, after all.
Several years of travel followed during which I certainly THOUGHT about being a writer. Returned to Australia in 1987 determined to write category. And I did write category. Seven of the suckers. All of which got what I now realize were good rejections (“nice writing, not the right story, send us the next one”). But I was doing this all on my own with nobody to help me, and seven rejections in a row sent me into an absolute tailspin. Especially when I assumed it was all going to be so easy when I started out (I think we’ve all been there).
I then didn’t send anything to a publisher for 13 years.
Count them. Then factor them into 27. I kept writing. I thought of myself as a writer. I worked part-time so I had time and energy to devote to my dream. What I didn’t have was the guts to put my work out there and face rejection again.
Towards the end of this time, I joined Romance Writers of Australia and discovered writing contests which somehow seemed less daunting than approaching a real live publisher/agent. On an aside, if I weren’t speaking to the converted, I’d make this column about joining RWA. At least you don’t sit around repeating the same mistakes over and over and you can learn from people who know what they’re talking about.
I also discovered the scattergun approach after talking to a few other writers. They pointed out that if you’ve got ten things out there and you miss out on seven, hey, there’s still three that might bring home the bacon in the form of a request or a final or a placing.
So that’s when my career as a contest s*** was born. And that led to editors/agents requesting my stuff which meant I finally had to bite the bullet and start submitting. I still had to drag myself kicking and screaming to the post office (interesting image, although surprisingly common in the streets of Kings Cross where I live) but at least I did it.
And within two years, I sold. So this story at least has a happy ending.
I wonder how many people share my phobia about sending writing off. If you do, please, please get over it. I look back now to all that time I wasted and I hate to think of anyone else going through the same agonies.
If you can’t get up the nerve to send your work to publishers/agents or you don’t think it’s ready, enter contests. Enter lots of contests. If you can’t afford the American ones or they’re not relevant, enter the local ones or the New Zealand ones. What’s the worst that can happen? You don’t get through to round two or you don’t final. But, hey, you get a few critiques and there might be something in those that helps you do better next time. The other side effect of contests is they really toughen you up to rejection, insensitive comments, people who just don’t get your work. When rejections arrived on those submissions I’d steeled myself to make after 13 years of cowering in a corner, I took them in my stride.
So my diamonds and pearls advice after all those years of writing is get your stuff out there! Hearing “no” won’t kill you. And you might end up surprising yourself. I know I did. And best of writer’s luck to you!
This article first appeared in HeartsTalk, the newsletter of Romance Writers of Australia, in June 2006