"I'm in what I think is an unusual situation. My first book was published by a small-but-respected publisher who subsequently ceased trading. [Gah.] My second book was - via an agent (which I didn't have for the first) - published in a foreign country, translated into their language. Said country are not into making a big fuss of "first time" authors (apparently my first book doesn't count), so it has been rather non-eventish for me. [Not sure if this is a line you've been spun - on the other hand, actually, most books are non-eventish and it's all somewhat in the eye of the writer]. No author publicity, no big marketing bucks, and sadly the book hasn't made much of an impact. No reviews apart from two critical Amazon reviews: a one-star and a three-star. Personally I think it was a bad translation (I happen to speak the language concerned) and was pitched at entirely the wrong market. But then I would say that. [You could be right, though. And bad luck with the Amazon reviewers, who may or may not have been drunk at 3am when they wrote those reviews.]This all raises several points, as well as a few tears, and I asked BS if I could use her story to highlight a few things. She agreed.
"Unfortunately, at around the time the foreign book was published, I lost my agent. You'll just have to believe me when I say it wasn't my fault, [I do - though I'd give the anonymous agent the benefit of the doubt by saying that there are often one and a half sides to the story] as it wouldn't be professional to go into details. Whether they would ever have managed to sell the book into other territories is questionable, but we'll never know now.
"So here I am, my baby is out there but unreadable in its native tongue, and no agent will touch it with a barge pole cos it has already been flogged to death by the original agent. I - egotistic author that I am - am in a massive sulk about the fact that nobody I care about can read the damn thing, and the holy grail of publication hasn't involved a single piece of ego-stroking or validation, and it feels as though it may as well not have happened. [Ugh, this is painful.]
"Indeed, I'm so depressed that I've given up writing altogether. Abandoned the third novel in first draft stage and embarked on a new career.
"Don't worry - I'm not expecting you to tell me I did the right thing by giving up. It clearly shows a lack of backbone and an excessive degree of childish sulk, the kind which would preclude a successful publishing career. [I disagree most strongly.]
"Actually I don't know what my question is. I think it was going to be something along the lines of, "Do you think sometimes a writer just has to admit they are a bit crap, and give up?" [I will answer this.] which is only the aforementioned sulkiness in a very thin disguise... or maybe, "Don't you agree that I've had a particularly raw deal? [possibly but not certainly].You feel sorry for me, right?" - which would be more of the same...
"Obviously what I need to do is either (a) keep going and make each book better than the last, or (b) stop worrying about publication - just write for the sake of it, or (c) acknowledge that I've been writing for the wrong reasons, and have a break until I can think of some better reasons to keep doing it. But stop with all the whingeing.[can you do b) ??? If you can, then you should, anyone should, but if you can't.... a) is what we should all do if we believe in ourselves. Hmmm re c) - HAVE you been writing for the wrong reasons? What ARE the wrong reasons? But I'm not interested in your reasons and nor are your readers - we only want to know if you're good enough.]
"Hmmm. Thank you. That helped. [Er, really?!]
"Oh! I thought of a question! Here it is:
"Have you come across this phenomenon before? Writers who have a book which is only ever published in one other country, translated, and with no fanfare or success? [Frankly, I haven't come across this. But it may happen. I don't think it's the central issue. The central issue is that you came close - more than that, you were published, but it didn't deliver success. We think that success is being published - it's not.] Do they get sulky about it too, or am I just outrageously ungrateful? [Oh, trust me: we are all ungrateful because we are not megastars!] So far I'm the only writer I know who has experienced this thing."
I asked BS a few more questions but I specifically did not want to know her real name or the name of her books. Because, just for now, I don't want to read her writing - despite the fact that it's whether her writing is any good that's the most important question.
I asked what genre she wrote in, because whether it's lit fic or not makes a difference, or whether it's a genre that's easy to sell.
"Genre: That's part of my problem. I've tried to write to a genre, but it just doesn't seem to be something I can do without losing my own identity in what I write. "Contemporary fiction" is the laziest description. [No, it's a good description if it's the right one.] My second was described as a comic thriller, which is vaguely accurate. My first had large dollops of suspense. The second was published in an imprint devoted to "urban fiction". Both can definitely be described as quirky. My third is definitely a comic thriller. They're all for adults."BS lives in the UK but her second novel was published by a large publisher in Germany. Also, if you'd like more details - and it's a moving story - she's written about it here.
- BS is serious about her writing, as she should be. The fact that she crosses genres tells me so - she just loves to write and is doing it from the heart; plus the fact that she's angsting so much about whether she's good enough. She's not a whinger; she doesn't sound deluded. She got published. From then on she was unlucky, on many counts. Now, her book(s) also may not have been fabulous - we don't know. But she got published and what happened then does not sound like her fault. (Unless she's spinning a complex tale and is in fact deluded...)
- Stuff happens: books are published badly; some agents and publishers are rubbish (hers may not have been but some are and you won't care when you sign the contract - you'll only care when "stuff happens".
- The Amazon reviews hurt. They may be right or they may be wrong. Personally, I think most Amazon reviews, even the positive ones, are suspect and I generally wouldn't trust them. But, when you get publshed you have to take them; you also have to take the fact that they can destroy you.
- listen to this: "the holy grail of publication hasn't involved a single piece of ego-stroking or validation, and it feels as though it may as well not have happened." Publication is often not the way to eternal happiness. You are all embarking on a journey which will contain many hours of heartache. Most of which no one else will ever see. Thank God. Beleaguered Squirrel has been movingly open about it. If you knew what screws me up at night you'd be surprised - I am often a mess of angst and failure.
- BS is so depressed that she gave up writing altogether. OK, that's awful but I hope it's not true. And in fact we know it's not, don't we? We know that BS will pull herself together and get back on the horse. I twice gave up writing during my 21 years of failure - or I said I was giving up. I was giving up outwardly. But I never really gave up. You can't. Not if you're a real writer. I don't know if she's good enough to get further than she already has - but gosh, I hope she is.
In fact, suddenly I really want to read it.
Why have I posted this? Why have I revealed the terrible heartache of the long-distance writer? Because you need to know. You need to know how good you have to be, how much you have to want it, and how even when you get it it may not be enough. In fact, if you're any good and if you want it so much, it probably won't be enough. Wanting more, being hungry, being greedy for success, being grasping and dementedly desperate are the things that will screw you up and carry you through. They will bring you heartsong and success and they will hurt you in the process.
That's the horrible paradox of writing.