The View From Basecamp – Tentative Steps Up the Slippery Slope of Publishing

There is a common fantasy among those who would like to be writers: how nice it would be to just snap your fingers and have the book you know you are capable of writing appear in your hand.

Wouldn’t that be great?

Because everyone knows how hard it must be to conceive and write a novel, and most would have some idea of how impossible it is to get published. The idea of publishing success, at the very start, is like staring up at a huge mountain – utterly daunted by the work necessary to climb it, and the hordes of wannabes already swarming about the foothills and mostly getting nowhere.

The snap-fingers fantasy would automatically lift the dreamer up to the summit – past all the hardship – past all the millions of other strugglers – to an uplands field of Valhalla to drink ambrosia with other gods.

But how could you look Hemingway or Orwell or Tolkien in the eye if you hadn’t earned your place in Valhalla?

* * *

They say that for every thousand books written, only one gets published – and for every thousand books published only one makes any serious money for its creator. The odds therefore of making a career out of writing are a million to one. Wannabe footballers and rock stars have a far better success rate than that, so why do so many people try to be writers in the face of such impossible odds?

What drives an otherwise sane individual to spend literally thousands of hours in the proverbial garret…tapping their life away in an empty room? The writing is hard and lonely enough, but then comes the trying to get published, which is essentially long periods of waiting punctuated by occasional episodes of humiliation. So what’s the attraction? What’s the point of wasting literally decades of your life for the almost impossible hope that you might one day make a living out of writing?

George Orwell (my greatest writing hero) once wrote an essay called: Why I Write. It was a personal investigation of his motives and philosophies regarding writing – and something I think about often. In my case – it is The Urge. I am not consumed with dreams of money or fame (at least, not much). I am compelled to write by some creative well-spring which I couldn’t turn off if I wanted to (and I have occasionally wanted to). When I was younger, The Urge was a form of torture that fired my ambition like a skyrocket set off inside a locked room. (You really can understand why so many young writers, artists and musicians destroy themselves.) But as I mellowed, with an acceptable Plan B to keep my life on an even keel, I found that writing was just something I naturally do. I enjoy writing simply for its own sake – irrespective of whether it ever makes me successful.

This is the only attitude to have if you want to stay alive and out of asylums. Writing is an art form which you must love for its own sake and enjoy your creations even if they are only for an audience of one.

CREATIVE HISTORY

‘Mere poets are as sottish as mere drunkards who live in a continual mist. A man should be learned in several sciences and have in some manner a mathematical head to be a complete and excellent poet.’ John Dryden

I’d always been a natural creator but was not naturally disciplined. I had all the ideas (and the arrogance that comes with them) but none of the discipline and tenacity to turn those ideas into a finished product. I was one of those ratbags who never finished anything – always getting fired up with yet another brilliant idea that would fizzle out after one burst of unfocussed energy.

The Urge was still there, of course, and if I didn’t have the discipline to write a 500 page novel, I did at least have enough attention span to write three minute songs, so at the age of 22, The Urge turned me into a rock star. Now, some of you may think a rock star’s life to be pretty glamorous but for me it was endless rehearsals, unpaid gigs and being hassled by hordes of non-existent groupies. For three years I tried, but by the age of 24 I realised that if the rock star thing didn’t happen, life was going to be fairly shit – working crap jobs with mediocre tossers for bosses and never earning enough money to be able to enjoy life. About that time, my friend Pete dragged me along to see a movie: Educating Rita. It changed my life.

I had never ceased my own personal education and had been ploughing through Carl Sagan’s books at the relevant time, but when I began to appreciate the “journey” of formal education via Rita I knew I was ready for that journey – really desperately wanted that journey – because god knows rock music and crap jobs were taking me nowhere.

I wanted to do English literature because I had decided to get serious about writing novels, but my other motivation was simply to finish something. Almost to my disbelief I found the intellectual challenge of studying quite exhilarating. Truly! For the first year or so it felt like my brain was being carved up and put back together in a strange and alien fashion (I think most first year students feel that way), but when I really started to “get” it in 2nd year, I knew also that I was becoming a different person.

That’s not to suggest I was somehow abandoning my roots. I was still creative and if anything more so. It seemed like the creative side of my brain had really shifted up a notch – possibly because I had to be disciplined most of the time – and when I did get the opportunity to wallow in self-indulgence I had to make the most of it. The other benefit was that my creativity was being combined with a newly ordered sense of discipline. My thoughts were organised and focused, and so were my creations – and when you think about it, generating a complex argument in an essay has much in common with storytelling. The construction of a plot after all is nothing more than the careful drip feed of information to a reader. Understanding this meant, among other things, that it finally occurred to me how to conceive and finish a novel.

PROCESS

As I said at the start, I had always wanted to be a story-teller and if I do have a gift – it is the ability to come up with interesting premises for stories (mind you, I suspect this is a fairly common gift). I was always a natural inventor of sketches and scenes, but a full length novel? I had tried several times – fired with inspiration and great premises, I’d start writing but would always peter out by about page 30. Why?

Because I’d been trying to write the whole thing out in one go from beginning to end and would inevitably write myself into a corner.

Idiot.

After years of planning and writing essays for university it occurred to me one day, with all the momentous epiphany of Newton’s Apple thudding into the turf, that I could apply the same technique and process to novels. Instead of just writing myself into a corner, I could, instead, jot down notes in point form about what happened and basically plan the story from beginning to end before I started generating actual prose.

Immediately, I started planning the story that would become Rites: my first finished novel. Rites was based on a song I had written during my rock star phase called The Tribe on Ladbroke Grove.

It was just a whimsical little song about a suburban family who lived like cavemen and I realised that there might be an interesting story in how they got to be that way. It took me about a year to map out that story and another couple of years to write it. I remember the last month or so – writing the last two or three chapters was totally exhilarating – living in the story. I’d mapped it all out, as I said, but there were still plenty of surprises along the way, including a massive twist at the very end, which I hadn’t seen coming even though it was pretty obvious looking back – hard-wired into the story’s DNA.

The ideas behind the story were pretty complex (it turned into a darkly comic story about economics at its most esoteric and savage levels) and the writing was incredibly dense, but I’d done it! I’d actually finished a novel.

What I didn’t realise, at the time, was that what I had finished was a first draft. There was some interest in the book by publishers and agents, but not enough to get me through the door. Looking back, I was incredibly proud of Rites when it was first finished, but these days I can’t read two sentences without vomiting blood. It was the book I had to write to become a writer – I’d learnt how to map out and finish a story, but there were two really important things I was yet to learn.

VOICE

The first was “voice”.

When I was making my first stumbling steps to become a writer, I was trying too hard. I believed it was really important to fill my work with subthemes and subtexts – symbols, allegories, allusions and metaphors – to generate textured prose packed with multiple meanings worthy of deconstruction. That’s what readers want, isn’t it?

(Cue crickets and tumbleweeds…)

So that’s what I did. My first novel took me years to write and while it was a triumph of transcendence, allegory and semiotics, it was also a stodgy, unreadable mess.

A writer needs to find his/her voice, by which I mean your natural story-telling style that allows your original personality and perspective to shine through. I suppose it was there in Rites but I was trying too hard – shouting through a distorted tannoy. By the time I started THEM I’d relaxed into something much closer to what I now regard as my natural style. I’d also learned (towards the end of Rites) how to pace a story and keep a reader intrigued and interested.

Accordingly, THEM was a far more readable effort and, while still about a pretty heady subject (the vague paranoid belief that there are people out there who really know what’s going on and are secretly pulling the strings), it was much lighter in style. Mind you, some of my friends still complained that you needed four degrees and three dictionaries to read THEM – I would have said two degrees and one dictionary. Some of my friends exaggerate.

I knew THEM was a far superior (and much more saleable) effort than Rites. Once again there was interest from agents, especially one in particular who, out of respect I will not name, because would you believe he died? Finally, someone from the mainstream publishing industry had really liked my work and wanted to push it to the next level, and how does the cosmos respond? It was scary stuff! I was starting to have deeply paranoid thoughts and started constructing a story about this brilliant writer who is a plaything of the gods, cursed with a profound talent that no-one else could appreciate. Anyone who did was immediately killed.

No doubt, that same paranoia afflicts many rejected writers.

THEM went really close at Scribe but after Scribe did eventually pass I lost interest in novels for a while – all that work for no reward. I needed something that was quicker to create – that wasted less of my precious life in getting to a rejection. The answer was screenplays.

In fairly short order I rattled off three screenplays and a stage play, and learned a lot about pacing a story, telling a story through dialogue, the hero’s journey, character arcs etc.

But there was still one really important thing I was yet to learn.

THE DRAFT

When I returned to writing novels in late 2007 I had come a long way. I was equipped with a strong story-telling voice. I knew how to plan and pace a story and keep the reader’s attention. I had naturally synthesised into my style the rudiments of character development and strong dialogue. And of course, I still had my innate capacity for coming up with good, original premises. Accordingly, I rattled off a first draft of Mr Cleansheets in 13 months, and the first fiction publisher to whom I showed it (Vulgar Press) said YES!

That didn’t absolutely mean they were going to publish it. That’s when I started to understand the final lesson – which in some ways is the hardest. When you get to the end of a first draft, that doesn’t mean it’s in a publishable state – it must be refined, usually over several drafts, until all the rough edges are knocked off, stray threads deleted and all padding pared to the bone. This will entail you identifying the spine of the story and going back through again and again removing anything which departs from the spine – no matter how good it is. This requires ruthless dispassion. The more you try to accommodate a good “bit” which departs from the spine, the more you are saying to a publisher: I don’t have the discipline and judgment for you to bother with my work.

This can be painful to learn. There was a section of Mr Cleansheets which was probably the funniest part of the book. I was literally howling with laughter (on my otherwise silent commuter train) when writing it, but it added almost nothing to the story in terms of plot or character development and it took eight pages to set up. Eight pages for nothing, except a major chuckle. It had to go. Especially as the publisher was telling me the book was too long and had to be reduced from 230k to 160k words. (We eventually compromised on 190k. I might put that deleted section on the website as an out-take.)

I also began to understand why so many publishers and agents in the past had said that my work showed promise but that I hadn’t quite put the work in to make it as good as it could potentially be.

PUBLICATION

Mr Cleansheets hit the shelves in April 2010 – my first published book.

And like an idiot, I thought I’d finally made it. If I thought it was hard winning the Darwinian Struggle of the slush pile, that was nothing compared to the Darwinian Struggle of the bookshop.

You’ve all seen those documentaries where the baby turtles are born at the top of the beach and have to run down the sand avoiding predators? Seagulls, crabs, big fish lurking in the shallows…just as they thought they were safe? That gives you some idea of what it’s like being a new author. The shop is full of books by all the big famous authors, but all the classics also. I may be on the shelves next to all my heroes like Orwell, Tolkien, Heller, Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh…but they all want me dead!

You’ve got six weeks to make a splash and if you don’t sell in adequate numbers, you’re gone. Replaced by the next starry-eyed victim to become chaff under John Grisham’s chariot wheels.

The only answer to this problem is marketing. Especially if (like me) you’re with a small publisher with little or no marketing budget.

This tends to be the hardest thing of all for writers whose talents lie in creation rather than hard selling, but even when you’re with a big publisher these days, they expect you to get off your arse and help shift units. You’re supposed to be active on social media, blog till you’re blue in the face, tweet about what you had for breakfast – I’ve got a facebook page and I do write an occasional blog called The Book Hammer, where I whinge about the literary world and slag off books.

But I’ve been pretty half-hearted about that – something that has worked for me though is that when Mr C came out I offered my services free to a couple of publications whose readers I knew would enjoy Mr C, in return for free advertising. I’m now in my fourth year of writing for Goal Weekly Magazine and also, occasionally, for the 442 website.

I submitted articles on writing to the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, and actually got paid for them. This is called elbowing your way into the network – the more widely you are published, interviewed, read and talked about, the more likely people are to hear about your work and read it. It’s a long slow process which sometimes involves going out of your way and talking to very small numbers of people, but fortunately I like talking about my work so it’s not a problem for me.

GETTING TO BASECAMP

My latest novel, Straight Jacket, has been getting excellent reviews and has been optioned by a major film studio. That constitutes a level of success I could hardly have dreamed of just a few years ago, but I’m still nowhere near making my living from writing.

And yet, I’m quite happy. Making my living from writing would be fabulous but, in all honesty, I really do it for the simple joy of creation. I love living in my invented worlds as I flesh them out and build the stories, and get incredible pleasure from reading reviews or talking to readers who’ve enjoyed my work.

In literary terms, I’ve made it to basecamp in the foothills. I’m deeply satisfied with the view from up here, not least because of how hard I’ve had to work to get here, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally lift my eyes to the peaks – which now seem a lot closer than they used to.

As for the snap-fingers fantasy, it would actually be a tragedy if it could truly happen because the journey to becoming a writer and generating a worthwhile piece of literature is its own reward. Becoming a writer means becoming a different person – a much better person – even the sort of person who might eventually have something of interest to say to Hemingway and Orwell.

These things are possible in fiction.

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