Wednesday 26 September 2018

Going Public With My Failures

Just before I found an agent someone gave me some good advice: advertise your successes, not your failures. Agents, publishers, and all the other industry people, and potential readers; none of them want to hear about how crap everything’s going for you. They want to invest in someone who appears successful, so when you are successful, shout about it. And when you’re not, keep it quiet.

I said it was good advice, and it was. In professional terms, this makes perfect sense, and it can be difficult. But it’s important if you want to have a career in other-people-publishing-your-books, at least it’s important at the start of that career.

So what I’m about to do might be an enormous mistake.

Before my agent and editor get too freaked out, I do have a very wonderful group of writing friends who allow me to vent my spleen when necessary. They listen and say, ‘There, there,’ and they commiserate and offer wisdom. And sometimes we share our good stories too, which is equally important. I am eternally grateful to them, and I recommend finding yourself a couple of friends like this, because we do all need to shout about the doom sometimes.

But back to me sharing my failures in public!

Here are some things which have made me feel awful as a writer over the last few years:

1. Being ignored by local 'scene' writers/artists who you thought would be interested in your work once you got it published, but they're not and you realise that, boo hoo, they will never think you're cool, and also that you're a total saddo for wishing it was otherwise.

2. Getting bad reviews. (I haven’t had many, Praise Be, but I have had a few annoying ones where people really misinterpreted things, eg. Deciding that a character’s transphobic slur meant that I, the writer, am transphobic. *eyes to heaven*)

3. Not getting reviews at all where I thought I might get them. (Not everyone who asks for a copy of your book will review it. They probably didn’t even read it. You’ve wasted your time, and sometimes your money if you bought and posted it yourself. Grrrrrrr. But maybe they did read it, and they hated it, and the non-review is a kindness to you. Did you ever think of that, Shirley? Maybe your book is AWFUL and that’s why it didn’t get the review. Feel better now?)

4. Not being included in lists, or yearly ‘best book’ round-ups. (This is especially gutting if some of your friends are included in the list, OR, worse, if the list is specifically about the kind of book you’ve written. To scan the article entitled ‘Ten Great Books From Northern Ireland Which Have Fat Girls Climbing Cranes In Them’ and find your name missing is particular kind of stabbing pain. Why do you hate me, Ireland? Why?*)

5. *Realising that your penchant for melodrama is not remotely interesting to anyone…

6. Not being a millionaire the way that JK Rowling is a millionaire. (Needs no explanation)

7. Self-hatred due to not being able to celebrate a success unless the accompanying anxiety tells you that it’s probably a fluke and you’ll never be able to replicate it. Points 1-6 will amplify this helpful voice.

It’s not a complete list. I could go on, but you get the picture. The reason I’m saying it out loud is not because I want to have a moan (any more than usual), and it’s not because I think it’s a great idea to make a record of things to complain or feel grudging about. It’s this: a few months ago I realised that letting myself dwell on all this stuff was going to start impacting my ability to write. 

I had a little epiphany one day (which I won’t detail but ask me about it in person and I’ll tell you): I realised that feeling rejected, or left-out, or anxious that anything good was a fluke, can be very freeing. I’ll believe you, I said to the little voice, Maybe you’re right and all those people hate me. So therefore I can legitimately leave them behind. I don’t have to try to impress them, because they are unimpressible. I don’t have to expect them to give a crap, because I know they don’t. I am free from their expectations and their concerns. And now I can write whatever I like.

Of course, the little voice isn’t really right. Not because you're not-free, but because careers in writing don’t really work like that. Most people don’t write their first book and become an overnight success. Maybe it takes a while to get noticed. Maybe you have to remember all the ones who actually do notice and do like your work, and stop putting them to the back of your mind as you make room for the ones who don't. Durrrrr. I am only detailing my madness because I know it’s common. But agreeing with my little negative voice is the trick I use now: I say to myself, Everyone hates me? GREAT. I’m going to start my next book with a reference to Freddie Mercury’s crotch because I know it will be an opener which makes me laugh and I can’t stop thinking about it (the opener, not Freddie’s crotch) and therefore I really have to write it down, and screw what they might think about it.

And suddenly I’m thinking about writing again, not about the imaginary haterz. Because here’s the thing: there is only one thing on my list of Things Which Make Me Feel Good About Being A Writer And Which Which Really Matter:

1. Writing.

And that’s the truth. Working with a great agent and publisher has been AWESOME. The great reviews have been GREAT. Getting on the lists that I did make it on to was BRILLIANT. Making new writing friends has been FABULOUS. Getting another contract was a massive relief and also WONDERFUL. But the thing that makes me feel alive, as it always did, is the work itself. 



Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Shirley-Anne. Versions of 1-7 never seem to go away. Getting on with the writing is the way to shut them up!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Love this post .I agree with Joan about 1-7.Thanks so much Shirley-Anne for posting. When one of my dear and close group of writer friends gets published -I have an established convention of saying first, 'I hate you!' whilst singing in my head 'It should've been me!'once that pang of jealousy has been let out I give them and big hug and celebrate like mad.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Thanks Joan and Lynda. Lynda, I love that! I think it helps to know that most people have these feelings. We can let them eat away at us or we can acknowledge them and let them go. But it is a continual thing. I bet even JK Rowling has her moments!

A. Colleen Jones said...

If I had a dollar/euro/pound for every time someone said "oh, you'll be the next JK Rowling", meaning my one (currently imaginary) book will make me a millionaire...I'd be a millionaire by now!

Also, I am now thinking of Freddie Mercury's crotch. Thanks for that. Ahem.

Claire Fayers said...

Great post, Shirley. I love getting all these feelings out in the open and laughing at them. And, yes, writing is the best antidote.

Moira Butterfield said...

The 'curious Incident' author Marc Haddon said that for years he felt, as a writer, that he was outside, with his nose up against the window, as other more well-known writers partied inside. I think most of us have that feeling regularly!

Penny Dolan said...

These hard-pinching moments are surprisingly hard to get over and can make you feel very diminished and wordless, so thank you for your advice on turning things round, Shirley-Anne.

Sue Purkiss said...

All so true! Thanks, Shirley-Anne.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Thanks so much everyone! And Colleen- you're welcome!