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Being Published

On 05 May 2011, my debut novel, Girl Reading, was published in the UK by Virago ... but how did I really react to achieving my ambition?

This article was featured in the March 2011 edition of BOOKTALK, the journal of the Suffolk Book League www.sbl.org.uk

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Being Published

I have spent 12 years wanting to be a published author of fiction.  On 05 May 2011, the waiting will finally be over.  But I feel reflective about it, as opposed to elated.  Even anxious. 
  I remember vividly, keenly, the ache in my heart, the longing to be able to go into a local bookshop, or the library, and find my own book there.  I left two good jobs ‘to write fulltime’, without any tangible connections in the publishing world; it costing me, rather than earning me, money.  It was a lifestyle choice.
  My debut novel, Girl Reading, is not my first novel.  I have another hidden away.  Girl Reading is my second first novel.  My first first novel is filled with the mistakes I made as a novice writer.  I treasure it for being a safe place where I was able to learn my craft and purge myself of my bad habits.  (This is with hindsight.)
  At the time I hoped, no, I expected that it would only take one attempt for me to reach my goal.  I thought my first novel was good ― or at least, good enough.  It wasn’t a bad novel.  I’ve read worse than this, much worse.  Those rubbish ones made it into print, why shouldn’t mine?
  Imagine, for a moment, that you are interviewing candidates for a job vacancy . . . and an interviewee tells you that she thinks you really ought to employ her, because she is no worse than anyone else who already works for you . . .
  It is simply the wrong approach for all sorts of reasons.
  Lots of people want to be published, that’s the reality.  To make it, your book has to be special; and my first book just wasn’t.  The bundle of rejection slips, I must have 20 or 30, is a rite of passage for all would-be-published authors.  My husband said to me long ago, and with uncanny accuracy, that most writers of fiction are not published until their second novel ― aren’t they?
  Skip ahead a few years and suddenly I’m in a meeting with an agent.  It is a meeting I don’t feel ready for.  It is summer 2009.  The draft manuscript of 7 Reading Women (the working title of Girl Reading) is only days old.  I have a family crisis which we are all trying to cope with.  I have been on a long train journey.  I feel tired.  I have a job offer which I’m dancing around (I have to take it because I’ve been on a career break for more than 6 months and I’ve got no other income).  I’ve put on weight.  And not only is this man a real literary agent, but he’s also one of exceptional experience and quality, with an impressive list of authors which I can’t see myself fitting into.
  I do badly in the meeting.  I send out all the wrong signals.  If I were an agent, I wouldn’t want me for a client.  Yet he does want to represent me, because he’s intrigued by my novel.  I should feel happy about it, but I have too much else on my mind, and I focus instead on the work he has set me to do on the manuscript which is ‘86.5%’ complete.  We agree that he will show the reworked manuscript to publishers in the autumn.
  And in September, when this starts happening, I come to realise that over the years I’ve formed expectations of how these events will play out: it involves a smart envelope being pushed through my letterbox, landing crisply in the hallway; within it, a letter on fragrant, watermarked paper from a distinguished publishing house.  (Where on earth did this fantasy come from?) 
  The reality is a series of emails, some of which I see and some of which I don’t ― far less romantic.  The country is in recession.  The publishing industry is feeling its way uncertainly into the digital age.  But the good news is that several publishers are interested and make offers.
  I’m taken out to lunch.  I’m told how good my book is.  Everyone I’m introduced to has read it: they tell me how excited they are about it; what their favourite parts are; they want me to answer questions on my themes and writing methods.  It is a disorienting experience.  I wish I had a paper bag to breathe into, or possibly be sick into. 
  You see, I’m terribly private about my writing.  It’s a superstitious reflex.  The unpublished novel is fragile; talking about it might hurt it.  My husband never reads my book while I’m working on it, has taken the decision not to read this one until he is able to buy his own copy from a shop.  (Darling, I think they’ll send us a free copy, I’m sure you don’t need to buy one.)  But here I am in parallel universe; all the inhabitants of this strange land know my book.  Back in the real world, it only exists in my head and on my laptop.
  One of these publishers is Virago, which specialises in women’s literature.  Again, I feel inadequate in this (metaphorical) company.  The lady who will become my editor tells me that she thinks they shouldn’t publish my novel until May 2011, a year and a half away, because debut fiction should ideally be launched in the spring and it’s too late in the cycle to aim for May 2010.  She says it like she’s breaking bad news.
  That’s fine by me.  (I stop short of adding that she can wait as long as she likes.)  It will give me a chance to get used to the idea.  It will give me an opportunity to practice talking about my book to people.  It will give me time to adjust.
  There’s more work to do on the manuscript anyway.  Lots more.  Can’t dwell on my successful book deal.  Can’t celebrate properly until the book is finished properly.  Too busy.  I’ve got cats now and they need jabs.  New job is great but it’s running me ragged.  Whenever I take annual leave, it’s to work on Girl Reading (again). 
  I keep what has happened secret from my work colleagues ― who are lovely people and would only be delighted for me.  It’s just that I can’t face sharing the news with the office yet, on top everything else.  It’s a superstitious reflex.  The soon-to-be-published novel is enormous and overwhelming; talking about it might hurt me.
  I come back from annual leave tense and sleep deprived, my head buzzing with shuffled paragraphs and pesky anachronisms. 
  Did you go anywhere nice?
  No, I just stayed home.
  You had a good rest then―?
  And as with any big project, when you’re having a book published, there is admin involved.
  I can see my problem: I’ve achieved what I’ve been working towards, for literally years, and I’m not completely enjoying the accomplishment.  Why is that? 
  Part of the reason is because I want to put a professional face on it, to do all the tasks I’m given on time and well.  Everyone is busy, balancing work and life, and being an author is nothing if not time-consuming.  Lots to do.
  But it is also in my personality.  Being published was a fantasy which I returned to time and again while I was writing, without really acknowledging that publishing involves, by definition, sharing.  It is strange indeed to finally accept that your work ― which was once just yours, which is deeply personal and has so much of yourself in it ― has become the property of other people, has taken on a life of its own.  It produces a complex set of emotions.
  Recently, over a year after having signed a contract, I was going through one of the last proofreads of my novel when I suddenly thought, with an internal scream: This is really happening, it’s too late to pull out! 
  My agent laughed at me when I told him and replied: It’s not a wedding, you know.
  There are numerous websites and volumes dedicated to advising people on how to write a novel, and even more on how to go about getting it published.  But I’ve yet to come across a single one which tells you what to do (and how to cope) in the no man’s land between having a finished manuscript and it being turned into an actual, bound, ISBN-bearing book.  If I’d found it, I’d have devoured every word.
  And I am starting realise there is a dearth of information on a new topic of interest to me: what you are supposed to do when your novel reaches your local bookshop after 12 years of waiting.

Comments:

1 Laura Beardsell-Moore | on 02 June 2011

Thanks Katie - this is a really interesting and insightful article. I sometimes think we’re better at dealing with rejection rather than success! Well done for getting your book published, it’s a wonderful achievement.

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