“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” —Virginia Woolf
Over the last fifteen years, I’ve completed nearly four adult novels and three children’s books. I’m also one of the thousands of unpublished writers who’ve been submitting their work to literary agents and publishers for years without success.
I’ll happily admit that the first few things I wrote aged 27 weren’t so great (and yes, that is a polite British understatement). It was a classic rookie mistake to send them out so early on. Nevertheless, I received some kind words along with the rejections.
‘I enjoyed the energy of your writing.’ ‘You write well.’ ‘Please send us your work again.’ And I did send it again. And again, and again. And nothing happened.
As agents got busier, the encouraging feedback stopped coming. The last time I submitted my sample chapters, I was greeted mostly with radio silence.
Anyone who’s been through the process knows how frustrating and dispiriting it can be. To be passed over so many times inevitably chips away at your confidence. Especially if you didn’t possess it in spades to start with.
It’s like being picked last for the school netball team all over again, only with something you actually care about.
But because I cared, I wasn’t willing to give up. So I sought out critiques and revised and practised, until somehow I’d written over half a million words. With the result that I’ve improved so much, I cringe when I re-read those early stories.
Like most creative people, I still go through phases of massive self-doubt. But mostly now I believe that my novel-in-progress will be compelling and engaging to its intended audience. And with the help of a professional editor, I know I can get the writing up to a publishable standard.
I haven’t completely lost my faith in the publishing industry. I’d still like to have an agent some day. The odds are tough, sure, but I do believe that with hard work, talent and luck, it’s possible to get a traditional publishing deal. I see new writers getting discovered, and almost all have a long history of rejection. It’s this belief that’s kept me persevering all those years.
What’s changed is that I’m not willing to wait indefinitely any more. I recently turned 41. Not old for a writer, but sufficiently advanced in years to be conscious of the clock ticking. I’d like my parents to be alive when I publish my first novel. Frankly, it would be nice not to be dead myself!
With so many options for self-publishing, I no longer have to wait for approval. If I want to be an author, I can become one next week at the press of a button. It’s as simple as that.
And of course, it’s not simple at all. Self-publishing is fraught with challenges. Most new books launched sink without trace. If I want to give my novel any chance of success, there’ll be many new skills for me to master.
But my biggest fear has never been handling the marketing or the formatting or the design of the cover. I know how to find the advice and support I need to do those things. In fact, I’m excited at the prospect.
What held me back from publishing my work in the past was the absence of permission from an authority figure. No one to declare that I’ve made the grade and welcome me to the club. No one to assure me I’ve earned the right to make my voice heard.
The truth is that I already own that right. I live in a country where free speech is allowed. I have access to all the technology required to connect with readers across the world. I have to accept that the only person silencing me is me.
Pressing the publish button is going to be terrifying. I know that. But I’ve reached a mid-life point where I feel the desire to take a leap of faith. To stop seeking reassurance and to trust my instincts.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
I’ll answer that question in another post.