When I was a kid, no more than five or six, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“Author and illustrator,” I’d say, pronouncing each syllable with meticulous care. All the adults around me thought it was adorable.
It’d take me years to work out why.
To me, writing and art always went hand-in-hand.
As a teenager, I had folders and sketchbooks full of characters and maps and worlds and places. Books were an input–I was absolutely in love with Redwall and Robin Jarvis and The Black Gryphon series–but so, increasingly, were videogames. Zork Nemesis in particular; something about the edge of absurdist humour combined with a subtly brutal plot, plus magic in a modern-but-not-quite setting.
In those years, I was writing about a place called NewEarth; a sort of After-The-Magical-Apocalypse, pseudo-Zorkian, computers-and-sorcery world. The plot revolved around three women–based very transparently on myself and two of the friends I thought were coolest–who worked as kind of FBI-ish agents for the local regent (because fantasy equals Queens, amirite?). The city they lived in was called Pandemonium, located on the Cliffs of Despair, with the “joke” being it was not, despite the name, a particularly awful place.
I don’t really remember now what–if anything–the girls did exactly. Or even if they ever really got their own story. The only thing I ever remember writing in that setting didn’t even feature them, in fact. Instead, it revolved around a dead god from pre-NewEarth Earth finding the reincarnation of his long-dead wife.
It’s a story I’d rewrite a lot, over the next few years.
I grew up in a place called, of all things, the Woden Valley. At around age thirteen, I found out where the name originates.
That wasn’t quite the start of it, but it was close.
By late high school, I was convinced I was going to be an animator. This was back in the day when Disney still had a large studio down in Sydney, and some of the big universities offered doctorates in the subject. Having a PhD in animation sounded like the coolest thing ever, and I was convinced that was going to be me.
The internet was just starting to be A Thing in those days, and, for the first time, that was giving me exposure to young artists out in the Really Real World. I had my idols, did my best to copy their talent and their style. But, in retrospect, there was something soulless to it. I was practising, but not in the right way. Not in the way that counted; the way that extended skills, not just constrained them.
My art teachers tried their best. But I was stubborn and, ultimately, doomed myself to a sort of permanent mediocrity.
To this day, I’m not terrible, but I’m not great, either. I still draw–not as much as I should–but it’s a hobby, not a career.
With art, the real work never started.
At the same time I was barely scraping through in art class, I was destroying creative writing. Due to a quirk of our marking scheme in college (a.k.a. senior high school), the highest grade possible for a course overall was something like 110%.
I only ever got that twice: once studying ancient Greek literature, once in a writing course.
Being able to recite the chorus of Oedipus in perfect sync with another girl in my class helped me ace the first.
The second was hard work.
At university, I studied the two un-sciences: computer and political. The former for the money, the latter for the love.
In the end, I graduated with Distinction.
It wasn’t for my hard work as a programmer.
Not studying at uni gave me a lot of free time. Somewhere along the line, I resurrected the dead-god-finds-his-wife story.
It’d never really died, of course. Like its protagonist, it was stubbornly difficult to kill, lying in wait for years while my brain occupied itself with other things. In my early twenties, it came back with a vengeance, and I sketched the outline of a plot, plus wrote up a few key scenes.
Back in those days, I didn’t really know how to write. Or, rather, I knew how to write, but not how to write. Because short and disconnected scenes were easy to churn out.
Learning to join them up into a whole? Now that was where the real work started.
Writing really isn’t the difficult part of writing, in the same way drawing endless left-facing character portraits isn’t the difficult part of drawing.
I do a lot of left-facing character portraits, and there are a lot of skills I never learnt. Like backgrounds. Expressions. Foreshortening. How to actually finish a digital piece.
I’ll never be an artist, but, somewhere along the line, it occurred to me I was learning the skills to be an author.
In 2009, I decided to do NaNo. For my project, I resurrected my old dead god and his wife and, every day, I took my iPad to the park and lunchtime and forced myself to write. I told myself it didn’t matter what, so long as I did it.
As it turned out, I was half right.
A little bit every day, and by the end of the month, I was sitting on just a little over 50,000 words.
Too bad the month was October.
I decided to count it anyway. A little cheating felt appropriate, given then protagonist.
Sometime in mid-2013, I did a tally of how many words of fiction I’d written over the past year. The number came out at somewhere over 365,000.
Over a thousand words a day, achieved simply by sitting myself down and making myself do it, whether I felt like it or not.
Mostly it was the former.
The beginning of 2013 was not a good time for me. To the point where, at the urging of both my boss and my husband, I ended up crying my eyes out in a councillor’s office, trying to figure out how to say, “Dear gods I’m going to be thirty!” in some way that made sense given the depth of my emotion.
“Look,” said the councillor. “Have you considered trying something new? Like a hobby. Take up pottery or something. I know it sounds trite, but it can help a lot of people.”
Later, staring at my laptop, I decided to take her advice.
But first it meant dragging out that half-finished NaNo project, and filling in the gaps.
This was where the real work started.
Writing the book wasn’t the hobby; I already knew I could do that. The “hobby” was going to be getting it published. Or trying to, at any rate.
So I finished my manuscript, beating out the last 40k in the space of a month, and sent it off to some friends who’d been kind enough to beta read some past projects.
Two days later, I got a response from one of my betas:
“Holy shit what did I just read?”
It would be pretty indicative of future reactions.
I had a strategy, and that strategy meant submitting to agents first, not publishers. According to Conventional Internet Wisdom, I could expect upwards of twenty to forty rejections before getting The Call.
And here was me, an Australian, writing about Australians, in Australia.
You know how many Australian agents accept submissions in my genre? Four. I got rejections from three before deciding to move to the US markets. So I dropped the Us and swapped Ses for Zs, and moved into Phase 2.
Meanwhile, my betas were doing what I’d hoped they’d do, which meant tearing my MS to shreds.
It’d get more scars yet before it healed.
Six months, or thereabouts, and here’s the first lesson: the publishing industry is not a fast one.
Yet, when things happen, they happen.
By September I was feeling pretty down, sitting atop a small pile of polite thanks-but-no-thanks, and an even larger void of no responses whatsoever. On 2 September, I found another potential listing in the Marketplace, and sent off a query. I got a response back on the fifth, asking for a partial. Then again on the thirteenth, asking for a full.
I was ecstatic, and when it rains, it pours; another agent and a publisher had asked for the same (yeah, I broke my own rule a little, blame the Shiraz).
This is how the story goes: the protagonist struggles, things look bleak, then some small victories start rolling in.
Then the crash.
Mine was on 4 October, with a rejection from that first agent. She liked the book, but it was… flawed. Too flawed to submit, at least for her. We exchanged a few emails, she gave me a few hints, and, in the end, she offered me a resubmission.
This is the second lesson: taking rejection well. An impersonal thanks-but-no-thanks from someone’s intern is a no. Three day’s worth of back-and-forth with an agent sending emails almost as long as the ones you’re writing her?
That might be a rejection, but it’s not a no. It’s when the real work starts.
In October, I offered myself back up into my betas’ claws.
On month later, looking down into the carnage, I realised that, yeah. What I was holding was better than what I’d started with.
On 8 November–with my thirtieth looming close–I resubmitted.
Then I took the week off. Birthdays, you know how it is.
At the start of the year, I’d told myself my goal was to get an agent by the time I was thirty. That happened on the twelfth.
The Call came four days later.
Five a.m. on a Saturday, and I think the only thing keeping me awake was adrenalin.
The agent, if you’re wondering, is Sara Megibow and I literally could not be happier.
There are things you read, as a wannbe-author, churning out query after query. Things about how important it is to research your potential agents, how it needs to be a partnership, how you have to like them, like their style of operation. How they need to love your work and believe in you as much as you believe in them. All that fluffy, feel-good guff. And it’s hard, I think, to know exactly how true that really is, how much it matters, until you’re facing down an email from an actual agent–an actual really real professional in the really real industry you’re trying to break in to–until you’re facing that down and reading words like “I loved this” and “I think this will sell”.
Sara gives me confidence and clarity, all at once, and this is the third lesson: the relationship between author and agent. I know how to write a book, she knows how to sell a novel.
Being an agent is not a charity, it’s a business. And agents read so much, and field thousands upon thousands of queries, and they know, in as much as anyone in publishing ever can. They know what’s out there, what the market looks like, what sells.
And then one turns to you–picks the foreign nobody with the weird, semi-cross-genre book out of the swarming millions in the slush pile–and says: “Yes. You.”
It’s not just joy. It’s relief.
And then the real work starts.
I have a deadline, now. My first Really Real Authorial Deadline. To return some more edits, to push myself even further than I did back in October. And I think, for the first time, I’m feeling the edge of where my actual talent as a writer lies. Past the place where near-enough-isn’t-good-enough, out into the uncharted waters where I’m finally hitting things that make me think, “Yeah. I need to fix that… but I’m not sure how.” That’s terrifying and it’s exhilarating, all at the same time.
And I look at my MS now and I look at what it was back in March–or back in 2009 or back in 2004–and I see how far it’s come, and how far I’ve come, and just how far there’s left to go.
Before the road was kind of… optional. Slow. Easy. The writer’s road, walked at my own pace on my own time.
Now I’m facing down a switch in tracks, from the writer to the author. To where suddenly it matters, to where all those silly fragments and plotbunnies and distractions and ideas aren’t just games. They’re business. Money. A career. Not just for me, but for other people as well. That’s the flip side, the brutal underbelly: an author is an investment, and, if this investment doesn’t pay, there are a million others out there, waiting to take my place.
I’m not walking this new road alone, I have help. But having helps also means keeping up.
Now is when the real work starts.
And it doesn’t stop unless I fall.