Have you ever been so fascinated by something – a person, a place, a concept or a story from history – that you spend almost every waking moment thinking about it? Dreaming about it? And eventually, writing about it?
Anyone who has read my books will know that I have an obsession with the Trojan War, ancient Greek theatres (with or without thunder tunnels), mythical history, my own family’s history, Renaissance art, Delville Wood, antiques and quirky artefacts, museums, the Drakensberg mountains, castles, Indiana Jones and the romantic power of love.
I know – that’s a weird collection, but these obsessions drive my writing, which is an obsession in itself. Why do I write? There is a clumsy definition that says writers can’t NOT write. From as far back as I can remember I have loved reading stories, making up stories and, in the last twelve years or so, writing stories. Somehow, once I started writing them down, all other aspects of my life either fell into perfect harmony, or fell away and no longer mattered.
Being a writer sounds like the dream job – who wouldn’t want to live out their obsession? The problem comes when we try to actually make a living from it.
All three of my books that are currently for sale on Amazon (plus the first eight drafts of my soon-to-be published new novel, all my short stories, plays, articles and essays, as well as the two trunk novels written before any of them), were written while holding down a full-time job, working six days a week in the theatre industry.
I didn’t have lots of time to write every day, but I aimed for at least one hour. Longer if possible. Because my paying job was usually in the afternoons and evenings, mornings were my best writing time. I quickly got into the habit of waking up one hour earlier, and I still find this the best time to write, before the day intrudes.
It took me a long time to write each of my novels. Stephen King says that the first draft should be written within three months, but the novel I now call my first – The Epidaurus Inheritance – took me about six months. This was followed by a year and a half of rewriting and polishing with the help of notes from six beta-readers. For the whole of that time I also sent out queries to agents and publishers around the world.
Living in South Africa and writing a novel that wasn’t relevant to the unique political, social or historical situation meant that my novel didn’t suit the parameters of the publishing market in South Africa, so I tried the overseas market. Most overseas publishers back then didn’t accept submissions that weren’t from agents – I tried all those who did, but got routinely rejected. Next I tried to find an overseas agent, all of whom patronisingly told me to look for an agent in my own country. I tried that too.
There were two literary agents in South Africa at that time and neither was taking on new clients. One – new to the business – had concentrated all its energy on only one author. The other had all but abandoned the business of being an agent and had begun taking on students in a writing course instead, but he was extremely supportive and helpful, and wished me luck because he said he knew I was going to need it!
I tried sending my first three chapters to local South African publishers. One publisher kept the first three chapters for seven months before asking for the full manuscript. By then I had tweaked and re-tweaked those three opening chapters so much that I didn’t have a clue what worked anymore. I explained this to the publisher, knowing that she would be a better judge of which set of three worked.
She considered my novel for another four months before rejecting it, but her rejection letter was so detailed, chatty and positive that I felt uplifted in spite of the content. She explained that, although several people in the office had read and enjoyed my book, it didn’t fit their publishing guidelines. Back to square one – I had known this before I had started writing it, hence my search for an overseas publisher…
All was not lost, however, because she told me that the story was good, there was nothing wrong with the manuscript or the idea, and there were almost no faults in it. She also wished me luck with it, but the best part was when she told me that my three chapters from the year before had been better than the ones I had reworked over the next seven months.
I realised two things from this. First – it is entirely possible to overwork a text and flog it to death. Second – my book deserved to get out there and be read. One of my beta-readers had put his own novel up on Amazon and had been urging me for months to do the same. Within a few weeks of that final rejection letter I self-published my novel on Amazon and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Since then I haven’t bothered submitting my later work to any agents or publishers. I use beta-readers for feedback, do as many rewrites as it takes without thrashing the text into a coma, and then put the finished product up on Amazon.
At the moment I write “full-time” only because I don’t have a job, but I am not making money from it – yet! So far I have had only one royalty payment from Amazon, and if you think that’s bad, I know writers (even traditionally published ones) who are still waiting to receive their first.
I think the only people in the world who actually make a decent living from writing can be counted on one hand – Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, James Patterson and JK Rowling. However, there are some great writers who have done well with self-publishing. The trick is to keep at it constantly – both the writing and the marketing. And that marketing is never easy.
Have a look on the internet for Nick Stephenson, Russell Blake, and Todd Borg. There are many others, but these are three whom I follow, not only because I enjoy their writing, but because they have found a way to make it work, to the extent that they have been able to give up their day-jobs.
All of them write prolifically – the more books you have out there, the more there are for people to buy – and all of them have a very visible internet presence. They write excellent blogs that are either hugely entertaining or packed with loads of advice for those of us who are struggling, and Nick Stephenson often co-hosts training videos and webinars about marketing.
Sometimes I feel overcome with despair that my three ebooks are wandering around on a cloud somewhere like lost orphans looking for homes, but then I remember that there are ways to make things work down here on the ground, and the best way is to keep chipping away at that block of stone. I read as much advice as I can, and apply it to my own situation – but the most important thing is that I keep writing. Because I must. Because I’m obsessed, and because I can’t NOT write.
I’m not winning yet, but I’m not quitting either. I intend to do everything I can to be successful at this, no matter how long it takes. I know that I need to give those three little orphaned ebooks some siblings so they can all fly around that cloud together and be noticed. One day I hope that my books will pay not only for themselves, but for me as well.
My advice to other writers out there who are going through the throes of agent and publisher rejection is to make your book the best it can be and then stop writing it so you can write the next one – preferably with some of the same characters. Write a series. Don’t spend your life waiting for a publisher who needs to make his or her business pay by using your books. The real trick is for you to make your books pay for your own business, not theirs. I’ll be the first to admit that this is easier said than done, but it’s certainly a goal I’m working towards.
If your book is hiding on your hard drive, knock it into shape in the most thorough way you can, and get it out there. Don’t rework it until you’ve beaten all the good stuff out of it. Make it work and then make it fly, so it too can look for a home in the reading lives of others.