Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Looking forward, looking back.

So 2008 dawns and, as well as looking forward, I find myself looking back to see what’s changed since the beginning of 2007.

Last New Year I was what I had been for – seemingly – all my adult life, a wannabe published author. The typescript of Testament was out there in publsher-land waiting for a decision but I had no idea when or whether I would get any kind of positive response. Previous experience had led me not to be hopeful.
I was a self-employed Speech and Language Therapist working three days a week in primary and secondary schools and writing like mad on the other two days, getting more and more frustrated at my inability to sustain any kind of presence in my fictional world when I wasn’t able to write. Each week, half my writing time seemed to be spent in getting back to the point where I’d left the story and only the other half in moving it forward.

But, this New Year, I am days away from being a published author. I have edited, proof-read and drooled over the first copies of my book. I have reduced my non-writing work to a day’s consultancy every week during term time. German translation rights to Testament have been bought in a pre-emptive move by Springer Verlag. Macmillan New Writing have already taken the decision to release the book as a mass-market paperback sometime at the end of this year or the beginning of next. Now, people who have never met me have begun reading Testament and publicity material is being written by me and others to appear in everything from our parish magazine, through my college’s old members' newsletter to my erstwhile local paper in West Wales. (Not to mention the Macmillan New Writers blog, here!) In less than two weeks time, the book will be launched. Just over another week after that, any bookseller who has bought it will have it on the shelves. It’s happened, I am a published author. I have had a year to get used to the idea and I’m still going weak at the knees at the thought that it has All Actually Happened.

One of my fellow MNW authors wrote a piece recently on his experience of being published. You can read it here. It’s not been an altogether happy story for him, which is sad. I think my own story is going to be rather different because I don't share his expectations. I have always wanted to be published, not to make my fortune or make me desirable, but as a vindication and a validation of how I spend my time; of what, in effect, makes me me.
Fundamentally, what has happened is that somebody who has no vested interest in my happiness thinks that what I write is good enough to pay for. That, for me at least, is sufficient justification to carry on writing. Because, whatever we all say, we don’t just write because we have to, we write with the anticipation of publication, of connecting with an audience. Every now and again, in the long years when I was learning how to write, I would ask myself whether I would go on doing it if I knew for sure that I would never be published. And the answer was no. Because nobody wants to waste their life doing something they’re simply not very good at, however much they feel in the depths of their being that this is what they were meant to do.

Writing novels is not like other forms of self-expression, it is not like playing a musical instrument or the visual arts, or even poetry. Musicians can get a huge amount of enjoyment and satisfaction out of making music with other people without ever getting paid, or getting paid to do the odd non-professional gig. You can paint and give your pictures away or hang them on your own walls. You can write poetry for your friends, or submit it to small presses and competitions and get published. You can even act on stage as an amateur and find an appreciative audience. But you can’t give typescripts of novels to people as a present unless you want to look like a complete loser. Nobody asks you to come and do a reading of your unpublished novel, not even your local pub or arts centre. In the sense that writing is performance, the only stage we novel writers have is publication, nothing else offers us an audience. It’s that or nothing.

So, has MNW’s decision to publish Testament changed my life?
Yes, it has.
It has given me a new confidence in my writing; not only in the sense that somebody thinks it’s good but in the sense that being part of bringing Testament to publication has given me a greater degree of self-criticism which I now apply to the work in progress. It has given me and my family the impetus to invest in my writing (or possibly speculate on it!) and cut back on the amount of time I spend earning money from doing therapy so that I can attempt to make a similar amount of money from writing. So far – with the German deal promising to swell the first couple of royalty cheques – so good, as Speech and Language Therapists don’t earn all that much.
And it’s allowed me to meet the eye of people who, for years, were patronisingly indulgent of my writing and would ask ‘any news on publication yet?’ with the kind of expression on their face which told me just how much they believed in a future in which that was going to happen. Being able to say to these people ‘Yes, my first book’s coming out in January’ has been the evil twin of the innocent pleasure I’ve taken in telling those who have believed in me and struggled with me through rejection and disappointment.

What is 2008 going to mean for me as a writer and for Testament? I really don’t know. But I do know that the book is going out into the world with a lot of people’s hopes, wishes and belief behind it and that, surely, has got to count for something.

Anyway, here’s wishing all who read this blog a really happy and successful 2008 and to those of you who are not published yet and long to be – hang in there and keep doing it!

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