Seven Things That Can Go Wrong For a Writer
20 January 2010
In the winter issue of The Author, the house magazine of the Society of Authors, I contributed to the gaiety of the season by considering some of the things which can go wrong for an author trying to get a book published….
There are now two types of writing life. In one, authors write, get published, reviewed and generally struggle along as they have always done. In the other, writing is taught, learnt, discussed and practised, but in a more collegiate and communal way. This second, alternative literary world – that of workshops and creative courses – provides everything a writer could need apart from the relatively trivial matter of publication, and is where an increasing number of authors and would-be authors reside.
So there is a booming mini-industry out there. It needs product. Endpaper Books, a brand new imprint associated with this column, aims to provide essential primers, manuals and inspirational volumes for the trainee writer. Our aim will be not to skip over the technical minutiae of writing (Does Jordan worry about characterisation? Is Jeremy Clarkson fretting over narrative structure?) and concentrate on the business end of surviving as an author.
The first manual to be published will be a simple but helpfully candid volume we are calling Seven Things Than Can Go Wrong for a Writer. The book will not provide solutions – those will be available in a companion volume And How to Overcome Them, which we hope to make available in 2011 – but will identify the seven crises which most commonly occur on a writer’s way to publication.
…when your literary agent hates your guts.
At first, it is something of a shock to discover that very person who is supposed to represent you in the chilly world of publishing actually wishes you were dead. It is, though, surprisingly common. Like some marriages, the relationship between author and agent can be one of transferred disappointment. Each of you once believed that the other was going to make money for both of you. The slow discovery that this was an illusion can bring profound feelings of resentment and even hatred.
…when your story goes smash.
“Going smash” is a technical term first coined by EM Forster. In a novel that he was writing, he put all the characters on a train, saw it leave the station, disappear over the horizon – never to return. He had gone smash. That moment of crisis in a novel, which most commonly occurs during Chapter Three, has more recently been described by French poststructuralist critics as le moment d’emmerdement’ . A famous French author, once a household name, was heard to say, “Zut alors, je me suis arrivé au moment d’emmerdement!” and has written very little since.
…when your editor retires/becomes pregnant/decides to become an agent.
It is a tough job, being a publisher’s editor in 2009. If he likes books, his colleagues think that he is eccentric; if he actually likes authors, he will be actively distrusted. All the things that once made the editorial life worthwhile – late starts in the morning, long lunches, sex with authors, weekly “reading days” at home – have now been banned by the talibanesque new publishing establishment. In a desperate attempt to give meaning to their lives, editors soon begin looking for an escape – almost always at the moment when your book depends most on their support. Those unable to become pregnant or are too honest to be agent have been known to take up writing – the ultimate cry for help.
…when you experience strange and unfamiliar feelings of loyalty towards your publisher.
Heaven knows, you have been warned about this but your agent ignores you and your family seems to be drifting away from you. The need to belong somewhere – anywhere – has become too powerful to ignore. You want to be greeted by your Christian name by the receptionist at your publishers, to go out for the occasional drink with the local rep. Sadly, it is a paradoxical truth of the literary life that the more you love your publishers, the more likely they are to reject you.
…when an unprecedented book trade slump coincides with the publication of your book
It is always a mistake to ask your editor how your book is “selling in” during the weeks before publication. Like a football manager murmuring about injuries in his squad before a match, publishers like to have a pre-emptive excuse. There will be talk of negative footfall in the shops. By the time publication day arrives, you will be told that the trade is really extraordinarily quiet. If you sell a copy, it will feel like a freak of nature.
… when your marriage falls apart at your launch party
As if you have not got enough to worry about, the person with whom you share your life thoughtlessly chooses your red-letter day to end it all. Perhaps you had been a little difficult lately but then you’re an author, for heaven’s sake – what does she expect? In retrospect, refusing to eat spaghetti Bolognese twice in a week because “no would dare to even ask Philip Roth to do that” was a touch presumptuous. It was also a bad idea to use every embarrassing detail of your first night together and an even worse one to make a joke about it during your launch party speech.
…when your Amazon rating slips from 243,706 to 361,445 in one afternoon.
You have told yourself many lies as you have trudged down the stony road to publication. Now you are there, you should stay on the sunny uplands of self-delusion as long as possible. Remember that it is the work that matters, not how it sells. Being ignored by the public is a badge of achievement for an author – think of Hart Crane, BS Johnson, John Kennedy Toole (actually, no, stop thinking about them – they all killed themselves). Tell yourself that no one buys books online and that, even if they did, any Amazon rating above 362,000 is pretty impressive for a serious writer like you.
In fact, the whole project has been a huge success.
The Author, Winter 2009