I went to a thing this week, which is one of the things I am trying to do more of this year. I haven't actually really been able to leave the house and do things (other than taking my kids to school and going to Tesco) in several years. Severe endometriosis is the gift that just keeps on giving, and leaving you too unwell to live a normal life is just one of the things it likes to give. However, I digress. The thing I went to was a SFF blogger/reader meet up type thing in London. I was nervous, it was hard, and my social skills (which TBH were never that good to start with) have pretty much rotted away due to being put to one side and ignored for so long. However, I went and I spoke to someone I didn't know, so I'm calling that a win.
At the thing, there were three authors who read from their latest books and then answered a few questions. The first said that she'd taken 13 years to sell her first novel. She sent it out, it would be rejected, she'd put it away for a few months, then she'd get it out, work on it a bit more, and send it out again. She repeated this process for thirteen years, and eventually the book sold.
There was a collective slump in the audience when she said this.
The second author, a young and therefore photogenic YA author, told a very different story. The book had been bought from a partial. She hadn't even had to write the whole book to get a deal. The story wasn't quite as simple as that, as she didn't mention that she'd spent 3 years at university working on a BA in creative writing. She did mention that the completed manuscript that she'd initially been querying with had been rejected all over the place, but I could tell from the audience reaction that that part of her story was forgotten the instant she talked about the book that had sold. A deal off the back of a partial. A book deal without actually having to write a book.
It was the dream.
The problem is that it isn't reality. There will be exceptions to this, of course. There always are. But for the vast majority of us, the road to publication is a long one, and so it should be. Writing a book is hard. Writing a good book is incredibly hard. There is so much to learn, and that takes time and practice. You wouldn't expect to play the Royal Albert Hall after one piano lesson, or be a prima ballerina the first time you put on a pair of ballet shoes. Writing a book is no different.
I wrote my first manuscript back in 2008. It was awful. I wrote another 3 which were also pretty awful. The first one that sold was the 5th one I wrote, and that went to a digital publisher, and has barely sold any copies. I wrote another 3 titles for that publisher, and then I moved to a different digital publisher, and wrote another seven. An agent and a paperback deal didn't come along until manuscript number 16, which was Blue Shift. I had rewritten that book so many times before I started looking for an agent that I stopped numbering the drafts so I wouldn't have to know how many there were. You might have heard people say that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Scientifically, the evidence is a bit woolly, but the basic idea is sound - to become good at something, you have to put the time in.
So what does this mean for you as a writer?
It's pretty simple, really.
You have to do your 13 years, or your 4 unpublished manuscripts, or whatever your personal learning curve happens to be. You have to earn your book deal. And you can earn it. Although publishing does involve a certain degree of luck, you improve your chances with every hour you put in, every book on writing craft that you read, every page you write.
But but but! She got a deal based on a partial! Why can't I just do that? Why do I have to waste time writing an entire manuscript that might not even sell?
Because that's what being a working writer is. It's putting your bum in your chair and your fingers on the keyboard and working at the story with no guarantee that anything will come of it. It's learning how to write not just a couple of chapters, but an entire manuscript that actually works. Being a published writer is not author talks and shiny book covers and cashmere scarves and having people tell you that you are amazing and being interviewed by the Guardian. It might be a little bit of that, sometimes, for some writers. But 99% of the time it is not, and if that's what you want, there are easier ways to get it than being a writer. We work really hard for not a lot of money and people write horrible things about our work on Amazon where everyone can see. We work in a cruel business that will cut you off at the knees if the publisher gets the cover wrong and the book doesn't sell. We are smiling at author events and then crying inside on the train on the way home because we had to leave the house and talk to people.
Assuming at this point that you still want to keep writing, that you still want to try and make a career as a writer despite the poverty and the crying, putting in the time when you are unpublished will give you the tools you need to survive once you are published. Knowing how to complete a manuscript and how to rework it before you sell will give you the most powerful weapon in your arsenal. Don't underestimate the importance of the ability to finish. Strengthen the pathways in your brain that give you patience and the ability to keep working when things are not going according to plan. Writing and publishing are two very different animals, and if you can make your writing animal a well trained labrador that will fetch your slippers and love you unconditionally, it will be that much easier when the fluffy white persian that is publishing decides to move in.
The reason Diana spent so long training on Themyscira is so that when her time came, she would be ready.
So be like Diana. Do your training. And then you will be ready.