How to get published without knowing anything about the industry
That Agent Blog May Not Be Correct, and That Writers’ Forum May Also Not Be Correct.
My first novel, The Fortunes of Ruby White, was published in 2010, but if you’ve ever read a publishing, agent or writing-related website, it should never have been published at all.
I don’t take it personally. It’s got nothing to do with the book itself. It’s got nothing to do with me, either. It’s The Industry.
I must go back slightly.
Ruby was my first novel. I had never attempted a novel before, nor a novella, nor a short story, nor a blog post. “What the hell were you writing, then?” you may well ask. Everything but those things, basically.
I wrote marketing copy about sports books and musculoskeletal injury DVDs. I wrote poetry, mostly in long rhyming-couplet form as someone had once told me it was the worst kind of poetry anyone could ever read, and I like a challenge. I wrote essays at university on psychology, ancient Greek architecture, and philosophy, and when I finished uni I wrote my friends’ essays instead. I wrote long letters in the form of tiny newspapers (“Yoghurt Missing From Local Area Fridge: Operation Acidophilus Retrieval Instigated”) for an interstate friend. Basically, I practiced writing in general, and in between I edited other people’s work, which had the added bonus of teaching me that proofreading art catalogues is its own circle of hell.
But back to the book. The idea for Ruby came to me before the concept of turning it into a novel ever did. “What if....?” became “...and then what?” I made some notes, wondered about it a bit more, and finally realised that if I wanted to know how the story actually turned out, I would need to write it myself.
I won’t go into the mechanics of it here. (I’ll save those for another blog post—ha ha! It contains references to snow peas and crying. You have been warned.) Suffice to say, after quite a long time, I had a finished manuscript.
I had no idea if it was any good. [Lesson One: When you tell people you are writing a novel, many of them will say, “Oh, I’d love to read it!” This leads directly to Lesson Two: 98% of those people will not read your manuscript, and your success rate here is inversely proportional to how badly you need feedback. This leads directly to Lesson Three: Maybe just don’t tell people you’re writing a novel.] As all of my promised readers fell through—bar my mother; thanks, Ma!—I figured I should just post it off to a publishing house and see what happened.
I picked Simon & Schuster as they published a couple of my favourite authors, stuck the manuscript in the post, and crossed my fingers. I then figured I should start researching the industry. What happened next was an exercise in horror. I spent hours sinking lower and lower in my chair, reading endless posts about on how I’d just done the dumbest rookie-writer thing ever and now had ruined any chance of ever being published. Ever. Like, ever ever.
Nearly every single writing website—and, sweet Jesus, there are a LOT of them—gives the same trifecta of advice to would-be novelists:
1. You will never get your first book published.
2. You will never get your first book published without an agent.
3. You will never get your first book published without an agent and via the first publishing house you approach.
Well, guess what? It’s not necessarily true.
Writers do need to be prepared for the possibility of rejection, whether it's from an agent, a publisher, or (when you make it into print) a reader. However, if I had started reading all of this YOU'RE DOOOOOOOMED advice before I sent my manuscript off, I would have probably stuck it in a drawer and decided to pursue something easier, such as astrophysics. Instead, I wrote with the naive confidence that someone would like it and somehow it would find its way out into the world.
And, somehow, it did.
I’m not under any delusions The Fortunes of Ruby White made it into print because I am a staggering genius. (OR AM I? Wait, no, probably not.) What I do know, however, are these two things:
a) Publishers do pick things out of the slush pile.
b) Luck and timing play a part in everything, and publishing is no exception.
I got the right person on the right day with the right kind of humour who liked what I’d written. Conversely, my manuscript could have been picked by someone who was having a crappy day and didn’t like my particular voice (again, a subject for another blog post). But I got lucky. It does happen, despite what you usually read.
So do not be discouraged by Doomsday advice, gentle writer. Whether you’ve written one novel or ten, whether you’ve got an agent or not, whether you have ten thousand Twitter followers or no social media platform at all (or have no idea what a platform is), no-one can predict where your writing will go. Write with confidence and joy, write whatever you want, ignore all the nay-sayers, and forge your own path. You may be surprised just where it will lead you.
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