I’ll be honest: when I was asked to write a feature for Writing.ie to celebrate the publication of Distress Signals, I struggled to come up with a topic. I’ve been hanging around these parts from the start and sometimes I feel like the long-term Writing.ie reader must be well sick of me by now! There was no really point in talking about how this happened, because most of you already know. So I asked myself: what is the one thing I haven’t written about before? And this is what I came up with: the times when I very nearly gave up, or at least badly wanted to. This is the absolutely the last thing you should do, so what was it that prevented me from throwing in the towel, and pushing on, even when my dream seemed further away than ever before and the frustration of it not happening was getting me down? How did I push past wanting to give up?
Write the Book You Want To Read
When you’ve wanted something all your life and are totally focused on it, laser-like, it can be easy to lose sight of why you want it. There was a time when I was meeting regularly with an editor at a major publishing house and trying to write what I thought she’d like, just so I could get published. I just wanted to get published, almost so I could say, Okay, I did it, now I can move on. I’d forgotten why I wanted it in the first place. I’m not sure I cared anymore. Instead, I sat at home and stared at the virtual page on my computer screen until blood started to seep from my forehead. (Well, not literally – but you get the idea.) I wasn’t enjoying the writing. I hated it, in fact. So why in the name of Harlan Coben was I even trying to write in the first place? What crazy pills had made me so convinced that this was my dream job when all the evidence was to the contrary?
Then, in 2011, I came across a magazine article about cruise ship disappearances that firmly lodged itself in the back of my brain. An idea for a serial killer thriller began to form. Because of the nuances of maritime law which govern cruise ships in international waters, they were the perfect place to get away with murder and so, the perfect place to set a thriller. I wanted to read that book. I remember one day, quite clearly, thinking to myself, When I finish the [women’s commercial fiction] thing I’m working on, I’ll reward myself by writing that for fun.
Um, what?! Shouldn’t everything I write be for fun? Why was I doing it otherwise? I’d become so obsessed with getting published that I’d gone tens of thousands of words in the wrong direction. Crime/thrillers were what I loved to read. They were my jam. It was the genre all my favourite writers belonged to. Why had I ever been trying to write anything else?
I ditched the (terrible) novel I’d been working on and got to work on Distress Signals instead. Instantly, I knew it was The One. But for the first time I felt like something real was at stake, and the fear I’d fail got converted into procrastination, so I didn’t finish the book until about two years after my ‘Why am I NOT writing this?’ moment. But 10 weeks after I did, I signed with my agent, and 6 months after that, we got a pre-emptive offer of a 2-book deal with Corvus/Atlantic.
Don’t lose sight of why you want this so badly. Hopefully it’s because your favourite thing in the world is to curl up on the couch and lose a day to a great book, and you want to create that experience for other people because you think you can. Write the book you want to read.
My super-agent, Jane Gregory, wasn’t the first agent I submitted my work to. (I was actually a little afraid of Jane, because her website said submissions should only be 10 pages long. The norm is 50 pages. How were you supposed to convince someone you were good in only 10 pages?! Also her client list was incredibly intimidating.) Before that – and before I’d finished the book – I sent the first three chapters and a synopsis to several others. They all said no. Let me just state that again: several agents read exactly the same book Jane did – the book that went on to be pre-empted as part of a significant 2-book deal – and said, ‘No. This isn’t good enough for me.’
I used to think that if your book was good, if you could write, if your idea was commercial, people would instantly recognise it as such. You’d have agents fighting over you, wining and dining you, desperate to take you on. There’d be no ambiguity. I didn’t just dream of getting published – I dreamed of getting a deal with an advance that I’d have to ask my agent to repeat, just in case I’d misheard her. I dreamed of being flown to London and met with a champagne reception at my new publishing house. I dreamed of excitement, enthusiasm, celebrations. I didn’t want to wear down some agent who’d half-heartedly take me on and then get me a deal that wasn’t much better than what I could do for myself, self-publishing. So as soon as one person said no – the moment anyone did – I was convinced that the champagne-soaked dream was gone. Because if the book was ‘good’, wouldn’t they have recognised it?
In short, no. This business is so, so subjective. Everyone’s just hoping their taste is everyone else’s too. It’s like the William Goldman quote about Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ (The full version of that quote works here too: ‘Nobody knows anything… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’) But this is a good thing. All you need is one person to say yes. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had one rejection, ten of them, or ninety-nine. They don’t make a yes more unlikely, or less enthusiastic when it finally comes. In this business, rejection doesn’t mean no.
When I started self-publishing and, through Twitter and events, meeting other writers, I was usually the youngest person in the room or at the table on or the panel. And I was blonde and a girl and, more often than not, wearing something pink or covered in polka-dots. Because of this (I think), I often got given unsolicited advice that sometimes felt like the verbal equivalent of an adult saying to a child who announces they’re going to be a popstar, ‘Oh, that’s nice, love’ and then patting them on the head.
Sometimes, because I did get a lot of great advice too. Irish publishing is a small, lovely group and everyone I’ve encountered has been ridiculously generous with their time and support. But every now and then, I’d get advice from someone who, like me, was trying to break into publishing too. Who was also on the outside. We were the same in terms of our experience, position, goals, etc. but for some reason (maybe the polka-dots?) this other person thought they knew it all and certainly knew much more about it than me. And they’d tell me what I should be doing.
At one event, a chance encounter with one of these Head Patters took a turn. She was brutal. She’d never been published herself or was in any way involved in the publishing industry but yet she stood before me and systematically dismantled my dreams one by one. She laughed at them. Actually, literally, laughed.
‘But why do you even want to get published?’ she said. ‘What’s the big deal? You won’t make any money and you’ll end up having to self-publish anyway, so why don’t you just stick to that? Is it for the validation? Is that what this is about? You need that? Or do you think [scoff] you’re going to get a six-figure deal? Because I don’t need the validation. And I’m not in this for the money. And anyway publishing wouldn’t know a good book if it crawled into their lap and smacked them in the face. Just look at Fifty Shades!’
I smiled and nodded but inside, I felt deflated. It’s very, very difficult to keep going towards your dream when the odds of it actually coming true are so slim (allegedly). But it’s damn near impossible when, at the same time, people ahead of you on the road are shouting over their shoulder that you shouldn’t bother, that you should turn back, give up. I wondered if maybe this woman was right. Maybe I was deluded. Maybe I should stick to self-publishing and give up on my book deal dreams.
But then, I had an epiphany. Luckily. I realised she’d made a massive mistake: she thought she and I were the same.
At this moment in time, I’d been dreaming of being a published novelist since I was eight or nine years old. I’d written my first novel (or attempted to) before I finished school. I’d been trying to finish one since. I’d self-published, written a book about self-publishing and done countless seminars, workshops and literary festivals. I kept up on industry news and had a fairly good idea of what was going on out there in the market, what was coming up next. I was working freelance for the biggest publishing house in the world. I had what I thought was a highly commercial, high-concept plot idea for a thriller. I was hungry and determined and completely focused on my goals.
The woman in front of me was highly successful in her own field, but that field had nothing to do with books, writing or publishing. She had never been published, or self-published her own work. As far as I knew she’d never even submitted anything, because as far as I knew the book she was working on – her first – wasn’t even finished yet. She’d started it as a kind of hobby/experiment. She never said anything about writing being her dream, or even books and stories being her passion.
We were not the same. She only thought we were. This mistake rendered her ‘advice’ utterly irrelevant.
This is something I’ve carried with me ever since, and I’d advise you now to write in on a piece of paper in your mind and tuck it away somewhere safe, so you can think of it whenever someone scoffs at your dreams, or tells you about the odds of getting published. (Don’t get me started on the odds. I’ve lost count of how many good friends have been published, friends I made when we were all still aspiring. Seriously. Don’t get me started.) There’s no need to argue with them, or even disagree. Just nod and smile and silently remind yourself, They think we’re the same – but they’re mistaken. And then carry on as you were.
I have to mention Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin here, who you all know as the brains behind Writing.ie and, as of next week, new Irish crime writing sensation Sam Blake, author of Little Bones. She doesn’t even know what she’s done for a whole gang of Irish writers, including me. Sometimes you just need someone not to dissuade you of your dreams. I can’t think of a single time Vanessa ever said anything that even implied I might not get to where I wanted to go. She only ever said the opposite, that I would. Even when I was doubting myself, she’d say, ‘Oh, you’ll get a deal no problem,’ flippantly, as if it was so certain that even discussing an alternative was utterly pointless. Now, we are both seeing our debut crime/thriller novels hitting the shelves in the same fortnight. Little Bones is out May 17th. Vanessa is launching Distress Signals for me in Waterstone’s, Cork on Monday May 9th at 6.30pm. Do come along if you can (but please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org first). Bring your dreams…
(c) Catherine Ryan Howard
About Distress Signals
Did she leave, or was she taken?
The day Adam Dunne’s girlfriend, Sarah, fails to return from a Barcelona business trip, his perfect life begins to fall apart. Days later, the arrival of her passport and a note that reads ‘I’m sorry – S’ sets off real alarm bells. He vows to do whatever it takes to find her.
Adam is puzzled when he connects Sarah to a cruise ship called the Celebrate – and to a woman, Estelle, who disappeared from the same ship in eerily similar circumstances almost exactly a year before. To get the answers, Adam must confront some difficult truths about his relationship with Sarah. He must do things of which he never thought himself capable. And he must try to outwit a predator who seems to have found the perfect hunting ground…
Distress Signals is out now. Find out more on www.DistressSignalsBook.com or search for #DistressSignals on Twitter.