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Ann Morgan rewrites the publishing fairy tale

RLF Fellow Ann Morgan reconciles the myth of the fairy god-agent with the business of being an author in this week’s Collected.

An image of a typewriter. Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash.

There is a myth about the business of being an author. It goes something like this:

“Once upon a time there was a little girl who wanted to be a writer. So she worked very hard, scribbling lots of stories. Years passed and still the little girl, who was now a woman, wrote her stories. Then, one day, a fairy godagent popped up and promised to make all her dreams come true. The fairy godagent waved her wand and sent the young woman off to the book fair-y ball, where a handsome publisher-prince whisked her off her feet with a three-book deal. And they all lived happily ever after.”

This is the fairy-tale ending to which many aspiring writers cling. For a large proportion of the hundreds of thousands of people who participate in National Novel Writing Month each year and sign up for creative writing courses – and for the millions more who will corner you at a party to tell you that they’ve always wanted to write a book – this is the dream that keeps them going.

Bolstered by a slew of articles on getting an agent and novel-editing guides, the popular perception boils down to this: if you manage to gain entrance into the rarefied world of the published writer, your struggles will be over.

It was certainly what I believed before I got my first book deal. Indeed, when it happened, it seemed to have more than a little fairy-tale magic about it. Having spent my twenties working part-time and getting up early in order to devote as much time as possible to plugging away at usually not very promising novel drafts, I stumbled on an idea for a nonfiction book when a blog I had started became popular.

I felt like the goose that laid the golden egg. An idea that I had hatched in my living room had inspired a publisher to stump up an advance for a book that did not even exist. Surely this was the start of a charmed life?

Six years into living my happily ever after, I smile back at the way I saw things then. From my own experiences and the stories of numerous writers I have encountered personally and through books, I have learned that rather than being the satisfying end of a quest, for most authors, that first book deal marks the start of a career that will have peaks and troughs, and plenty of rejection along the way.

The Belle of the Ball can find herself an orphan the week before her book launch when her editor changes jobs, while budget cuts can leave last season’s beautiful swan feeling like the ugly duckling. And as for the goose that laid the golden egg — well, we all know what happened to that.

An image of a basket of gold-coloured eggs. Photo by Elena Leya on Unsplash.

Photo by Elena Leya on Unsplash.

The publishing fairy tale persists, however, largely because many of the inside stories of the industry are rarely told. There’s a good reason for this — in a relatively small and competitive market that is frequently driven by relationships. Few writers want to risk biting the hand they hope will feed them by airing their gripes. Indeed, there’s usually little point: though they may sting at the time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that almost every writer suffers at some point in their career are rarely personal. By and large, they have more to do with columns of numbers than with any words written by an author or anyone else.

This can be a small comfort when you’re staring down the barrel of a harsh rejection, a cutting review or a creative dry spell, however. At such times, the publishing fairy tale often seems to shimmer brightly — a happy ending liberally accorded to all the writers seeing their books longlisted for illustrious prizes and feted in review sections, yet cruelly denied to you. The thought is hardly encouraging.

Perhaps then, as we are in the business of playing with words, we could all benefit from taking a red pen to that tantalising, pernicious, happily-ever-after myth and rewriting it a little. Maybe it would do us all good to spend a bit of time rummaging in the genre dressing-up box and seeing what other costumes we can find that might better fit that odd, awkward being, the writing life.

What about horror? Melodramatic though it may sound, I’m sure many writers have known that sickening sense of fear and shock, when you come face to face with the monstrous possibility that everything you’ve worked so hard to build may be torn apart in one, fell swoop, often through no fault of your own.

Spare a thought for Herman Melville, who had to watch his work savaged by UK critics after the British edition of Moby Dick was published without the epilogue that explains Ishmael’s survival and makes sense of the book. Put yourself in Salman Rushdie’s shoes when he witnessed heaps of copies of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, burnt in the street and had to go into hiding after a fatwa was declared against him. Even more humdrum setbacks can feel like the stuff of nightmares when you’re obliged to live through them. I know of writers dumped by their agents by post, wordsmiths dropped by publishers in the same week their books came out, and novelists forced to reinvent themselves and go incognito after disappointing sales.

At such times, humour is often the only response. Indeed, just as horror can tip over into comedy if it’s laid on too thick, those of us trudging along the darkest stretches of the writing path can sometimes feel trapped inside a grim farce. I certainly had this impression when I lived through a submission process during which my agent forwarded every rejection she received to me with the subject line: ‘Ann Morgan.’ It got so bad that I dreaded seeing my name in my inbox. I had – literally – become my own worst enemy.

When I started the hashtag #bestbadreview on Twitter last year and invited writers to share their favourite hatchet jobs, I received numerous responses from authors seeing the funny side of less-than-ideal situations. Highlights included:

‘I find it difficult to reconcile the sweet face of the author on the back jacket with the foul language within’ for Anne H. Putnam’s memoir Navel-Gazing and an intriguing response to one of Jenny Colgan’s novels: ‘I threw this stupid book over a wall’.

In a similar vein, I had to admire the good humour of a friend of a friend who, having waited a year to receive any response to one of his manuscripts, sent a birthday card to the person sitting on it to mark the anniversary of the date he’d sent it in.

Of course, when a run of bad luck persists, and critics, editors, or readers are consistently unreceptive or unkind, it can be hard to keep smiling. Literary history is filled with stories of writers who went to their graves ignorant of the recognition and admiration their work would one day receive. The fate of the queen of the psychological novel, Shirley Jackson, who was dismissed as a writer of trash in her time and dubbed ‘Virginia Werewolf’ by some critics because of her interest in the occult, and who died a lonely and squalid death after years of agoraphobia, fills me with sadness. And oh how I wish Emily Brontë could have known when she died the year after Wuthering Heights was published that her only novel would go on to be held up as one of the great classics of world literature.

There is a towering, tragic quality to such stories. Indeed, when in the throes of one of the many struggles the writing life involves it can be tempting to identify with the heroes of classical antiquity and see yourself as the victim of cruel gods and fickle fate. ‘I’m like Sisyphus! I’m like Sisyphus!’ I remember shouting down the phone to my agent when I discovered that a publisher wanted a rewrite of one of my books. I must have sounded ridiculous. Truth be told, the only thing I probably shared with the heroes of the Ancient Greek legends was hubris. Still, it didn’t feel like that at the time. When you live with a project intensely, as books often require, it can become your universe. And when something jeopardises it, it can feel like the end of the world.

Certainly, although comparisons to mythology and high tragedy may be extreme, the numerous unfortunate coincidences and twists of fate that often stymy writing projects – from similar titles sucking oxygen away from deserving books to personnel changes stripping manuscripts of their champions – can make it feel as though being an author involves living, at least part of the time, on Tess of the D’Urbervilles’s ‘blighted star’. Hardy may well have agreed — not only did he struggle for years to get into print, but he was obliged to rewrite passages in several of his books to pander to Victorian prudishness and finally abandoned the novel form altogether, Jude the Obscure having received outraged reviews.

A blighted star, however, is not a very encouraging image to go forward with in future writing projects. Perhaps then, it makes sense to abandon literary genres altogether and reach into another section of the library to find a narrative that provides an accurate and liveable reflection of the reality of being a writer.

Economics may help here. I’m thinking not of the depressing figures about the health of the book industry that come out with alarming frequency but rather of the planning fallacy proposed by Nobel prizewinners Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which Kahneman expounds in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It revolves around the idea that humans almost always underestimate the time, effort, money and risk their projects will involve. This blind spot inevitably leads to wasted resources and many failed ventures, but it also might have its uses in that it encourages us to attempt things we might never try if we had an accurate grasp of our chances of success.

To me, this sounds a lot like the writing process. When I sit alone in my study, scrabbling out a first draft, I can often be wildly optimistic about how quickly a book will come together. I forget the laborious redrafting and editing previous projects have gone through – not to mention the graveyard of half-finished things littering my hard drive and desk drawers – and I barely give a thought to what will happen once the manuscript passes from my hands and out into the wider world. Of course, with so many factors beyond my control and so many other people involved in bringing a story to the bookshop shelves, it’s almost inevitable that something will go wrong somewhere along the way. Really, when you think about the scope for error in the process, it’s a miracle anything makes it into print at all. Instead of lamenting our setbacks, perhaps we writers would do better to marvel at the rare occasions when everything goes well.

Such pragmatism is not romantic. It’s a long way from the rags-to-riches tale of the debut author rocketed to overnight success. Ultimately, however, for those of us hoping to make a lengthy career out of putting words on the page, the planning fallacy can be a useful lens through which to look at writing and publishing now and again. It shows the cracks and the flaws and helps us see that the knocks, injustices and bad luck we suffer are not unique punishments reserved for us alone but rather the inevitable consequences of a far-from-perfect process. This is not the fairy-tale ending we might have hoped for when we laboured away over our first manuscript. But who wants to live happily ever after anyway?

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