A few years ago, I was part of a panel discussing how best to find a publisher. One writer on the panel was self-published, another wrote non-fiction, another wrote for young adults, a fourth wrote popular fiction.
Each stressed the obstacles to getting published. Research very carefully, they said, and find out what is selling, what readers want, what is in vogue, what is popular with publishers. Submit a proposal before beginning. Submit only three chapters. Don’t write the whole book until you know it has legs.
(These days, we would also be told to ‘build a platform’ (how I loathe that expression!) before going anywhere near a publisher. To develop a presence on social media and find thousands of followers. To write a blog!!)
That is not my experience, I said timidly, when it was my turn to speak. Write the very best book you can, I suggested. Write without thought of a publisher. Write for yourself, for the joy of writing, because the story has you by the throat and won’t let you go. Write to save your life. Write with passion. Write something unique and special and brave. Be brave. Step outside the square. Avoid the popular, the mundane. Then the publisher—the right publisher—will find you.
I think of Markus Zusak's prize winning novel, 'The Book Thief', narrated by Death and rejected by publishers six times, before being appreciated for breaking new ground and finding the right publisher. And Eimear McBride's 'A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing', strongly influenced by the language of Joyce and described in The New Yorker as 'blazingly original', it took nine years to find a publisher, then became a prize-winning best-seller, much feted for its originality.
Be brave! Was I naïve in offering this advice?
I went on to explain how, through a series of circuitous events, my publisher found 'The Lost Child'. There was an unspoken response of amazement, disbelief, awe. And an equally unspoken reaction that I must have been lucky. And of course luck does come into the publishing equation, any equation.
But I noticed how quickly the focus of the audience, and the panel, turned again to the difficulties of getting published. And how everyone seemed more comfortable with this.
It made me realise how much easier it is to stay with the voice of the mainstream than it is to listen to an alternative. How much easier it is to look for a template than trust in the unknown.
We all need templates. A parent to model. A mentor to inspire. An idol to emulate. As beginners, we often begin writing in the style of our author heroes. Is that copying? Or plagiarism? Probably neither. But it's not authentic, it’s not our own truth.
For me, that has taken a long time to find. I seem to have spent most of my life trying to mould myself to some imaginary norm. And it’s only now, as I grow older, that I’m discovering the great joy of being able to stand in my own shoes. To want to be me. To want to write my own truth.
Why is it so difficult to live an authentic life? A truthful one, not swayed by the crowds, not joining the sheep? Why is it so hard to resist fitting a square peg into a round hole? To recognise when the fit doesn’t fit?
It’s safer, I guess, or seems that way, until you become real. And perhaps this is no better expressed than by the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams:
I've inspired myself to get real this week and 'write brave'! Brave writing to you too.
Featured image of plush toy rabbit by Jennifer Chen.