I’ve written about this before, but never in much detail.
About fourteen years ago, maybe slightly longer, I found myself at some odd Alternative Energy “gathering”/festival/collection of smelly hippies in a field, because this is what the majority of my childhood and adolescence consisted of; my mother was strongly into Alternative Anything and I didn’t have any friends because I was weird and smelled of lentils. Boo hoo.
At this particular festival, in addition to Celtic mazes, parachute games, Hari Krishnas, screen printing, people who are angry about animal testing, and all the other things that were entirely normal to my childhood but apparently not to everyone else’s, there were counselling workshops taking place in one of the many large tents. My mother was also keen on sending me to innumerable “workshops” (a series of which turned out to have been run by a branch of Scientology, which is an unnerving thing to discover some 20+ years later) because I was a difficult (read: opinionated) child/teenager with a propensity for never shutting up.
There must have been about thirty or so people at this workshop, but the only one who sticks in my mind was the first one to “share his problem”; a very large young man called Vincent, for whom sitting on the ground was too much (I think his knees would have protested, as mine tend to now), and who had brought a fishing chair to help with this.
Vincent was a writer. He wrote short stories, he said. He wrote short stories, but never sent them out.
Sometimes, Vincent said, he would get as far as the postbox at the end of the road, manuscript in hand, stamped and ready to be taken away to whichever magazine he’d researched as being suitable for that story (or even written the story with that magazine in mind). And then he would leave again, with the manuscript still in his hand and the envelope unposted.
He said it wasn’t so much the fear of rejection: his imagination didn’t stretch to receiving the “sorry, but no” form letter, or the dejected feeling that should accompany it. The fear for him was of letting someone “professional” see his work; he showed his short stories to his friends, to his family – I am sure if the internet had been broader and more widely in-use at the time he would have posted some of them there – but the idea of letting someone who might know, really know that he wasn’t “any good” see paralysed him, and left his manuscripts unposted.
Hearing this as a teenager, I thought this was preposterous. I’d already started mailing out short stories to various competitions as they were waved at me by my teachers. Who cared what someone sitting in an office in London thought? I was excellent, and they would have to acknowledge it sooner or later.
Now I’m 29, and I read blog posts encouraging people to “stop worrying about markets and just start writing” because if you never write any thing you definitely won’t get published. This is sound advice, but I find myself thinking, “starting writing is not the problem”. I’m not one of the writers paralysed on the starting blocks for fear of what awaits me at the other end: I start projects, I finish some of them, I edit, I polish.
Instead I’ve become Vincent, more or less. My friends give me the names and addresses of agents; I fail to write to the. They write me covering letters for manuscripts they’ve read, which I then fail to mail out. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to guess at how frustrating it must be for them to watch a year or so of work get shelved indefinitely simply because the idea of hitting “send” on an email makes me break out in a cold sweat!
I believed, after this initially set in (while I was at university, and learning that I really wasn’t the excellent writer I thought I was when I was 16!) that self-publishing might be the way around a paralysing fear of letting “the professionals” look at my work; it turns out that self-publishing requires even more self-belief and ability to self-promote than sending your manuscript out to publishers.
Melanie Clegg, a rather more successful self-published author and friend of mine has lots of helpful information about self-publishing for Kindle, most of which I have … go on, guess … that’s right, not followed. The redoubtable Alex de Campi has given me repeated lectures on who to hector, how to hector them, and … you see the pattern emerging?
If you have difficulty in getting your work to publishers or agents because of self-doubt, I have no good advice to offer (in fact, I’ll take yours; either that or a kick up the rear). If you have screwed your courage to the sticking place, bitten the bullet, written the covering letter, and intend to have someone publish your masterpiece come hell or high water, why not try submitting to the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency, a very forward-thinking and interesting-looking agency indeed?
And if you have the ability to write endless marketing copy about your own work (I salute you, it’s terribly difficult) or an unflagging confidence in your masterpiece which you just can’t wait to share with people, you could do a lot worse than to check out Melanie Clegg’s Guide to Kindle Publishing, and good luck.
As the various blogs I’ve read have said, you can’t get your work published if you don’t write it; you have to write, first and foremost. But once you’ve written, don’t get lumbered with Vincent’s Problem, either. Take a deep breath, hold your nose and any other parts of you that are threatening to escape in alarm, and show it to someone who can do something with it, please. Because otherwise you’ll end up like me, doing nothing more than bullying your friends into buying your tiny circulation books – and that’s a good way to end up with no friends!