By Sue Bedford
It’d been my life goal to become an author ever since I yanked that crayon out of my nose and declared a life goal. Growing up, I spent untold hours writing in my bedroom—initially fantastical stories anthropomorphizing my pet rat, Squeaky (illustrated volumes one through 40-something), and then indulgent narratives ambiguously gloomy in that teenage way. I was voted “Most Likely to Become a Penniless Writer” in high school, despite having skipped most of my English classes, and these days I tend to base my decisions not on what necessarily serves me best but on what promises the greatest story. (Admittedly, it isn’t the healthiest modus operandi).
The year my best friend and I spent travelling around the world—inviting all the ridiculous, embarrassing and incredible episodes that ensued—was the most exciting and transformational of my life, and excellent fodder for a book. I’d written a novel in my early 20s, and though it included some funny quips, it lacked a fundamental arc and read somewhat manically, and therefore was never picked up. Eighteen months after my trip, I began leafing through my old journals and constructing a narrative that, four years later, would become my first published book. Here are the four most crucial lessons I learned throughout the process:
Know why you’re writing
A series of anecdotes, funny or compelling as they may be, don’t comprise a travel book—even if they make a stellar blog. When you’re writing, keep in mind your arc for each chapter and for the book as a whole. How do the characters develop? Does each event move the story forward? What’s the climax? What’s the message you want your reader to walk away with? Identifying these answers (usually during the second draft) will shape your narrative into something larger than the sum of its parts and justify your book’s existence beyond offering just an entertaining read.
It’s douchey to write a memoir in your late 20s
It’s arrogant to write a memoir at any age—to assume your experiences and ideas are so fascinating that strangers will pay to read them—but to do so before you’re 30 is especially egotistical.
I’ve found the best way to connect with your audience is to be playfully self-deprecating and unwaveringly honest. This means revealing without inhibition or excuse your shortcomings, mistakes and insecurities, and prioritizing intriguing stories over your own pride. I ended up sharing my dirty secrets and personal fears not only with complete strangers, but also, even more unnervingly, with my friends, colleagues and kin who purchased the book. The only exception was my parents, whose copy I censored with a box cutter and liquid paper.
And, yes, I do feel embarrassed and exposed—but I try not to think about it.
Editors (usually) know best
I was fortunate to know a freelance editor I consider the most talented writer I’ve ever met. But let me tell you, there’s little more disheartening than receiving your first draft back with more red corrections than black text.
At first I was heartbroken and bitter at the ease with which she discarded what I believed were poignant descriptions and witty zingers. But she was excellent at communicating her ideas, and ultimately I trusted her—a good thing, since the final product was monumentally better than my initial draft.
Writing is the easy part
I submitted my travel book to about 150 publishers and literary agents—and received about 149 rejections. Many didn’t reply, some sent back form letters and a few offered inspiring words on how they enjoyed my submission but the market just wasn’t primed for a backpacker’s memoir.
Then there was the publisher I met in person at a literary festival in Toronto who, after I introduced myself, sneered, “Oh, I know exactly who you are. I received your submission and read the entire thing. Some people are meant to be writers, and you’re not one of them.” He continued, unprofessionally and unconstructively, to insult and belittle my work. His closing advice was for me to not quit my day job—particularly dismaying, as I didn’t have one at the time—and I went home and sobbed in my bed for hours.
The surrounding months were one of my lowest periods, frustration and fear of failure tainting both my internal and external life.
The work never ends and you’ll (probably) never get rich
Every aspiring writer has one well-intentioned yet clueless friend repeating, “It just takes one best-seller to make it!”
In actual fact, not even.
A book is considered a “best-seller” in Canada after moving at least 5,000 copies, and authors earn slightly more than one dollar per copy sold. Furthermore, small presses don’t have the means to extensively promote your book, so you’ll have to share the workload with your publicist. Even then, there’s no magic formula of literary magazine reviews, guest blog posts and social media campaigns that guarantees a book’s success—if there was, every author would be a best-seller.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to dissuade anybody from following their dream. I just want to iterate the immensely challenging nature of the process. Becoming a published author has taken vastly more time, mental stamina and emotional fortitude than anything else I’ve done, and it was only because I wanted it so obsessively that I pushed forward. If writing’s your hobby but not your passion, then you may find pursing publication to be more stressful than it’s worth. However, if writing’s your truest love, then I leave you with perhaps the cheesiest yet certainly the truest piece of advice I can: Don’t give up.