That is, you start out with a few short story sales, work your way up to pro status that way, submit novels, get an agent, finally sell a novel… basically, earning your place in the hierarchy of writerliness.
What I have learned since is that there is no ‘right’ way to go about building a writing career. No one’s path is predictable.
I started writing novels when I was thirteen, and by the time I started university, I had completed three or four manuscripts. I’d also read a huge amount of fantasy fiction in that time, and had just hit the point of becoming a complete cynic about the genre. I looked at my first book, the epic fantasy I had so lovingly crafted (as part of a projected 12 book series, GAK) and cringed. On my first day of university, at seventeen years old, I started scribbling a new story in my notebook – a comedy of errors, making fun of the fantasy cliches instead of buying into them. I wrote flat out for six months, then my social life kicked in and I let the whole thing lapse for nearly a year.
At nineteen, I picked it up again, and kept working on it. After a few months I found the guidelines to a competition for unpublished SF/Fantasy manuscripts, The George Turner Prize, and that gave me the incentive to get it finished. I almost didn’t post it, but my honey made me, despite the fact that he had never read it. (we had been together a year and half at that point, and had a deal he would read nothing of mine until it was published)
A few months later, I got the phone call that I had won the competition. I remember feeling like my legs had been cut from under me. I wasn’t twenty yet, and I was going to be published.
Thus continued the most frantic year of my life, and I say this as someone who has since completed a PhD and had two children…
I received the news in March. I had to complete copy edits in April, over a fortnight which was also full of personal disaster in my real life. In May, the shortlist was published – and suddenly everyone knew I was up for this prize, and couldn’t stop asking me about it (I was sworn to secrecy – only my honey and mother knew about it). In June I attended my first convention, knowing that in a few months I would be a professionally published author, but not being able to say a word.
In July, I was flown to Sydney to attend Phancon (run by the one and only Karen Miller, in her own life-before-pro-publication). I attended a dinner at which the prizewinner was to be announced… and only realised too late that none of the other shortlistees had been told what was going on! Awkward… Along with meeting my editor for the first time, and being introduced to all manner of Famous Authors, the highlight of the trip was being presented with a black and white ARC of my very own book, Splashdance Silver in the flesh.
Another month later (at the ripe age of 20, though the publicity liked to emphasise I was 19 at the point of sale), I really was a published author, with my book in real bookshelves and everything. I was also working flat out on the sequel, having signed contracts for a three book series. All this and I hadn’t finished my BA yet…
Within a year, the sequel was published, and within another year both books were remaindered, and the publishers let me know they weren’t interested in publishing the third book I had written for the trilogy.
*I should have signed with an agent before signing the contract with the publisher. Just because I had ‘made the sale’ independently did not mean I didn’t need someone in my corner. I was put off the idea because of the secrecy agreement, which was not good.
*I should have done a lot more in the way of publicity and promotion for the first book on my own – it never occurred to me that this was something I would need to do, or even how to go about it.
*Chances are very likely that if Splashdance Silver had been published five years or even ten years later, as the YA book it really was, the publishing environment would have been a lot more welcoming to a girly frothy magic comedy on the fantasy shelves. At the time, it seemed, it was far too different to anything else being published, certainly within Australia. But, hey. These things only make sense in retrospect, sometimes a decade later…
I wouldn’t trade my early publication for anything, though it didn’t turn out the way I hoped. In many ways, I was too young and inexperienced to capitalise properly on a debut novel sale. On the other hand, early publication opened many doors to me – I was teaching creative writing within a couple of years, and continued to do so for most of my 20′s. At Worldcon 1999 I was welcomed as a peer to many writers who have formed an important part of my life for over a decade. I was invited to join ROR, which has made a huge difference to my development as a writer. Oh, and I was able to support myself on my writing for a couple of years, before the wonders of postgrad scholarships kicked in. Thanks to that and the financial support of my honey, I managed to get through a very lengthy period as a university student without the distraction of a ‘real’ job.
Also, that early publication gave me confidence that, having done it once, I could do it again. Which, as it turned out, was 100% true.