The memes have been around for aeons, the posters even longer: a cute kitty, hanging by its paws from a branch, and those trite words of encouragement: HANG IN THERE.
If that poster had been on my wall during the last decade of trying to get a book deal, I would have scowled at it on a daily basis. That little puss had it easy. Cats always land on their feet; humans don’t. I’d been dangling from my proverbial branch for ten years. And I’d been hanging on with just one hand, since the other hand was busy at a keyboard, churning out manuscripts and short stories so that they could be submitted – in most cases – into what may as well have been a black hole.
Plus that puss didn’t have little demons gnawing at its knuckles. I felt mine nibbling every day, doing their utmost to send me toppling to the horror below. (This has become an appallingly over-laboured analogy, but I’ve come this far and I’m sticking with it.) I recognised each of those nibbling demons for what it was. One was the money I’d lost by writing for an hour or two a day when I could have spent that time on my day job. Another was the guilt I felt for the occasional afternoon spent writing while my wife and boys went off to do family time without daddy. Another was the growing conviction that not getting a book deal after ten years of trying surely meant it was never going to happen.
The horror waiting beneath my branch was worse than lava, spikes or any pit of snakes. It was a plump, comfy mattress. A mattress that held out its fluffy arms (my god, can this analogy get any worse?) and whispered that it’s okay to fall, that it’s perfectly understandable to give up on writing and get on with real life. ‘You tried, Darren. That’s what counts.’ I shudder at the thought of that mattress. It was as tempting as it was terrifying.
I still remember sitting in a darkened installation at Nottingham Contemporary and telling my wife that Manuscript No. 4 would be my last shot at this deluded dream. My eyes actually welled as I said it. I was glad for the dark.
My wife could have been pragmatic and sensible. She could have told me I’d made the right decision. But she told me I was wrong – that I should keep going, and that I couldn’t stop writing if I tried.
Which brings me to what I learned during my decade of stubborn persistence. Firstly, surround yourself with people who believe in what you do, even when you don’t. Cherish and love them, because they’re more important to your writing than the ink in your pen.
Secondly, try not to focus on what you haven’t achieved. Celebrate every victory. Sure, ten years of work hadn’t got me a book deal, but it did give me a few published short stories, a literary agent who was happy to stick around, and even the crowdfunded publication by Nottingham’s Bees Make Honey of my first novel, The Dust on the Moth.
That all sounds pretty good, right? It is good, but it took a long, long time and an obscene amount of work, and there’s a gloomy part of you that suspects that, if all of that won’t lead to a book deal, nothing will.
But thankfully it did, and Manuscript No. 4, now known as Scavengers, hits the bookshops today. Which leads me to the third thing I learned: even if you’ve been trying for years and years but haven’t quite managed to bag a book deal, none of your time has been wasted. Sure, you hear the occasional overnight success story, but getting published is generally about perseverance, momentum and accumulation. Every year you spend not quite making it is another year you’ve spent practising your writing, honing your voice, making friends, learning about the industry and learning about yourself.
On hindsight, I’m actually glad it took me a decade to get here. I know myself and my writing much more than I did when I finished Manuscript No. 1. There’s a lot of stuff I need to get right now I’m working with a publisher, but I feel more equipped for it than I ever did before.
So if you’ve also been hanging from that branch for years, just keep at it. Eventually your tenacity will intersect with the bit of luck that’s essential to the mix, and you’ll be ready to make the most of the moment.
In short: hang in there.