Bedroom eyes
Waste not, write not

Published, unpublished and taking your proof to bed

Over on Sally Quiller's excellent blog, she's been asking why unpublished writers sometimes seem to resent published writers so, when being published, after all, is what they're all trying for. And that set me wondering more widely about the often uncomfortable relationship between those who haven't ever had their name on something that appears in editorially-controlled print or electronica, and those who have.

Sally's talking about the feeling that published writers "don't deserve", for example, to be allowed to enter competitions which appear to be chiefly intended for unpublished writers to get a toe on the ladder. (And "published-only" competitions generate resentment in reverse.)This one, I think, turns on what you think the function of a competition is, and of course that's going to depend on the competition.  But for the short-fictioneers, in particular, competitions continue to be the means by which many get published.

The resentment is rooted in various misconceptions. First, that once you're published you'll go on being published. Would that that were true, but it isn't. No author likes to make much of just how little they're paid, how often their work is still rejected, how much they fear the moment when their agent suggests they write under another name... So the public and the aspirers continue in happy ignorance of how, actually, things aren't changed much by having once been in Waterstones.

Another problem is that "being published" is, in some ways, a qualification. Someone who isn't your mum has said that your work has merit, that it's of a certain standard, and put their print bill where their mouth is. That may also open the doors to other things - jobs, freelance work, competitions, admiring friends-and-relations. It is a qualification, and one which seems likely to change your life.

But of course it doesn't, not really, and that's the second misconception. Aspiring writers focus on "the book in my hand": it's like Christmas and they can't think beyond it. Of course that's a great moment: I took the bound proof of The Mathematics of Love to bed with me for several days. But it is only a moment. Once you've been heard, you've been heard. It's when you realise that you're thinking, "What next?" that you realise that not much has changed, because when you travel to a foreign land, the first person you meet is yourself, and that self is, as usual, trying to write a new novel.

And then of course there's the status, or whatever you'd call it: the public face. If "being an author" is now the job that more people want than any other, then I've apparently got it, and so have a fair few others, from J K Rowling to the latest signing by a little indie press. Having a job (which isn't a job) that lots of people (albeit from happy ignorance) want, can go both ways. Very, very occasionally someone comes all over wobbly to meet Emma Darwin, Novelist (me? do they know what I'm really like?) though not as wobbly as the Darwin-freaks do. It's weird, but it's an ego-trip of sorts. Occasionally, though, things get trickier. It's a delicate balance in dealing with aspiring writers, to be positive and encouraging, because the key to good writing is confidence as much as craft, while being honest and managing expectations.

Sometimes people resent you for trampling on their dreams, even if you thought you were just tiptoeing round the edges. More seriously, occasionally you run across someone for whom Being Published is The Thing Which Will Make Them All Right, but instead of using that fierce (although arguably unhealthy) drive, to make friends and write better, they look at someone who has reached the All Rightness which has so far eluded them, and feel a corrosive sense of their own inadequacy. Then, whether they're Caliban, playing group dynamics behind the scenes, or are overtly hostile, attacking what they see as the cause of that corrosion - i.e. the author who was only trying to help - is a way of avoiding having to feel and know the nasty stuff inside themselves. And they're who forum moderators and spam blockers are for.

Luckily, most of the time it's not like that at all. For each bitter and twisted Caliban, there are ten aspiring writers who are cheered to know that a publishing contract is a good thing to have, but a really, really bad thing to pin your life, hopes and self esteem on. And they're grateful that we're honest about it.