For what seems like an age—actually, it is just a year and a bit—you sit down and wrestle with the story idea which plagued you for years. Parts of it existed in scattered notebooks. Some of it appeared in fever dreams which woke you at odd hours of the night. Characters’ voices began to bounce around in your head during dinner, making you clock out of conversations without even noticing.
Why not give it a try? Why not write the damn thing?
So you did. And it was done.
You ran the gruelling publishing gauntlet. By some strange turn of fortune it was picked up by a publisher.
Look at you!
—Me a say lookatew!
It was grand news: author.
Thou shalt be the first of many kinds in your family, in your social circle, and, perhaps, in your hometown.
Author, he who pulleth quill from stone.
The press, praise, and impending prestige is enveloping, warm and comfortable. It is all the tingly things you thought it would be. There is clarity about your person, focus like never before. This is it, that moment when things happen or start to happen.
Or was it is further back? Are the days of plenty yet to come?
Some food for thought: what if the moment has always been happening and this is just latest page-turn?
—Who no know gon know!
Without a roadmap or a long local literary tradition to follow you will have to cut through the unknown by yourself as best as you can and hope you come out some kind of okay on the other end.
But, look, here is a list of some things that will happen when you are crowned king.
Your family and friends are going to be happy for you. They know how much you wanted this, this thing to which you have sacrificed time, promising careers, and even people. Those who remain are the ones who believed in your talent even when you did not. (You will have to revisit that faith thing, friend.) Some slogged through your first drafts, the long ones, the ones written without guidance or a care for rules. No Adichean “fuck you novel”; this is the fuck-it novel. The one that had to be written because you had nothing to lose. There are people who actually sat and read the whole thing. Madness, really, considering the length and messiness of that first issue. Who can forget the others who offered a kind word here and there. The weight of those words during the toughest moments of the writing defy description, even for you, the loquacious bastard you are. They will celebrate with you and then they will celebrate you because this is what you have wanted for the longest time and now, finally, after all the angst-ridden emails, the voice notes where you cursed out the world and all of its cruelty, it is happening.
You will not believe it is happening, but it actually is. Bask in it. You will wake up on some days, weekends especially, feeling fulfilled for the first time in years, maybe your whole life. Even weeks and months after the announcement you will find it hard to believe that, yes, at some point in the future you will be on a bookshelf. But it is so happening, mister. Thou hast achieved, and now thou must believe. Because what comes next is going to demand so much.
You are going to feel good about yourself. You should. You have earned it. Lord knows this thing was not given to you just nje. Nothing ever was, nothing ever will be. Thank goodness for that. There is a whole email folder with the rejection emails you only recently stopped reading. You remember how thick and fast they came in the early days. Sometimes it felt like your manuscript had barely swooshed from your outbox before a rejection response from a literary agent pinged back. Jeez! Did every agent need to add the disclaimer that their selection process was purely subjective? And what about that annoying “all the best in your search for representation” spiel? How bland and PR-y was that? Now, though, you have to admit those words were probably the truest and gentlest things they could say to anyone. They could have discouraged, they could have criticised. They could have said, “Dude, you need to knuckle down on your day job.” They really could have, and you know it. Those rejection letters are proof you earned this. This was all you. But at the same time you know it was not. You cannot explain it but you know it was not just you, and while it is hard to connect all the dots right now, hopefully, you will be able to do it someday.
You will not recuperate the money from all—and I mean ALL—the MFA programs which turned you down. Those things landed in your inbox at the same time your manuscript was being cannonballed back to you. Sjoe! That artillery barrage of rejection was really something else. You remember writing to a friend: Dude, it’s like I’m trapped in a gang bang of failure! Every university between the +2:00 and the -9:00 time zones Serena Williams-backhanded your writing samples back to you. Thank you for applying for…This is a competitive program and…Our selection panel feels that…It was bad. So, so bad. You even thought you would moonwalk into your alma mater’s writing program because you were the hottest thing since climate change. But even they said no. You will laugh about this at some point in the future but right now it is still too sore.
You will meet other writers on their own journey. They will ask you how you did it. How did you ascend? You will not have the answer and it might make you feel bad. Relax, how can you know? If it was a game of pure skill so many other writers would be recognised and some would not. Just be honest. Tell them you wrote as best as you could, for as long as you could. Tell them the truth, the sour words you did not want to hear when the trenches of your soul where taking in water from all the rejection, the words no writer wants to hear because they are too simple and too painfully true: write, just write. It is what you did. It is, you realise now, what you will have to do as well. Tell whoever you meet on your way where you submitted and how. Share the information, spread it far and wide. If you are given a window of opportunity use it to open a door for someone else.
People are going to start deferring to you. They will start asking your opinions on strange things. Things in which you have absolutely no interest. Things you do not know enough about to hold a decent conversation. Your head is going to be Hindenburg-huge because, well, heck, this is what authors do, right? They give their opinions about stuff. The state of LGBTQ rights in the world; police brutality in the United States; the moral arc of the universe; unpaid internships; the Drake-Pusha T beef; that Thanos finger snap—people are going to say, quite loudly, and in company which often knows better, “What does The Author think?” Tread lightly, though. It is like they say in The Chronicles of Riddick: “You keep what you quill.” Or something like that. Pick your struggles, stick with the ones which matter most to you. Like the stolen land and the recently reclaimed territories of the mind; the blame-ridden millennial tag which infuriates you so; and the ongoing decline of DC Comics films. There are enough passion topics for you to talk and write about without spreading yourself thin. For everything else there is everyone else. The beauty of struggles is that each one somehow, someway, finds the right voice to fight for it. It does not and should not be you alone all the time.
You will most likely join a writers’ group. There you will read work from writers with strengths you do not have; you will read simple stories which floor you. You will see an inkling of the width and depth of the writing game, and if you pay attention, if you look at the way other writers manage their transitions, how the mould their characters, how they build word-worlds, you will learn some really cool shit.
You are going to want to feel like an author. You will start reading the review section of LitHub just to see what kind of treatment you are in for. You might even start buying books from the canon. Shit like The Canterbury Tales or The Brothers Karamazov just in case they are the kind of things authors need to know about. Nothing is more tiring than pretence, though, and, thankfully, this stage will soon pass. Someone has to read all the comic books Mandy from brainwavez is going to send you. Someone will have to start and finish playing the Borderlands collection. Someone will have to read and reread all the kick-ass books you bought yourself when you were reading just for yourself. You know who that person is? Yeah, it will come to you soon enough.
The short stories will not write themselves. At least these are fun. But guess what? Even after penning a manuscript that is accepted for future publication (Have I mentioned that you are not yet an author?) you will still need ferocious discipline to crunch out a short story. You will still have to sit down for stretches at a time stringing sentences together, seeing if things fit. Just because they are short does not mean they will be easy. Even five-hundred good words are not a fart in the breeze, even for you, the hurricane who blows through word counts. You can fi, fie, foe, and fum and huff and puff all you like but the words will not magically appear on paper. First, second, third, final, Final_Final, and FinalFinal_REALLY drafts will float in your documents folder.
The literary journals—near, far, wherever they are—will still turn down your shit. Your heart must still go on though. (Titanic reference: check!) It is not certain when the vomit-inducing teacup ride of rejection comes to an end. Perhaps it never does. Perhaps it never should. Perhaps it is the only equaliser in the writing game. Everyone, no matter who they are, no matter how accomplished, must still deal with being turned down. That rejection from that niche literary journal for “emerging writers and new voices” is going to sting like a motherfucker. Prepare for that.
You will have to slog through your own writing during the editing process. The mistakes you uncover in your manuscript—the one you called The Greatest Shit Ever Written—will horrify you and you will sleep in a curled ball for a couple of nights wondering how the draft was accepted in the first place. Then you will finally understand what all those literary agents meant when they said the consideration process was subjective.
Your publisher is going to tell you to cut the Greatest Shit Ever Written in half. You will think it impossible until you try. And then you are really going to armadillo-ball yourself to sleep. How the fuck did this shit get past the first round?
When you have cut The Greatest Shit Ever Written in half your publisher will say, “Cool, nice work. Now cut it some more!” Say what now? You will ask how and where it needs to be cut, dubious all the while. There is no way it can be done. Your publisher will say here and here and there and there and this part and this section. Wow! That is when you will have to sit down and be humble. You thought your submission was Michelangelo’s David, proud, triumphant, and complete. In the grand scheme of things you were sculpting with dynamite. You need to prepare mentally and emotionally for chipping away at your manuscript. Something whittled this way comes. Oh, and the publisher has not even fed you the editor just yet!
The publisher will feed you to the editor. May we have the grace to grow where we are planted. You hate Pinterest wisdom and all those cheesy motivational quotes but sometimes there really is no fancy way to phrase some things. Friend, you need to find the strength to slog through the editing process, to have The Greatest Shit Ever Written put through the wringer. Once more with feeling: May we have the grace to grow where we are planted!
Even with your new clout some of your friends will not watch The Godfather trilogy after you recommend it to them. That is okay. You cannot save everyone. When you are famous you can get yourself new ones. But if this writing thing does not work out you need to accept you will know people who will never truly appreciate a line-drop from the Cuban New Year Party scene.
You will still have to go to work. You will have to put a roof over your head and food on the table. Jack was lying with the “I got air in my lungs, few blank sheets of paper” bullshit. The alarm will ring and, author or not, you will have to wake your ass up and go to work. Your car’s alternator will break. You will still have to file your taxes on time. Your bank account will bungee jump into oblivion every so often without warning and leave you scrambling to tie the rope to something secure. You and life, with all of its petty frustrations, its grand disappointments, and its secret joys, will still be in the same WhatsApp group. (Also, two Titanic references. Booyah!)
People will still talk during films at the cinema. The most you can do is give them the stink eye that shames them right down to the marrow of their bone and their inferior, recessive genes which will, surely, become extinct from the gene pool soon.
You will have to read. Like you said so long ago.
You will have to make your own Wakanda. Regardless of how long it lasts, you will have to try.
Your process will still be panic. There are some things your newfound paperback citizenship will be unable to change.
You are still going to be a writer. This, perhaps, is the greatest source of pleasure and humility in the whole process.