My Failures As a Writer

If you peruse a writer’s website – like this one – one thing strikes you. It is all about achievement. Writer’s websites – like this one – will detail the things that have been published, the successful pitches, the commissioned pieces.

Very rarely do they talk about the failures.

When I first decided to not to return to my former career as a health researcher I spoke to a friend who was already a successful writer. She passed on some sage advice to me.

The first was that rejections are not face to face. I had commented that I wasn’t sure I could make it as a writer as I was relatively thin-skinned and the constant rejections could be wearing. She agreed that rejections always stung, but unlike the traditional workplace, you could experience your failures in private, sitting at the computer at home, or in front of the letter box as you tear open yet another rejection letter.

The second was that even the most experienced and published writers get rejected. And while it never got any easier in that moment you realised you were being told ‘no’ and not ‘yes’, over time it was easier to move on and submit the piece somewhere else.

As a new writer it can sometimes be dispiriting to regularly read about the success of others. By that I do not mean that I don’t want others to succeed, but it can be a misrepresentation to assume that between those successes there were not failures as well.

So in the interest of openness, I wish to talk about some of my failures.

For example, a few months ago I attended a workshop run by the Perth food critic Rob Broadfield. It was advertised as an opportunity to learn about food writing but more tantalisingly it was also a chance to submit a piece of work with the possibility of being selected as a food writer for the next edition of the Perth Good Food Guide.

I thought to myself: I write food reviews all the time, hundreds of them. Award winning reviews! I’m a shoe-in, I thought confidently.

Probably every person in the room, 150 of us, thought the same.

Two weeks later, and no congratulatory phone call had come. I was genuinely surprised to miss out.

One way of looking at this is that I am confident. What would be the point of putting myself out there if I did not have a firm belief in what I was doing. Another is that I am a bit cocky, and there is a world of difference between writing for a website where there is minimal editorial input, and a published guide which must stand alongside equivalent national and international books.

Another recent failure was a picture book which I submitted to a local publisher. Again, I thought that this was a certainty. In 2010 I wrote a short story which won first prize in a writing competition.

I rewrote it into a picture book, creating clues in the illustrations which could be followed to show an observant child that the climax of the story would be Christmas. Awesome! I even engaged the help of a professional editor and writer to help me get it to a point where I thought it would be of a publishable standard.

When the rejection letter arrived in the mail I was disappointed, but not as crushed as I feared I might be. I have edited it some more and today I will post it to another publisher. I keep telling myself J.K Rowling was rejected by 14 publishers before Harry Potter was finally picked up by Bloomsbury.

I have a lot more than two rejection stories. A lot more. I have a database where I keep a record of all my submissions: articles, picture books, competitions, job ads. Next to the vast majority of them I have written ‘unsuccessful’.

The things on this website – my piece in My Child, the dental practice articles, my shortlisted stories – are the things that have a ‘successful’ written next to them. At this point in my career, they may be in the minority, but all those ‘unsuccessfuls’ have the bonus of teaching me one very valuable lesson, a lesson which is essential if I want to continue on in this field:

It turns out I am more resilient than I thought.

With The Flick of a Switch

I am completely and utterly dependent on my computer, and that terrifies me.

I am at the pointy end of my university semester –the plan was to submit my final essay this morning, and then be free to do other exciting things. Like the washing.

I had left the room briefly, but when I returned the internet connection was down. At this stage I wasn’t concerned, I just thought I needed to reconnect.

But when I looked at the icon, my mobile broadband was connected. I just didn’t have access to the internet.

To a writer, this seems like mere semantics: connected, access. What’s the difference? I turned my computer and modem on and off a few times, made myself a cuppa soup and tried not to panic.

Nothing was working. Well, to clarify, the computer was working but it wasn’t connected to the internet. It may as well have been a typewriter for all the good it was.

We live in a connected yet virtual age, and for the most past we don’t give much thought to the details of that connectivity. When everything is working it is part of the daily routine.

But when things stop working, we quickly realise how much of that connectivity is bogus.

Your money, your calendar, you contacts list, your debts… almost everything  – to some extent – is tied up to the internet. Lose that access and suddenly your life becomes a lot more difficult.

As a writer, most of my completed work and ideas are sitting on a single computer. Every now and then I think about backing it up onto an external hard drive, but even that’s located about six feet from where I am sitting and probably wouldn’t stand up too well to a fire.

Luckily for me, since I live in a connected world, I was able to flip open my iPad and start searching for solutions. First I tried a forum, but they were basically bagging out computer illiterates like myself. I considered calling my provider for help, but it didn’t end so well the last time I tried (the woman in India started sobbing and eventually asked me to hang up and call back so I would go through to another operator).

So I went back to basics. I found the box my modem came in. I had scratched ‘Do Not Throw Out’ on it, in case I tossed it out in a frenzy of cleaning (it happens).

Inside the book, where I was similarly scrawled all the seemingly pertinent details, it asked under ‘troubleshooting’ – have you got enough credit.

Ahhh.

Five minutes and a hundred bucks later I was online again. Connected and with access.

But it has made me think about the tenuous state I exist in; where a blackout, theft or virus can eradicate not only my writing but also many links to my citizenry.

We have insurance to protect us if we get sick, crash the car or if the house burns down. What sort of protection do we have if we lose our access to the internet? And by that I don’t mean a fifteen minute blind panic because I hadn’t paid a bill, I mean the larger issue of our dependence on technology to control many aspects of our lives. With so many pushes to get us online (internet banking, shopping, trade sharing) how do we protect ourselves in a world, which – with the flick of a switch – ceases to exist?

Who The Bloody Hell Are You?*

Lately I have been thinking recently about nom de plume: pen names. When people write using a name other than their own.

There can be many valid reasons to do this. Maybe you are afraid of being persecuted (such as Leon Trotsky). Maybe you were told your books would never sell if you used your real name (a la J.K. Rowling). Maybe you just have a really awful name (Anne Rice’s real name is Howard. Yes Anne/Howard is a female).

Other than these very valid reasons, I am unsure why people use pen names. Especially if what you are writing is neither earth-shattering nor controversial nor scandalous.

I am a believer that if you aren’t prepared to put your name on it, then you probably shouldn’t write it.

I have been thinking about this lately because I have been researching the rise of online reviews as one of the new forms of media. True, I am a part of this world – I write reviews and articles for WeekendNotes – but everything I write I put my name to. I do not write for anonymous review sites like UrbanSpoon and I would never comment on someone’s blog as Anonymous.

The internet is making us brave, but it is a false bravado, as the recent trolling scandal with Charlotte Dawson showed us.

One of the reasons I will never need to take a non de plume is because it seems that no one can get my name right anyway.

The very first time I was published in the state paper my name was printed as ‘Shannon Meyerkor’.

Then I had an article published in Offspring Magazine, and I was listed with the other contributors as ‘Shannon Meyerkart’.

Not to be outdone, The Australasian Dental Practice recently gave me my byline as ‘Sharon Meyerkort’.

So if I wish to remain somewhat anonymous on the internet, all I have to do is keep using my own name.

If you were going to use a pen name, what would yours be?

[*Apologies to the Tourism Australia]

The Brutal Truth About Making Money as a Writer?

Most people are too polite to ask, but it’s pretty clear after I mention to people I am a writer the second question they want to ask is “how much money do you make?” The first is usually ‘have I read anything you have written?’ which is difficult to answer because they are a complete stranger and I am not a mind-reader.

The money question is interesting and one that I wish I could ask of every writer I meet. Except I am too polite.

Because my earnings thus far are less than stellar (I’ll get to that later) I often find myself giving excuses like: ‘I just had a baby’ or ‘I only just started.’ Those reasons may have been valid for 2012, but now they are just excuses. The simple truth is that I have not written much that people are willing to pay for. It doesn’t mean I cannot write and it doesn’t mean I haven’t been published. It just means that the majority of work I have done thus far, has been unpaid.

It turns out I am not alone, and in fact, I am in stellar company.

If you are a parent, and even if you’re not, you may have heard of Amber Dusik.

No? Try Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures. This is one of the funniest blogs about being a parent that exists. It’s funny even if you don’t have kids. It is probably the best parenting blog. Even better than mine.

When Amber Dusik posts a story it immediately goes stratospheric.

Each post will received hundreds of comments. She has over 77,000 likers on Facebook. Every single post Amber puts on Facebook will be shared across the globe.

So it was with deep concern that I read a postscript to a post she wrote in early April imploring readers to buy her new book. I wasn’t concerned that she was asking people to buy her book, I have a copy and it’s awesome. What concerned me was this:

I’ve started getting a lot of emails, congratulating me about having “made it” and people assuming I’m making truckloads of money. … Contrary to popular belief I still haven’t gotten rich from it. … after paying my hosting costs, I managed to pull a profit in 2012. I made $131. For an entire year’s worth of work.

One of the world’s most well-known and successful bloggers only made a profit of $131 last year.

Then I attended a booked-out seminar by the Australian writer Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys. He told his audience that in the early days after his best-selling book was released in 1997 – (before they realised it was going to be a best-seller) – he told his sons that every time a book was sold, a twenty cent piece would roll toward the house.

Twenty cents for a book that took a year to write.

Talented Perth author Natasha Lester mentioned at the recent Perth Writer’s Festival that she receives about $3 per copy sold of her latest novel. This is an improvement on twenty cents, but still*.

What chance do the rest of us mere (writing) mortals have?

Writers write because they need to. No one walks out of school and says ‘I am going to be a writer and spend my life in abject poverty to pursue my craft’. Writing is a tough gig, and for 99% of us we can expect an income that resembles a postcode from New South Wales.

According to The Australian:

The average annual income of Australian writers has declined in the past decade from $23,000 to a character-building $11,000.

Personally, I would be thrilled with an income of $11,000 from my writing.

In the spirit of complete openness I can divulge that my total income since ‘becoming a writer’ in the three years since 2011 is around $3,000, and every cent of this has come from my articles and reviews written for WeekendNotes.

My blogs have not earned me a cent.

Writing articles for various online websites have not earned me a cent.

Even my articles published in national glossy magazines have not earned me a cent.

I came close though. When my ‘Dads and Miscarriage’ article was accepted by My Child Magazine I was told that their rate of pay was 50 cents per word, which for a brand-new freelancer, was a very substantial price. I had originally submitted 2,600 words to them and I could already hear the cha-ching of a decent pay-packet.

However, it was decided that they could only afford space for 800-900 words, and in return for their editors working on the article to bring it down to the necessary word-count I would not receive a writers fee.

Perhaps if I was an established writer with a bigger CV I would have been in a position to argue with this decision. But the simple truth was that I needed them more than they needed me. I needed this run on the board, and if it was going to cost me $400 then so be it. I got to see my name in print but I did not get paid for it.

Bloggers can put advertising on their websites, and earn anywhere from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars per month. Sponsorship and paid reviews is another way to earn money, but again, it is personal choice of the blog owner and some – like myself – don’t do it.

I write this not for pity, just candour. Like most writers, I write because I love it. I don’t plan on staying below the breadline with my craft forever. I just think it is an interesting issue, and explains why so many of our top writers (and actors and artists and playwrights) have ‘day jobs’ to support themselves while they pursue the craft they love in their ‘spare time’.

What is your true love and what do you do to earn a living while you pursue it?

2019 Update: good things come to those who wait. For example Natasha Lester is now a New York Times Bestselling Author and I am making a five-figure income (just) on my writing every year between prize money, sponsorship/advertising, royalties and other writing income. Not quite there yet, but at least I’m headed in the right direction.

I Write, Therefore I Am

Tonight I went to the first Perth catch-up of the Australian Writers’ Centre. It was rather late notice, but 22 Perth writers found themselves in the middle of the city on a Friday night, in a reluctant circle, drinking wine.

We were a mixed bag. Young, old, novelists, ex-journos, bloggers. Published, unpublished. Enthusiastic. Jaded.

Like kids on the first day of school we went around the group introducing ourselves. I was first. I hate going first, but it’s better than going last, where you cannot focus on what others are saying because you are too concerned about what you are going to say, and not sounding like a complete moron.

One man observed it was ironic there was a public speaking component in a writers get-together. For many of us, we write because we cannot speak. For others, it was an opportunity to talk. A lot.

For the rest of us, peering around the room at our peers it was an opportunity to come up for air, get out from behind the solitude of the computer screen and interact in the world we write about. Hands were shaken, business cards swapped.

What we all had in common, apart from a distaste for travelling to the city, was a reason for being.

We were writers.

The only qualification you need to be a writer, isn’t a qualification at all. You don’t need a university degree to be a writer. You don’t need to be published to be a writer. You don’t need to earn a living to be a writer. (These things do help though).

You merely need to write.

I still stammer sometimes when I tell people I am a writer. I trip over my words, like I am a small child playing make-believe. ‘I am a princess,’ my three year old tells me, merely because she is wearing a plastic tiara. She believes it, so she is.

I write, therefore I am.

Welcome to my new blog: a writers blog. If you’re interested in being a parent maybe head to Relentless or if you like food then taste a bit of Meat, Three Veg and a Bottle of Wine. But if you are interested in the art of writing, then stick around… maybe you can teach me something.