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The First Book: Six Lessons from a Debut Author

A guest post by H. C. Gildfind

In the beginning…

Like most writers, I loved reading as a kid, and writing evolved from this as the prime means through which I understood and engaged with the world.

I pursued writing throughout secondary and tertiary education. These places gave me structure, peers, encouragement, feedback and – eventually – an income. Most importantly, these places taught me that writing is, first and last, very hard but very gratifying work.

For over a decade, I published poems, stories, essays and book reviews in literary journals. Some of my work was commended in minor awards, and I won an emerging writer’s residency.

Tip #1: Submit!

 It’s not for you to judge if your work’s ‘good enough’. That’s an editor’s job – so submit your work everywhere and apply for every opportunity.

Saying that, it is your job to make sure you send out your best work. If you can’t be bothered drafting and proofing your writing – why should anyone bother to read it?

Also, when you submit, don’t give information other than that which is requested. Why prejudice someone’s reading? Let your work speak for itself!

Finally, do simultaneously submit, unless a publisher’s or competition’s guidelines prohibit this. Keep track of your work so you can withdraw it from others’ consideration if (nay, when!) it gets picked up.

Tip #2: Get rejected – not dejected

 Rejection is your friend! If he keeps turning up in your inbox, listen to him. He’s saying, Your work isn’t up to scratch! It’s not suitable for the places you’ve sent it! Learn more, practise more, research more!

Editors don’t have time to give you feedback, so seek it out from other writers – and anyone who’ll make a genuine effort. Reciprocate the favour: learning how to give constructive feedback will radically improve your ability to critique and develop your own writing.

Feedback is fundamentally about listening and thinking. Whilst initial ‘reactions’ matter, it’s identifying the ‘why’ behind these reactions that reveals a work’s strengths and weaknesses.

Remember, constructive feedback is about the work: not the reader; not the writer. It should thicken skins, demolish egos, and motivate.

Tip #3: Aim high

Having published a number of short stories, I wanted to develop them into a collection. I applied for a government grant, and – somehow – I got it! You’ve gotta be in it to win it, right?

For a year, I rented a tiny office in a collective. I went there five or more days a week, setting myself a minimum of four hours before I was allowed to ‘give up’ if things weren’t going well. Because ‘getting started’ is the hardest bit, this system worked: I seldom gave up!

This process helped me achieve my goal of writing ‘a long short story.’ Though I couldn’t judge if my novella was good, it went on to win a national competition. This taught me some important lessons.

Tip #4: Feelings schmeelings!

Your work ethic should have nothing to do with how you feel, or whatever else is going on in your life. Feelings come and go. Situations change. You work ethic, however, is a constant because it is an attitude. A good work ethic is one that commits you to a realistic routine suited to your goals and situation.

This routine can take any form. What matters is that it creates a consist approach. Things will screw up sometimes – that’s ok. Because you have a good work ethic, and a realistic routine, you’ll be willing and able to get back on your feet.

Tip #5: Waiting time is wasted time

Don’t have time to write? Waiting for inspiration – or an ideal situation? Well, as the saying goes, time is not something that you have – it’s something that you make. Likewise, situations don’t write – people do.

I’ve been lucky to have periods of full-time writing. Whilst these periods have definitely been productive, they’ve also been hard, pressurised by the fact that I no longer had any damn excuse for failure!

Experience has taught me that, whether I’m time rich, or time poor, I’m only productive when I’m working consistently: if I write for one hour a day, or six, stories will get written.

 Tip #6: Confidence is a verb

 Like time, confidence is not necessarily something that you have. To avoid crippling self-doubt, pretend confidence is a verb – something that you do. Understand that confidence doesn’t come from self-regard (that’s arrogance). It comes from showing yourself what you’re capable of by trying things. Hence the age-old advice: ‘Fake it till you make it.’

I know writers who, despite multiple successes, still feel terrible with each new project. Despite these feelings, they keep going, confident they’ll succeed. Why? Because they’ve spent years proving their abilities to themselves.

Finally, a book is born

 After years of expanding and polishing my collection, I finally sent it to publishers: big and small; local and international; famous and obscure.

After a couple more years, many rejections, and some commendations in unpublished manuscript competitions, an independent publisher took me on.

I was thrilled! Then, I was mortified: my work suddenly looked terrible! Any confidence I had vanished. Well, so what! I gritted my teeth, muttered my mantra – feelings schmeelings! – and did the one thing I could do: I worked my butt off.

I spent months intensively redrafting. This involved everything from minor changes to entire rewrites. I was primarily motivated by one thing: my recognition of the invaluable learning opportunity I’d been given. My editor was a state-of-the-art feedback machine! To hell with the book’s ultimate fate! I was getting a masterclass in writing!

Finally, the manuscript was completed and sent to the book designer. This meant more discussions and hours of proof-reading. Making a book is a true collaboration!

Then suddenly – the book was finished. My copies turned up in the mail. Surreal!

Though I dreaded my launch (I’m no performer!), that event was the first time I understood our achievement. We’d created a material thing that would go on to live its own life in the world, connecting my imagination to the imaginations of strangers—across time and space. Amazing!

In the end, is another beginning…

 A day after my launch, I plummeted from my giddy high straight back down to the earth. I realised there was nothing more I could do for my book. So? Back to work.

I’m now writing a novel, because I love reading novels, and because I know that, irrespective of outcomes, this challenge will teach me heaps about writing.

Do I ‘feel’ more confident, now that I’ve published my first book? Hell no! In fact, my confidence has a perversely inverse relationship to my achievements. Who knows why this is? And who cares? Feelings schmeelings!

As usual, I’m focusing on what I can do – which is working consistently – and I’m ignoring those elusive, devilish twins called fear and fantasy.

‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ If this maxim was good enough for old Beckett, it’s good enough for me. Onwards!


H.C. Gildfind is the author of the award-winning novella ‘Quarry’, which is included in her short story collection, The Worry Front, published by Margaret River Press.