by Amy Finnegan
When I vacationed in Scotland a few years ago, I was crazy excited to visit this wondrous country with its towering Highlands, history-making castles, and beautiful Loch Ness (if I were a sea monster, I’d live there, too). But the site I was most eager to see was a little cafe in Edinburgh called the Elephant House.
As a writer—and especially a reader—it was #1 on my globetrotting bucket list. And this is why:
If you have eight extra minutes, watch that video. If not, here’s a summary: This is a very early interview with J.K. Rowling, filmed at the Elephant House. She often worked on the Harry Potter manuscripts at this cafe before . . . well, before she simply couldn’t step out of her home for fear of being kidnapped and forced to reveal the contents of the next book.
Here are just a few magical things in this video that make me smile:
1) Check out her awesome frazzled-author hair (Is she a Weasley or what? And I mean that as the highest compliment in the world! Okay, I’ll get serious now).
2) She is totally ecstatic at this point about HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE selling over thirty-thousand copies in the UK (the series has now sold over 500 million copies worldwide).
3) I love her agent’s warning that she wouldn’t “make much money in children’s books.”
4) She says that the unprecedented American acquisition of the rights for the first book “scared the hell” out of her. She became “panic stricken” halfway through writing the second book, and was then very self-conscious about her writing. Just imagine how she felt later on.
5) When Rowling is asked to describe her plot, she can hardly get a coherent sentence out. Classic writer’s stage fright.
This has totally happened to me too . . . #5 that is. And #1.
My point is, everyone—superstar authors included—starts somewhere, and it’s always, always at the beginning.
Rowling says in this video that she worked on the first Harry Potter book for seven years before it sold. According to various sources, it was rejected by at least nine editors during her year-long submission process. Then she finally got an offer for it . . . with a £1500 advance. (Don’t all of you debut authors feel really good about your advance now?!) That, my friends, was her beginning.
When I first started writing, I thought my career would go something like this: I would finish a book every two to three months, send it off to a publisher, then a few weeks later, they would send me a big check. Then I’d write the next book, and the next, and the money would keep rolling in. I’d be a mega hit.
It’s incredibly embarrassing to admit how naive I was, but there it is. ((I might’ve also had a daydream or two about getting a call from Oprah because she loooovved my novel. Don’t even try to tell me that you haven’t done the same thing.))
Then about a year into writing my first novel, I finally started attending conferences that taught me about craft, and an absolutely devastating thing happened: I realized I sucked. SUCKED.
I out-sucked all of you, I promise.
The thought of submitting a single sentence of what I wrote was suddenly horrifying. I imagined the cast of Mean Girls standing around a publishing house water cooler and reading my manuscript aloud for their afternoon entertainment. “OMG, did you see this? We should publish it as The Dictionary of Clichés!” Then Mean Girl Editor #2 would say, “I was thinking more like, Pathetic Teen Angst for Dummies!”
Cue (size zero) belly laughter.
After a few more years of working twenty to thirty hours per week on learning the actual craft of novel writing—writing, revising, tossing out a few manuscripts . . . writing, revising, burning through a few laptops—I finally gathered the courage to start submitting.
I didn’t exactly get laughed at, but a line penned by Robert Munsch comes to mind: “Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”
Long story short, after that glorious experience, I didn’t submit again for three solid years. During this period, I seriously questioned all the sacrifice, all the time away from my family, all the money spent, all the lunches I’d turned down with friends because I had to revise my novels. And for what? I felt humiliated. I now did everything possible to avoid discussing my writing. I didn’t tell anyone new in my life that I was a writer.
I dreaded hearing this same thing, over and over again: “You should self-publish instead. My brother’s boss’s wife’s second cousin just self-published a novel which is now #1 on Amazon. And she wrote the book in just thirty days while her triplets crawled around her ankles. You, too, can be a published author!”
(Okay, thanks. Clearly all I needed was some triplets!)
I said a lot of naughty words in my head during this time, while speaking to perfectly lovely, well-meaning people.
And now we come full circle, back to Edinburgh, Scotland.
This particular trip began on Interstate I-Suck, and ended in . . . oh, forget it, a map metaphor would be plain stupid here (see, I have learned a bit about craft). I’ll just say it straight: I had a life-altering moment while sitting at a table in the Elephant House.
I realized I was about seven or eight years into my dream of getting an offer from a traditional publisher, the same amount of time it took J.K. Rowling to first get noticed. Had she ever had similar thoughts of doubt? Of course she had. No one works on the same novel for seven years without questioning their ability as a writer, otherwise Rowling would’ve finished it up in six months and mass-submitted to every agent and publisher in the UK. Surely, she had also wondered, “Will all this work be worth it? What if I never get published? Why am I doing this?”
This last question really got to me as I took in a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle, framed perfectly by a large cafe window . . . sitting high atop dark craggy cliffs . . . mysterious and magical . . . and I was reminded of another castle I knew. A castle where I had spent so much time, I could’ve navigated the hallways and moving staircases in the dead of night, with or without the Marauder’s Map. A castle that had made me fall deeply in love with not only children’s literature, but with the idea of creating characters who others would want as their best friends, and fictional worlds that readers would wish they could live in.
Hogwarts cast an unbreakable spell on me (and I know I’m not the only one).
I traced it all back, right there at the Elephant House. In the beginning, it was the power of a beautiful story that gave me the desire to be a writer.
So during those long years of doubting anyone would ever find my manuscripts worthy enough to publish, I didn’t write because I still had lofty dreams of becoming a famous author; I continued to write because I’d grown to love it. Writing had become such a significant part of my very being that I couldn’t have let it go if I’d tried. My motivation for improving my manuscripts then evolved into an unshakable desire to create stories about characters who seem real, people who experience genuine joy and pain, heartbreak and love, just like we do. It now came from deep, deep within me.
This difficult period of doubt taught me that good writing doesn’t happen when we type the words, it happens when we feel them.
As I sat in the Elephant House that fateful afternoon, I recalled how Rowling had written on napkins when she ran out of paper, so I wrote something on my own napkin. I was too embarrassed at the time to show anyone what I wrote, but I’ll reveal it now. It simply said, “I am a writer.”
It was about time I at least admitted that to myself.
Crazy enough, all those years of hard work and patience actually did pay off. My debut novel for young adults—NOT IN THE SCRIPT—is being published by Bloomsbury, just like J.K. Rowling’s debut.
For me, it’s a perfect beginning.
((Disclaimer: Don’t read too much into this—I do NOT expect Rowling’s success, nor am I truly comparing myself to her. #ha! #keepinitreal #stillsendingmynoveltoOprah))
Has anyone else out there also had long periods of doubt? If so, how did you get through them? And . . . the all-important question, what/who inspired you to write in the first place?
Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at BookshopTalk.com. Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.
Just for fun—check out these messages I found on a stall door at the Elephant House (warning, big time plot spoilers here):