This is a piece by Robert Lukins, on the sometimes long and always wonky road to publication.
It’s all very strange.
I’ve wanted nothing but to be a published novel writer since reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ when I was a mostly annoying child. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Adrian was supposed to be read as a prat. A decidedly loveable prat, but still, a prat. Adrian thought it a matter of destiny that if he plugged away at his writing, and plugged and plugged, that it would all somehow work out. His literary delusions and aspirations seemed entirely reasonable to me, and decades later, as a comprehensively annoying adult, they still do.
In the last two months a book that I have written, Keep The Lion Hungry, went from a state very close to abandonment, to finding an agent and then a publisher. As above, it’s all very strange.
I’m not certain that the story of how this novel came to find a home is compelling, even less that it’s inspiring, but a brief study of its errors and frustratingly ponderous nature may prove beneficial.
It began in the summer of 1995. It was then – probably while wearing cargo pants, certainly while sporting a greasy male approximation of the Jennifer Aniston hairdo – that I completed writing my first, truly diabolic, novel. Even whilst overflowing with the potent hyper-naivety of teenagehood, I knew that the manuscript was a dog. So it went, unshared, under the bed. Over the next year I wrote another novel, again dog, again under the bed.
This pattern continued for the next 18 years. Around me a decidedly non-literary life unfolded: non-literary study followed by a non-literary job; I learned how to internalise a lack of bookish momentum, I learned how to do the Rubik’s cube. Perhaps I should have taken a creative writing course or joined a writing workshop or not spent quite so long on the Rubik’s cube. In essence I was clinging to a romantic notion, that if I devoted my every spare moment equally between reading and writing, if I plugged and plugged, I would become the writer I aspired to be and I would produce a novel of which I could be, if nothing else, satisfied.
In 2014 I finished yet another manuscript which, while far from brilliant, I thought finally of sufficient quality to send to an agent. Ignorant of the complex of anxieties I should have applied to this process, I thought it best to just send off one query letter, to the boss of the biggest literary agency in the country. That should work. And ridiculously, it kind of did. She said she would read it. She did. We had a meeting – I went on a plane, I wore a tie and everything – and she very clearly, and rightly, told me that this manuscript wasn’t the one. You don’t get many chances with publishers, you can’t send them anything smelling even remotely of dog.
So she directed me back to the airport with the mission that I should write something else, something better, more true – a novel of which I could be unapologetically proud.
So I did what I had always done, I wrote another one, though this time something was different. I decided to write from my guts. To forget (quite useful) ideas of audience or viability or competency – to work as if this were the last novel I was ever going write rather than just the next. I would be satisfied, published or not.
A year later, the thing finished, I sent the manuscript. Over the next 12 months it bounced between in-trays of every last employee at the agency, during which time I took another of my now trademark naïve punts and sent it, unsolicited and unadorned, to my dream publisher. Again, ridiculously, it percolated through the slush pile, was read, and I received an email from their Editor that the thing was going to be forwarded to the head Publisher with a suggestion that it was not entirely terrible.
The agent said yes, then the publisher said yes.
In the Hollywood version it would all have happened with a single phone call. The fantasy would become instant reality and fireworks would fire. In practise there were dozens of moments of minor victory spread so thinly they each amounted to just the steady burn of a birthday sparkler.
An email… vague interest… curiosity… a good, under-caffeinated conversation… an Agent… an Editor’s interest… an Editor’s recommendation… many, many emails… a Publisher’s curiosity… apparent interest… a phone call taken in the plastic pots aisle of Bunnings… a good, hyper-caffeinated conversation… an Acquisitions Committee… a commitment to offer… an offer… a contract negotiation… emails… emails… emails… a signed contract… a countersigned contract… the dim realisation that everything I have been working towards my whole life was turning somewhat true.
Now, things lie ahead: a year of editing and writing. Lots of poor decisions on my part. Hopefully a slightly more than equal number of decent ones.
And after it’s published, I have no idea. Adrian didn’t give me any clues on that one.
When I think of it taking 20 years to travel from starting a novel to being on the brink of publishing one, I find it hard to feel regret. I could have made the journey easier. I could have been smarter, less stubborn about finding my own way in the dark. But I’m proud of enough to overpower the lamentation.
I’m proud of plugging and plugging; of this thing I’ve made. I’m proud of – if not the content, then at least the existence – of that rotting pile of 15 manuscripts under my bed.
There’s a joke buried in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole: our prat borrows War and Peace out from the library on a Friday and on the Saturday casually notes, “Finished War and Peace. It was quite good.”
All I want of my writing life is that it last long enough, and that I get good enough, to write a line as perfect as that.
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Robert Lukins is a writer living in Melbourne. His first novel, Keep The Lion Hungry, will be published by UQP in early 2018. Robert's work has appeared in Crikey, Overland, The Big Issue, Broadsheet, Time Off, Inpress, and other odd places.