Today I welcome Tess Woods into the attic. I’m so proud to share this essay because Tess is a dear friend of mine. It’s written in her inimitable style and with her trademark length (she’s never short for a word 😉 ). You won’t regret taking the time to read it, though, because not only does Tess give you an insight into the publishing side of writing a book, but she has something really valuable to say about writing, about our view of ourselves as writers and about the reasons why we do it.
If I felt like a fraud, how could I rejoice in my success? My opinion of myself as a writer was actually more important than any of it.
Tess Woods is a physiotherapist who lives in Perth, Australia, with one husband, two children, one dog and one cat who rules over them all. Her debut novel, Love at First Flight, received acclaim from readers around the world and won Book of the Year in the AusRom Today Reader’s Choice Award. When she isn’t working or being a personal assistant to her kids, Tess enjoys reading and all kinds of grannyish pleasures like knitting, baking, drinking tea and tending to the veggie patch. She’s also moderately obsessed with the TV series Nashville and taking Buzzfeed quizzes.
What Makes A Real Writer?
It’s taken me over a year to give the incomparable Louise Allan an essay for her wonderful blog. I read most of the other essays and felt inspired, awed, intimidated by the calibre of writing, the thought that obviously went into them. I felt a growing embarrassment that I still hadn’t contributed as I submitted blog posts to more and more friends we had in common and wondered if Louise was thinking, ‘Why her and not me?’ The thing was that I never really felt I could live up to the standard of essays submitted here because I wasn’t a ‘real’ writer. I didn’t think I had anything to say to the discerning group of people who I knew read these essays.
It’s been a theme for me in my short career—‘I’m not a real writer’.
In point form, here’s why this is something that’s plagued me:
- I never wanted to be a writer so I can’t claim it was a long-held dream
- I never did any kind of writing as an adult apart from work-related brochures.
- The first thing I wrote as an adult was published. And the second. And the third. Every creative piece I’ve written has ended up as a book. I have no stash of poems or short stories. I don’t even have a list of ideas anywhere.
- I never did a single course in writing before being published.
- I wrote an entire book without connecting with a single other writer. I had no idea of the writing community out there.
- I googled ‘How to get a book published in Australia’ and discovered my manuscript assessor and my literary agent. When HarperCollins offered me a publishing deal through my agent, these were the only two people from the writing world I knew.
- I never even belonged to a book club.
- The only two Australian authors I’m now friends with who I had heard of before becoming published were Josephine Moon and Monica McInerney. I literally had never heard of any of the big-name authors I now call my friends because I mostly read big-name international authors. I wasn’t invested in the Australian writing community in any way.
- I don’t plot.
- I don’t have a desk.
- I don’t use a notebook.
- My writing isn’t pretty. I don’t have the skills to write beautiful narrative.
- I tell instead of show. I add extra words you don’t need. Everyone smiles, cries and nods all the time in my books. Technically I suck. My poor long-suffering editors have to work very, very, hard.
- I don’t write every day.
- I can go for weeks without writing.
- When author friends say things to me like ‘deep point of view’ or ‘black moment’, I have zero idea what they’re talking about.
I kept none of these things a secret. So, from the start I publicly admitted to feeling like some kind of fraud, like I don’t deserve to be here. I hadn’t wanted it enough for my whole life like other writers have. I hadn’t earned my stripes, so to speak. I was so worried that people would judge me for jumping straight into a publishing deal that I worked day and night to prove that I did belong in the writing community, that even though I came in late and unprepared, that I was willing to make up for it by being extra conscientious.
I’m a huge believer in manifesting your destiny. I realise this comes from a position of privilege and entitlement. A Syrian refugee can’t stick up a vision board in their tent and expect to lead a dream life with the riches of the world—I get it. But that hasn’t taken away my deep knowing that you have to visualise what you want, you need clear goals to strive for and you need to believe you can do it.
So I set myself clear goals to try and get over my insecurities about being a fraud. I was damn well going to succeed and prove to myself and everyone around me that I belonged. That I was legit. That I was a real writer. I was going to MAKE IT.
I worked harder than I have ever worked before and dreamed of commercial success.
In July last year, Love at First Flight was newly released as a print book following its success as an eBook. Not for one second do I think the reason for that is because it was the best eBook HarperCollins had on their list. In my mind, the reason I went from digital author to print author was because of my hustle. I didn’t stop working to make sure my book was noticed and I got it into the hands of the right reviewers, I built up a big social media presence. I got there.
And I was so excited. ‘This is it!’ I promised myself. ‘No stopping now, living the dream!’
I had a conversation with James, the CEO of my publishing house, about a month after the print release of Love at First Flight.
‘What do you want out of this career?’ he asked me.
I told him I wanted to sell thousands of books, I wanted to be known in the writing community as a legit author who had the respect of other authors, I wanted my books to be in shop fronts and I wanted them in the shops all year round not just at release time.
Fast forward to a year later, earlier this month, and another conversation with James. I was on the last leg of an interstate book tour following the release of my second novel, Beautiful Messy Love. Here’s a very abridged version of our conversation.
James: So, are you happy?
James: What? Why not? Last year you said you wanted to sell thousands of books and do whatever it took to be successful. Look at where you are now! You have sold thousands of books, you’ve just done a book tour, your team at HarperCollins love you, you’re a respected author—the book is sitting on a better review ranking than All the Light We Cannot See. Your book is everywhere I look – it’s at front of store all over Australia! You’re organising a fiction festival next year that you’ve pulled off, you’re running a writing retreat overseas. How can you not be happy? Look how far you’ve come in a year.
Me: I want better sales.
James: It’s only your second book. You’re doing okay. Relax. Enjoy it.
Me: I can’t relax and enjoy it, I’m not satisfied. These numbers aren’t big enough yet for me.
James: (Silence.) *drinks tea* *looks at watch*
Me: I know, I know. I’m lucky to be published at all.
James: Don’t forget that. Don’t get hung up on needing to outsell everyone. You’re still very new. Enjoy all the other bits.
I could sense his disappointment. Justifiably. I was coming off as entitled, ungrateful and spoilt. A brat really. I had what I wanted and it still wasn’t enough.
The thing is, it was easy for me to hang my feeling of discontent on the book not selling in the massive volumes I had envisioned in its first two weeks of release and me not being the number one author in the country.
But it was only part of why I wasn’t as happy as I should have been. It wasn’t the whole truth. It wasn’t anywhere near the whole truth. It was just the easiest thing to say to my boss to explain why I wasn’t as high as a kite when my book was getting so much love out there. And it was plain to anyone that I wasn’t happy so I couldn’t very well lie and say, ‘Yes, I’m happy’, when my face, my body language, my tone of voice, told a different story.
I didn’t share with James the issue that was making me feel so low that had nothing to do with my sales figures. Because I hadn’t shared that with anyone, it was too raw.
You’re a fraud. You don’t belong here. You’re not a real writer. You haven’t earned this enough.
That was the track playing on repeat in my head.
The discontent had started on release day two weeks before. On the day that Beautiful Messy Love hit the shops, social media went crazy thanks to the amazing and generous people I was lucky enough to have supporting me. I also knew through my marketing and promotions manager at HarperCollins that the book was going into loads of shop windows around Australia and I’d been beside myself with excitement leading up to that. I’d put this very thing up on a vision board in 2015 and it had come true! My gorgeous team at HarperCollins actually had a busy bee where they sat and cut cardboard love hearts out long into the night to decorate the shop windows with. I couldn’t have been more pumped about it all. The shop displays were going to be more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.
But when it actually happened and the book hit those shop windows, I felt empty. All of release week I felt dead inside. And so, so guilty that I wasn’t happier. The real reason I felt empty was because deep down I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t a real writer. I didn’t belong in those shop windows. How could I be happy about something I didn’t deserve?
Then it was my launch party at the end of the week. It was a private party so everyone there was important to me. Being surrounded by the people I loved buoyed my spirits tremendously. But the following day that emptiness returned. I felt depressed. I wanted to sleep all day.
I kicked myself with images of people with cancer, people in war-torn countries. How dare I be depressed when I had all this privilege? What a diva I was, crying in the shower when I had the world at my feet and others had real problems. The self-loathing really set in.
Next it was time to hit the road for book tour. With a HarperCollins manager by my side, in each capital city on the East Coast I went into store after store, signing hundreds and hundreds of books, seeing the book front and centre everywhere. Living the dream, right?
You’re a fraud. You don’t belong here. You’re not a real writer. You haven’t earned this enough. That was the track playing on repeat in my head.
I went into a bookstore with my sales manager in Brisbane—they’d done up the most amazing display. The staff were so eager and happy and proud. I burst into tears and I couldn’t stop. They must have thought I was a complete lunatic. I was crying because of the effort they made for me when I felt I didn’t deserve it.
I did a live video being interviewed by Better Reading in Sydney that my publisher had organised—a real privilege and honour for me to be given that exposure. It had an insane number of hits. Not in my wildest craziest dreams did I ever think that many thousands of people would be interested in hearing what I had to say. But even as I type this, I still haven’t watched it myself. I can’t. I know how dead I felt when I recorded it and how I felt like I was living a lie, smiling for the cameras while thinking it was undeserved exposure. And that I wasn’t a real writer but only pretending to be one on that video.
When the book tour was finished my best friend Sarah and I plopped ourselves down at a pub in Brisbane for the afternoon before we were due to catch a flight home. I had a copy of WHO magazine in my hands that we had just picked up. There was a review in it for Beautiful Messy Love. I had made WHO’s top 12 Hot List. I have been subscribing to WHO for 25 years. I love those damn lists! I’m obsessed with those lists! And I was on one! This small review in the back pages of my favourite magazine triggered something inside me.
I cried like a baby. Sarah and I drank cocktails to celebrate the success of the book and for the first time in three weeks, I was genuinely celebrating because the pieces had finally fallen into place for me.
This was what I worked out. The dream was never success the way I imagined it. It wasn’t about number of sales, it wasn’t about being in shop windows, it wasn’t about being ‘known’ in the writing world. Those things were all amazing for sure, but the reason I couldn’t celebrate them up until then was because I’d lied to myself that they were the things that mattered to me.
It dawned on me in that pub, that it was recognition of my worth as a writer that I so dearly craved. My thought process up until then had been, ‘If I’m in shop windows, if I get great reviews, if my book sells…then I am a success.’
When that recognition came though, in the form of all of those things, I rejected it because I hadn’t recognised my own worth as a writer. If I felt like a fraud, how could I rejoice in my success? My opinion of myself as a writer was actually more important than any of it.
I read over what the review said in WHO magazine. I had written a book that was worthy of that. And I actually did feel worthy of the praise for once. God knows why that was the moment it fell into place, maybe it was just my obsession with WHO. But for whatever reason, it did fall into place. It was suddenly all so clear to me.
Being on the WHO Hot List didn’t make me happy because it was a sign of success, I was happy because I loved WHO magazine, I’d loved it for most of my life and now WHO loved me back! It wasn’t about racking up the good reviews on Goodreads, it was about what people wrote in the reviews that showed I had touched them in some way. It wasn’t about signing books in bookshops because that’s what successful writers get to do. The important thing to me was that my book was now widely available to hopefully reach and move more people and that when they opened the book they would find a special message just for them from me inside the front page. And signing books in bookshops meant that I could meet and connect with beautiful gorgeous booksellers, some of whom have become my best friends in the last couple of years.
Because I’d never felt like a real writer prior to that moment, I felt like I had to be this huge success story to prove to everyone that I was a real writer, not just some fly by night who struck it lucky and was savvy enough on social media to become a hit.
Realising that it actually wasn’t the fuss and fanfare that mattered to me in the end after all, but that it was my own belief in my writing that mattered the most and having that belief reflected by others, means that for the first time in my life I now know I’m a real writer. I’m no fraud. I wrote two good books and I edited them over and over and over. I poured my blood, my soul into those books. I deserve to be here as much as the next person does.
Whether I have been at it for years, or am new to the game makes no difference to my need to connect with people through my writing and that need to connect makes what I’m doing valid, no matter how new I am. There isn’t some magic number of, ‘Oh, you’ve been in writing groups for six years now. Congratulations you are now a real writer.’ I was a real writer from the first day I put pen to paper. And if the first thing I wrote resonated with others, that’s not something to be ashamed of, to self loathe over, it’s something to celebrate!
So, I repeat to myself daily now, ‘I’m no fraud. I want to connect with people through my words. I am a real writer.’
Realising that connecting with people through my words was what I was born to do has lifted away the darkness that ruined what should have been one of the happiest times in my life a few weeks ago. Next time, if there is a next time, rather than thinking, what am I doing here, I don’t deserve this, I don’t belong here—I will relish it. Should I ever have the opportunity to have my work celebrated again, I will relish it.
So, I repeat to myself daily now, ‘I’m no fraud. I want to connect with people through my words. I am a real writer.’
I look back on my book tour now and find that while I thought I was so unhappy at the time, I actually had many moments of deep joy. I just couldn’t see past the pity party. My besties from Perth flew over to join me in Sydney and Brisbane and our stolen time together as roommates away from our jobs and our kids was perfection. I loved spending time with my work team from HarperCollins. We went out for lunch in Sydney and I was so happy to be with them that I could have burst. Also in Sydney, I had breakfast with a precious friend that stretched into half a day and spent a whole evening with another gorgeous friend, eating and drinking and laughing. Michelle, my sales manager in Melbourne came back to my apartment after the Melbourne launch and we had such a special night with some of my very closest author friends, just having Chinese takeaway and hanging out and gossiping. I spent a night laughing till I cried with my old high school gang of nearest and dearest, had a whole morning locked away in a quiet café with my closest friend from my uni days and an afternoon lying around at my Mum’s cosy place with my oldest friend in the world. Then in Brisbane, I felt such an instant closeness to Erin, the sales manager there, that it was like we’d been friends forever. I talked ‘all the things’ with a beautiful friend over a three-hour long lunch and she even helped me to come up with a new direction to take my philanthropic work in which has made me crazy excited as I plan that new path now. One of my closest friends and I sat up talking till well past 2 am one night and it was non-stop hilarity! I caught up with my cousins who drove from the Gold Coast to see me and, again, I just wanted to freeze time.
Those nine days away on tour, connecting with all of these people I loved, gives me another reason to feel great about my writing, because it’s only through my writing that I could be in a position to do a book tour and have all these amazing experiences with people who were important to me. And for that I am so very grateful. I almost want to laugh now at how low I felt then. I want to shake myself! If only I had recognised my worth as a writer, I would have appreciated all of this while it was happening instead of being so busy self-loathing, thinking I didn’t deserve any of it and obsessing about my sales.
So, my darling Louise, the reason I finally feel fit enough to write you an essay is because I think now is my time. I had to wait a year from when you asked me because that’s how long it took me to grasp the message myself that I now want to get out there—that everyone who writes is a REAL writer and nobody needs to prove themselves the way I thought I did. In my determination to ‘Get there’ – I lost touch with why I was there in the first place, because I wanted to tell a story and move people.
I’m now back in my PJ’s writing a draft of my next book and my heart is full. This is what it’s about—creating. I love to write. Sometimes I hate it, but really I love it.
Will this next novel be a commercial success? Who knows? But I’m a real writer no matter what.
If you write but don’t have any credentials, you’re a real writer, you just happen to be one who hasn’t had formal training so hey, good for you for writing anyway, that’s gutsy! If you write commercial erotica or YA fantasy and you feel inferior to others who write stunning prize-winning narratives—you’re a real writer, you just write in a different way. (And, between you and me, I’d rather read your book than one that might bore me to tears with eighty-three pages describing a jumper.)
If you’re writing at home and nobody has read your work yet or they’ve read it and rejected it, so you don’t feel like a real writer, listen to me—you’re as real a writer as Jane Austen and Tim Winton are. The only difference between them and you is that you haven’t had the exposure they’ve had.
And trust me, exposure isn’t what makes you feel like a writer anyway. That just makes you feel more famous than you were before the exposure. (Or if you’re me it sends you on a path of self-destruction!)
Will this next novel be a commercial success? Who knows? But I’m a real writer no matter what.
Sitting down and writing, that’s what makes you a writer. The rest is just icing on the cake. Don’t pin your hopes on commercial success filling your heart. Don’t think, ‘Once I get a publishing deal, once my book is on a shelf, once I get X number of sales, once I get a five-star review, then I’ll be satisfied.’ I’m here to tell you that as amazing as all those things are, and as great as it is to set goals and strive for critical recognition, commercial success and financial rewards, none of those things will fill your heart like getting the words out of your soul and onto the page.
And show your writing to people, because when you believe in yourself and people connect with your work so that belief is reflected back at you, there is no greater feeling!
Thanks for having me on your blog, lovely Lou. I hope it was worth the never-ending wait! Love your work, lady. xx
Well worth the wait.
Thank you, honey.
Essays for Writers in the Attic
If you’d like to write a post for Writers in the Attic or would like to know more about writing one, please contact me. I’m going to take a break from early December, but I still have a few spots to fill before the end of the year.
The topic is anything to do with writing—your writing life, what writing means to you, or what has influenced your writing. 600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to contact me.
A reminder that I sent out my September newsletter last week. If you missed it, you can catch up on all the gossip here, and if you’d like to sign up so you don’t miss out in the future, you can do that here.