When I first told family and friends that I wanted to be a children’s author and that I was going to try and get Hannah and the Hollow Tree, my debut novel, published the one thing I heard over and over again was that, apparently, I would be the next JK Rowling.
My reactions would to and fro between…
“I’m not good enough… but you never know, yeah maybe one day…if I can get an agent.”
Some days, the pendulum would be still and thoughts like…
“Never gonna happen.” and “I’d be way too scared to handle all that.”
would hold firm. Even responses like…
“Ooh, no. I’m nowhere near as good. Be as successful as JK Rowling? I’m definitely not expecting that at all.”
Rejections All Round
As I reflect now, all I hear is fear.
When I first entered into the idea of publishing my first book, I followed the only route I thought possible – traditional – because self-publishing was vanity publishing, and something peered down upon through polished spectacles with disdain.
Like Rowling, many rejections came. Some polite: “Not for us, but good luck elsewhere.” Frequently, tumble weeds passed the letterbox. Rejection goes with the territory for writers. I’d have to get used to it. Still, it hurt.
Was there no-one who believed in me? No-one who’d give Hannah’s story a chance?
“JK Rowling had hundreds of rejections. Keep going. It will happen.”
I don’t actually know if it was hundreds. You’d have to ask her, but still you start to believe you’re unworthy. Fear bleeds into your soul and robs you of your own self-belief that you can tell stories and do it well enough – well enough to meet “industry” standards. It’s all about getting on the shelves at Waterstones.
People would laugh and say, “Remember the little people when you’re a famous author.” Or… “You’ll be the next Rowling, mark my words.”
Strong rejections were seen as a good thing, rather than what they sound like. It meant you were close, but no cigar. They started to consider entry into the club, but found your attire didn’t quite meet the mark.
And so it was, I became the “but” of rejections.
“We’d love to but we have someone similar on our books.”
“We enjoyed the story, but…”
“You can definitely write, but…”
“Great theme, but…”
It was my NQT year all over again (I’d received ten straight rejections from schools after graduating as a Newly Qualified primary school Teacher).
I was the perennial near-Miss.
And I grew sick of it.
Clearly, I wasn’t good enough.
After bouts of being severely bullied as a child, the rejections began taking their toll on what little self-worth I had left.
But maybe it had to be that way. Maybe they could see my heart wasn’t in “it” – teaching that is.
It was true. My heart was elsewhere.
Martyn, Maria and the Master
So, after years of rejections, I took myself back to Leeds Trinity and attended an interview for the Masters in Creative Writing. I was nervous. This mattered to me. The interviewer, Martyn Bedford was an acclaimed author. And, he was held in such high esteem by my dear friend, Maria Frankland who had recently graduated and was really beginning to live the dream as an author. She was adamant I apply.
Martyn was wonderful. He spoke honestly and openly and I knew instantly that I wanted to do that MA more than anything. He was swift and offered me a place. I couldn’t believe someone outside of family and friends believed, not only in Hannah’s story, but in me as a writer.
Surely now I was on course to secure an agent and a publishing deal? I was doing an MA for goodness’ sake!
Bullets and Contracts
I pushed harder than ever and, for one brief moment, it looked like an agent might actually consider me. But hopes were dashed having had the audacity to actually chase a reply!
Then, there was the near-miss. A bullet dodged, thanks to the Society of Authors for their contractual advice after a small indie press showed enthusiasm, but in a Gollum-like manner.
One evening in late autumn 2017, I stood in my kitchen sobbing, pouring my heart out to my husband, completely distraught. He dried the tears and helped me rationalise everything, as he so often does.
Two funerals and a Death Eater
A short while later, someone said, “JK Rowling had it tough. Keep going. Look what she went through.”
So I researched, unsure of what exactly had been tough for her.
And there it was… she, too had lost her mother as I had not even two years before. And both mothers had passed before Hannah and Harry had entered the world.
JKR had created the Death Eaters as a response to her grief. I knew this pain, too. Every scrap of life and joy was sucked from my soul as it did hers and, as grief so often does, it took me (and her, too, I’d venture), into the darkest of realms.
But just as she did, I kept on writing. It’s cathartic. I’d recommend any sort of writing to help with anxiety or depression – no matter what the root cause.
A pencil and paper are easy-access recovery tools.
Scars and Steps
Although, JKR was eventually snapped up by an agent and publisher, and rightly so, I had decided to turn my back on the traditional route; scars still tender.
I began to question the process.
Why should it be up to an agent to say if my stories are good enough? Shouldn’t readers decide that?
And so it was that I took my first steps along the indie path and once on it, I ran. I consumed every scrap of content I could on how you became an independent author. The Creative Penn and Self-Publishing Show podcasts filled the airwaves of every commute where once Mum’s voice had.
By 2018, I was ready to launch Hannah and the Hollow Tree. I chose my favourite coffee shop in Farsley, down the road from my home town of Pudsey.
Now with an actual book “out there” – murmurings of reaching JKR’s status ramped up a little more. Although kindly meant, it did little to help my imposter syndrome. Internally, I became the poster child for how easily comparison truly is the thief of joy.
After the loss of Dad, I found solace in Gaia’s Revenge. And exactly a year to the day since publishing Hannah, I followed with Book Two.
A few months ago, I attended an “entrepreneur coaching call” from the author of High Performance Habits to try and understand what success as an entrepreneur author really meant. During the call with the coach (not Brendon himself) I was offered an opportunity to speak and so began rambling trying to formulate my question. Whilst doing so, I uttered the words…
“Oh, I don’t expect to be the next JK Rowling. Lord, no!”
The coach stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Jane, do you realise, you not only fear failure, but fear success, too?”
It floored me.
Had all those rejections scarred me so deeply that, even with two books published to good reviews, I didn’t believe I was good enough to achieve the levels of success akin with authors like JK Rowling?
Was I really attending a Masquerade Ball, being twirled by doubt, judgement and imposter-syndrome?
Where had my sheer-bloody-mindedness gone?
Having had time to digest the revelation and reflect, the idea of success and what it means struck me again just a few days ago.
I’d been scrolling through the posts of one of the writing communities I follow, when I noticed it. Someone had asked if anyone could name any successful independent children’s authors as they wanted to do research in the hope they too could do the same.
Several people hopped on to offer their insights or share their own achievements – all absolutely fabulous and to be applauded.
However, I couldn’t help but wonderful just how successful did they mean? Sadly, (when I read the post) there wasn’t one name that could equate to Rowling or Rundell, Walliams or Wilson, Dahl or Lewis who had reached the upper echelons of success (success being subjective, of course) that I believe this person actually meant, and was an independent author. But maybe that’s just the UK market?
It saddened me.
I was peed off, too.
When the dust settled, I discovered something overwhelming – the post had sparked something in me – something buried so deep, and I knew I could be one of those to change that.
Why are there no hugely successful, visible independent children’s authors?
Yes, there are plenty who write for adults. But children? At such a comparative level?
I became determined. Determined to become one – among what I hope will become many – notably successful independent children’s authors.
For all those indie authors out there who are scared to try. For all those aspiring writers, no matter what their age, who dream of becoming a children’s author. It most certainly requires gumption!
Indies can write, and write well. I’d argue that we work harder than our “traditional” brothers and sisters but only because we do everything.
Being sans agent and sans publisher, we are the marketers, the content creators, the social media managers, the website developers, the distributors, the formatters… (You get the picture, right?)
Blazing a Trail
JK Rowling inspired a generation of readers and captured the hearts and imaginations of the world with Harry Potter. With children’s reading again in decline, perhaps I can do the same with Hannah’s story?
Being an indie shouldn’t mean a barrier sits between me and that level of success, that level of inspiration for all those who wish to pursue their passions with purpose. The technological revolution has changed that. It’s just hearts and minds that need to catch up.
I’m J.A Browne, author of The Earth Chronicles. It’s a pleasure to meet you.