Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Michael Malone: When You Don't Expect IT


Sometimes it's easy for those of us authors who have not yet been published to look at stories from authors who have track-records or are making a splash and disconnect ourselves from their stories of overcome challenges to meet success.  It is as if, to us, they are special and have received a special blessing not dispensed to us.  Debut Scottish crime writer Michael Malone has signed a contract to publish his first novel, but as recently as last September, he was a "regular joe" just like the rest of us.  For Michael, it's all about persistence -- something that often pays off when you're not expecting it.

Do you have a dog? When there’s a knock at the door, who’s the first to reach it? The dog, right? If the door goes 100 times of an evening, the dog will run to it every time. And the thing is... it’s never for him.

That, my friends is a facile, but effective description of persistence. A quality that writers and artists, indeed anyone, working in a creative field or anyone with a goal has to master.

The creative world is full of stories of people who persisted until...One of my favourite writers is a fella called R.J. Ellory. Roger wrote 22 novels in 15 years. He amassed over 600 rejection letters and yet he kept going until...

Where would you have given up? When would you have decided that enough was enough? 20? 120? Would you have sold your computer to the Samaritans and jumped off the roof of the nearest library shouting – you’ll never know what you could have had!  Would you have reached anywhere near 600? Or would you have like Roger, kept on going until...

Roger often talks about having a constancy of purpose. I love that. How does one achieve such a thing? Constant reminders? Keeping in touch with your goal? Giving yourself permission not to be distracted by television, housework, gardening, youtube, plucking your earlobes (honestly, the more I lose on my head the more it grows elsewhere)?

Thinking of my own journey thus far, their have been a fair few disappointments and a goodly number of rejections to deal with. Yet, taking my cue from Roger I persist...

My work ethic is not quite as focused as Roger’s. I’m part driven and part lazy bastard. Not the best combination. I wrote two novels in three years. I attracted an agent who was distracted by other clients and other ambitions and the books got nowhere. This was a big learn for me. Attracting an agent may be A Big Step but it is no guarantee. Still I dealt with the disappointment – eventually - and moved novel 3 and while I was submitting this novel I began work on novel 4.

I came close with novel 3. Very close. A major publisher was so serious they were talking to me about what pen name I might use.  There is an American author called Michael Malone who beat me to it by a few years. 

It fell through. I was crushed. I was like Man Under a Giant Boulder Crushed. I went into a huff with the world. I had a petted lip the size of the skip on a baseball cap. Pushing the boulder off with a few choice curses – bastards was the mot juste if memory serves me well -  I carried on working on book 4 never losing sight of the overall goal. I will be a published writer. I will earn my living from writing. This became my mantra.

I attracted another agent. This one was prepared to work hard for me. And she did. Most of the big publishing houses in London have read my crime novels. Again, I have come very close. Some of the rejections were a basic “thanks, but no thanks” and in some ways this is easy to deal with. They didn’t “get” the books. Fine. It was the rejections that turned the books down in rave terms. “Had to stay up all night to finish...” “I LOVED the main character”, “Michael Malone is an accomplished writer who tells a satisfying tale”.

They say that and then they say NO? What the fuck is going on here? I’ve also been turned down because I have written a book set in Scotland. It appears the major UK publishing houses have a quota of Scottish based crime fiction. Who knew? And is this a form of marketing racism? Whatever, it is damn disappointing, I can move to Manchester, dude.

Each subsequent rejection has strangely become easier to take.  The first few were difficult. I say difficult, in essence I wanted to crawl into a hole, suck on my thumb till it shrunk to the bone and never come out. A few walls were punched. More than a few curses were thrown into the air. I might have said the C word a few times and the F word.  And maybe even the other B word. On each occasion it took a couple of days for the cloud of defeat to disperse and for me to regain my equilibrium.  And a positive expectation.

Now? I’ve gained enough experience to see that I was moving one “NO” closer to a “YES” with each knockback. 

Let's give all of this activity some context: fourteen years have passed since I finished that first novel.

More recently, my book was on the desk of two of the largest crime publishers in the UK and two independents. One of the majors I am alluding to here said I was " too good to let go" but they didn't have a space for me. They would hold on to me until some space became apparent. Two years later and I'm still waiting. 

This is a form of torture, people!

It was the Scottish thing again. Frustrated? Yes! Giving up? Hell, no! More months have passed and one of the indies came through with a tentative offer. They had applied to the English Arts Council for funding and they were optimistic about receiving it. They wanted to use some of the funds from this towards bringing me and my book to the market. They would know by the end of January 2010. Could I hold on until then?

Could I hold on? This was a cue for some air-punching and dancing.
The calender jumps beyond January 2020 and no word. I sent a polite email. There was a swift response. It seems they had just heard that morning that their funding request had been rejected. They could no longer afford to publish my book.

To say I was devastated would be like saying Wikileaks are currently making a bit of nuisance of themselves. However, I've found that losing myself in my work is the best possible therapy. I would simply write the book that was so good they couldn't refuse me, so I got back into book 5; finished that and began work on book 6. By the time I finished book 6, which was around the end of October I was back in touch with the small independant.

They were in an improved situation and they could make a full offer. I signed and returned the contract just a few weeks ago and I've now sent them the manuscript so we can begin the editing process. 

Perseverance. What is it? The ability to go through the fear of failure, the fear of success (yes, I know its crazy, but it’s real) the rejections, the frustrations, the defeats and come out the other side with your goal still alive and intact in your mind.

F.Scott Fitzgerald said you should never mistake any single defeat for a final defeat.

Winston Churchill said, ‘never, never, never, never give up.’

When I started out writing this post, I didn’t intend for it to turn out like a lecture, but I’m sorry I’m not going to apologise (see what I did there). It is what it is. 

To be fair, it’s probably an epistle to me, but I hope you get some benefit from it.

I’d like to leave the final few words to Calvin Coolidge.

“Press on. Nothing can take the place of persistence. 
Talent will not; the world is full of unsuccessful people with talent. 
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. 
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. 
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Here’s to pressing on.

Michael Malone

You can keep up with Michael Malone and find updates about his publication and the start of what will hopefully be a knock-out career, at his blog: May Contain Nuts.



  1. All excellent advice! I would say the two hardest things for a writer to cope with are (a) waiting and (b) disappointment. They never get any easier. But I always think it's the journey - the actual writing process: the creativity, the flow, the being carried away with what you're writing about, those magic moments when the WIP simply seems to write itself - that makes it all worthwhile. Otherwise why on earth would we put ourselves through all the pain?

  2. Michael,

    Thanks so much for being willing to share this honest description of your own experience and to give us us some solid takeaways.

    Everyone -- Michael has blogged on this topic before, and should you wish to read more from him about his experiences and his advice on getting going in the writing biz, please visit this entry, this post, this one, or this this one.

  3. @Frances - I think you're right about the waiting and the disappointment. I've gotten better over time at managing disappointment. I'm still the world's worst at waiting, period, in all aspects of life. I'm gonna be a wreck once I start querying. haha

    That's an interesting point, too, about the pay-off for writers, and I might just want to do a blog entry sometime about what that pay-off is. For me, I enjoy the actual writing, but the pay-off is in reader experience. I love that light-bulb moment, whether it's when I'm teaching or when I'm writing.

  4. Wow- my stress level would have shot out the roof waiting like he did. LOL But every author has their own story and I'm glad you allow them to tell it C.N.

  5. That is a patient, passionate man. I won't ask for the same patience as I hope to not have to use it but it's good to know that even when it seems like there's no way, you should keep trying!

    Thanks for sharing, Michael, and thanks for posting this Nevets!

  6. wow, wow, wow. What a story! Rock on, Michael.

  7. Hey, Nevets. Thanks for the opportunity to tell my story.

  8. @Summer - Yeah, I think I might have had at least three breakdowns during that period and probably thrown at least a couple of laptops against a wall.

    @Leigh - The more I hear about getting published, the more it sounds like a love story. My wife had given up on guys and I on girls before we met. She was thinking about being a nun. I was thinking about being a singer-songwriter priest. Then, we we weren't expecting anything, we met and it was an avalanche after that. lol

    @Elena - Isn't it?! I love it!

    @Michael - You're welcome. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    I know I should be intimidated by the number of arbitrary rejections you received, but I find it perversely comforting to think about all the arbitrary reasons someone might have for rejecting my stuff. Makes the prospect of rejection sting a bit less.

  9. you'll never know how your story may keep one person going, Michael. thanks for the reveal. t

  10. I share your pain and commend you for publicly acknowledging yours. Every "no" we writers receive brings us that much closer to the ultimate "yes."

    Thanks for sharing your "yes!" Way to go!

  11. I liked the comparison with the dog who goes to the door. I can quote a ancient Hindu Text, " Do not look at the result, look only at the work and do your duty and the result shall follow."

  12. For me the ideal mindset is high aspirations with low expectations. Make your work as good as you can get it, but regard the just reward as a bonus.

  13. Inspiring post, Michael. And he's a really nice guy, folks. You so deserve all that success coming soon!

  14. Great, honest post Michael. You're right, persistence is all. Having read some of your stuff, though, I'm genuinely surprised it took so long for one of them to come to their senses and see its value. You can stop swearing now.

  15. @Thea - It's very true! I've been doing this series for a little while now on authors' overcoming struggles, and several times other folks who stopped by have said, "Wow, that's just what I needed to hear right now."

    @Linda - It's great isn't it? Up-coming authors need to understand that there are nos and that nos are miserable, but that there are also yeses and that yeses are amazing!

    @RB - That's a great saying, and a good reminder. It's so easy to get trapped by looking at the goal and completely lose track of what it is you're actually doing or supposed to be doing.

    @Tim - That's a very level-headed and mature mindset, and I think on certain optimal days I share it. hahaha

    @Rosemary - Nice and funny. Too many of his jokes and funny stories take place in Scotland, of course... ;)

    @Bill - Isn't it's amazing sometimes how long the battle is for folks? Shows the importance of not only persisting but of believing in yourself, I think. If you didn't believe in yourself, persistence could easily turn into tiredly trudging along.

  16. Like many here, I'm not surprised at your success. As a matter of fact I think I told you last year you would get published in 2010. Call it ESP.

    But 14 years! What an encouraging story for us writers who would do it for love, but would prefer to publish. Thanks for the honesty we're so used to getting from you on your blog.

    And for the record, we'd read the book BECAUSE it's set in Scotland. Right, Thea?

  17. Thanks, everyone for the messages.

    Rosemary, bless you.

    Bill - stop swearing? Really? Me?

    Nevets, the arbitrary and contradictory nature of some of the rejections was a big learn for me. The decision makers are just as lost as the rest of us. It is always going to be a best-guess scenario when they eventually say yes. So my view became, why not me?

  18. What an excellent post! WOW! Thanks to both of you for sharing this. I can't imagine getting that close and having the door shut on you - more than once. Michael, you have an amazing perspective! And I'm never going to look at a dog the same again as it races for the door...

  19. Thank you, Michelle. I avoided the pun at the time of writing - but doggedness is the key, no?

  20. @Michelle - Yeah, I hope some day, if my path is at all similar, I have the same resilience as Michael does!

    @Michael - Pardon me while I groan.


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