In November last year, bestselling action author and bona fide super geek Matthew Reilly stopped off in Perth as part of his book tour to promote The Four Legendary Kingdoms, the latest instalment in his uber-successful Jack West Jr series.
Keen to hear him speak about being a writer, I went along to his packed-out evening talk at Wesley College, a posh private boys’ school. I scored a seat in the nosebleed section, looking entirely out of place decked out in my favourite Five Finger Death Punch jersey and Obey cap among the white-collar types and the blazer-wearers. I’m fairly sure a pre-emptive suspicious persons report was filled out in my honour.
But I digress. Matthew Reilly was fascinating to listen to, and spoke with the confidence of someone who has been successful for a long time. He handled the Q & A like a seasoned pro. What’s most interesting about Reilly is not so much his phenomenal success as an Australian author – for which I reckon he never gets enough credit in his homeland – but his path to becoming a megastar. After being rejected by every major publisher and their poodles, Reilly self-published his first novel Contest in 1996 when he was only in his early twenties. After convincing the owner of a local bookshop to sell it, the book was spotted by an editor from Pan Macmillan, and he picked up a publishing contract.
I look up to Matthew Reilly for a number of reasons. He’s an Aussie author. He writes action/adventure novels, which I love reading. Jack West Jr is an Australian character, which I think is awesome in a blockbustery kind of novel. My fantasy novels tend to the more actiony end of the spectrum, so Reilly’s also an influence on my own work. While he often cops stick for not being “literary” enough, critics who level that at him are a little off-base. Action thrillers are a different genre to literary fiction: fans read these books because they want to be entertained. They don’t want to see Jack navelgazing for two-thirds of the book about his feelings. Reilly writes his novels as if they’re films, and once you take that on board, it’s easier to see what he’s doing.
Anyway, after the talk, I waited in a very long line (about an hour and a half, from memory) to get my copy of The Four Legendary Kingdoms signed. We were given cupcakes by the organisers, which was a nice touch. Then I got to meet the author, shake his hand, take a photo and have a brief chat with him.
Seizing my chance for advice, I told Reilly I was writing a YA Fantasy novel, that he was an influence on my work, and if he had any advice for me as I approached the querying process.
I figured it might be a boring, common question for him that would receive a one-line response, but to my pleasant surprise, Reilly was incredibly generous with his time. He essentially stopped the queue and rattled off a sequence of rapid-fire advice to me, which I quickly tried to memorise.
He made a point of adding one final piece of advice.
“Revise your manuscript again,” he said, locking eyes with me in a way that said take this seriously. “No matter how much you think it’s finished and polished, there’s always one more revision to be done.”
I nodded and smiled and thanked him for his time, and shuffled along past the weary-looking event staff.
But did I take the expert advice of this intelligent, successful, bestselling author seriously?
Because I am what the French would call un connard, and the Aussies would call an arrogant fuckwit.
Most artists, myself included, tend to see-saw in a slightly unhinged manner between crippling, overwhelming self-doubt and full-blown narcissism. Sadly, that day was an egoic one: my head was wedged firmly within the warm dankness of my colon.
“Oh, Matthew, you know not who you are dealing with,” said a slightly medieval-toned fellow in my head. “For I have done seven drafts of this manuscript. I have worked with one of the greatest editors in the land, and another copyeditor has tidied it up. I am not some garden-variety amateur writer. I don’t need another revision. You, sir, are wrong.”
So I took my seventh draft of a manuscript and queried my first round of agents. I had to wait until the new year for responses. One finally came through: a form rejection, which stung. Another never replied after the initial acknowledgement of receipt.
But the third agent emailed back and said he was interested in seeing the full manuscript.
I did some metaphorical backflips, sobbed uncontrollably (that was a day of doubt) and then calmly replied with a “please see attached, kind regards” kind of way that successfully disguised how ecstatic/utterly destroyed I was.
Just getting a full request was proof, to me, that I wasn’t totally rubbish. I was good enough to generate professional interest. Even if it came back as a no, it was a confidence boost.
A couple of weeks later, I came back home from a run around the block and felt my phone vibrating. An Eastern states number. I tried to stop panting and answered in a level voice.
It was the agent who’d requested the full.
This is it, I thought. Agents don’t waste time calling people unless they’re offering representation. This is my moment!
“Great to hear from you!” I gushed to the agent.
There was an awkward silence at the other end of the line.
“Uh, you might want to hear what I have to say first, before you say that,” he said simply.
It was a rejection.
A thirty-minute phone call of a rejection, which is now my high water mark for how much disappointment my body can physically take.
The agent liked my manuscript. He said it was a strong read. He said he came to care about the characters and really liked some of them. But the word he used for the novel was “competent”, which cut me deeply. You want your accountant to be competent. You want a novel to excite you. And he wasn’t excited.
“It’s competent, but not good enough,” he said. “It really has got to be jolly good.”
I took copious notes, because this phone call – as crushing as it was – was a gift. This incredibly busy, successful agent was bothering to spend half an hour of his time on the phone with me, a no-name writer trying to get my first novel published who wasn’t an existing client. This was incredibly generous of him, and I asked as many questions as I could.
Some of his feedback didn’t land, because it was off-base for the type of story I wanted to write. But a lot of his feedback struck a nerve. It hurt because I knew he was right. Once I thought about it, and looked at the manuscript, I could see he was on point on a few matters. The manuscript still needed work.
After self-flagellating with a cat o’ nine tails and gnashing my teeth for the past few weeks, I’m finally ready to actually talk about this.
Because it means I’m no longer at the querying stage. I have to go back a step, and do an eighth draft.
You know, like Matthew Reilly told me to do.
Tail between my legs, I will admit I should’ve listened to him in the first place.
So what’s next? I’m working on a YA novel at the moment. I’m going to finish that first, because it’s burning with more urgency. And once the first draft of that is complete, I will return to my fantasy manuscript and start working on the eighth draft. And I’m going to make sure it’s bloody excellent.
Failure has always motivated me to do better, and this is no exception. I won’t finish with this novel until it is so good it demands a place on bookshelves; and I won’t stop until it’s published and sitting on one.