8 Jul 2014

Seven Crucial Things I've Learned As A Writer

  • To the older generation, getting published on teh interwebz means nothing.
My parents' generation (those in their 50s/60s and above) can be terribly quaint. They still buy proper newspapers, those bulky physical paper things, rather than reading the news on their iPads. They write actual letters and postcards, and even seem to enjoy receiving such things. They don't see text message or even email as an acceptable form of communication, and they are deeply suspicious of Facebook, viewing it as a dastardly medium which will inevitably result in molestation, stalking, identity theft and the end of your career, even if you only use it to chat to your schoolfriends and post pictures of your dog. So when it comes to publishing, they want to see Real Old-Style Evidence that you've written something. A webpage or a link does not impress your grandma. If it can't be cut out of this weekend's Telegraph and shown to the whole family, then it's not 'Proper Writing'. Never mind that some of the pieces of which I'm most proud have only been published online, or that I wrote a 19,000 word blog series that was widely read, acclaimed and reprinted across the globe. The internet may be the platform upon which my generation's whole life takes place, but to those born before 1955, it's still Not Really Real.
  • Everyone thinks they can do what you do
And hey, maybe they can. Blogging software has democratised writing to an extent that many people are putting their voices out there, and I've found that blogs by people who only do it as a hobby and do not consider themselves 'writers' as such, can be just as funny, articulate and thought-provoking as the work of those who write for a living. That said, there's nothing more irritating than telling someone what you do and them responding with "I've always thought I could write...", even when they work for Halifax and have never shown any sign of being seized upon by the muse. If you have written something, great! Tell me about it, I'd love to read it sometime. But don't idly speculate that you could do my job as if it's just something that one can pick up on a whim. It's serious business. It takes brains, talent and mind-melting effort. Don't tell me "I've always thought I've got a book in me...." if you've no intention of prising that book out of your core and putting it into words. It trivialises my job and makes you look ignorant of the work I put into it.
  • Everyone will say they'll buy your book. Those who actually do are worth kissing all over.
This one is by no means unique to writers. Artists, actors and musicians will all know exactly what it's like when friends trill "Oh sure, I'll come watch your play/see your band perform/visit your exhibition!". You know that if you're lucky, maybe one in ten of those people will actually make good on their promise, and the rest will flake. We know it's just life, it's just human nature, and we're all guilty of it ourselves (right now I'm thinking of a friend's art upcoming show which I've said I'll go and see, and am writing myself multiple reminders to make good on my promise). Nonetheless, it's incredibly frustrating. When the world and its whippet says they'll come to your book signing, and five people end up trailing through the door, plus a sixth an hour later who was just passing on their way to Starbucks and happened to see you, it's disheartening to say the least. However, those five people are worth their weight in gold and should be given massages, red velvet cupcakes and advance copies of all your future work signed with a lipstick kiss. They didn't flake when everyone else did, they remembered and they cared enough to come out and support you. Those people matter and deserve your thanks. 
  • If you tell people you've written a book, their next question will inevitably be "Is it published?"
...And if the answer is no, their level of interest will plummet by 99%
As with the first point, physical books published by 'real publishers' still retain a kind of clout that people are impressed by. We're a terrible, shallow, fickle race really, susceptible to the sway of big names and promises of money. Never mind that you poured your heart and soul into 90,000 words - if those words only exist as a PDF on your computer, rather than an actual tome people can buy, put on their shelves and admire (preferably with a HarperCollins logo on the spine), then no one's interested.
  • Trying to get published the traditional way is like trying to nail a jelly to the ceiling
I've written 3 books since I decided to really give writing a go back in 2009. Back then, approaching a publisher or an agent involved 1) Buying a massive compendium such as The Writer and Artist's Yearbook or The Writers' Market and trawling through the whole thing A - Z, highlighting possible outlets who might be open to your work. 2) Printing out 50 pages/3 chapters of your book, plus a synopsis, an author biography and a covering letter plus SAE to send, since for some reason publishers have been extremely slow to start accepting electronic submissions. 3) Waiting for up to FOUR MONTHS for a response - that is, indeed, IF the publisher or agent ever deigns to get back to you. If you're lucky, publishers accept simultaneous submissions so you can fling out several at a time, but by no means all do.
Just for fun, take a look at the spreadsheet I began keeping when I started submitting my first novel, 'Phil' to publishers. I've generally stopped keeping track like this nowadays, because it's frankly just too depressing. Out of 24 publishers and agents, 7 never responded to me. That's a pretty lousy hit rate for all that time and effort (not to mention 200+ wasted sheets of paper and a fair bit of printer ink sent to the four publishers who refused to accept email submissions). Of those who did deign to get back to me, it was not unusual to wait 3 months for a response, which in the event would likely be a photocopied slip of paper with my name filled in, saying "Ta, but it's not for us." Occasionally I'd get a slightly more personal response but there would be no useful feedback and usually a maddeningly cryptic phrase like "We did not feel sufficiently passionate about your work to take it any further." I know publishers are pushed for time and it's not their job to give fledgling writers critiques, but frankly I'd prefer it if someone just bluntly said "I thought it sucked" rather than rejecting my work in such pretentious terms.
Agent 16/06/2009 Phil Email Rejected 16/06/2009
Agent 17/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 17/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Email Rejected 20/07/2009
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 23/06/2009 Phil Post NO RESPONSE
Agent 24/06/2009 Phil Post Rejected 21/08/2009
Agent 26/07/2009 Phil Email Rejected 07/08/2009
Agent 26/07/2009 Phil Email Rejected 01/10/2009
Agent 10/08/2009 Phil Post Rejected 01/12/2009
Agent 18/11/2009 Phil Post Rejected 13/01/2010
Agent 05/01/2010 Phil Email Rejected 06/01/2010
Agent 06/01/2010 Phil Post Rejected 27/01/2010
Publisher 13/01/2010 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
Publisher 21/01/2010 Phil Post Rejected 28/01/2010
Publisher 10/02/2010 Phil Email Rejected 24/02/2010
Publisher 10/03/2010 Phil Post Rejected 31/10/2010
Publisher 20/04/2010 Phil Email Rejected 06/08/2010
Publisher 12/08/2010 Phil Email Rejected 16/08/2010
Agent 04/04/2011 Phil Email Rejected
Agent 04/04/2011 Phil Post Rejected 7/5/11
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email Rejected 1/12/11
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
Agent 11/11/2011 Phil Email NO RESPONSE
  • Writing takes no time at all. It's everything else that takes the time.
When people ask me "Ooooh, does it take long to write a book?" I always say no, and they're always surprised. But I really believe that people miscategorise "Time spent writing". What they really mean is "10 mins of actual typing, followed by 10 mins spent  checking email, 10 on Facebook, 10 on Pinterest, 10 making a cup of tea, 10 trying to get back into the flow of typing but you can't because you've lost the momentum by getting distracted with all the other stuff, and oh bollocks there's a whole hour gone." Actual, pure, nothing-but-writing writing doesn't take much time at all, but it's rare that a writer actually gets into this mode. We all live lives that demand constant multi-tasking and which try to seduce us away from our work with multiple distractions. Of course, there is writing that requires a lot of work around the writing  - research, interviews, correspondence - and you can't always rush that. But even then, we all know that "research" can easily translate into "10 minutes of productive Googling followed by 30 minutes getting into a pointless argument on Twitter" or "Half an hour looking at relevant books in the library followed by an hour browsing the fiction section just for fun". It's not writing that takes the time, it's all the pissing about and procrastinating that we do around the writing. I challenge any writer to disagree with me...
  • It can suck so much, but there's still no other job that comes near it.
Pursuing writing or any other creative career means throwing yourself upon the mercy of a deeply uncertain market and numerous variables you can't control. Just in the five years since I started writing fiction, the publishing market has been turned upside down by the advent of e-books and the increasing decline of the print market (and with it, the slow death of traditional bookshops - which makes me so sad I can't even get into it here). If you refuse to self-publish and believe that you should be paid for your work, you have to be pretty stoical, not to mention driven, to make any headway. Yet for all the rejections, silences, time-wasting, money worries, career worries, self-doubt, and temptation to slug the next person who breezes "So where's this bestseller then?", I wouldn't trade it for anything. My writing has taken me across oceans, both literally and virtually. It's introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise and brought some of my dearest friends into my life. It's got people talking, arguing, agreeing, exclaiming, confessing, enthusing. It's allowed me to put my voice out there and have it listened to, it's resulted in me being asked to speak on TV, on the radio, at conferences. It's made my family proud of me, it's made me proud of myself. It's kept me sane. It's kept me alive. And sometimes, it's even earned me some bleedin' money.
Catherine Scott encourages you to buy her book, check out her published clips and never, ever say the words "Well, E L James managed it!" to her.

1 comment:

Judith Hurrell said...

Great post! As a writer I've been through this and feel your pain. As someone who works for your new publishers (BNBS) I hope we can make it all worthwhile in the end. xx