2016 marks ten years since I was first properly published. My first publication was a short story called ‘The Big Drift’, put out by Comma Press in an anthology called Parenthesis (republished as an ebook in 2009). Since then there have been twenty more short stories published, four novels, five jobs, five house moves, and we’ve had two children. So it’s been a big and busy ten years. It’s been really good.
So, ten things for ten years of professional writing. Not writing tips (god, no), not terrible truths (don’t know any), not lessons learned. Just ten…observations, maybe.
- In retrospect, it’s easy to get the impression that one piece of writing work leads on into the next – a published short story is liked by an editor, the editor invites some more short stories to a different anthology, a couple of short stories (‘Depth Perception’ and ‘Fell’) get worked back into the ongoing novel, the novel is picked up by a publisher (thanks in my case to mentor, editor, agent and friend Nicholas Royle), editors of anthologies see it, etc. But of course none of that is guaranteed, at the time. (See No. 2).
- This is a frequent observation, but it bears repeating. If you’re a professional writer, you’re always waiting – waiting for the story acceptance, waiting for the editor to reply and say that yes, she will accept the stories, waiting for the publisher to get back to you with the novel acceptance, waiting for the editorial letter that might be full of glowing praise or might be a kindly-worded ‘your book’s a bag of shit’. You’re so frequently just waiting, absolutely certain that that last thing you had published was actually the last ever. And there’s a sick fear that comes with that.
- You don’t tend to get into this sort of thing unless you really, really want it, and of course if you really, really want something, then getting it – or potentially losing it – is a source of great anxiety.
- The fear and anxiety (Nos. 3 & 4) are why it’s so hard for writers (just take it as read that when I say ‘writers’ I mean writers and equivalent – artists, freelance web-designers, musicians, whoever) to say no to stuff. To short story invitations, for example. Even when the work is unpaid. Because you’re scared that if you start turning work down, then the work will stop coming. You convince yourself that this is the anthology that will somehow magically find its way into the hands of Stephen King or whoever, and make him a huge fan of yours, and so of course you’ve got to stay up all night working on your contribution. Then you’ve got to do the whole promo thing. If you don’t try to get the word out, why should anybody else? Maybe this Facebook post or this tweet or this linked review is the one that will really grab everybody, this is the one that will make a difference, etc. But of course it doesn’t really make a difference – or at least, not a positive one. It might irritate people. (I think it does). Anyway, this is kind of obvious and covered well elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it. But the point is, it took me a while – a few years, if not the whole ten – to realise that these feelings are actually desperation, and desperation is not only unhelpful, but damaging. Completely understandable (see above re. the fear of failure), but damaging.
- Fervent online self-promo doesn’t work. Not for me, and, given various conversations with other writers and editors, not for others. What we writers want – what No. 4 and this, No. 5, are about generating – is reader enthusiasm, and a load of writers banging on about their own work doesn’t really generate reader enthusiasm…it probably dampens it. A cynic might argue that the obvious way to generate reader enthusiasm is to write an objectively great book, but of course no such thing exists, and:
- The truth is that all writers submitting their work for publication think that the work is, on some level, good. Otherwise they wouldn’t bother. Writing a book takes a lot of time, a lot of deep thought, a lot of mental energy, a lot of discipline. It can be fun, but it’s never easy. To finish a book – to put all of that into it – does require a degree of self-confidence, and it does require that the writer thinks the book is good enough for other people to want to read. Hence why ‘write a better book’ is pretty meaningless advice for writers who want to expand their readership. (‘Keep writing in order to get better’, on the other hand…)
- We should all be enthusiastic readers. There a books I read and that I love, but…do I leave Amazon reviews? No. Do I tweet about them? No. Do I buy them as gifts? Well, sometimes – yeah. But I need to be more enthusiastic about what I read. I know from experience what a huge difference it makes when a reader is enthusiastic about your work (in short, it’s the difference between stopping and carrying on) but more than that – we owe it to other readers, and we owe it to the books themselves. A good book deserves to be read, it deserves to do well, and in this climate and this economy, they need all the help they can get.
- A corollary to No. 7 – I don’t feel qualified to criticise in any meaningful way the work of other writers. I’ve declined opportunities to review for the papers for this reason. Just because writers all broadly work with the same medium – language – doesn’t mean that they’re doing the same thing at all. They don’t necessarily share intentions or motivations or values or notions of quality or anything. The medium is so huge that it’s a mistake to assume commonality across those working within in. I could not comment on the success or failure of somebody else’s book, because I’d first have to basically guess at their intention and the means by which they were hoping to achieve their intent, and lots of other stuff, and that would be unfair. And, just as importantly, I don’t have the desire to put myself into a position where I might have to be negative about another writer’s work. Bad reviews are awful to be on the receiving end of, and I don’t want to do that to somebody else.
- I like – and try to write – books that don’t feel hermetically sealed. A book has to stick in the throat to be really memorable. It has to be rough-edged, or slightly incomplete, so that the reader’s mind can mesh with it. Books too slick, too finished, too carefully engineered – these are easily swallowed and easily forgotten.
- It takes a while to work out what you’re writing, and why. I don’t think I’m fully there yet, but I’ve got an idea. When I write fiction, I’m trying to translate the feelings and nebulous concepts that exist in me at a sub-language, pre-language level into communicable truths. Feelings and ideas that cannot be expressed simply as such. (And I’m not the only one – think of the old truism ‘if I could summarise the novel in a sentence or two, then I wouldn’t have written the novel’). There is much in us that can only be expressed and explored through the magic – and it is magic – of fiction or other art. That’s what I’m trying to, that’s what I’ve been trying to do for ten years, that’s what I’m going to keep trying to do.
And two resolutions:
- I don’t want to review books, but I do want to share my enthusiasm for what I read. So my new year’s resolution for 2016 was to start an online reading record, which I have done, and which you can find on Pinterest. It consists of photos of the books and some positive commentary. Positive only. What I’ve read, what I like about it. It’s early days, but I’m enjoying it.
- I’m going to try to get better at talking about my work. The legend is that Alien was pitched as ‘Jaws in Space’. Of course ‘Jaws in Space’ is not entirely representative of what Alien is, not at all. But it makes Alien sound good, and that’s the key. That’s what I want to learn. Not how to convey everything about a book or story in one sentence, but simply to make it instantly appealing. When talking about my work I try to capture the story, theme, atmosphere, characters, all of it, and end up getting tangled up in some endless, unresolvable sentence, and then just trailing off. A bit like this blog post. It’s embarrassing.
And a general round-up to finish. I’ve blogged previously about the never-being-successful-enough trap that it’s easy for professional writers (or any self-employed people, probably) to fall into. And I’m glad to say that I’m sticking by the new approach I covered there. I’m now more comfortable saying no to anthology invitations, and have recently left the Curious Tales self-publishing collective so that I can focus, during the time I do spend writing, on my own work. Currently, that means the third (as yet untitled) instalment in The Factory Trilogy. The second novel, IDLE HANDS, was delivered over Christmas (later than originally intended, due to some of the aforementioned life changes) and I’ve just received the edits, which I look forward to getting to grips with. It’s going to be illustrated by Beth Ward, and I’ve seen the illustrations, and I’m very excited about it. I’ll be confirming a publication date for that here soon.