Monday, 5 July 2010

To be a writer

At the moment I’m getting asked by a lot of people how I did it. How I managed to go from writing a book to getting a publishing deal, but also how I managed to go from not having written a book to having written one.

Neither is an easy question to answer. At a party - when it’s necessary to either be succinct or to face the fact that there won’t be any sausage rolls left by the time I get to the buffet table – I tend to answer the former question with ‘I was very lucky’ and the latter with ‘I just sat down and did it and didn’t stop until I was finished.’ But neither of those answers tell anything like the whole story, both seem like I’m being evasive and difficult. It might come across as if I’ve made it past the battlements and into the castle and now I want to pull up the drawbridge to stop anyone from following me, but that’s not the case. Quite the opposite.

The trouble is, the real answer to both of those questions is multilayered, full of contradiction, of swerves and detours, and would take hours to deliver. They’re not straightforward. Yes, there was a good deal of luck involved in me getting a publishing deal, but to say it’s just because I was lucky is to deny the hours I put into making the book as good as it could be, and to say it’s only because I was in the right place at the right time is to ignore the effort I went to in order to make sure I knew where that place was and when the time would be right. There are plenty of people who have written far better books than me but have never been able to get their novel into the right hands and read by the right people. There are many more who have managed to meet an agent or corner an editor but whose book has not been good enough for it to get any further. If you want to get a novel published, then really you need to write a great book, and then know what you need to do with it.

The course I did at the Faber Academy was of course invaluable in both of those respects. It taught us how to write (or how to write better at least – I don’t think any course can teach you how to write from scratch) and how to edit, and then gave us the tools to take our work and present it to the right people. We learned how to kidnap a character and make them come alive on the page, how to rid our work of adverbs and exclamation marks and why that was so important, how to write in the free indirect style. We learned more nebulous lessons, too. How to take the leap of faith that a blank page requires of us, how to tell when a piece of work is trying to tell you that it is finished, or that it isn’t working. And we learned practical, business lessons. How to write a synopsis that would make someone want to read the book it represented, how to write a query letter that would make someone want to read the synopsis, how to find out the best person to send the query letter to.

Mostly, though, we learned that we were writers. And that can sometimes be the hardest lesson. But every single one of us gave something up to do the course. Money and time were the obvious ones, but also, in some ways at least, the most trivial. Personal lives suffered, family dynamics were changed. But we learned that, if those sacrifices were necessary, then that was what we would do.

I remember sitting in the Faber and Faber boardroom on the first night of the course, fidgeting nervously, worried that I wasn’t good enough to be there. Louise Doughty, as part of her introductory speech, said to us, ‘I give you all permission, for the next six months at least, to take yourselves seriously as writers.’ And in many ways that was the turning point for me. It can be unbelievably hard to take yourself seriously as a writer, to say that’s what you do when asked at a party, to tell your friends that you can’t come to their barbecue because you have to write. Before you’re published it can feel like a massive conceit, before you’ve even finished the draft of a novel like a downright lie. That it took someone like Louise to give me permission to call myself a writer perhaps says something about me, but she did and I did and that’s what you have to do, if you want to be successful at this. You have to have the courage to say ‘I am a writer’ when asked. The strength to tell your friends and family that – even though you don’t know where it will end up, whether you will make any money or even be published at all - writing is important to you, it occupies a little bit of space in your life that might previously have been reserved for them.

So, yes, I was lucky. And yes I ‘just sat down and did it.’ But the first thing I did - the most important thing in some ways- is that I finally told myself, back in February 2009, that I was a writer, that I owed it to myself to write, and to keep writing, and not to stop until I’d seen how far I could take it. I urge anyone who wants to write to do the same.

It’s a vital first step, and the journey is amazing.

1 comment:

tereasa said...

Hi. I just stumbled upon your book and am planning to buy it. I've been dabbling in writing for over ten years, finished three novels and lots of short stories and then my house burned down! Ugh!
Everything up in smoke! Fast forward, I now have a wonderful book finished except I lack the leap of faith it takes to send it out!!!
Any help for a serious, but shy writer like me?
Oh, and I really would be interested in discovering how you kidnap a character? Good luck with the book. I'm sure it'll soar!