Archive for June, 2012
Last week my post – as you may have seen – was a letter to a writer who was losing confidence. Thank you all for your comments and tweets – I had no idea it would be so widely appreciated.
I also had a comment from Steven Lyle Jordan, who felt I’d glossed over some hard truths. And I agree we should think about them.
Here’s what Steven said:
I’m surprised that the letter managed to miss an all-important question which I believe all novelists ask themselves, whether they admit to it or not: Will anybody care?
I don’t believe writers write in a vacuum. If they write, it’s because they want someone to read what they’ve written. If no one wants to read your book–if no one will buy it–it does two things to a writer: It breaks down a great deal of the confidence that was built up in order to write it; and it forces the writer to consider whether all that effort, no matter how good, no matter how enjoyable, was worth it.
After writing a number of novels, I firmly believe that I know how to do it right. But lack of interest and lack of sales does more to discourage me, and prevent my bothering to write the next novel, than all of the other points in that letter combined. (It still may prevent me from writing the novel I’m actually developing right now; at any moment, I might “come to my senses” and pull the plug.) If that letter had been written to me, and it did not touch upon that point, it would be essentially worthless to me.
Who will care about what we’ve written?
From time to time I hear a writer wistfully bleat: ‘the good novels rise to the top’. What rubbish. The novels that rise got lucky or were marketed smartly. We certainly need more ways to find fairy godmothers for deserving books (and I’ve talked about quality control and recognition recently here).
You might have also asked Lucy if she was comfortable with the state of publishing, the industry turmoil she’d be injecting herself into, the multiple channels of the ebook industry she may have to master, the likelihood that ebook piracy would rob her of some amount of possible profit, etc. All of that has been known to sink many a prospective author before they’d sailed.
First, piracy. Discover the atom and someone will make the bomb. We invented ebooks and we got piracy. Anyone who argues that piracy is flattering or beneficial should be strapped down while their house is burgled. Steven, I agree. It’s a shark’s world out there. And it’s going to get more bloody.
Now authors will pay to make their books better, we’ve got critters willing to fleece them for editorial services of dubious quality (in an attempt to avoid this, here are my tips on choosing a good critique service).
We have authors aching to be recognised, and we have schemes charging astonishing fees for awards and seals of approval. On the law of averages, many of these books will be rough and a glance at the opening will be enough to tell the reviewers that. The reviewer only needs to read for as long as the book is up to standard. Some sort of fee seems fair because time and expertise aren’t free. But many of these schemes charge several hundred dollars a pop – for what must on average be ten minutes’ work.
While we dodge the rip-offs, we’re giddying from goldrush to goldrush. Last December, it was free Kindle books. Now people are so used to piling free books into the infinitely deep pockets of their Kindles they never look at them.
Right now we’re dancing can-cans about Kickstarter. How long before some investor makes a mighty fuss that all they got was a lousy T-shirt? There will be a sacrificial lamb – whether a crook or a well-intentioned author – and that will be the end of it.
Another point is simmering under Steven’s comment, and it’s worth considering. Never has the writer’s livelihood been more precarious – and that’s even for those who have ‘broken in’. About 20 years ago, a publisher’s advance would realistically fund you to write a book. Now you have to write the first book for nothing and if you get an advance for the second it’s pitiful.
What’s more, publishers seem to do very little for the percentage you hand over. For most writers the editorial services have been cut to minimal levels. And recently the estimable publishing guru Jane Friedman advised that if you want your breakout book to be a hit (and thus to increase your chances of having a traditionally published career at all), you should hire your own publicist. Yes, even if you have a publisher. In which case, I have to ask, what is the publisher doing for you?
So, Steven, I agree it’s not rosy at all, especially if writing is your livelihood.
Right now, it’s anarchy. We are all trying to thrash our way to a better spot in the food chain – writers, publishers, editorial pros, agents, investors, teachers, tech companies, retailers, distributors, conference organisers. But people want to write and people want to read. That means we have an industry – and even a way of getting our work out. Who will be making a decent wage from it? Can emerging writers still cling to the dream of supporting themselves only by their novels? Perhaps those days are gone. Or perhaps the publishing economy is about to become a lot more equitable.
Maybe at the moment, we have to see our publishing dreams as separate from our writing dreams. Our writing dreams have always been the same – write a book that somehow matches up to our hopes for it. Do whatever we can to honour the reader and the artform. Make good work, and never stop trying to be better. Sit out the bloodbaths and keep writing. Which is what started all this anyway.
What do you think?
‘My friend Lucy has always loved writing but recently she’s lost confidence. I’ve just bought her your book Nail Your Novel for her birthday, but I wondered if you’d have time to write something in it to give her a little encouragement? Yours, Diane
I had this lovely email a few weeks ago. I started to scribble a few lines and it turned into a bit of a campaign. So I asked Lucy and Diane for permission to reproduce it here
Diane tells me you’ve found yourself writing a novel. Somehow writing sneaks up on a lot of us like that. A bit of typing here, an hour or two musing about characters and a story, and before we know it we have a regular appointment with the page.
She says you’re not always finding it easy. Well, I hope my book will hold your hand some of the way, but here are a few other things I’d say.
All writers doubt themselves
Will we have enough ideas? Will we be able to make the story work? Will our book live up to what we want it to be? And what is that anyway?
Writing a novel is a big job. You have a heck of a lot to get right. Plot, character, pace, theme, structure, description, logistics, language. If it’s your first novel, you’ve also got to learn the craft too. If you take it at all seriously (and thank goodness you clearly do), you’re bound to have wobbly times. Most professional novelists take at least 18 months to get a novel right – and they know what they’re doing.
Take your time and listen to your instincts. Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.
Your path won’t be the same as anyone else’s
… but reading about others’ helps. Writing is a self-directed quest, guided by the books you read and the book you want to do justice to. Plus, of course, whatever’s going on in your life – and that’s under nobody’s control at all. Enjoy your random, rambling learning process because it’s what will help you define your style, your way.
Sometimes it helps to look back at what you wrote a year ago – or two – and compare it with how you’d do it now. Even, ask yourself what you did to make the difference – then you’ll see how your haphazard experiments are taking you somewhere.
Your style and voice
Have you got a style yet? Is your voice strong enough? This develops with mileage. There are no shortcuts, but until you’ve got it, play. Find a writer whose voice you adore and try ‘being’ them for a while, at least on the page. Most probably you won’t keep it up, but you might keep a new trick or a way of having fun with words. One day, you’ll find you’re not writing like somebody else. You’ll have found the way to sound like you.
Top up the creative well
Read – and read actively. Not just craft books. Read fiction. Observe how other people make stories.
Read lots in your chosen genre, but go beyond that too – the techniques or traditions of another could give you fresh ideas.
Every time you read something that affects you, ask yourself why. Try to read the good stuff, of course, but occasionally find something with appalling reviews and read it to see what makes the difference.
Do you have an English literature degree? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t – most of them don’t teach you to write, or to read like a writer.
Notice the structure as well as the words
Novels are like machines. Under all the words, there is another force at work; the order of the events and the way you show them. Notice that as much as the pretty language.
Rewriting is completely normal
It takes time to get a novel right. We all have to look at what we’ve written and ask ourselves if it works. We all have to go through a scene multiple times in order to make it zing. We all have files full of stuff we’ve reluctantly deleted from our books because a nagging voice told us they didn’t fit.
Many people don’t get an agent or publisher – or aren’t ready to go public – with their first novel. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It also doesn’t mean it has to be wasted. Sometimes, after you have a few more novels under your belt, you can return with fresh eyes and finally do justice to your beloved characters and story.
Find others who are like you
All writers have blind spots, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Find yourself people whose opinions you can trust and who understand the kind of novel you want to write. This is unlikely to be friends and family. You need people who will give you critiques that will make your work stronger, but have the maturity not to shoehorn you into places you don’t fit. A critique group who writes genre such as paranormal or thrillers could set you on totally the wrong path if what you want to write is literary fiction (and vice versa).
Early on we need our trusted critics to help us grasp the basics. Much later, we still need them – perhaps because we’ve been pushing our limits and trying to do something ambitious.
Even the famous authors whose names are on the spines of your favourite books need guidance. The other day I heard an editor from Bloomsbury saying that several of her biggest-name authors had turned in manuscripts with significant problems. Sometimes it took several more drafts, with plenty of feedback, before the book came right.
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to publish this as a post on my writing blog. Because, as I hope you can see from this, all writers are bumping along in the same enormous, haphazard sea. And whether experienced or emerging, we all need reassurance sometimes.
Thanks for the cliff-jump pic Mr Chris Johnson
What would you tell Lucy? Share in the comments!
Let me phrase this another way. Look at the kind of novel you’re writing now. Look at the way it might be marketed – perhaps by a traditional publisher, perhaps by your own efforts as an indie. In five years’ time, will you be playing with the same ideas, treading the same themes? Writing the same genre, perhaps the same kind of characters?
If the answer is no, you definitely need a platform.
Traditionally in publishing, writers get tied to one genre. Careers are built in pigeonholes, set up by editors and marketers. That’s not surprising; it’s their job to decide where you fit in a bookshop, not to nurture your long-term art. After that, publishers want broadly similar works from you, a row of books like a matching set of table mats.
Actually, the readers want that too. A Big Six editor I know was telling me recently that [author of phenomenally big series] wanted to try a new direction. (Yes, those brackets are frightfully coy. Sorry.) She was disappointed to find her fans didn’t buy her ‘departure’ novel. It seems they wanted only [coyly bracketed phenomenally big series].
But look at the music industry. Musicians aren’t expected to stay the same. Their fans are far more forgiving when an artiste evolves. Writers, though, don’t get away with it. Why? Because we hide behind our disembodied words, or only emerge in targeted publicity campaigns built like DVD extras around our books. The books build the readership.
No room to hide
Of course, our books are what matters. But it seems there’s a danger in letting them do all the talking. It’s even worse if you leave platform-building to someone else, because they become the intermediary between your work and the world. Which might paint you into a very tiny corner.
Building a platform is an extra job. It doesn’t come easily to everyone. Ironically, it’s the genre authors who find it simplest – mainly because there are well defined templates to follow, established groups to hang out with. But if you’re not easily pigeonholed, you need it even more. You need to show people who you are under the books, where you go exploring for ideas. That relationship will keep readers with you when you venture to new places.
Writers now have a fantastic tool to own our creative identity. We can now be like the musicians who aren’t damned for developing or for reinventing ourselves – and indeed are respected for it.
If you know you will always be adding new tools to your repertoire, be stirred by new influences, will change the ways you seek escape and enlightenment – hell, if you might just get older and wiser, you need to build a platform.
It is your ticket to creative freedom.
Thanks for the pic Thuany Gabriela
Tiny bit of news. My Memories of a Future Life was nominated for an award at Underground Book Reviews last month – and I’ve just discovered it won a Reader’s Choice award. If you helped by giving it a vote, thank you very much
Do you think platform is just for one kind of writer and not another? Do you resent having to do it? Do you embrace it? And what are you doing to build it (assuming you are not about to leave a comment screaming ‘NOOOOOOO’)