I’ve read a lot of writing tips. Many of them are the same, and some of them don’t seem to mean anything at all. I’d like to offer some advice to those thinking of making a career from writing fiction. You’re going to need more than luck.
1 – Writing fiction is a fucking nightmare.
You can wrap it up however you like, but the life of an author, aspiring or otherwise, is a disaster. I’m sure things become more settled should you sell millions of books or win awards, but if you’re starting out, and especially if your goal is to write artistic fiction, you’re going to face some stern challenges. You’ll probably have to write novels in your spare time, as you aren’t rich. You may have children, and only have an hour or two in the evening where all you want to do is fuck your partner and collapse in front of a screen. But you’ll be writing. For years and years and years. You will hate yourself for trying to write. Being a writer is unpleasant.
Maybe you are wealthy and don’t have to work, but money doesn’t equate to skill. The road to publication is excruciating for most, rich or poor, and you’ll need to display Herculean levels of tenacity if you’re to succeed. If you’ve ever thought, “I’d quite like to write a novel,” then you should never write a novel. Just don’t. I promise you, you’re wasting your time. Writing fiction has been described to me both as “the hardest thing you can do” and “a caution”. Both are true. You write novels because you have no choice. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and unless you’re prepared to sit at a computer for decades, all alone, with no friends or help, with no clear indication of whether or not you’re making any progress at all, to invest your entire life in a single aim, then do not attempt it. You are married to writing and there is no divorce. You and your writing will die together. You know if you’re a writer or not. Don’t lie to yourself.
2 – Forget publication. Just write.
Worrying about publication is crippling. It stops you doing the one thing that’s going to get you published, which is writing. Stop caring about it. Write, write, write, book after book after book. Resign yourself to the fact that this is going to take your personal forever. You need to be zen.
The general consensus is that you’ll have to write at least two books before you can expect to get any interest at all, and I’d say that’s laughably conservative. You are not going to write a book and get it published. It’s going to take years. You’re looking at a year a book (give or take), assuming they’re short, and when I say that I’m talking about the period of time from putting down the first words of the first draft to saying “it’s done”. Obviously, this doesn’t include any rewriting if you do actually attract some interest. Writing novels is a glacial process.
All the work you do leading up to publication (which may never come) is just practice. You need to write dead books, books you’ll despair over when everyone rejects them out of hand because they have no more place in the world than the fourth dimension or ammoniacal cheese. You have to be able to write books, finish them, and send them out to die. Whole novels. Loads of them. Hundreds of thousands of words edited over and over again. The phrase “killing your darlings” is famous in the fiction trade as meaning you need to be able to change the elements of your novels you personally like but serve no particular purpose. What no one prepares you for is that the “darlings” can be years of work. You will watch your children die, and it will be hard.
It’s different for everyone (some people waltz into publishing deals in their twenties), but even experienced writers (I’ve been writing as a job for over fifteen years) have no idea what they’re doing when they first approach novels, and to anyone in the book trade that’s blatantly obvious. You’re shit at writing books, and the journey from “shit” to “author” is a long one. Yes, you’ve been published in a national daily, and you’ve been on TV. You’ve got a sideline gig on a mainstream website and your mum thinks you’re awesome.
Congratulations. It means nothing.
Forget publication. Your goal, probably, is to get a book deal, to see the book (any book) on the shelf in a bookshop (any bookshop), but you should forget all that. Go through the motions of querying, of course (“It could happen this time!”), but be aware that many famous published authors wrote more than two books before getting anywhere. Iain Banks, for example, got published on his fifth time out with The Wasp Factory. Iain Banks, one of the most beloved British authors of this generation, had to write five novels before getting published. I saw an author tweet the news she’d landed a two-book deal recently: she’d written seven novels before succeeding.
Publication will only happen when you’ve written enough. “Enough” is different for everyone. Just write.
3 – Your book’s finished. Start another.
Years ago, when we still lived in England, I took a part-time photography course at Brighton University. I was struggling to produce a decent print from an under-exposed negative, and my tutor told me to can it, to try another frame. I was reluctant: surely there was something we could do? She paused and said, “You have to learn to see when it’s as good as it’s going to be. You’ll waste a lot of time if you can’t.”
The same applies to books, but “seeing” the point at which you have to move on is a skill you’ll only learn through practice. There’s a character in Camus’s The Plague who’s writing a book and can’t get past the first line (I think; it’s a long time since I read it). He plays with the words and structure of the single sentence infinitely, unable to write more until it’s perfect. He never gets anywhere.
Write the book, edit it, finish it, wrap it up and send it out to agents. Be safe in the knowledge that your next one will be better, and don’t just endlessly edit in an effort to produce something that probably isn’t there. A full manuscript edit can take months. Not so bright if it’s unnecessary.
Learn when to move on.
4 – Keep it simple.
There’s a clear trend in starter books: they’re overly ambitious, and they often don’t get finished. I’ve seen this repeatedly over years of conversing with aspiring novelists, and I personally made exactly this mistake with The Ooning (the first novel I ever managed to push past the first draft). I was eventually forced to can it.
The thinking here is simple. You want to be an author. You’ve wanted to be an author since you were a child, probably, and now you’re ready to take it seriously you want your book to be double-spreaded across the Sunday Papers and your beaming face to adorn awards podiums. You want to blow people away. You need to face reality: writing novels, like any other difficult skill, requires years of dedication and training. Many writers start their journey by planning a hellishly complex novel, the writing equivalent of sailing solo across the Pacific. Predictably, by the time they stagger ashore in Hawaii they’ve got sunstroke, their hands are bleeding and even if they wanted to continue the only thing facing them is a featureless horizon of sea. The paradise of stopping doesn’t negate the horribleness of this place, and most fledgling novelists will be well acquainted with this particular beach.
Put it this way. Have you read The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke? It’s about a family waiting for a father to come home. Or The (Booker-nominated) Lighthouse by Alison Moore? It’s about a guy on holiday. I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but you get the idea. If you want my advice, keep it as simple as possible in the early stages (and especially with your first novel), and aim to keep the word-count closer to 50,000 than anything involving six digits. Your first books will almost certainly never be published, so accept this and use these projects to train yourself. Focus on copy, on correcting grammar and buffing sentences. Remember: you can’t sail anywhere singlehandedly until you can sail at all. Which brings me on to my next point.
5 – Write short stories.
This is the best way to get into the fiction world. It’s far easier to get a short story published than a novel. That’s a fact. Most aspiring novelists start by writing a book when they should be writing short stories. Writing and completing pieces of fiction is significantly easier if the word-count is lower, and writing shorter pieces allows you to stretch out creatively in ways only experienced novelists are able to over lengthier works.
There are any number of literary magazines constantly searching for short stories, and there’s an endless stream of competitions, both free and paid, begging for briefer work. Write short stories and submit them. Getting a result in this way, especially when you’re slogging away at novels no one will read, is both real reward and a clear indication you’re getting somewhere. Remember that thing about running and walking? Walk first.
6 – Write what you want.
What should you write? If you follow Twitter’s legions of agents, you’ll soon see you should be writing historical LGBT YA with strong characters and a cracking plot. And off you go, scanning all the wishlists, staring at the ceiling night after night as you gnash your mental teeth over how you can best please Agent X with your next manuscript, how you can finally make it. You may even start writing your dystopian werewolf thriller, a book designed to sit, no-brainerly, on the dystopian werewolf thriller shelf. What is your book? It’s crime. It’s romance. It’s MG with a twist. It’s whatever you want it to be, m’lady.
Look, I’m not saying sticking to a genre isn’t a good idea. It probably is, in all honesty, but only if you’re being true to yourself. If you have a burning passion to write YA, then you’re in luck. If you haven’t, then don’t. It won’t be any good. Don’t chase rainbows. They have a habit of disappearing.
Trends come and go in books, as in all media. Corporations can follow them, but you probably shouldn’t. You’ve already stopped worrying about publication (see point two), so just focus on your life’s work, whatever it may be. Want to write weird stories about growing up in Yorkshire? Good for you. Can’t stop writing streams of consciousness about racists on Mars? More power to you. Do what you want. Do what you truly want to do. You’ll regret it if you don’t. Be the writer you want to be.
7 – Don’t be scared.
Writing novels involves investment and disclosure. You reveal yourself through your fiction, and you may well shock yourself if you truly try to thin the barriers between the page and your psychological cogs. Don’t be scared. No one cares about you (who?), and you mustn’t hold back. You’ll probably worry about what your peer group will think when you start writing out “your protagonist’s” revolting sexual fantasies, but you shouldn’t. It’s your art. Don’t stem it.
At its best, fiction is frightening and personal. You need to be fine with baring your soul. Get used to it as soon as you’re able.
8 – Read.
There’s a famous quote from Stephen King’s On Writing about reading being absolutely essential for any writer. It goes as far as saying that you’ll be unable to write unless you read. This is true. If reading isn’t a primary form of entertainment for you, then make it so. If you don’t like reading certain books, read others. And if you really don’t like reading, just forget any aspirations you have of being a long-term fiction writer. Again, be honest with yourself. Can you imagine a young athlete or musician bemoaning practicing and training because it’s a bind, or because they “don’t have time”? Read for pleasure, read for work, read for practice. Read every day. Read because you love it.
9 – Ignore all of this.
What the fuck do I know? Well, a little bit. I’m unpublished, yes, but I’m in the final stages of my third novel. I know published authors and I’ve had contact with editors and agents. I’ve been lucky enough to have a short story published, with a second coming next year and a third accepted for a Kickstarter project (there’s more detail on my work here). I have achieved something with my fiction, however babyish the steps. I’m at the very start of my career, but I do believe I’ll attain my goals by doing the things I’m doing.
My approach may be (slowly) working for me, but every writer’s path is different. As I said earlier, if you want to laser-in on a genre like YA or chick lit, do what you must. It may take you a year to get a deal, and it make take twenty. It may never happen. Just because the odds are against success, that doesn’t mean you should stop.
Hopefully you’ve found some value in this post, but you may, quite rightly, think it’s utter bullshit. Follow your instincts, that being the case. And good luck. I sincerely mean that.