Thursday, 4 February 2016

10 things I learnt about myself by getting published, and things I would have liked to have known before I was

I got lucky.

The journey from starting my manuscript to getting it published was remarkably short. Two short years. And I do mean it when I say 'lucky' because luck plays a huge part in getting published. Of course, you need more than just plain old 'luck' to have a publisher pick you out from the millions also trying to get spotted. You need to be able write, and write well, but 'writing well' can mean far more than putting good words down on paper. It means being smart about the way you go about writing, about pacing yourself, how you know when to continue with a manuscript and when to change tack, as well as how to approach agents and publishers.

My debut novel, The Damned, came out in May 2015 (UK and OZ) with Duckworth Overlook, and will be published in the US and Canada in May this year with Overlook Press. It made it into the Book Depository's list of 'Best Books of 2015'.

In my time as an unpublished and then published writer, I've met a number of published authors and they're all completely different. None of them fit the same mould, other than it's clear they've been tested in some way by the experience of getting published and its left its mark upon them. It's also clear that they possess that vein of iron determination and grit about them. They've fought for, and they've survived the experience of, getting published.

I'm not sure if, like them, I carry this mark of getting published, an ambition I'd held since I was eight. But there are things I have learnt about myself that I never knew since writing and there are things I would have liked to have known before I had begun.

So here's a list of 10 for you, budding author, of what I've learnt in my journey so far;

1. Your first, second, and possibly third, manuscript will be rubbish
When I first started writing 'sincerely' I spent four years slogging away on my frankly ludicrous first manuscript that was to be 'my masterpiece'. Consisting of two towers and a band of dwarves (you can immediately see the problem here), I worked on this monstrosity for more hours than I care to remember, caressing every page, every line. It wasn't a total waste of time, because it helped me to begin to find my writing voice and proved to me that I loved sitting on my own in a chair writing for hours, days and weeks on end. However, I know I would have been far better setting myself shorter writing challenges and seeing where my direction best lay, rather persevering with my Tolkien-ripoff. Also, don't worry about finishing your first novel until you know it's something you genuinely want to put your name to. Writing, at the start, is about finding your edge, your voice, your love. The Damned was the first novel I ever completed.

2. Write your manuscript quickly, then rewrite it
In the early days I wrote and rewrote every page until I was utterly delighted by it, until it was, in my warped opinion, perfect. Then I moved on to the next page or scene, did the same, then the next, etc etc and so forth. What a ridiculous way of writing a novel! Writing is like art. When an artist sits down to paint, they don't work up in precise detail one part, then move on to the next. The five year old child at pre-school does this. The artist roughly sketchs out the piece, then they get in the tones, then initial colours, building up and up until the piece is finished. Writing is exactly the same. Write your first manuscript lean, get it mapped out, and then go back and rewrite over the bones.

3. Write every day
Whilst it took just two years to get published with The Damned, from first writing it to seeing it on the shelves, the journey to this point took me twenty years and over a million words. Writing is rarely something which hits like a bolt from the blue and empowers the writer to produce award winning prose from the start. It's like any skill, you have to work at it and a lot of this time feels soulless and pointless. But like elite athletes, you need to put in the shift if you're going to shift any units. I didn't write everyday. In fact, there were long periods of my life when I stopped writing completely. The longing and the ideas never went away, but I just, frankly, couldn't be arsed to write - and I regret this now. Would I have managed to get published sooner? Possibly, although see point 10. However, writing is a joy and I know I missed out on a lot of ideas and fun by not writing when I was doing something else. Which leads neatly on to…

4. If you'd rather do something else than write, give up and do something else
If you'd rather be out having fun than sitting at your desk and writing, give up and go and be amongst your friends and family. Writing is not a choice, it's a calling. Writers write, not because they have to but because they must. I felt it when I was eight years old and heard 'The Hobbit' read to me for the first time. It was like a calling. I understand why some people believe in God. It's as if a light comes on inside you, something which guides and commands - exactly the same as you feel as a writer. If you don't feel this compulsion, this drive, I suspect you won't make it - and you'll hate the journey trying to make it.

5. Be prepared for a long assault. Things don't happen quick
Someone once said to me, 'Writing a novel is like a war of attrition. You just have to be stronger than your book.' Novels take a long time to write. You should expect to put aside a year of your life to writing your novel. On top of this, you need to plan it (see point 6) and you need to research it. Once written, you then need to tout it around the agents and publishers. You might get lucky, like I did, and catch the eye quickly, or it might take years to get noticed. Whilst frustrating, if writing is your calling (see previous point), you will accept the time it all takes (begrudgingly, none the less.)

6. Embrace rejection. Love criticism
People in industry know best. You might not necessarily agree with them, but you have to listen to them and do as they suggest. You can be arrogant after your fourth bestseller. Up until then, listen and do as your agent, your editor or your published best friend mentor suggests. Don't see rejection as a bad thing. It's as much part of the industry as split infinitives and plot red herrings. Use it to guide and improve your manuscript. I've had some classic rejections. They've all been right and have helped in some way for me to become a better writer.

7. Plan your novel
The first two novels I wrote, The Damned, and a second unconnected novel straight after my first book, which might one day see the light, I wrote with no plan on paper, just a plan in my head. I got lucky (there's a theme here!). They were stories I had to write, and I knew how to write them. But luck runs out, as it did with me and Book Two of The Darkest Hand. I got myself in a pickle with it, a pickle which tormented me over and over again. The writing of the sequel took me too the edge of insanity and, at times, over it. Take the advice of a once broken man, plan your novel, and then write to this plan. It's so much easier and will allow you to concentrate on the quality of the writing, rather than on working out what's coming next - and if you're losing your mind.

8. Don't write for the money
I never set out to write for fame and fortune, so I'm glad I went into it with this knowledge already understood. But some people do write believing that they'll get published and never have to work again. The sorry truth is that only 1 in 10 published authors survives on writing alone. The average book sells 250 copies in its lifetime. It's not a business where you are likely to make any money at all. If this sounds unpleasant, scroll back to point 4 and reread. Remember, you write because you're commanded to, not because you see it as a cushy life everyone wants. It mostly likely will never be.

9. Always carry a notepad
Ideas come from the most weird of things and the most strange of times. Always have a pad at hand to jot them down. From the smallest idea, great things can grow. Writing is hard enough. Don't make it harder by trying to chase the good ideas in your head which have slipped just beyond your reach.

10. Magic happens, you just won't know when.
Magic is real. I know, because I've experienced it first hand. Sometimes you sit down and the book you're working on literally writes itself. The words come from somewhere inside you, a little magical store of them in your soul out of which they flow. Other times you can slog away and achieve nothing, and then this magical world reveals itself again and you power through. Whole parts of the Damned I read now and think, where did this come from? My second novel, I read it and think, did I really write this? I can't remember doing so! Magic. It happens. You'll never know how or when, but it happens. When it comes, harvest it, dear writer. Harvest it!

Good luck!

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