Chapter Nine - Defining Success24 August 2010
I think it’s a good idea, if you’re serious about trying to become a writer, to actually give some thought to what you want to achieve, and what will actually constitute success in YOUR eyes. That might sound like a very simple thing, but people actually judge success a lot differently when it comes to things like this. Don’t just go with what other people think—look deep into your soul and set your OWN goals. I’ve blogged a lot about this subject over the years, and here are some of my opinions, before we move on to the actual nuts and bolts of the writing process.
I sometimes get asked how I feel when I finish a book. A lot of people have this notion that authors write a book in a frantic daze, one feverish edit after another, and then ... just ... draw ... to ... a ... stop ... and punch the air, light up a cigar, sit back and bask in the glory of a job well done. Well, I’m sure there are writers who work that way, but I’m certainly not one of them. For me it’s a series of “finishes”. Completing the first draft is a biggie—an unifinished first draft is like a huge mountain, waiting to be climbed, and until you get to the last line you can’t say for certain that you’ll make it all the way to the summit. but I know my job has just begun, and that I’ll have to go through the book another 6 or 7 times, over 2 or 3 years. So I can’t, y’know, get actually excited about it. It’s a bit like if your team scores a goal in the first ten minutes of a match—it gives you a great buzz, but you know there’s a LONG way yet to go, and only a fool celebrates so early. Subsequent finishes are kind of like scoring more goals in a one-sided match—it’s a bit like Brazil playing Luxembourg. Once the first goal goes in, you KNOW that more will follow, so although each edit (“goal”) brings pleasure, it’s not like scoring the winning goal in the last minute of a cliffhanger of a match. By the time I get to the very last edit, I feel a bit tired of the whole thing—I’ve put a lot of work in, I’m usually proud of what I’ve achieved, but I know the job is drawing to a close and I’m busy looking forward to the next book (in fact I’m always busy working on the next book!!). Seeing it in print is always nice, but there’s never a point where I cut loose and go on a wild celebratory spree.
Writing for me is a long series of small pleasures, not wild joys. When I publish a book, I don’t get the feeling that a lottery winner gets when they win big. I suspect most other writers are similar. But in the long run, satisfaction is far better, I think, than exhilaration. Winning the lottery only gives you a short burst of joy—you might live happily off the proceeds for the rest of your life, but you’ll only have a few days of giddy, disbelieving euphoria. With writing, there isn’t so much excitement, but the smaller thrills and pleasures can be spread out over months, years, even decades. We live in a society which pushes the notion of immediate, big-time buzzes—you’re a “success” if you achieve FAME! NOW!! WITHOUT DOING ANYTHING TO EARN IT!!! The media glorifies short-term stars, builds them up swiftly, fans the flames of their success for a while, then drops interest in them just as quickly. You need to ask yourself, what will make you happier in life—having a brief burst of fame and riches when you’re young, then living off nothing but memories for the rest of your life? Or working hard and getting to enjoy the rewards of your achievements (even if they’re only modest rewards) through your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties??? I think it’s pretty clear what I think, but I’m not arrogant enough to believe that my view is superior—maybe it IS better to soar high and briefly, and burn out quick. It’s always personal—each one of us must decide what matters, what will bring us pleasure in life. What works for one person won’t for another. All I’m saying is, don’t let the media’s obssession with temporary fame turn your head. Thing through your goals and choices. Do what WORKS for you—not what is EXPECTED OF you. Define the terms of what YOU think is success, then go and try and achieve them, no matter what everybody else thinks, no matter what dreams others are chasing. We get one shot at this life, people—do you want to live it YOUR way, or just go along with what other people have decided is the flow?
I received the following email from Amy today: I was really happy to see your last blog entry. I have been reading a book about writing, and it talks so much about how hard and frustrating it is to be a writer. I really like writing, but all of this talk of how being a writer is not all it’s cracked up to be is starting to make my doubt how much I really like to write. You say that the average writer doesn’t make enough money to live on, and that kind of scares me. It’s not the money I care about, it’s the idea that you will write books and stories, but not many people will fall in love with your stories as you have. You are successful. You’ve sold many copies of your stories in many different countries. I don’t understand why everyone seems to have such a negative outlook on the writing life. I was at a bookstore the other day, and there was a newly published author sitting their, selling copies of his book. He said that he’s been writing for thirty years and he JUST got his first book published. I know that I love writing, but I need to hear more positive things about writing! If it’s so bad and stressful, then why do people spend hours plucking away on their computer every day???
Why indeed?!? I think we’re all mad!!!!! Seriously, I hope I don’t sound negative when I talk about the writing process. I’m trying to pass on the best advice I can, to help those who REALLY want to be writers—i.e. those who are prepared to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. The underlying message of all my comments is about the most positive you’ll ever hear—“You CAN make your dream come true!!!” Virtually anyone can become a writer. There’s no magic involved. No special deals need to be struck with Satan. It’s something you can do all by yourself, by working hard and not losing faith.
But those are the two main keys, and that’s why I come back to them so often—hard work, and keeping the faith. Unless you’re famous in some other field (e.g. an actor or model who decides to write a book, which sells purely on the strength of your name), you’re going to have to work VERY hard to get your work published. That’s a simple fact of life, and it’s a message I like to stress, because at the end of the day it separates the wheat from the crap! When I talk about having to work hard, and spend hours and weeks and months and years locked away from the world in order to develop and get your work published, poseur writers think I’m being negative—I’m denying them “the secret formula” which will allow them to become brilliant quickly. They believe in an Andy Warhol and Big Brother universe, where everyone should be entitled to 15 minutes of fame just for being themselves, where dreams should automatically come true.
I think success can only truly be appreciated if it’s earned. And most writers think that way too, I’m sure, because like me they’ve had to work damned hard to get what they have. There are two types of dreamers in this world—those who just dream, and those who pursue their dreams. Those in the latter camp read my blog entries and (I hope!!!) inflate with positivity and enthusiasm. Because they get it—if you work hard, and dedicate yourself to your dream, YOU can be the next Darren Shan, J K Rowling, Stephen King or William Shakespeare. Hell, you can be the next Jilly Cooper if that’s your wish!!!! Writers don’t have magic buttons which they press to succeed—they get ahead by working hard. Would-be writers who are told that don’t sit there thinking, “Gee, I only wanted to do this if I could press a magic button and do it quickly.” They think, “Thank the gods there aren’t any magic buttons—it means I have the power to do this myself!!!!”
So, in short, I will always stress the need to work hard, because it’s the sort of encouragement REAL young writers need. As for keeping the faith ... Well, again, although some of my comments might seem to paint a bleak picture of despair and economic doom, I continue to point out the monetary pitfalls of being a writer because it’s important that you know what you’re getting into—and that you know you’re not in that boat alone. Thousands of books are published every year, but most of us only read the more popular books. I read the occasional out-of-field novel by an unheard of writer, but for the most part I go for successful writers whose books I enjoy. I don’t think I’m unusual in that. I imagine most of you reading this are similar to me in that respect. But that can create a seeming imbalance for youong writers. If you’re only reading work by established, top-notch writers, that’s all you’re going to be aware of. If every writer whose work you like is successful, sells millions of copies, and makes loads of money, you might think ALL writers are like that. And if you set out to become a writer, and find that you’re not one of the lucky few who crack the big time, you might think that you’re a failure, since you’ve falled short of the standards all your favourite writers have set.
But let me tell you this—NO writer is a failure. It takes a hell of a lot of guts and imagination and bravery to become a writer. You set out on a task to create something out of nothing, to pluck ideas from the air and weave them into a story which has never been told before. The financial rewards for most writers are pitiful. Most don’t earn a legion of loyal fans. Most have to work in other jobs to support themselves. Most have trouble getting their work printed. Most writers’ works that ARE printed don’t sell very well and go out of print long before the writer dies. Most are unloved, not respected, not acknowledged. And you know what? It doesn’t matter a damn!!!!!
Amy asks why people spend so long plucking away on their computers if it’s all doom and gloom. The reason is—we work in the dream industry. When you write a story, you create. You bring a new form into the world. Even if it’s not a very good or original story, it’s unique. It’s something you’ve created that nobody else can do in exactly the way you did it. It’s like giving birth to a child, except you can do it dozens or hundreds of times over the course of your life—and you don’t have any nappies to change!!! Writing is a buzz, a wonderful feeling. It’s like playing your favourite sport or game—great fun. It’s harder than most sports, because you have to put so much into it—you can’t just have a writing “kickabout”, the way you can play a casual game of soccer at the back of your house with your friends. But that means the rewards are so much greater. The reward of following your dream. Of doing something unique. Of daring to show your inner soul and imaginings to the world. Of saying “I’m special, I’m an individual, I’m not afraid to step up to the mark, I’m not afraid to fail, I’m going to go out on a limb and chase my dreams until death robs me of them.” Money isn’t the REAL reward about being a writer. Fame isn’t the REAL reward about being a writers. You can be an apparent failure in the eyes of the world, as most writers are—but still be one of the greatest success stories this world has ever produced, as ALL writers, by the very act of writing, are. THAT’S what I’m trying to say.
A fan called Chloe wrote: In your blogs, it is interesting to see you advise people on the terms of writing in general. Myself, I would like to be a writer but my style is very different; I write surrealistically, and occasionally use such things as present tense or second person which have a tendency to put people off! I do not want to sacrifice my style, but I worry that if I ever get anything published, as I would like to, it would have to be in a more orthodox format, because new things generally seem to be looked on in a more negative light than using a traditional style. Is my interpretation of this correct, do you think, or am I considering something that is impossible to predict?
I think this is a very well judged observation. In my experience the world of publishing is a two-faced beast. On the one hand, almost every publisher who holds forth on this matter will say they’re always looking for fresh talent, new ideas, writers with a unique voice who can come up with original stories. On the other hand, from a cold hard business angle, they’re always looking for the NEXT. The NEXT Stephen King, the NEXT J K Rowling, the NEXT Darren Shan ... whatever!! Publishers know that it’s very difficult to convince people to take a chance on something new, something different, something not like anything they’ve read before. It’s far easier to tap into an existing audience: “You like Author X? Then try this new guy—he’s just like X!!!”
As I’ve mentioned quite a few times before, Cirque Du Freak was turned down by pretty much every major publisher in the UK (along with quite a few not-so-major publishers) before it was accepted. Different editors had different reasons for turning it down, but an overriding factor was that there was nothing like CDF out there. Horror for children was a relatively new concept, and the few authors who’d explored it (R L Stine and Christopher Pike chief among them) had done so in a very different way to me. I was writing about circus freaks, a kid who steals and lies, who gets buried alive, who makes a blood pact with a vampire. Publishers didn’t know how people would react, and so, not knowing, they chose not to take a chance on it. It makes me smile when some of those publishers now play up a few of their new authors with “The next Darren Shan!” tag line. But I’m not in the least bit bitter about it. That’s just the way the industry works and I’m fully aware of it. You don’t get far having a thin skin in the writing business. Publishers need to make money in order to keep publishing. They’re not mind-readers. They can’t always predict trends in advance. Most of the books they put out, they know how they’re going to perform, roughly how many copies they’re going to sell. But every so often a freak comes along that shatters all the rules. In those cases, publishers try to cash in and ride the coat-tails of that author—hence all the fantasy books being published since Harry Potter took off.
So—you’re a young writer, starting out. Do you study the market and go with something you know will appeal to publishers? Or do you follow your instinct, write the stories you WANT to write, and hope you sneak in through the cracks and start a new trend? To be honest, I can’t answer that question. Each writer must decide that for themselves. I know, WAY back, when I was 18 or 19, there was a publisher I sent a few of my very early books to. The editor there was very generous with her time, and responded with actual suggestions and comments (as opposed to a standard rejection letter, which is what most reply with). My work back then was much more experimental than most of my published work. I’m like an ice berg—a lot of my work is hidden under water! My published output is only about half of what I’ve actually written over the years. I’ve written all sorts of books, hardcore sci-fi, sexually explosive psychological horrors, futuristic fantasies, road trip stories, even a few funny books!!
The editor said to me that if I stopped being so experimental, using different voices and tenses and story structures ... that if I just wrote a straightforward thriller or fanasy tale ... I’d get published. That was very encouraging for me—but the trouble was, I didn’t WANT to write that way. To me, writing has always been about the stories, doing them justice, going with wherever my mind leads me. If I’d wanted to make money, I’d have gone into another line of work. I wrote for pleasure and self-satisfaction. I wanted to be successful of course—but only by doing my own thing. I didn’t want to write to please an editor—I wanted to write to please myself.
So I did. I kept on experimenting and trying different things and going in weird directions. Some of the books I worked on didn’t lead anywhere and proved (for the time being at least) unpublishable. Some were Cirque Du Freak and Lord Loss and they went on to do very nicely indeed. But all were close to my heart. I was true on all of them. I wrote each one because I wanted to write it, because it demanded to be written. I hope they’d find readers, but if not ... so be it.
Now, I don’t know if I could have stuck to my guns indefinitely. If I’d gone ten years, fifteen, twenty, without finding an audience, without making any money ... would I have continued? Would I have flogged a dead horse until I died, broke and bitter and beaten? As I say, I don’t know, but I like to think I WOULD have. I like to think I’d have stood by my muse no matter what, for better or worse. The thing about writing is, books can sometimes flourish after you’re dead—some writers are only “discovered” years after their death. I like to think I would have clung to that sense of self-belief no matter what, that if the market had proved hostile, I would have ploughed on regardless, doing my own thing, hoping my stories would find more favourable ears in the hands of later generations. Every writer has that chance, that hope, no matter how bad things get.
But what’s better—to struggle on in the vain hope that your work will be appreciated when you’re dead? Or to adjust and adapt to the market of your own times, give editors what they want, make a name for yourself while you’re still alive to enjoy it? In an ideal world, you get both, like I have, like Stephen King did, like a small percentage of writers always have done and always will do. But many writers aren’t so lucky. The time isn’t right. The breaks don’t go their way. The editor who might have changed their lives is off sick when their manuscript comes in, and somebody else reads it and tosses it away. I do believe that if you work hard and keep plugging away, your quality WILL show, and you’ll enjoy the success of writing work you can be proud of, and work that other people (to some extent or other) will enjoy. But sometimes great writers DO go unloved. Sometimes cool story-tellers never sell the number of copies they should. Sometimes staying true to yourself means settling for less than those who play the game get.
It all boils down to what YOU want from your writing. Do you want to be adored and feted, sell millions and make a fortune? Or do you want to follow your dream and remain true to it, no matter what? Well???