On Being a Writer: some reflections

I recently received an email from a writer, who said:

I wanted to write to you directly because there’s something I’d be keen to learn from your own personal experience – Did you find, when you first started out writing, that people (family, friends etc.) didn’t take you seriously for a while? If so, was there a specific point when they started accepting that you were ‘A Writer?’  Was it when you first told them it was what you wanted to do? When you finished your first book? When you got an Agent? When you first got published? When they read your first book? When did it happen for you? Even Neil Gaiman’s Facebook status says ‘Will one day get a real job and until then will keep making things up and writing them down…’ I know that’s meant to be a joke, but, still, it worries me a little because I’m not Neil Gaiman!

It seemed to me those were really good questions, and ones that we haven’t addressed on this blog in the past. Every author will have a different set of answers, but here, for what it’s worth, are mine.

I started writing when I gave up work to look after my wife, who had fallen ill. So my writing wasn’t presented to the world as a big intentional career change, just as making the best of a difficult situation. I didn’t know much about the industry, so had a sunny expectation that it would want to publish my novel. I also had two things working in my favour. First, I thought (correctly) that my idea was a strong one. [more on ideas for books here]. Second, I was happy to do an almost endless amount of work to get my execution of that idea right (a useful habit.) I’m not sure how other people rated my chances of publication back then. Truth was, it was never the biggest issue for me or my wife. We had bigger things to occupy us.

In terms of being taken seriously, however, I think there wasn’t a decisive moment, as such. Getting an agent certainly helped. Getting a book deal (which, in my case, happened very soon after securing representation) eliminated any real doubts. That first book sold in a rapid woof! of an auction, with multiple publishers scrambling to submit bids. By the end of that process, it would have been silly for people to disregard the fact that publishers liked what I did. (For how to get an agent, read the blog here or go to the best agent hunting site in the world here.)

The launch of my first book was still, by a distance, the time my friends, family, publishers and I have most honoured the moment. These days, I quite often forget when I have a book coming out and I certainly don’t make a big deal of it with those around me. But then, the first book is something sacred: the initiation into a community, a badge of honour, an accomplishment finally completed. Thereafter, it’s all a bit different. I’m a writer; I write books. I don’t particularly see why my latest book and I should be treated with more reverence than a plumber when he installs yet another bathroom suite. It’s what we do.

But these comments make the whole process sound far, far more seamless than it really is. The ugly truth of the industry is that most debut novelists see out their two-book contract then are never heard of again. In some cases, that’s almost deliberate. A writer might find themselves in the grip of a story that just has to be told, so they tell it. Get the book deal, see that story in print. Great. But the logic of the two-book deal requires follow-up. So the poor old writer has to make the change from responding to an urgent inspiration to simply fulfilling the terms of a contract. It’s not surprising that those careers come to an end. Even the writer wants out.

More commonly, those brief careers arise as a consequence of the industry’s brutal commercial logic. The simple fact is that most books (fiction and generalist non-fiction) fail. They make a loss. They don’t attract a significant readership. They shine briefly, then vanish. That might be because the book is a bad one, but that’s not usually the reason. A poor cover, weak retail uptake, an inattentive sales force – all those things are more likely than anything to do with the writing. Indeed, when books fail, the shocking truth is that very few people really know whether the book is any good or not. The reviewers don’t: they never looked at it. The retailers don’t: they seldom read the books they buy. Readers don’t: the book never shifted enough copies for a community of readers to form a view. Books just vanish, often for no reason at all. That’s terrifying, but true.

So here’s the further truth about me as a writer. I’ve published seven novels, two works of generalist non-fiction, two of specialist non-fiction, and have worked closely on three published books as editor or ghostwriter. I’ve been published all over the place and in a host of different languages. I’ve had my work filmed. I’ve been on a bestseller list (once) and prize shortlists (albeit not very high quality ones). In short, I’ve done enough that you might be fooled into thinking that I’ve had a career. But that’s not true, not true! Or not true, at any rate, in the sense that most people mean it.

I switched from writing financial thrillers to historical adventures because the former novels weren’t quite working for me. Then I shifted to generalist non-fiction because my historical novels weren’t selling well enough for me to have made an adequate living from them. Then I wrote Getting Published and How To Write because I thought they’d make a reliable annual addition to my income. (I was wrong: the publishers have been useless.) Then I started writing detective stories because (i) I thought I could sell ’em, (ii) it was a niche my past sales record hadn’t yet ruined for me, and (iii) I really, really wanted to.

It’s true that I’ve always earned good advances and have always moved on whenever those good advances have looked like becoming mediocre ones, but then, why shouldn’t I? The publishing industry is far too ready to acquire books from authors by paying peanuts. That’s not a game I’ve ever been willing to play.

There’s a Roger Moore Bond movie when he escapes from an island by using crocodiles as stepping stones. That’s me. That’s my career. A succession of leaps from croc to croc, timing my leap just in time to escape the rapidly closing jaws of the beast I’ve left behind. You can call that a career, if you like. But the word has two senses, not one. There’s the sense of ‘career’ which comes from the corporate world. You start as teaboy, work hard, and end up with the pin-striped suit, the corner office, and the gold clock presented to you on retirement. Life may have been boring, but at least you could rely on the paycheques. That is not the life of a writer.

Then there is the sense of career which means to ‘veer rapidly out of control’. A word whose use in a sentence may be exemplified by such examples as, ‘He careered downhill, shot off a small cliff, crashed into a stand of pine trees, and was last seen being taken by air-ambulance to the nearest hospital.’ This, my friend, is the life of a writer. It is the truth behind most (or all?) authorial careers, except that sometimes you get taken by air-ambulance not to the nearest A&E, but to Rowling Towers or Stieg Larsson Heaven. Good outcomes may be rarer than calamitous ones, but they do happen and they can be astonishing.

So: do I feel like a Writer now? A capital W version of the breed, one who deserves to be taken seriously by those around me?

Well, yes, I guess I do. Partly that’s because I’m in the happy position that my detective stories look – perhaps – like they’re working. They’re selling decently. They’ve sold overseas. They’re being filmed. My publishers, very likely, want more of the same. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’ve survived. It’s not that I haven’t flown off cliffs or smashed into pine-trees. It’s that I’ve done those things, pulled on my skis again and kept going. You’d be surprised at how many reasonably well-known authors would tell similar tales. Surprised to learn how financially and professionally precarious many illustrious careers have been. But that’s how you know you’re a Writer. You count the scars.

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