QUESTIONS WRITERS SOMETIMES ASK ME
A few weeks ago I got paid, as I sometimes do, to read an unpublished novel and tell the author what I thought they needed to do to make it publishable. As is usually the case, there were a lot of errors that pretty much guaranteed the book as it stood would never get out of the slush pile. I told the author what I thought they needed to do to make it better, and also emphasised — as I nearly always do — that writing often requires an enormous amount of dedicated work with absolutely no guarantees of success. Success in this case being: getting a book deal.
And, as is not infrequently the case, after I’d written up my assessment and sent it to the client, I got a reply. In most cases they’re pretty happy with my comments, although there tends to be a certain shellshocked quality to their words that makes it obvious most of the things I picked out as needing fixing were things they had never been aware of.
One, recently, asked me whether it was worth it to keep going. I don’t get asked that often, but I’m guessing it’s a question pretty much all, if not most, writers ask themselves. I wrote a long reply, then thought maybe it applied to a lot of writers, and that maybe I could put it up here. I’ve edited it a bit, but what follows is, essentially, the same advice I’d give to pretty much anyone asking that same question.
You asked me whether it was worth continuing to write.
I can’t really answer that, I’m afraid, but what I will say is that if it gives you pleasure, then you should keep going. That you say you love to write is very important, but ask yourself this question: would you still love writing if it took you ten years to get a book deal? Or even fifteen years? How do you feel about writing ten books, none of which sell, in the hope that maybe — just maybe — the eleventh might net you a deal?
I sold a two thousand word short story to a magazine in 1990 for £40. Over the next decade, I made a grand total of £260 from selling a total of three stories.
Most people who aren’t interested in becoming writers would laugh and shake their heads at these numbers, but I had realised one important thing: if you can write a short story and get actual money for it, then in theory at least you can also write a book and get paid for that too.
About 1997, I wrote a novel that never sold. I wrote a second, and that did sell, in 2004.
That’s nearly fifteen years it took me to get to the point I could at least in theory support myself by writing, and I’d say that’s a not untypical span of time for a lot of writers. I kept my day job, of course, at least until 2007 when back problems forced me to quit. Fortunately by then, I was on a more even financial keel and could support myself by writing — mostly because I moved to a cheaper country for a couple of years.
Like you, I hammered my first novel out without stopping and without any real idea what I was doing. However, after I had extensively revised it — a process that included dumping the last third of the novel and writing a completely different ending — it got me an agent.
That first book never sold, for reasons that are now startlingly clear to me: it showed promise, but was not a saleable work. How can I know that? Because as I kept writing, I slowly became a better writer, and got to the point where I could better judge my earlier work.
Five years after getting an agent, a publisher showed enough interest to ask if I was working on anything else. I’d just started writing something new, fortunately, and they took a look.
One year later, I had a book deal.
Let’s assume you’ll do anything it takes to succeed, because you love writing. Do you read a lot? You’d better, or you might as well give up now. I read up to fifty books a year, maybe half of which are non-fiction.
Should you keep going? Absolutely — as long as you accept the possibility it might never happen. I wrote to get published, but all the while aware it might be for nothing. On the other hand, if I’d never tried, I’d never have sold ten books to a major publisher.
If you REALLY love writing, dedicate yourself to it completely. Don’t let anything get in the way of it. Make your life fit around your writing, not the other way around. Are you constantly critical of your own writing? Do you always strive to improve, and learn from others? Are you prepared to miss out on the TV shows everyone is talking about, skip social nights, at times become a near-hermit to focus on your work?
You’re concerned that your lack of science education — or education in general — might hamper your desire to write.
Fred Pohl was one of the most famous sf writers in the world: I recently read somewhere online that his Gateway books might be made into a TV series. He wrote The Space Merchants, a hugely influential book in its time. He was also a major sf editor for some years.
Pohl’s writing was a huge influence on me, and yet he didn’t get his US high school diploma until he was an old man. Learn from his example. When I started writing, the internet had barely been born. Now all the writing advice you could imagine is out there, to be found, and often for free. Don’t know about something? Look it up online. I’m amazed how few writers do. Is there a library near you? Use it.
What else can you do? Find a writing group near where you live and join it: it makes for a great support network and you get to meet new people with the same shared interests and drives. If there isn’t one near where you live, there are groups online — Critters has a good reputation. There are probably others.
Also, don’t just write novels. Write short stories too. Short stories, especially online, are having something of a golden moment. These are paying markets: check out Clarkesworld, Interzone, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Apex, just for a start. Then go to http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com and check out the short story markets listed there. Write a couple of dozen short stories, and maybe one of them will sell for a few pennies. Write another couple dozen, and maybe four or five of those will sell. Write more, and if you sell more, people will start noticing your name appearing in the magazines.
Getting just one story sale for money makes for a HUGE confidence boost, I can tell you, and it’s nowhere near as much work as a novel.
It all comes down to how badly you want something — and whether you’re willing to put in the time and sacrifice to try and get it. Someone once said you need to write a million words of shitty, terrible prose before the gold starts emerging. And even then there’s still always the possibility it might not be enough.
But the only way you can ever get good enough is by writing and studying and improving and working and being obsessive to the point of near-lunacy and all without any guarantees of success.
Are you that person? Maybe you are, but I’m not the person to tell you. That, you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
- Gary Gibson