I’d be willing to take a fairly strong stance on the issue of the ‘overnight success’ and bet that there’s no such thing. Well, maybe that’s going too far – I’ll concede that a writer could become an overnight success in the following circumstances:
- They’re so unbelievably, superlatively gifted that they go from having no writing experience to turning out a stellar manuscript in the space of a year. (AKA ‘The Unicorn’)
- They have the kinds of connections that can transmute an unpublishable first-effort turd into a bestseller after a lot of effort by other, more talented people. (AKA ‘The Paolini’)
- They’re already famous in some other field and could get their shopping list published as long as it had their name attached to it. (AKA ‘The Morrissey’)
You probably don’t fall into one of those categories. Hell, you probably don’t even want to. But you’re just starting out, damn it, and you want to get published! What’s the solution?
Luckily, there’s an easy shortcut to writing talent and ability:
buy a lot of how-to-write books on Amazon invent a time machine, go back ten years, and start writing much earlier. Simple!
I’m kidding, obviously, but the point I’m trying to make is that there probably aren’t any shortcuts in writing, any more than there are in other creative fields. The myth of the ‘overnight’ success is so common because the reading public almost never hears about an author’s initial, unpublished works. Debut novels are frequently touted as ‘the first thing [newly-famous author] ever wrote’ rather than ‘the first thing they ever published‘. That distinction is an important one, obviously. The fact that it is so often forgotten suggests a fairly fundamental misunderstanding on a lot of people’s parts on how exactly writers get started doing what they do.
(Although, interestingly, that’s starting to change now that former fanfiction writers are being published. I look forward to the day when a Booker prizewinner is forced to concede ownership of a story where the guys from Supernatural turn into wolves and have kinky sex in the Australian outback.)
Like most people, I decided that I wanted to be a writer during my teenage years. The whole thing seems a bit hazy now, but my thought process probably went something along the lines of ‘Hey, I read a whole bunch and writing books sounds like fun, so how about I do that?’ I also remember liking the idea of being able to live anywhere I wanted, the professional author not being bound to any single geographical location to make a living.
That stream-of-consciousness flood of ideas I mentioned before was also in full swing at this point. At the time I tended to convert everything into some sort of visual representation, so I initially flirted with the idea of getting into drawing. Unfortunately, drawing is even harder to learn than writing and is also far more difficult to turn into piles of money, so I wisely decided to stick to what I seemed to be relatively good at.
And yes, writing is something you have to learn. You absolutely have to learn it. There’s this weird notion in a lot of circles that some people emerge from the womb armed with all of the tools needed to produce good writing. Nobody would ever seriously suggest that a person could ‘just know’ how to be good at computer programming or any kind of engineering without significant training and practice, yet when it comes to creative fields we’re eager to chuck empiricism out the window and become fervent believers in innate knowledge.
Castor is the first thing I’ll ever publish, but it’s the third novel I wrote to completion. Before those came a long succession of totally unreadable trash – ‘learning pieces’, let’s call them, the exploded car engines of a writer’s career. Ten years of almost continuous effort and improvement went into writing a book that anyone deemed fit for publication.
I realise it can be horribly dispiriting to hear this if you’re just starting out, particularly if you’re not currently fifteen years old with a lot of spare time on your hands, but I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that this stuff takes time. One of the downsides of what I think of as the publishing industry’s online fandom is that it’s hard to look for resources about writing well without having to wade through a lot of information about how to get published. Hell, I contributed to the problem in the last post. Spending any time on Absolute Writer or wherever is likely to leave you with the idea that actually writing a novel is a kind of ancillary activity to getting published. Never mind things like ‘finishing the manuscript’ or ‘actually learning how to write dialogue that sounds human’. If you’re not chasing that full request from a rockstar agent, you’re actively wasting your time.
You need to put in the practice. You need to be critical when you’re writing, and especially when you’re reading. At some point I fell into the habit of deconstructing every sentence I read in published novels, looking for what made them work or not work. There comes a moment when you’re reading something that’s been published and you look at a particular sentence or line of dialogue and think I could do better, and it’s not just hubris. You can point to exactly what the problem is, the jarring word choice or awkward phrasing, and you know how to fix it on a mechanical level.
That epiphany doesn’t mean that you’ve ‘made it’, or that you’re actually a better writer than Neil Gaiman. (I’m pretty sure it was Anansi Boys, if you’re curious.) I mean, you might be, but don’t be too quick to crown yourself God-Emperor of Words just because you identified a problem in a published book. What you should do with that moment, in my opinion anyway, is tuck it away somewhere for the times when you read over your own writing and wonder why you have no memory of downing a bottle of sleeping pills before you sat down at the keyboard last night. Hoard those moments for when you need them, and pay attention to how you start to relate to the authors whose work you most admire. At some point, after a lot of sweat and toil, you’ll notice a subtle shift in the way you regard them. They’ll stop being these transcendent creatures of pure talent and begin to feel more like peers. You might not yet be as good as, I don’t know, Chinua Achebe. Maybe you never will be. But if it really, honestly feels like a possibility, then you’ll know you’re making progress.
Alternatively, I can give you a great deal on a second-hand time machine.
Advise from this instalment of Let’s Write a YA Novel:
- The quickest way to develop your writing ability is to have started ten years ago. (So just like every other skill, then.)
- Publishing is a checkpoint, not a destination. Yes, it’s a major checkpoint that could potentially pay the bills so you can quit your soul-destroying day job, but still. A checkpoint. Not a destination.
- Anansi Boys kind of sucked, huh? And I say that as someone who genuinely liked American Gods.
- Next time you see a press release about a debut author, try to track down some information about how many unpublished manuscripts they’re sitting on. In most cases it will be somewhere in the vicinity of ‘a lot’.