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On friends getting published

I am very lucky to be in a position where I have a lot of writer friends. I’ve accumulated this creative network over time. Some are friends I made when we both worked in-house at a publisher; most are people I met while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa; and a few are friends of friends that have become closer because of the writing we have in common. Having writer friends is a big part of what I love about being a writer and it helps me to keep going when my writing stalls – because writing is not always pleasurable. One of my writer friends even went so far as to say he hated writing – hated the writing process and all the frustration of it, how slow it is, how painful – but he loved having written. The feeling of having put into words an idea, a story, and having pulled together all those strands, that feeling was worth all the torture of getting there, and it was that feeling that made him go back in and put himself through it all again. Hearing another writer say this is encouraging because it lets you know that you are not alone in this most lonely of pursuits. 

When I started writing, no one I knew personally had been published. Then an old colleague got a book deal. It was for something that was very different to anything I would ever write, but it still felt exciting. It seemed to make what I was doing more real, as if publication was a solid goal that had just become visible through the mist. The advance my friend earned enabled him to begin working part time so that he could dedicate more time to writing; he was inching towards making it his ‘proper’ job.

In the following years, other friends began to pick up book deals. Some months after completing the Creative Writing course, I was speaking to one of the other students I had become friends with and I remember him saying that, of each year of students that have completed the MA, it averages that about half a dozen get publishing deals. There are not too many people in each year, so this is not a bad success rate. However, my friend went on to say that, every time someone from our year got published, he felt his chances went down a little bit. He immediately followed this up by saying he knew that it was ridiculous and that of course those students getting published could never affect any other individual student’s chances, it just didn’t work like that, but still… he couldn’t help feeling a little bit like it did. 

I think this insecurity and defeatist attitude is very typical of unpublished writers (and, I’m beginning to realise, of published writers, too). In a way, it is inevitable. We dedicate a massive amount of time and effort to something, often working in total isolation, and there is no guarantee it will ever bring us any kind of monetary reward or creative recognition. It is no wonder self-doubt creeps in.

There have been some well-documented examples of literary back-biting amongst published authors (not least of all Virginia Woolf’s damning comments of James Joyce’s Ulysses), so it is hardly surprising that an unpublished author might be critical of a published author, particularly if they feel their own work is more deserving of publication. When the published author is someone known personally to the unpublished author, an even greater resentment can set in because that sense of ‘It could / should have been me’ is felt more keenly, particularly if the book is of a similar genre. 

It has been a little surprising to me that I don’t feel more like this when another friend tells me that such-and-such a literary agent has agreed to represent him or he’s just sold his book to such-and-such a publisher. I can’t deny there’s a little pang of ‘When is it going to be my turn?’ but it is only momentary, and I think this is because I’ve developed a staunch belief that half of the battle with writing is having a thick skin and keeping on plugging away. I try to remain philosophical about it; it will be my turn eventually, and whenever that is will be the right time for me.

I’ve worked in publishing for more than ten years now, and I know that there are lots of books that get published – and some which do very well – which I don’t think are particularly well written or deserving. There is no point in feeling resentful about this. The reasons why these books find publishers and why people buy them are varied and numerous and – most importantly – completely out of my control. I also know that writing is a craft and, as a general rule, the more someone writes, the better they become at it. Some writers who get published at the very first try find that they are learning their craft in full view of their readers and – more painfully – their critics, who will not hold back when the writer slips up (particularly now, when everyone can be a critic on Goodreads or Amazon, including those resentful unpublished writers).

I was talking to another writer friend yesterday, and she was saying that she knows of a writing-workshop group who met on a Creative Writing MA and have been workshopping together ever since – for about the past seven or eight years. One of them was published very soon after they completed their course, but now almost all of them have publishing deals, and the one who has only very recently found a deal secured a six-figure advance (which the others all feel slightly resentful about). So, it just goes to show, sometimes waiting a bit longer really can pay off. 

I love that so many of my friends are writers. I love talking about writing, about our ideas, and about the problems we all face. I know that I have been a useful source of information because of my job as an editor for writer friends less familiar with that mysterious side of the publishing process, and I find it really useful that friends of mine have gone down the getting-published route before me so that I can be more prepared if and when I find myself on the same road. I suppose, ultimately, what keeps me pleased for my published friends, and what keeps resentment at bay, is my belief that good writing is good writing, whether or not it’s published, and if it is good, it will be published sooner or later, so long as you keep sending it out to agents and publishers. Most importantly, good writers need to stick together, whether or not they are published, because the support we offer each other helps to keep quality literature alive.

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Five Tips for New Writers

I rarely edit anything that hasn’t already been re-read and re-drafted by the author, read and critiqued by the agent and then re-drafted again, and finally read and given a structural edit and possibly a line edit by an in-house editor at the publisher before it lands on my desk. And I still find stuff that is inconsistent, awkwardly phrased, inaccurate and unbelievable. I am currently editing something that hasn’t been seen by anyone apart from the author and me, and it is very interesting to note what it is the professionals do that do not necessarily come naturally to someone who is new to writing a novel, even someone, like this author, who is clearly not a bad writer. Saying that, some of the tips below would also have improved the writing of a number of the professional authors whose work I’ve edited, too. Anyway, here are five tips for (new) writers, which might be helpful when getting your novel picked up by an agent or publisher, and will certainly make an editor’s life easier. They are in no particular order, and are in no way exhaustive – just five things I’ve noticed in my most recent edits.

Tip 1: Don’t introduce characters who are irrelevant to the plot.

This is frustrating to readers because, basically, you are wasting their time. If you’re going to give us a name and a physical description and fill us in on the character’s background to allow insight into her psychology, then that character had better appear in more than one scene. It doesn’t matter if she has a function – to show the protagonist helping someone out of the kindness of his heart, or to demonstrate how utterly, devastatingly attractive the protagonist is that someone so unattainable would fall for him – if that character disappears after only one scene, readers will be resentful that they invested so much in the character in the first place. Solution: Use a character who already exists to fulfil the necessary function (as well as being key to the main plot) or show us the trait you’re trying to highlight in the protagonist by working it into scenes that you already have (which drive your plot forward).

Tip 2: Don’t give background information only as it becomes relevant.

So your protagonist is desperately short of cash and has to sell her most treasured possession in order to make ends meet. Only, your readers haven’t heard anything about this treasured possession up until now. If you suddenly spring something like this on them, readers will see it as a weak and rather-too-convenient device to keep the plot going. And no amount of background information at the time when the thing becomes relevant will make it seem plausible. Solution: You will pack a much stronger emotional punch if we hear about this treasured possession earlier. Readers need to see how much it means to the protagonist in advance to make them care when it is finally taken away.

Tip 3: If an important conversation happens, give us dialogue.

This comes down to the oldest rule in the book: show, don’t tell. Some writers are great at dialogue, and some seem to fear it. There is often a tendency in early drafts to over explain what is being said and what it means and how it is interpreted by the characters, with the worst cases shunning dialogue completely and simply reporting what happened in one big paragraph. The only explanation I can give for this is that the author thinks the conversation is so important that it needs to be explained to the reader. It doesn’t. Solution: You can tell readers a massive amount by leaving a load of stuff out. Give us a gesture or a movement instead of telling us how someone was feeling when they said something. Readers want to imagine the scenes themselves. Give them the words that were spoken first and then add a few necessary details.

Tip 4: Watch what your first-person narrator tells us.

So, in first-person narration (or even close third-person), you need to remain acutely aware of your narrator’s state of mind. If they are drunk, or massively traumatised by something they’ve just seen, or if they’ve been knocked on the head and can’t see straight, they probably won’t be able to give us a lucid paragraph about exactly how they’re feeling or what the experience means to them. Equally, a first-person narrator should not, usually, say something like, ‘He was so concerned about me that he did everything he could to make my life easier.’ Unless, of course, your narrator is trying to convince themselves of this. A first-person narrator does not have access to other characters’ thoughts, so cannot tell readers what other characters are thinking or feeling. Solution: Use language to demonstrate drunkenness etc. Incomplete sentences, odd juxtapositions, etc. can help in speech, and you might get away with being slightly more lucid inside someone’s head, but their thoughts will still be affected and jumbled. Save any really profound thoughts for when your narrator is just getting back to normal. On the point of reading other characters’ minds, a first-person narrator can tell us what that character said (‘He told me how concerned he was about me’), or show us how they looked (‘I could see the concern in his expression’), or even have another character report back on what they have heard about that character (‘He’s really concerned about you, you know’). Any of these techniques works better than trespassing inside someone else’s head.

Tip 5: Avoid clichés.

It’s very easy to write in clichés, because we hear them so much in everyday speech. It is also horrible to hear that your writing is clichéd. The only way to avoid this is to read it back with an eagle eye (that’ll be a cliché, right there), and get rid of the blighters. The exception to this is where they appear in speech or ‘in voice’ (where you’re writing first person, or very close third person), but even then I’d recommend caution. Solution: It’s great if you can spot them as you’re writing, but this is often easier said than done (cliché alert!). Be sure to have a thorough check through once you’ve finished your first draft and sift any remaining ones out. You’re looking for things like ‘my heart skipped a beat’, ‘I felt sick to my stomach’, ‘it was a cold and rainy night’. You know the stuff – anything that you’ve heard a million times before.

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