Monday, 24 March 2014

What Do Writers Want?

Photo: RNA

Here's a question for you: what do you want from your writing? Someone asked me that the other day. As a writer juggling work with life, perhaps a day-job and a family, how often do you step back and ask yourself: 'what do I want?'  It was an interesting question. Why not take a minute and think about it? As I've often said to the children, (quoting that great philosopher Jake from the Tweenies), generally 'I want doesn't get'. Manners go a long way - I believe in please and thank you, and sometimes it's an uphill struggle where we are. But once in a while it is good to remind yourself what it is that you really, really want.

I'm just back from a trip home to London for the Romantic Novel of the Year awards. There was a great write up of some of the categories here, and pictures of all the winners here. It was a wonderful evening and so lovely to be among writers who have grown to be friends, and to see them win. Helen Fielding received a lifetime achievement award, and brought the house down with the tale of her first, unpublished novel 'Fires of Zanzibar'. She told us that the rejection from Mills & Boon was devastating: 'I couldn't write for six years.' I think many of us are hoping 'Fires of Zanzibar' will now find a publisher - Fielding shared the last line: 'I'm a doctor, and that's not a snake.' 

That's perhaps one of the things you think, whether you're writing commercial or literary fiction: I want to be an award winning writer. From the Nobel to the Costa, it's a stamp of quality, a sign that your book is up there with the best of its peers. Or perhaps you want to be a bestseller? But what kind of bestseller? So far I've seen the first two books as genuine whole chart bestsellers in Norway and Germany, on Kindle in Spain, the UK. This was a brief glorious moment when I could say to my daughter: 'Look! Beauty Chorus is in a JK and John Green sandwich' (her two favourite authors). She was about as impressed as most pre-teens - at least the dog was excited.

Perhaps you want to make a living as a writer? There's been a lot of hoo-ha among UK writers about this article saying basically we can all kiss goodbye to any dream of that. The average writer earns £5000 a year apparently. Is that true? Personally, I'm not packing up my pencils, and I'm not buying the whole death of the book/author argument either. Work harder, work smarter. Perhaps everyone has their level of experience and expectation. Room of your own? A garret? I dream of garrets - if, like me, your desk is in the corner of the family living room and you have to just get on with writing there every day, this happens to your pristine, precious manuscript if you leave it lying around: 

Meh, everyone is a critic.

I wonder if James Patterson, JK or Nora Roberts ever had anyone draw a poo on their drafts? These three authors topped the list of bestselling authors since 2001. This is more interesting. I haven't met them, but of the big name authors I have met, or heard give talks, like Jacqueline Wilson (who gave this great interview this week), and Nicholas Sparks who had the audience screaming in adoration at Emirates a few years ago, I've noticed a couple of things. They have an incredible work ethic. They don't just talk about writing, they work long hours each day reading and writing, and - vitally - rewriting. Another thing - they are radiators. They give out a good energy to their readers - I remember reading how Maeve Binchy always took the time to talk to shelf stackers in bookstores and supermarkets. Sure, there are prima donna authors who play up to the worst stereotypes, but the big name authors I admire routinely work hard, respect their readers and are grateful for the hard work that everyone from their agent to the translator to the publisher to the publicist does on their behalf. Jilly Cooper writes legendary thank you letters to people, and in a recent interview Jeffrey Archer revealed he takes the time to call his cover designers. A successful novel is a team effort.

It's interesting, too, how many overnight sensations have been quietly working away for years until their work reaches that tipping point of stellar success. Look at Wilson who worked for years writing editorial and novels before the huge success of Tracy Beaker. If, like me, your Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with writers, publicists and publishers, when you poke your head up from the deep fathoms of the work in progress for the equivalent of a coffee break/watercooler chat, it can feel a bit like landing slap bang in the middle of a cocktail party where everyone is talking over one another about winning awards/topping the bestsellers/signing six figure contracts. No wonder we all find relief in looking at photos of cats. Never before have so many writers shared so much - we know who gets flowers and champagne from their publisher, who gets gorgeous covers and swag. (My current favourites are Rafaella Barker's swooningly beautiful new covers, and grown men have been singing the praises of her 'From A Distance' tea towel). I've loved her books for years and now want them all over again. We cheer one another on over long sought successes, and commiserate over trollings on review sites, and the misery of random one star reviews because someone in Timbuctoo wasn't happy with the packaging. The buck stops with the writer on many things, but packaging isn't one of them. Sometimes it gets too noisy - and what writers need (not want), is quiet to get on with doing what they are supposed to be doing - writing books.

Jonny Geller wrote another great blog post in the Bookseller about rising above this din, in the context of getting authors and books heard. A phrase that jumped out to me was: authors want believers. That, more than anything, is what I want now going forward. Published authors already believe in their own work - it's a combination of talent and persistence that has seen them through unpublished novels languishing in the bottom drawer. It takes belief and sheer determination to write on and write better in the face of rejections. To succeed now, you really need people who believe in your work too. I want to write a book each year, a book that is better than the one before. That's my part of the deal - to accept nothing but the best from myself. I want to be read now - I'd be ecstatic if some of the books stand the test of time, but I want to write commercially successful fiction. And I want to work with a team of people who believe in those books. 

On a lighter note, there is my 'Megalomaniac List' at the back of my diary (please say it's not just me ...) - a rolling projection of all the books and scripts I want to write, and all the glorious markers I've seen writer friends achieve over the last four years, and would love to accomplish myself, (#1 Sunday Times, yes please. Richard and Judy? Love to. Posters on the underground, festivals, film rights and trophies - don't mind if I do). If you don't have a ML, why not start one - if you aim for the moon you might just hit a few stars along the way. I know these things are achievable because I've seen authors I have read for years attain them recently, and been thrilled for them. It's still possible. More people are reading than ever. All those things start with simply doing the best work you can, and reading the best books you can lay your hands on.

I'm going to leave you with a #shelfie - we've just passed the four-year-a-versary of moving to the desert. I arrived with two or three paperbacks for the MA. In that time the books have multiplied to this (I'm not even going to show you the TBR bookshelf, which is embarrassing, heaving, or the children's bookshelves). Add on the hundreds of titles on Kindle. And the half a container of books, my real library, languishing in the UK. From all that I've distilled two published novels, written a third, and drafted a fourth. One book for each of the four years. Each of these books on the shelves has been read, often curled up on that daybed with a cat and a dog - and many of them have been hand carried from the UK or US. I believe in supporting the industry I'm working in, and I still believe in the magic of books. 

Buy books. Read. Write. Be read. Simple ;)

How about you? What do you want from your writing?


  1. Fantastic, thought provoking post that also made me howl with laughter - I thought those poos were clouds!

    I don't have a physical Megalomaniac List - only a mental one - but I'm going to write it down now.

    I can't wait to read your third book!

  2. Thanks, Georgina - fat, happy clouds ;) Glad the post was helpful - there's some great material in the links, esp Jonny Geller's post on The Bookseller x

  3. Great post, Kate. Thought-provoking and inspiring - especially your words about writing a book each year. It's so easy to let daily life get in the way of writing and then find that months have slipped away with very little achieved in terms of major writing goals.

    On the other hand chipping away daily at a big project usually gets the job done sooner than you think. I must get back to that chipping! Thanks for reminding me to focus on the big picture.

  4. Welcome, Persephone - and thank you. It is exactly that, finding the discipline to do a little every day (as an arch boondoggler I sympathise). A writer recommended Pomodoro the other day - it's like a timer you can download apparently which forces you to focus on writing flat out for a period of time. Think I shall take a look ...


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