Once more, it’s time to take stock of the past twelve months and work out how to make the next year count – in terms of being more productive, more happy or, like me, by finally understanding that five-a-day doesn’t apply to units of Chardonnay or mini Twix bars. It’s that time of year when we writers resolve once again to… Simply improve? To network on the, er, Net? To get to grips with the position of the apostrophe after a name ending in S?
Well that’s all well and good and bravo to anyone who hopes to achieve the above. What you don’t want to do is make the resolution I have written down every year, since embarking on my quest for literary success:
THIS YEAR I SHALL GET PUBLISHED.
I suspect at this point some of you are cringing – but don’t. It’s an obvious goal for a writer, just like a forty-year chain-smoker resolving to give up the fags. Only a stash of rejection letters will make you realize such grand declarations are pointless and a bit like me resolving to be the next Bond girl à la Ursula Andress. Even if I spent the next six months in the gym, got the obligatory boob job and pumped my face full of Botox, I would still need to kidnap Barbara Broccoli, hold her to ransom and only then might I be in line for an audition (failing a prison sentence). Resolving to get your book published in one year is like wishing yourself to the top of Mount Everest before you’ve planned your trek. Without wings, there is no quick way up – the only way is to take it step by step.
And what a trek it is. Finishing your first ever chapter and eventually your first draft, learning how to edit, striving to create empathetic characters and produce a page-turner of a plot. And then there's coping with rejection, learning to accept critical help and bracing yourself to abandon a much-loved project. In this era of reality shows where apparent nobodies win huge talent contests, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that these winners have usually spent years learning their craft.
So what should the writer in you resolve to accomplish in 2009?
1) Firstly and most importantly, find some writing friends on the internet – join an online writing group, get some constructive feedback from people who know what they’re talking about. Without the support, inspiration and humour of my virtual friends I would probably still be scratching my head, wondering why my fantastic prose hadn’t resulted in the equivalent of JK Rowling’s success.
2) Read in and out of your genre to learn how it’s done – or how it’s not. But do not mimic or aspire to write like another, I say, as someone who for a year or two wished herself to be the next Sophie Kinsella. In the words of Agatha Christie:
We are all the same people as we were at three, six, ten or twenty years old. More noticeably so, perhaps, at six or seven, because we were not pretending so much then, whereas at twenty we put on a show of being someone else, of being in the mode of the moment… As life goes on, however, it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself every day…
I wonder if the same holds good for writing. Certainly, when you begin to write, you are usually in the throes of admiration for some writer, and, whether you will or no, you cannot help copying their style. Often it is not a style that suits you, and so you write badly. But as time goes on you are less influenced by admiration. You still admire certain writers, you may even wish you could write like them, but you know quite well that you can’t… I have learned that I am ME, that I can do things that, as one might put it, ME can do, but I cannot do things that ME would like to do.
3) Develop a thick skin – we’re talking rhinoceros hide at least. Release and then mop up the tears whilst savouring each word of a rejection letter that isn’t standard. You are in good company as almost every author from George Orwell to Dr Seuss has felt your pain. Do your best to minimise the risk by researching your agents and selectively subbing.
4) Write and write and write, as frequently as you can. Practice is everything. Enhance with How-to books and creative writing courses if desired.
5) Never lose hope. There are those who’ve been published with their first book, who’ve been taken on by the first agent they rang, who’ve rarely faced the lows of writer’s block. And remember, the main difference between a published and unpublished author is that the published one NEVER gave up.
As for me, I’m off to Google Barbara Broccoli’s address and do some press-ups…