The first thing I wrote was a short story. Before writing it, I read over four hundred stories. A friend was freelancing for a national short story competition then got the chance to go travelling before he’d judged his quota of stories. He passed the job to me.
The stories arrived at my flat in cardboard crates, like fruit. I remember staring at them in wonder. Hundreds of characters from across the world, loving, thieving, grieving, killing and running away now squatted in the corner of my living room. They could have glowed or hummed, they seemed so charged.
Until I read them. A few were illegible or illiterate. A few were so good my stomach flipped. It was the majority that puzzled me. They were well-presented, well-constructed little tales of no discernible value. The characters weren’t vivid. Their behaviour wasn’t believable. The situations they were put in and their responses to them, uniform. There was simply no breath of life in them. The more I read, the more I longed to write life as I saw it. In these stories children played happily on carpets unaware their parents were fighting. Whereas children I knew reacted to fights by acting oblivious to appease or disarm their parents. That so many writers seemed unaware of the intelligent dissembling of children (many of these stories were about divorce) made me ache bullishly to put them straight. My first story came from an evangelical urge to preach: children are young, not stupid.
Years on, I’ve written a novel. It’s a double-spaced, immaculately punctuated, seventy-thousand word thriller. Bet you can’t wait to pick it up on the strength of that description. It’s an accurate description. It sums up the attitude in which it was written. Jaw set, joyless typing. I wrote it because people kept telling me I should. Short stories don’t sell. I know. But neither do novels written for the wrong reasons.
I’m convinced it doesn’t matter what drives a good author. There are dollar signs behind every Harlen Coben hook; maternal fear behind each dying-child-dilemma Picoult; political and social ideals behind Hosseini and Coetzee’s work, despite their radically different styles. What succeeds across all genres is when an author is driven by something surpassing the desire to secure an agent or get into print.
This should be obvious, but is it? What motored you when you first sat down to write? Does it drive you still? Has that drive deepened and matured or has your conviction been diluted with shoulds and industry standards and advice from well meaning professionals? I’m not suggested we flout good advice. But it can turn us into mechanical authors, and if it does, it’s time to clear out the accrued wisdom and return to the origins of our urge to write. I know when I’m connected to the work. My blood feels like it flows faster. My muscles seem warm and stretched, as if on a long run. Writing is visceral. Another writer described it to me recently as sending a wire down into the heart. Precisely.
Of the hundreds of stories I read for that first competition, maybe 2% possessed that urgent drive. You know it if you have it. And if you have it don’t lose it. Nothing is more important for a writer than keeping that alive.