What a writer needs - guest post by Emma Haughton

What increases your chances of being a successful novelist? Talent, perhaps? Previous writing experience maybe, or early success? If only it were that simple.
When it comes to writing fiction, nothing stymies you like the advantages you set out with.

What do I mean? Well, take early success. You’d think that hitting the jackpot, or at least hitting the ground running, would set you on the path of an illustrious writing career. I wish. My first foray into fiction – apart from a few abortive, adolescent efforts that never got much past page three - met with quite unanticipated results. I wrote a picture book – literally dashed it off in an afternoon - sent it off to a publisher of repute, and, hey presto, they wanted to publish it. And they did. (It sold diddly-squat, but let’s save that for another gripe.)

The point is that this bout of undelayed gratification did nothing more than give me a completely distorted idea of how easy it was to get published. So when further efforts stumbled and bit the dust, I was totally unprepared for just how pissed off I’d feel.

The same goes for previous experience. I spent over ten years as a freelance journalist. I was published in the broadsheets on a weekly basis, carved out a career in travel writing, churned out a number of non-fiction books for schools that still grace me today with a reasonable PLR cheque.

What did all this give me? An attitude. I got so used to writing something, getting it published, and getting paid for it that the prospect of spending years working on a novel that might never bring in a dime filled me with terror. I procrastinated from writing longer fiction for years, telling myself I couldn’t afford it – I had a living to earn and mouths to feed. Yet when my second husband kindly relieved me of that burden, I still couldn’t find the courage to write.

Okay, so how about ability? Surely a talent for stringing words together in a fairly pleasing way is an advantage? Maybe. But what I quickly realised when eventually I faced that blank white screen is that making pretty with words is only a very small part of the story. I could churn out a 1000-word article in my sleep, but was completely unprepared for the grit of planning and plotting, the sheer terrifying complexity of reeling in and landing a piece of 50,000 words plus. I just hadn’t got a clue how to do it.

More importantly, I hadn’t developed the qualities you need to see it through – guts, determination, perseverance, the ability to withstand rejection. That sounds like so much fluff, the kind of stuff that tumbles like clich├ęs out of the mouths of creative writing tutors. But it’s true. In the long run, those qualities count for so much more than the gift of the gab. Wordsmithing can be learnt, I’ve found; but backbone and stamina must be well and truly earnt.

Emma Haughton spent 15 years writing for the national broadsheets, including travel articles for The Times, and is the author of one picture book and a dozen non-fiction books for schools. She is currently thrashing her way through YA novel number two.


Patsy said...

I still get plenty of rejects - will try to see that as a good thing, but I'm not sure I can convince myself.

Caroline Green said...

Patsy, you have to keep going!

This struck a chord with me too as way back in the days before I started trying to ge published, the only writer I knew, a friend, literally went to the 'A' section of Writers and Artists Yearbook and got signed by the first agent she tried. It gave me a VERY distorted picture of how it all worked once I started out...and one that made me feel as though I'd failed miserably WAY too early!

Helen Black said...

This post struck a chord with me too.

I've been very jammy in terms of my writing career.

I know much better writers than I, who have written several novels before getting a contract.
Their sheer grit is an inspiration.

I'd like to think I'm one of those never-say-die people, but in reality don't know whether I could keep on keepin' on.

Luisa said...

So true. I loved reading this - thanks!

Debs Riccio said...

Crikey, I don't know if this makes me feel better or worse. I've never seen myself as having grit, determination, perseverance or discipline whatsoever. But I must have if I'm still here, decades on, just finishing book No.5 in the hope that someone, somewhere will eventually GET me and sign me and let me live (and write) happily ever after. Fab post, Emma, thanks! (I think!)

Emma Haughton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emma Haughton said...

Lol, I hope it made people feel better than worse. I feel very strongly that I suffered for years from the conviction that you are 'born' a writer, and that it's not something that can be taught or learnt (legacy of a traditional degree in English).

Now I completely disagree - I see writing as more of a question of craft or apprenticeship than one of raw talent. I think that has to be good news for most!

Susannah Rickards said...

I just nodded in agreement right through that post.

Great blog! Thanks, Emma.