The Write Stuff

Posted: August 21, 2014 in Regarding writing
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As I contemplate another short story rejection (oh woe is me!) I was prompted to put pen to pap…er, fingers to keys, in order to jot down what I think are the qualities a writer needs. Straight away I’d say that I don’t believe a writer needs all of the below, in fact given some of the poor novels I’ve read over the years you might not need very many of them at all, but some mixture is essential.

In no particular order:

• Dedication.
Writing is like work, it requires effort and it requires time, and it requires consistency. Any writing handbook will tell you to write every day, and it isn’t easy, especially not if writing is just a hobby and you have a job/children to juggle, but if you want to be a writer then you have to make time to write, and ideally you need to do this regularly. I try and write every day, sometimes it isn’t possible but, on the whole, unless I’m on holiday, it’s rare for more than two days to pass without me writing.

This dedication doesn’t just extend to sitting down every day and writing a new chapter of your novel for six months either, it’s the dedication to go back over what you’ve written, again and again, proof reading, correcting errors, rewriting huge chunks (something I freely admit I’ve never been very good at.)

For a long time this was the quality I lacked, the sheer gumption to actually make myself sit down and write. I’m glad I have that dedication now; I just wish it’d shown up sooner!

• Stubbornness.
You might get lucky. You might be one of those people like James Herbert who’s first novel, The Rats, was picked up by a publisher at the first time of asking, but the chances are you’re going to get rejections, a LOT of rejections and you’re going to have to cowboy up and take those on the chin. More than that you’re going to have to take those blows to the chin, and then stick your chin out for another go, and you’re going to have to keep doing this like the very epitome of a cantankerous old mule.

This very much links in with dedication, because it isn’t just about rejections, it’s about the other roadblocks you’ll find in your way, things in your work or personal life that make writing a struggle.

• Self-belief.
It’s easier to be stubborn if you believe you have a right to be, and to some extent you’ve got to believe in your own ability, because if you don’t think you’re a good writer, why should anyone else?

Without belief in your own ability those rejections will eventually knock you down, whittle away at your confidence until, one day, you put down your pen and never pick it up again except when you’re signing a birthday card.

• Self-awareness.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive when I’ve just told you to believe in yourself, but you’ve also got to be self-aware enough to criticise yourself as well. A lot of rejection will be generic, but some will come with criticism, hopefully constructive criticism, but nonetheless it will be negative, or at least will appear to be so. What you have to do is take it on board.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept every critique you get, try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one after all, but at least consider what you’ve been told. If its comments about your grammar, or the number of typos in your work, then you need to consider that maybe, just maybe, you need to proofread your manuscript a few more times before you send it off. If it’s that your dialogue seems rusty or your descriptions are overly flowery then see if you can’t improve those areas.

Don’t believe everything people say about your work (experienced publishers turned down Stephen King, JK Rowling and a host of others after all) but don’t discount the feedback you get either.

• Talent
It would be easy to say you either have this or you don’t, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Work hard enough and practice enough and I firmly believe that most people could be at least workmanlike writers, and plenty of workmanlike writers sell stories.

Talent alone won’t get you published, but if your prose flows like a mountain stream and you can describe a filthy slum and still make it seem magical, then no doubt editors and agents are going to be predisposed to like you.

• Luck
This isn’t me being cynical, or blaming my lack of blockbuster success on nothing more than bad luck, but it has to be said that sometimes selling a story or getting published comes down to being in the right place at the right time…probably with the right idea.

The sad truth is, no matter how good a writer you are, chances are there are plenty of other people just as good or better, and sometimes the thing that makes one submission stand out amongst a slush pile full of them is probably something you couldn’t have envisaged in a million years.

How many conspiracy thrillers with religious overtones came out in the wake of The Da Vinci Code for instance? How many Dark Romance books in the wake of Twilight? I’ve seen plenty of books advertised as; ‘The next Hunger Games’, or ‘In the spirit of Harry Potter’, and I wonder just how many erotic books publishers had looked down their noses at suddenly became bankable once Fifty Shades of Grey took off?

Luck, don’t bank on it but don’t discount it. Sadly it isn’t something you can affect, well not unless you’re smart enough to realise that the next big thing is going to be books about talking cats from another planet two years in advance. I’ve copyrighted Moggies from Mars so don’t even think about it!

• Empathy
Can you imagine what it would be like to be a member of the opposite sex? To be someone of a different culture or ethnicity? To be a dog or a cat or, a cop, or a serial killer, or an alien warlord from the Gryxiantiply nebula?

Being able to write from the perspective of different people will help your writing stand out. Try and put yourself in their place. Sometimes this won’t be easy, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a killer or a bigot, but if you can do it your characters will benefit and your story will benefit. Your heroes will be more than chisel jawed cardboard cut-outs and your villains will be more than Dick Dastardly clones. And the same is true whether you’re writing about a group of gay artists in Madrid or a group of mercenaries in the jungles of Burma.

• Imagination
Another quality that almost goes without saying, it’s hard to create a story without some degree of an active imagination, because you’ve got to imagine a scenario, create characters out of thin air, and then decide what will happen to them.

That said, imagination comes in varying forms. I’m what I once saw referred to as a space cadet, someone whose mind churns out ideas on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Writer’s block is something I’ve rarely had to deal with for long. The downside of course is that many of those ideas are plain shite (be self-aware, see!), but luckily some are good (Believe in yourself too!).

Your mind doesn’t need to work like this for you to be a success, in fact for a lot of years one of the things that stymied me when it came to writing was that every time I started on a story I thought of another one and all my enthusiasm for the original tale melted like snow in spring. There are plenty of hugely successful writers out there who go months or years between ideas that they deem worthy of writing, and plenty of successful books have been written that were derivative. As the saying goes, there are only so many basic stories in the world (The romance, the quest etc.). Look at Star Wars, the only really original element is that it’s in space. Take the X-Wing’s away and what you’re left with is a farm boy, a good wizard, an evil warlock, a princess and a pirate, and that’s a very old story.

So don’t worry if you don’t wake up every morning thinking “Werewolves on the Moon, of course!” but by the same token if you never, ever come up with ideas you might want to reconsider a career/hobby change—although there’s plenty of stream of consciousness work out there, poetry, surrealist writing etc. Plus of course there’s non-fiction. Maybe you’re not meant to write romantic epics, maybe you’re meant to write car repair manuals. Writing is writing…

• To be a reader.
One final thing. I think in order to be a writer you probably have to be a voracious reader. The fictional horror writer Garth Marenghi might claim to have written more books than he’s read, but I think on the whole those who write, must first read, especially in your chosen genre(s) but try and stretch yourself from time to time. You never know you might find something new to enjoy.

***

I hope this post has been of some help. Now I’m going to stop writing about being a writer, and get back to my novel…you see I haven’t written any of that yet today!

 

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Comments
  1. Mim says:

    Sorry to hear about your rejection – short stories are horrendously hard to sell nowadays. Christopher Fowler often mentions on his blog how hard it is to get publishers to take them on, and he’s had several volumes published in the past.

  2. starkers70 says:

    Thanks Mim. Rejections are par for the course, I was just under the weather last week which meant it hit a bit harder than usual. I think Fowler is right to some extent, certainly in the paying market, but I do think there are many more opportunities for getting short stories published in the indie sector now than ever before. Trouble is many of them are of the “£10 and a contributors copy” rather than 5 pence a word, there’s also a lot of “For the love” projects out there, which I tend to avoid now, but which can be good (depending on the quality of the publisher) for at least getting your name in print.

    The rise of print on demand/ePublishing means far more opportunities, but far less payment. Alanis morissette should write a song about that…

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