In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been to three different author events. These events are something I try to get to whenever I get the chance. Even if I’m not a particular fan of the author themselves, or their work, there’s something about listening to another author talk about their work that always leaves me feeling like I’ve learned something new about what it means to be a writer.
For those of you not familiar with author events, they typically consist the author talking about whatever book they happen to be promoting, and maybe reading a few sections from it, before opening the floor to questions from the audience. This means that they give you the unprecedented opportunity to pick the brains of a famous author.
The three events I went to recently all happened to be Scottish crime writers, and it was interesting to hear three very different takes on how to approach the writing process and where ideas came from. However, I think the most insightful words came from Stuart MacBride in response to a question from a young woman about how you go about writing your first book. There was a brief pause, before he replied: ‘Sit your arse down, and write a damn book!’
Now, at first this may seem flippant, and to some extent it was, but he went on to qualify exactly what he was meaning. The only way to learn how to write is to sit down and write something. Then you can read it over, and decide what you like about it, and what you didn’t, and then make sure you don’t make the same mistakes in the next thing you write. This, indeed, is the key to writing a book. Sit down, write it, learn from your mistakes, and start the process all over again.
You see, the first published book by any author is rarely the first book they ever wrote. In fact, this is a basis of a question I often ask other writers at their author events: How many books did you write before the first book you got published? Having asked this question of a lot of authors, I know that many wrote three or four more or less complete novels, before they wrote the one that finally landed them a publishing contract. You might think of this as a waste of time and effort, but it’s not, it’s just part of the apprenticeship that all authors must go through. And such early works are rarely wasted as many authors will return to them at a later date and turn it into a more complete piece that is then published.
There’s also something about watching the way authors hold themselves in front of an audience that you can learn a lot from. In all the events I’ve been to, I’ve never once seen an author take themselves too seriously. In fact, many seem to take an approach that is closer to stand-up comedy than to any serious introspection about their life as a writer.
This, I think, is important. To be a writer, you just cannot take yourself too seriously. There will always be people who don’t like your work, who will criticise you, who will knock whatever you write, and you cannot let this get under your skin. Yet, this can only happen if you take yourself, and your work, too seriously.
This is particularly important for writers who are just starting out. While it may feel like it at times, writing isn’t a matter of life and death, and you cannot spend all your energy trying to second guess what others may think of it. All you can do is write the best damn book that you can, and hope that others like it as much as you do. If they do, great. If they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. Pick yourself up, brush yourself down, get your arse back in the chair and start again.
This leads onto the last thing that I’ve learned from author events. If you want to be a writer, you have to get used to rejection. Writing is one of the few careers where you can guarantee you will get rejected. A lot. Even if you’re a famous writer. This is illustrated nicely by something said by another Scottish crime writer, Peter May, at his recent event in Glasgow. Amongst other things, he’s now famous for writing what is known as the Lewis Trilogy. These are three books set in a remote Scottish island and are deeply woven into the fabric of the local community and landscape. Even though he was already a relatively well-known author at the time, the first of these books was rejected by every publisher in the UK, and only saw the light of day when he showed it to his French publisher after it had lain in a drawer, gathering dust, for three or four years. They have since sold in excess of several million copies all around the world.
What can you learn from this? Publishers can be surprisingly poor at spotting good books, and the fact they turn you down is often absolutely no reflection on the novel you have written. This means that you have to be confident in what you’ve written, and be willing to pick yourself up every time you’re knocked down, and start the whole submission process again with a different publisher. And then again. And again. And again.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all rejected manuscripts are great, overlooked masterpieces. Many will be pure dross, but as the writer, that’s something you can control, and as I said before, it’s up to you to write the best damn book that you can. After that, everything else is a bit of a lottery, and as with any lottery, the more tickets you have in it, the higher your chances of hitting the jackpot, so if one particular novel just isn’t getting you the attention you know your work deserves, then file it away, write another one, develop your writing skills, write a better book that the first one, and keep your fingers crossed that this time it will be the one. If it is, you can always come back, brush the dust off your other manuscripts and have another go.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.