Thursday, 24 March 2011

I often think I should write a book

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)

Richard Jay Parker raised an interesting subject in his last blog, and I'm sure he's right when he says that most authors have had this sort of experience. I've lost count of the number of times when I've been in some kind of social gathering where most of the people are strangers to me, and when the conversation has, almost inevitably, shifted to a discussion of the various participants’ modes of employment.

The statement ‘I'm a writer’, usually seems to produce one of two reactions. Either there’s a stunned silence followed by a detailed scrutiny as the other people stare at you as if you're some strange and unexpected life-form from another planet which has mysteriously appeared in their midst. This is often followed by a mild exclamation, then an observation that they've never seen a writer before, followed by a complete and irreversible change of subject. On the whole, I prefer this kind of conversation, because I'm better listener than I am a talker, and I'm quite happy to look and listen, hoping to pick up the odd idea for a plot or perhaps a useful characteristic or expression that I can shoehorn into some future book.

The other reaction is rather different. One of the people will give you a knowing look, which clearly implies that if an idiot like you can not only write a book but also get it published, obviously anybody can do it, and then they’ll say something like: ‘I thought I might become an author when I retire from accountancy/medicine/train driving/rat catching or whatever.’

To me, and I suspect to most authors, this makes as much sense as saying ‘I thought I might become a brain surgeon/research biochemist/rocket scientist when I retire.’ Becoming an author isn’t something you can do on a whim. Most of us have served long and hard apprenticeships before that elusive publishing contract dropped through the letter box. In my case, I earned my first crust from writing at the age of 17, with a mildly abusive letter published in a motor magazine which netted me a fiver. In those days that was enough money to fill the tank of my Mini. Then I wrote for a number of British magazines, which taught me the importance of choosing the right subject, sticking to deadlines, adhering to a house style, and producing work of the appropriate length.

But it took me ten years to get my first novel published, writing it, rewriting it, starting again when other ideas struck me, and then finally sending it out to agents when I thought it was of publishable quality. Actually, it wasn't. For one thing, it was far too long, and when I was lucky enough to be taken on by an agent after receiving over 50 rejections, the first thing he told me to do was lose 50,000 words, which was fairly major surgery.

I do wonder how many of the people who think they might knock up a novel or two when they get the time would be prepared to work at one book for a decade, and then chop out about thirty percent of it before it’s even submitted to a single publisher.

Writing, in short, is a craft and a skill and, like any trade, it has to be learned. It’s also extraordinarily lonely. By definition, most of the time an author is sitting in a room, by himself, staring at a computer screen. There are no workmates to talk to, no canteen to visit for a coffee or a meal, no meetings, no progress reports, and nobody standing behind you to make sure that you are actually writing a book and not spending all your time cruising around Facebook, eBay or even less reputable websites.

It requires concentration, self-discipline and, obviously, a modicum of talent. But I still remember my first meeting with my agent, when he asked me what I thought was the most important quality for a writer. To me, the answer seemed obvious: talent, the ability to write, to tell a story that people wanted to read. Actually, he said, they help, but the single most important attribute, without a doubt, was persistence. Never, ever, give up.

And, until you’ve got a good few books out there, never give up the day job, either.

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