First up, I should confess that I have absolutely no credentials for writing this post. I am – as yet – unpublished, so could be categorised as ‘an aspiring writer’. However, I am an avid reader and since joining twitter and the @CBBookGroup, I have studied the emerging careers of over twenty debut authors, observing and participating in book launches, reviews and blog tours. This experience, combined with my general tendency to make sweeping judgements about the world, has led me to conclude that there are three rules to ensure a successful writing career:
Rule number one: write like an angel
I thought I knew this. I’d read Stephen King’s 20 rules for becoming a frighteningly good writer, where he says there are four categories of writers: bad, competent, good and great. Now, obviously we all want to be ‘great’, but what does that actually mean? I’ve always read a lot – a combination of the classics and whatever caught my eye in the train station – but thanks to twitter and @CBBookClub, this year I’ve read mostly debuts and/or the books that the industry, bloggers and writers rave about. And in case you don’t know this already, I have to tell you that the bar on what counts as ‘great’ right now is VERY high. Frighteningly high, as in how-can-I-ever-compete-with-that-high. Basically, there’s no point in sending your classic ‘fish and chips’ MS to an agent who is fine dining on the very latest novels.
A great writer is like a dancer or musician who has spent years practising their steps and notes. By the time they hit the stage, not only are the changes between movements seamless, but they have reached that sweet state of artistic grace where their body can act without thought, transcending the rules that constrain the merely good. @Jameshannah, debut author of The A-Z of You and Me (and a drummer to boot) is a great example of this, producing subtle, masterful writing, after years of painstaking practice.
Rule number two: sell like a demon
But guess what, it turns out that writing like an angel is the easy part. Once you’ve coughed up your soul into your book, the hard bit is actually selling it. Unfortunately, this is where some authors let themselves and their sponsors down. This is me getting all firm and judgemental now, but all too often I see the following scenes play out: author writes an amazing book, I and others rave about it in reviews and tweets, copying in the author so that they can retweet and generate some buzz about their work and…nothing. Embarrassed silence, or even worse, a self-effacing Hugh Grant reply effectively saying ‘Oh it’s not really that good it’s just some silly little thing I wrote.’
Now I don’t know whether this is a writerly thing, or a woman thing, or an English thing, but I do know that it is A BAD THING. Because if you didn’t want anyone to read it, then you should have left it in your drawer. But you didn’t. You spent God knows how many years writing the darn thing, and then you spent weeks researching/stalking agents, drafting query letters and doing hand-to-hand combat with synopses. You sat for weeks refreshing your inbox, cried over some rejections, picked yourself up and queried some more. You held your breath whilst an agent read The Full, chewed your own arm off when you were signed but weren’t allowed to tell anyone, then went through the whole bowel destroying process of subbing to publishers.
So if after all that, you finally managed to get yourself published whilst retaining the ability to breathe and type, then quite frankly you owe it to yourself and that I-love-you-I-hate-you thing what you wrote to talk it up. In fact, I think you owe it to the people who took a punt on your MS in the first place: the agent, the editor, the marketing team, the assistants, the designers: all the people who believed in you and your thing before it was A Thing. Because the other lesson I’ve learned this year is that people don’t work in publishing for the money. They do it because they love books, they love people, and most of all, they love people who write great books. So do them a favour, and get yourself and your book out there: retweet those tweets and reviews; be like @sarahontheboat who arranged a blog tour for The Summer of Secrets, or Manda Scott @hare_wood who exhibits a quiet but fierce pride in her stunning novel Into the Fire.
I know this is easier said than done. My own MS has just been longlisted in a competition, and I feel slightly sick at the thought of someone actually reading it. I can already feel the self-deprecating tweets coming on where I apologise for the bonkers plot and belittle my own efforts, so at some point you may need to slap me and remind me of my own advice. No one wants to be a self-promoting walking ego, but there are many authors who are brilliant on twitter, engaging and supporting others and – when appropriate – giving their books a well-earned plug. Which brings me to my last rule:
Rule number three: be a lovely human being
Publishing a book is a bit like flying a kite. If you write like an angel, then at least it will be capable of flying. And if you and your team market like demons, then you should get a decent gust of wind to keep you up for a week or two. But as well as talent and publicity, the third and less tangible quality that will keep your book flying, is the goodwill and support of others. Because the most successful authors I’ve observed this year are all lovely human beings. I don’t just mean that they are nice, polite and professional. These authors have something that goes beyond good manners, a kind of grace and warmth that generates a special kind of love and goodwill within the industry and writing community. There are so many authors I should probably mention here, but the most obvious example of this is when the @CBBookGroup selected The Ship by @antonia_writes – not just because it’s a beautiful book, but because as the introductory letter stated, she is one of the loveliest people you could ever hope to meet.
So this, in my (unpublished) view, is the Holy Trinity of success: to write like an angel, market like a demon and be a lovely human being. And like a three-legged stool, you will probably need all three in balance to sustain a successful writing career.
I wish you all the very best of luck.