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Writing fiction: crawl until your knees hurt

As a rule, humans are impatient. It’s in our nature. We don’t want things later on; we want them now. Like, right now. If we join a karate class, we want the sensei to stop the lesson halfway through, come over to us with their jaw sagging like a shopping bag, tell us they’ve never seen anything like it and bump us straight up to a brown belt. Of course, things like that rarely happen. A wunderkind is called a wunderkind because what they’re doing is nothing short of a miracle. The rest of us Beta-Minuses have to grind away at the things we want to become good at day after day, year after year, until eventually somebody does come up to us and tell us how good we are—and by that time we won’t even believe them, because now we’re deep, deep into it, and we’re aware there is so much we don’t (and will never) know.

 

If patience is a virtue, then writers are sinners. I didn’t have any patience when I started writing. I thought that by making the decision to write like a maniac each day, I’d be rewarded for my discipline within, say, six months at the maximum. Having a couple of short stories published in semi-professional journals was my goal, along with a semi-finished version of my first novel (a kind of Last Exit to Brooklyn palimpsest that makes every mistake and misstep imaginable). How impetuous that guy was. He jumped out of the blocks, arms swishing back and forth, legs pumping like mighty pistons, one eye on the finish line all the way over there in the distance, another on the crowd he was sure was in attendance just for him. And for a few sweet ignorant strides, everything was perfect. But before long he realised he was coming no closer to the finish line. He was, in effect, running on the spot. All that energy, all that sweat, all those winks to the crowd. For nothing. No publications. No interest. No glory.

 

So I stopped running and did what I should have done in the first place: I fell to my knees and started to crawl. I jettisoned all my preconceptions, stopped thinking recognition was owed to me, and turned my back on the concept of glory (a terrible reason to ever do anything anyway). I wrote for months and months and months, churning out terrible short stories and working on a second novel. The skin on my knees rubbed away and became bloody. Gravel became embedded in the palms of my hands. My back ached. I spent countless few evenings wondering whether it was worth it. And then, a year later, I had a piece accepted for publication. Five hundred words buried somewhere in an online-only zine. The most modest of modest triumphs. But it was enough. And as I continued crawling, I realised a few things: the skin on my knees had healed. My back didn’t hurt as much. My hands relished the gravel that bit deep into the meat below my thumbs. I kind of liked being down there on the floor.

 

Now, it’s not easy to remain on the ground. But there are three things you could do to make the experience less painful from the start:

 

1.    Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a novel.

I did the opposite of this. I told family, I told friends, I told anybody who would listen. They questioned me, shouted words of encouragement, laughed, told me they’d ‘definitely buy it’ once the novel came out (because all you have to do is write it, yeah?). Those family members and friends told other people—strangers at parties, in bars and at gatherings, usually when the conversation hit a lull—and there’d be more questions and encouragement and smirking. At some point I found myself thinking that if I failed to produce a freshly bound masterpiece with a foreword by Irvine Welsh and multiple glowing reviews soon, all those people would call me a fraud. Which is bullshit, obviously. The only person who cares what you’re doing is you (and to a lesser extent your partner if you have one, and that’s 80% out of a sense of duty). Your friends don’t care, your family doesn’t care, and the strangers definitely don’t care. They might clap you on the back and grin and cause you to bow your head and stare at the tabletop while the twin flames of pride and embarrassment singe your cheeks, but they’re not thinking of you while you’re battering the hell out of your keyboard or making a breakthrough with a character you’ve hated up to now or sitting in a bath of lukewarm water telling yourself over and over that you’re worthless. They have their own stuff going on. Your drama is a solo performance. Unless you’re George R.R. Martin (or Stephen King when he was writing The Dark Tower), nobody is desperately expecting anything from you. But if you don’t want to feel like they do, stop telling people you’re writing a novel.

 

2.    Give yourself time.

Yeah, it’d be nice to have the same luck as Brett Easton Ellis or Francois Sagan or S.E. Hinton and find an agent and a contract with a publishing house when you’re still in your teens. And it is luck, regardless of how good the writing is. Exactly the right person has to see your words on the page at exactly the right time in their life, in the lives of the prospective audience and in the life of the publishing house that agrees to take a chance on it. Those are some star-aligning odds. What most of us simply have to do is give ourselves time. Time to make every mistake, take dramatic U-turns, leave the manuscript to one side for months at a time, churn out short story after short story until you finally happen upon an idea that is not a dead loss, one that glows, one that—in time—you can tease and turn into a living, breathing piece of readable fiction. Also: Think twice before sending off your query letters to agents. Is it genuinely the right time to do it? Have you actually spent long enough on your art or are you inflating those seven months of graft into something greater? Have you cut any corners along the way? Did you rush that last draft a bit because you just wanted to get it finished? Is your belief in yourself justified or unrealistic? If any of the answers are negative, it would be wise to bury that manuscript for a few more weeks (before giving it another read-through), close that query template file and stop trawling the agencies and publishing houses. They’ll (probably) still be there when you’re actually ready.

 

3.    Don’t be so quick to throw it out there on Kindle.

There are thousands of articles on how the publishing industry has changed and how self-publishing is fashionable, wise and lucrative, all at once. That’s great if you’ve written 18 fantasy novels in the past two years or you’re good at tapping into the werewolf shifter erotica market. But I have the suspicion that self-publishing isn’t actually quite as attractive as people make it out to be. I have another suspicion that most writers would probably chop off a limb to get a traditional contract with a publishing house, but wouldn’t go so far as to cut their hair if self-publishing required it. I wrote an ugly little book with literary aspirations and when I wasn’t able to find an agent I slapped a cover together and put it on Amazon. That, in itself, felt like a failure. I then spent the next six months or so doing virtually nothing to promote it. What I did do every day was look at the book sales and watch how I sold fourteen copies, then five copies, then two copies...one copy...one more...flatline. A few encouraging reviews from friends, but little beyond that. And why should I have expected anything different? I didn’t spend long enough on it and it wasn’t good enough to attract attention, but I was deluded enough to think it would somehow find a cult audience in, I don’t know, Detroit or Calcutta or Tangier. All I managed to do was use up some goodwill among friends by pestering them to buy the book and waste the time of those agents who actually went so far as to read my query letters. Impatience controlled my actions entirely. Instead of crawling along, getting somewhere, I was out of breath miles from the finish line. And that neither feels nor looks good.

 

So those are the three rules I wish I’d known back at the start of all this. I’m now in my fourth year of being a ‘professional’, as Steven Pressfield refers to it, which is no time at all. And yet I’m writing a blog post about writing. The reason is because I know now that it’s okay to crawl and it’s where I belong, and that gives me the confidence to believe in what I’m writing. Above all, I’m no longer gripped by impatience. There’s no reward for finishing quickly. There are no short cuts. Writing takes as long as it takes, and that’s that.

SELF, SELF, SELF

midnight in a perfect world

midnight in a perfect world