Writing is an apprenticeship. I decided I wanted to write many years before I became good at it. Unless you are a freak of nature you will be the same. You will practice writing in the same way that pianist practices scales, or a tennis player practices serves, working sentences, then paragraphs, then scenes, over and over, until you get them right. Or, at least readable.
That said, long before you can write a full-length novel – and ages before you can write a good one — you can develop traits in yourself that will make it more likely you will succeed.
I am not saying you can’t be an excellent writer without developing these characteristics–authors’ personalities are replete with bizarre idiosyncrasies, social deviance, not to mention serious drug and alcohol abuse that sometimes obscure the work, itself. However, those who succeed while behaving like this are rare. Admittedly success for any writer is rare, but among the great recluses and drinkers and stoned among us, it is almost unheard of.
So, here are a few ideas that might help you along, or at least make the apprenticeship more bearable.
Give yourself time to be a bad writer
It’s okay to be a bad writer–for a while. In fact, the “10,000 hour rule” made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, states that a long period of time is needed to achieve excellence in any field. And while Gladwell’s claim (based on a single study, according to Wikipedia) may not be universally true, and 10,000 is certainly no magic number, I think we can all agree that learning to write takes time, and learning to write fiction well takes even more time.
In fact, this initial learning experience is not that different to the years you have ahead of you being a writer. Expect to spend the rest of your life being very interested in the way people speak, how other writers’ write, hearing words in your head differently (I assume) to the rest of the population. Get used to the ride – try to enjoy it – because for as long as you are a working writer, you are going to be stuck on this pony.
Give yourself time to succeed
You may believe that once you are writing well, success will soon follow. The mistake here is in the word “soon.” Though you put in the ten thousand hours, you now face the excruciating process of finding an agent, being rejected by publishers, or tackling the prospect of independent publishing with its great “discoverability problem”, which is to say that the glut of Indy novels is so extreme nobody notices you are on Amazon.
However, you may have some early luck. If you write a good novel, there is every reason to believe it will be published. With an Amazon page and an author bio, you can declare with some confidence that you are a proper writer (though you could have said that before – “proper” writers were all unpublished writers during some portion of their lives).
Sometimes it takes many years and many novels. Try to remember that nobody cares how many times you are turned down – that doesn’t matter. The dozens of “no’s” mean nothing compared to the single “yes”, and you never have to give them a thought.
Most writers have a novel or two that we did not publish, either because it wasn’t good enough or we, ourselves, didn’t like it. I have one in both categories, a novel that wasn’t “big” enough that I put to one side and have now forgotten. And another that I did not want to let Nan Talese publish at Penguin Random House in New York, even though she’d liked the UK edition of it, because I thought it wasn’t good enough (it isn’t).
Get Used To The Awkward Silence Of Success
Success for writers does not always feels like success. Just being in print will satisfy some writers. Others will find the entire process of becoming published anticlimactic. Or worse, depressing. Nobody seems to care you’ve written this book. I mean, it’s out there. It may have done well (or well enough that a second book is likely), but your life is chugging along pretty much as it had before. Whereas before nobody cared because they didn’t know you were a writer, now they know you are a writer and they still don’t care.
All I can tell you is this: you wondered what it felt like to be a professional novelist? This is it. Even those of us who have tremendous luck with our early books eventually feel this way.
But the good news is that, if you are serious, the outward signs of “success” mean little to you. If you are any good, the weirdness of writing will mean you spend most of your time either elated at the occasional scene (or paragraph, sometimes a paragraph is enough) that shows you in the best light, or you are pissed off with how the sentences clunk along like recalcitrant cattle. The rest of what happens in the world of publishing will mean little to you.
And if this is the case for you – if what really matters to you is the work — then take heart. You are in good company. You are in the best company in the world.