I constantly meet people who say they would love to write a book, or they intend to write a book some day, or they know someone who is thinking about writing a book or indeed that they are in the midst of writing their long-planned novel.
I admire everyone who wants to write a book. Sadly I know the majority of aspiring novelists will just talk about it. And yes, some of them will make a start and keep tinkering, often for years. Regardless, the key difference between these people and all of us who have been published is that at some point the writers in my camp stopped talking about it, stopped dreaming about it and got on with writing. We finished a manuscript with all of its trial and pain. And, even more impressively, we found the courage to send it off to a publisher or show it to an agent.
I regularly ask aspiring novelists, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen if you get to this point?’ Everyone replies, ‘My manuscript gets rejected.’ They’re right. That’s the most bleak it gets. But then start thinking about what the best possible outcome could be and of course it’s so shiny and sparkly and exciting that it’s worth all the hard work. Simply by overcoming the fear of rejection you can give your manuscript a go at the big time.
So, as an aspiring writer, you owe it to yourself to finish a manuscript and at the very least see where you can take it and what it can achieve. It may well be rejected by a publisher. Rejections aren’t always due to the quality of the work; more often than you can imagine, rejections occur simply because the manuscript doesn’t suit the acquisitions team at that time, or the publisher or agent isn’t looking for that sort of story just then. But the needs of publishing houses, the tastes of editors and agents, even the demands of the market are fluid. The pathway to publication can change direction in a heartbeat and it does.
These shifts are affected by everything from the state of the economy to far less tangible reasons such as a theme that catches fire. One year vampires will be all the rage, the next year hot sex novels and after that it’ll be anything about France. Then it’s kickarse women who don’t fit the mould, such as Lisbeth Salander, the phenomenal success of Gone Girl — think of all the imitation book titles and covers that followed — or a trainee magician with round glasses and a scar on his forehead.
And yes, I’ll grant you, most times that a rejection occurs it’s because the manuscript isn’t quite right yet. The writing may need finessing, the plot may still be a bit clunky or there may be characters that aren’t fully developed. If that’s the case then hopefully the acquisitions team has done you a favour and drawn your attention to what needs improving and you can learn from that submission.
If you find yourself with a generic rejection letter and no constructive feedback, then it’s on to another publisher or agent. If you have too many blanket rejections and no feedback from publishers or agents, then you have to turn your sights back to the manuscript and understand that something isn’t right about it. It could just be the genre — I know a very capable writer who was recently rejected because the publishers couldn’t quite marry up the genres she was combining. When that happens, it’s harder for them to see their way forward to making it a winner within the wider audience. They liked the story and liked the writing, but it was neither one thing nor the other. It must have been frustrating for her but at least she had that information to work with. Without the feedback she would have had to rely on her own instincts and her network of readers to clue her in as to what wasn’t working about the manuscript.
Whatever the reason for rejection, you’ve achieved the amazing milestone of finishing a manuscript and going through the process of submitting it for consideration. It’s hard, damn hard to send it out into the world! It’s scary and it’s fraught — you’re exposing yourself and your writing and you may feel insecure about that. But it must be done if you’re going to hit the big stage. All of us who are partnered up with a publishing house have fought this battle and at some point emerged victorious — but only because we finished what we began.
So your primary goal when you set out is to finish the manuscript. You may well lose puff halfway through, or become disillusioned or uncertain. It doesn’t matter! At this stage no one has seen it but you. Finish it! And even if you don’t show it to another soul, get yourself into the habit of finishing each project you begin. This professional approach is going to be one of the cornerstones you lay for your future as a writer. I have a close friend who is a beautiful writer. He has no ambition to have a novel published. He doesn’t need any acclaim for his work other than the smiles and round of applause he receives at his local writing group in a very small town. He writes hordes of short stories, gets the most enormous kick out of producing them, loves his friends sharing them and especially enjoys performing them. But ask him about getting them published or writing a novel and he squirms. That’s not his bag. But Tony finishes his stories: that’s what is admirable. If he ever changes his mind and decides to submit his work, he’ll be ready to go. And if a publisher says, ‘Yes please,’ he’ll be a reliable novelist.
School yourself to finish what you begin or you will remain one of those people I mentioned at the beginning: one who talks a great deal about writing and dabbles a lot in writing but doesn’t actually push a project along to completion.
Why do so many dabblers exist?
Dabblers are invariably earnest writers who work hard at their craft and, even if they have no great ambition to be novelists on the world stage, they write, write, write. They write for so many different reasons. They might be natural-born storytellers or have a story idea that has great potential as a piece of fiction. Then there are all those people who want to delve into their family history and write a memoir. Many write about their negative childhood experiences or failed relationships because it’s cathartic to let it out onto the page. Some people are experts in their field and feel moved to write about the wisdom they’ve acquired, whether it’s in the field of cookery, gardening, knitting — a host of hobbies and professions, in fact.
At the root of all this is a desire to share. Most often we not only hear a story in our minds, we can see it unfurling, almost like we are watching it in motion. It’s natural to want other people to see that story too. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin if you’re tackling your first manuscript and for others it’s just hard to know where the story itself best begins.
Frequently people try to bring their story to life on the page but allow life to get in the way: they lose track of their tale, run out of steam and give up. And some dabblers become lost in the process wrestling the story they have in their mind into an entertaining piece of written material. Daunted, they stop writing for a while or shift to another story they’ve been dabbling with.
Time and again I have writers turning up at my workshops feeling frustrated and looking for inspiration or some sort of catalyst to kickstart them on a beautiful story-writing pathway. They want to craft their novel in the time frame that I do and have all the architecture of their story coming together with less angst, more fluidity. Mostly they’re wondering if there’s some magic ingredient they’re lacking that I can give them.
The only ingredient I possess is discipline — the commitment to finish the project.
There are dabblers who arrive at the masterclass who are feeling disillusioned. They want to write, they have stories knocking around in their minds. When I ask them directly why they feel they aren’t getting anywhere, I am hit with an array of excuses, all of them valid enough. They can range from ‘I’ve got a lot of work on at the moment’ to ‘Well, I’ve got children’ to everything in between.
Now those reasons are perfectly sound — if you’re a dabbler.
However, if you’re committed to a writing career, then these reasons are nothing more than lame excuses. The majority of successful novelists I know — and by successful I’m applying earning power as the criteria — are parents, are husbands and wives, are perhaps holding down another full-time job and are certainly running their own business as full-time writers. They’re at writing workshops and hosting seminars. They’re visiting schools and libraries. They’re on tour, getting to festivals, giving keynote speeches at literary luncheons or sitting on panels at various events. They’re meeting booksellers and dropping in on book groups. They’re driving dozens of kilometres just to do a small signing in a shopping centre because the local bookshop there has been so supportive. They’re doing dozens of tasks — just like you — to keep their household ticking along and their families contented, and all the while they’re juggling many other jobs associated with the business of writing without actually adding a single word to their manuscript. And then, on top of all of this, they’re writing and producing finished drafts to go off to their editors.
Novelists who earn a good living from their books do not give themselves excuses. I wrote my first manuscript as a married mum with twin sons at junior primary while running a business with my husband; I did all my writing late at night while the house slept. The only person who missed out on anything in our household was me — I missed out on sleep and social events. But I did so because once I’d decided I was going to write my first novel, I became entirely committed to finishing the first draft.
So when the excuses are being rolled out, I mentally roll my eyes. The only justifications I can accept are serious interruptions to one’s daily life such as illness — and that doesn’t mean colds and coughs. Please, harden up! A new baby, moving house, emergencies . . . that’s the sort of major event I’m referring to. Everything else is simply daily life and you have to work it out, cope with it, make time for your writing and stop giving yourself permission not to finish what you’ve begun.
By Fiona McIntosh
This story is an edited extract from How To Write Your Blockbuster: A practical resource for the aspiring novelist by Fiona McIntosh, published by Penguin Books Australia.