Writing When No One Is Looking
When I worked as an in-house editor, we tried to be mindful of ‘author care’. The creative process is a solitary one, so writers appreciate evidence of interest from the outside world — a review, a Tweet, good feedback from a book club, foreign rights interest. Authors can feel distanced from the publication process, because they’re not part of the decision-making meetings which can influence the success or failure of their work.
But we also had to ‘manage expectations’, which often means telling authors all the things that aren’t happening to their books and careers. Maybe that’s because marketing budgets are directed at other titles, or there are fewer prizes to submit for, or less review space to target. Sometimes it’s a case that the shops just won’t support a particular title.
When there’s nothing good to say, it’s often easier to say nothing at all. The silences can be as damaging as ‘No, we’re not doing that for your book.’ Editors hate that situation, and try to avoid them by doing lots of promotion themselves. And we turn to authors. I know, I know — not only do you have to write the book, then you have to market it. But it makes sense: an author is often the best advocate of their own stories. An author is the person readers want to talk to. And these days, readers and writers are far more accessible than ever before.
There are opportunities for all writers — unpublished, bestselling, midlist, writers between publishers/agents, debuts with or without traditional backing. You can set your own expectations, and manage them. Maybe even exceed them. There’s lots of advice available on what strategies to pursue to achieve success.
I want to take a step back and think about how to prepare yourself for the busy times and the quiet times. I believe a consistent approach is best. I’ve discovered this, because I recently left full-time publishing to become a freelance editor, mentor and writer. I’ve self-published my own novel, Ready to Love. Every day I wonder: what’s happening to my book? What can I do to keep things moving? The burden is on my shoulders but I try not to make it feel like a burden.
Never feel that nothing is happening, or that nobody is looking. Make something happen, and make it work for you as well as your audience. Here’s the advice I offer to other writers, and which I follow myself.
1. Get yourself out there, but hide away too
My blog is a kind of writing journal where I talk about the process of writing, the influences of other writers and books, and thoughts about my evolving work. I might share work in progress but it will strictly be in that context. I want people to know how deeply immersed in books I am because I’m committed to making my own writing life work. But I’m cautious, because I know it’s important to keep something back.
Does that contradict the point of this post? Not really. I once read the chilling line ‘learning to write in public.’ Once you share your work, you are on show. Don’t be so eager to break into print that you submit too early (a mistake I often made), when an idea is half-baked or your writing isn’t as finessed as it could be. If you’ve got a good idea make sure you get the best out of it. That takes time. And space. Agents and editors don’t always have time to give that to you.
So don’t put everything out there. Maybe your online persona publishes short stories or sketches, or reviews in a particular genre, hinting at your main project, enticing people, but keeping the real thing under wraps till it’s ready.
2. Focus your time and energy.
You can’t do everything. You’ll run out of time and energy if you apply yourself to too many projects. So keep your homework simple. Spend time following the career trajectory of two or three authors who are working in your genre. Be realistic in your comparison, but try to learn from reviews in papers and Goodreads and Amazon. What is appealing to readers about the books? What is irritating them? Which titles grab your attention (or others’)? What sort of taglines are applied to covers or ads or are quoted in interviews? You don’t want to ape anyone, but you can learn from what works and what doesn’t, and apply it to your own work.
3. Refine your pitch.
I can’t stress this enough. You’ve finished a piece of work and you’re ready to submit. You’re knackered! Cobbling together the covering letter, knocking together the synopsis, and tidying up the first three chapters won’t take long and hold you up much, will they? Make sure they do. Submitting to an agent or publisher is like applying for a job. You always keep your CV up to date, so, likewise, keep refreshing your pitch. Rewrite the synopsis — make sure that what you claim happens really does. (If it doesn’t, maybe you need to rewrite to realise your fantastic concept.) Try cutting your synopsis from two pages to one to half to a single line that will become your elevator pitch. If your submissions are met with silence, review your pitch — maybe you’re not highlighting your project’s most compelling aspects.
4. Reread your backlist.
Even debut writers have apprentice material. It’s a natural hunger to want to write new stuff, but don’t forget to learn from what you’ve already done. Reread old drafts and abandoned texts and write down your impressions. You’ll find stylistic ticks you’ll want to edit out and tendencies to overexplain or round things off too abruptly. You’ll make mistakes in the future, of course, but make sure they’re new mistakes.
5. Remember who you are …
You got into this business because you’re a reader and want to create something as stimulating or pleasurable as the books that mean so much to enjoy. So enjoy reading. Enjoy browsing inside a bookshop or library. I went to a Mrs Dalloway book group to network and improve my social media connections, but all that got eclipsed by the experience of discovering an amazing book which I simply couldn’t believe I hadn’t read. That was one of the most valuable pieces of ‘homework’ I’ve ever done.