I only have one piece of advice for would-be writers

There was only one real piece of advice that I was able to give on the Creative Writing course I was employed to teach and it was this:

There is only one difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer. An unsuccessful writer writes 25,000 words of their novel, re-reads it and thinks, ‘This is total crap!’ and throws it in the bin. The successful writer writes 25,000 words of their novel, re-reads it and thinks, ‘This is total crap!’ and then goes on to finish off the novel.

The biggest obstacle for the majority of beginner-writers is their loss of faith in their project.

And if there is one thing that the last ten years has taught me, it is that one of the most important qualities a writer must have is bloody-mindedness. Resilience. The ability to silence the nagging doubt, the quiet, nasty voice in the ear that says what you are doing is of no value.

I don’t think it’s important to drown that voice out by screaming that you are a genius. That your work is a masterpiece. You just need to allow yourself to be second rate on your first attempts.

The fact is that the first time we do something, it probably is going to be pretty bad.

Should that stop you?

No, because the second time you do it, it’s going to be a little better.

And then the third time, the fourth time, the fifth time. Ah yes, now it’s getting better.

I wrote my first novel when I was in my early twenties. It was autobiographical. Kind of. The fantasy of a young teacher who falls in love with a Sikh girl and gets involved in the conflict of forbidden love.

It was a rubbish novel. Cobbled together, all over the place. But it was great to think, ‘Yes, I can do it!’

The second novel I wrote a year or so later was much better. This time my protagonist was in Zimbabwe during the War of Independence. I really liked this book. In fact I liked the book so much I gave it to my brother to read. I valued his opinion. He was an artist and successful.

He lost it, and I had no back-up copy.

I gave the third novel I wrote to my wife. We had not been married long. She is Eastern European. Eastern Europeans are blessed with the kind of honesty that English people are afraid of. She savaged it. My wife did not hold back. She told me exactly what was wrong with my writing. Why it was self-indulgent.

It was devastating.

It was the single best critique of my writing I had ever received.

My fourth novel was the best thing I had ever written. It had been conceived beneath an old, gnarled apple tree, in an overgrown garden in a small town in rural Lithuania. I had spent the year living in Vilnius, a beautiful Baroque city. It had been a hard winter; temperatures had dropped to minus 29 Celsius. Two banks collapsed. The country seemed on the verge of economic meltdown and the people were drinking hard. Wandering the streets of the city I stepped over rubble into the ruins of buildings left desolate since the end of the Second World War. A Jewish school, the Hebrew script still visible on the walls. My novel was an exploration of this city, an exorcism of its ghosts.

I finally had a novel I believed in.

It was a good novel. I knew it was.

Convincing agents that it was, was another matter.

I sent out a spec letter to my first agent and waited. And waited. And waited.

Fortunately I got tired of waiting and cracked out a letter to another agent, and then another and another. I just kept on writing. Slowly the letters began coming in. Usually personalized, occasionally not. I just kept on writing those letters and sending them out.

And suddenly everything changed. Four agents wrote back within a week saying they would be interested in seeing the full novel. By the end of the week I was in the embarrassing position of having to turn one of the agents down.

You can read the novel here: The Last Girl

It was a good novel. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Nor the end of the struggle.

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