Thursday, 23 January 2014

When Statistics Tell You Your Firstborn Will Be Ugly

Don't worry - I'm talking novels here, not beloved children.

Y'see, I've been reading the wise words of many different authors this week, and detected something of a theme going on. Lots of them have talked about how hard it is to become a published author, and that it takes long years of slog and learning at the coalface before you finally get that big break. Writing novels for a living should never be considered a ticket to easy street, they say; even with the advent of e-publishing, it's by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. It's hard, slow, backbreaking work, and you've gotta be in it for the long haul to even have a sniff at winning it...

All of which I... kind of already knew. I read those words nodding my head in agreement and not feeling at all like my dreams had been stomped on. The fact that I'm now forty-mumble (and due to be forty-mumble-and-another-year in about a month from now) is proof enough that I was never destined to be an 'overnight success,' and I've reached the point where I'm reasonably cool with the idea that I'm more of a tortoise than a hare.

But then came the twist in the tale; many of these authors also went on to say that they didn't get the first novel they ever wrote published at all. For many it was their third, fourth or fifth book that became their 'debut' - for some it was more like their eighth or tenth. In short, the general consensus among a wide circle of writers across all the genres was that first novels were simply never good enough to publish; it just didn't happen in the Real World.

Of course I'd heard that said before too - but only once or twice, by a couple of authors I'd never heard of at the time anyway. And that was way before I made a serious, focused commitment to writing novels myself (as opposed to the multitude of half-assed, un-focused attempts in between writing scripts and lyrics that peppered my writing history up until that point.) But now here were enough voices to transform these words from a minority viewpoint into... an actual, measurable statistic.

A statistic that clearly indicates my current work-in-progress, The Renegades, is destined to end up consigned to the Writer's Bottom Drawer of Shame without ever being seen or read by anyone except the publishers and agents who reject it. Yeah, y'know - that novel that's already taken me nearly two years to write, and will probably take me another two years to edit and polish to a standard I'm happy with.


That's how to pee on someone's parade.

While I'm hardly knocking on the door of my local nursing home just yet, I aint no spring chicken either. What if I finish The Renegades, fail to get it published and then promptly die before I can start on the next one? What if inspiration deserts me forever after writing the Renegades, because that's the only book that was in me all along? What if a global apocalypse of some kind hits, transforming the world as we know it into a dystopian nightmare where novels have no use except as kindling for campfires in the rubble of civilization, and novel-writers are hunted down and eaten by starving illiterates... well, okay, that last one probably won't happen, but you know what I mean...

Whenever the going's got tough on The Renegades, one thing I've been telling myself in order to keep making me attach bum to chair and fingers to keyboard is that this novel will be worth completing, and that the more care and attention I lavish on it, the better it will turn out to be in the end. Now, if the words of all these writers are true, I'm supposed to accept that, no matter what I do and how hard I work on it, it will nonetheless be irredeemably unpublishable. And that's before I've even finished it. It's tempting then, isn't it, to ask that fatal question: is it even worth carrying on with it when it's - apparently - a steaming pile of puppy-poo?

I've thought about that question long and hard over the last couple of days. And the conclusion I've reached is: yes, it bloody well is.

For starters, I made a commitment to this novel. Without wanting to sound like a total fruitcake (but probably failing - I can live with that...) now that I've created these characters and put them in this messed-up situation, I kind of owe them the chance to live their way through it and tell their story - if not to Joe Public, then at least to me.

Secondly, a large part of writing this novel has been taken up with learning how to write this novel; I've always been the kind of person who learns by trying, cocking it up and then trying again, rather than just obediently absorbing instructions. This one's already taught me so much, and I'm convinced it's not done with me yet. If I don't finish the coursework, I don't graduate. And I want to graduate.

But even if that wasn't enough to convince me, here's the jam in the doughnut: even if I were to abandon this novel... I'd soon be starting on another one. And then that one would become my new 'first novel' - to be inevitably rejected and unpublished... If publishing a novel is what I want to do (and it is) there's no way of getting out of writing a first novel - any more than I could get out of cutting my first tooth or taking my first steps as a baby. Like cutting my first tooth, it's probably going to hurt - and like taking those first steps, I'm probably going to faceplant a few times. Maybe a lot of times. But if I'd given up on learning to walk I'd be a forty-mumble-year-old lying on her belly on the carpet right now. And that'd be kind of embarrassing.

For all I know, I may never earn the right to call myself a Published Novelist. But as long as I keep on trying I can call myself a writer. And that will always feel good.

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