Friday, May 16, 2008

Keeping the faith

There aren't many writers who become an overnight sensation. You'll read the occasional story about a new author who's first novel has won them a six figure contract, making them seem instantly rich. In truth, they spent months - even years - writing the book that won them that advance, and often just as long finding an agent or publisher who'd take them on. Hell, even the phrase first-time author is frequently a misnomer, or what mortals like to call a big, fat lie.

One writer of my acquaintance was taken on a big publisher two years ago. To launch him into the marketplace, they pulled all sorts of misnomers out of the hat, hailing him as a bold new visionary voice. But a cursory search for this author's name reveals he'd already had four other novels published before his so-called first novel. They were franchise fiction, sold thousands and are still in print. But the publisher didn't let facts to get in the way of their hype.

Even getting that contract with a big publisher is no guarantee of success. Yes, you get a nice advance, maybe five figures, maybe even six. But that's split into two or three payments. If you've got an agent, they get a slice. Ditto the taxman. You've spent a year or two honing that novel for a fraction of a nice advance. What happens if it doesn't sell? Most don't. More than 100,000 new books appear each year in the UK. How many new books do you buy a year?

If the book doesn't sell, you won't clear your advance and there will be no royalties. Now you're under pressure. The first novel you wrote to please yourself, but the second has to please your agent, your editor, your publisher's sales and marketing department. Blow it again and there won't be any contract extension. Time to find another publisher, with smaller advances and less prestige. You've gone from being an overnight success to old news without blinking.

You didn't stop being a good writer during that time. Maybe you wrote half a mediocre book, but you've still got talent. Talent is what got you this far, talent is all you have to believe in - everything else is hype. It's great to make a breakthrough, but that's just one step on the ladder. Don't expect the whole world to welcome you with open arms. You want success, you've got to earn it. You've got to graft. You've got to keep the fire in your belly, the hunger to learn.

A few months back I had a little breakthrough in achieving my ambition to become a TV drama writer. But the person who gave me the good news was wonderfully honest in their choice of words. 'You've got your foot in the door. But now there's a very long staircase you've got to climb before reaching the next level.' Three months on I'm still trying to get up that staircase. [Actually, I first typed trying to get up that suitcase, which makes no sense at all. Thanks to Good Dog for pointing this out in the comments!] It's taking time, energy and effort - all for no financial reward. I'm living on hope and faith.

I know I can tell a tale, spin a yarn, weave a story. I've won awards, had 18 novels published with more on the way and made a decent living from writing since going freelance eight years ago. It's only been two and a bit years since I decided to make a concerted effort toward writing for TV drama. I'm not there yet, but I've got my foot in the door. If I want to reach the next stage, I have to write my way there. Nobody's going to hand success to me on a plate.

You've got to earn your chances as a writer. When you get those chances, you've got to make them count. Sometimes it won't work out. Writers get booted off scripts all the time. Hell, I've had rewrites on my work twice. Once the job was done, I compared my last draft with the final draft. The results were instructive. Everything is a learning process, if you're willing to learn. Most of all, you've got to believe in yourself and your talent. Keep the faith.


Good Dog said...

Is the suitcase blocking the way?

David Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Bishop said...

Tried to publish a correcting comment and cocked that up. Perhaps I should just go back to bed. Sigh. Here's another try...

Suitcase instead of staircase - if that's a Freudian slip, its meaning eludes me. Still, thanks for reading and noticing my addled witterings. They've now been corrected, with notification of editing.

Charlie Williams said...

I liked the suitcase slip. As to all the rest... amen, brother.

Good Dog said...

Suitcase instead of staircase - if that's a Freudian slip, its meaning eludes me.

Oh, I think that's something to seriously investigate. It'll probably turn up in your dreams and you'll try to figure out what's inside and what it's stopping you from doing. Or what it wants you to do.

Matthew Cochrane said...

We had some suitcase/staircase confusion during rehearsals for The Rivals as I recall.