Monday, 23 August 2010

Hitting the Buffers

We’ve all had days when we’ve considered giving up writing. The days when the words don’t flow, or the rejections come thick and fast. The days when life seems short and meaningless, and writing about that fact feels like shouting into a hurricane. But we don’t stop, because serious writers are illogically, inhumanly persistent. Like the common cold, we mutate and diversify, dipping a toe into poetry or a tentative elbow into the world of short stories. Some of this is about finding a voice, or at least the genre that best fits our mode of expression. Some of it occupies the “throw a lot of shit and see what sticks” category. Much like the common cold, we fervently hope that one of our strains of experimentation will find a willing host – someone with influence in the publishing industry.

We hear a lot about the people who never gave up, and their stories perpetuate the romantic myths about publishing. We all know that lots of publishers rejected J.K. Rowling, although, interestingly, everyone who tries to console me with that fact quotes a different number (it was actually only 12, so I'm well ahead of her there)

But what about the people who did give up? Because there must be tens of thousands who hit the buffers of publishing with their first attempt and never went back. Some of them later self-published, I'm sure, but many more just shoved their manuscript back in that figurative dusty drawer. What is it like to be one of those people?

As luck would have it, I'm married to someone who wrote prolifically and then abandoned it entirely. When she was commuting from London to Brighton by train in the early 90s, my wife Claire averaged 1000 words a day. She produced 11 children's novels in first draft, one of which made it all of the way through the editing process (on an electric typewriter) and went out for submission. There being only one manuscript, the whole thing went to Puffin and then returned with a form rejection.

This was ten years before I got into children's writing (and I've only managed 2 novels myself since then), so we were both unaware of the market and what was required to crack it. Shortly afterwards, we moved house much closer to London and Claire's need to write dropped away. Looking back, it's clear that she views it as just another phase in her life, the writing replaced in her affections by ever more reading, painting and the blitzkrieg invasion of children. I think she was able to see the writing as simply a way of pleasurably filling time - when that timeslot disappeared, so did her urge to write. It may even be that she did find her voice, but it was in pursuits other than putting words on the page.

I'm approaching a crossroads in terms of career choice, feeling the pull of both publishing and my day job, and not entirely sure how to reconcile that. I'm also a little haunted by my wife's story. I've clearly achieved more than her so far in the realms of children's publishing, but is that due to talent or persistence? Could she have got to the same level given the same will to succeed?

Fortunately for our domestic harmony, she doesn't feel the need to find out.



  1. Love the new look Nick and am so with you on on a bit of a writing downer myself - not with the writing but with the endless X-factor question. Am I one of those people who think they can sing but actually make your ears bleed?

    It can't be true can it? I do to many rewrites these days, question every word over and over, so it can't be true. Can it?

  2. I gave up writing myself for almost ten years ... maybe your wife will go back to it one day - one day when she has the time that is!

  3. OMG I've given up so many times, gone back to the real job (ie the one that actually generates money) and then gone stir crazy and gone back to writerly penury again. I'm on the verge of giving up again at the moment - spoke to a headhunters today even. WTF am I doing?

  4. Been thinking about this a lot myself just recently. I think of myself as a gambler; promising myself I'll have just one last bet on breaking into children's writing.

  5. I sometimes teach on the MA in Writing that I did myself, five years ago, and the one thing I always say to new students is 'You have to keep at it'. I know I wasn't the best writer on my MA, but I am (so far) the only one to get published. That's just because I tried really hard to get published, and didn't let rejections scare me off.
    An online writing group I belong to (Writewords) had a fantastic motivational thread running some time ago called The Rejection Thread. The idea was that people set themselves a goal of getting x ammount of rejections per month, say five, or ten, or two, whatever they wanted. What it meant was that they had to send out submissions - the most important thing - and it turned getting the rejections into a game, and made them less scary.
    I also think that in some cases people are prepared for writing to be difficult in some ways, but the fact that it's difficult in every way comes as a shock. For example, I was prepared for it to be difficult to learn to write well, and I was prepared for it to be difficult to get published, but I wasn't prepared for it to be difficult to learn to structure a plot, or for it to be so difficult financially after getting published. And facing difficulty after difficulty makes people lose heart, of course.
    I dunno - what does your wife say about it?!