By Tania Carver
I find this hard. Writing, I mean.
Sitting down, putting words that will hopefully mean something to someone on a blank screen, putting down enough of them to tell a story, provide a plot, create a character, give a reader some diversion from their life or even, on those very, very, rare occasions, provide some illumination into the human experience.
Yes. Hard. But please don’t think I’m complaining because I’m not. This is what I do. I’m a professional writer. I get paid to do it and therefore I bring a certain standard to it and have certain expectations, both in terms of what is expected of me and what I expect of myself.
At the best of times it’s hard. And that’s right, it should be. The trick is in making something that’s (hopefully) easy to read. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has been easy to write. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. How many times has an audience watched an actor or a dancer or even an athlete and thought, they make it look so easy. Therefore it must be easy. Therefore I can do it. And they try it. And realise it’s not so easy after all.
Admittedly some people who try their chosen thing do go on to be proficient at it. But most don’t. Most give up and are content once more to watch/read others do it. And that’s fair enough. Some delude themselves into believing that they can do it, and persist, getting more and more embittered as rejection after rejection piles up. Then, in the case of writing, taking to the internet and self-publishing. Then getting more and more embittered as their books fail to find an audience.
I must admit, I don’t know much about the self-publishing world. And to be honest, I don’t think I understand it. I’m lucky enough (so far) to have always been professionally published by reputable houses. I haven’t always been well-represented at those houses but currently things are going OK. It took me five years to get my first novel published. I started writing it in 1992, it came out in 1997. During that time it went round just about every publisher in London, had two agents (the first one claimed it was one of the most horrible books she had ever read) and was rewritten over and over again, depending on the whim of whichever editor had it at the time. Eventually it caught the attention of an editor who was looking for gritty, regionally set crime novels. Perfect, I thought. She liked it but there were things wrong with it. It needed editing. I thought I’d done that but apparently not. I asked her to show me how to edit. She did so. This involved taking a big black Sharpie through the majority of what I’d written. At first I was appalled but then realised she was right. Too verbose. Over-written. I did the same thing she had done, spending six months excising extraneous words. I also took her notes on board, tidying up the plotting at her insistence, making the characters more believable. It was on the spot training, learning as I went. In signposting what I needed to do, she taught me invaluable lessons in how to edit and structure. I still do the same things she taught me today.
Once I’d made all these chances the book was accepted. I was given a two book deal: could I deliver another novel in nine months? Sure. And I managed it. Just. I ended up in bed for days with nervous exhaustion but the book was there. And that was it. I’d stuck my toe in the door. From my toe I managed to wriggle the rest of my foot in. Then my leg. Then the rest of me. Now, I think that if I’m not over the threshold I’m at least loitering in the doorway and not letting them throw me out
But did I ever consider giving up? No, I don’t think I did. My friend Simon Kernick always says that a professional writer is just an amateur writer who won’t take no for an answer. That’s bang on.
But did I ever think about self-publishing? No. Never. At the time there was no internet. There were bookshops. And if you weren’t in them you weren’t anywhere. There were vanity publishers who you could pay to have your book published. But that was that. It just wasn’t an option.
So, if I was in the same position now would I self-publish? I still don’t think so. I needed an outside eye on my work, editorial comments to guide me. Luckily a professional editor did just that then published me. I would never dream of putting something unedited, that hadn’t been proofed or copyedited out there. But a lot of people do. If the internet had been around when I was trying to get published and I was so sick of rejection I had just said to hell with it and uploaded my stuff to Amazon’s kindle store, I doubt I would still be working now. Or at least, I doubt I would have progressed as a writer. I’d have probably withered away. And certainly have got lost amongst all the other dross out there.
Because I wasn’t good enough then. The book needed work. I’d read books where the writers had made it look easy. So therefore I thought it was easy. But it wasn’t. And if I had settled for uploading it then I’d have been one of those deluding themselves that somehow I deserved to be published even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. Because I wasn’t good enough to be published then. I was an amateur but I hadn’t done enough taking no for an answer. I wasn’t ready to be a professional.
And this is another thing. A lot of self-published writers hate that that word. Professional. They react like it’s the worst thing a writer could be. It’s used on some internet forums in the most hateful, pejorative sense. A professional writer doesn’t have the heart and soul of an amateur writer. A professional writer doesn’t mean it.
Rubbish. If you’ve got a leak who do you call? A professional plumber. If you need a wall rebuilding who do you call? A professional builder. If you need an operation, who treats you? A professional surgeon. If you want to read a good book who does it best? A professional writer.
A lot of self-published writers bang on about how the traditional gatekeepers are trying to keep them out, keep them down. Deny them a voice. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single editor or agent who wasn’t actively looking for a new, exciting voice that they could manage or publish. Even in this economic climate. And some writers will get missed. And some writers already published will be dropped. The law of averages says it will happen to me at some point. And what then?
I don’t know.
I do think that having a proper book, made of paper and everything, is still the best option. And nothing I have seen, read or had explained to me will change that. Ever. And there are certain procedures a writer must go through in order to ensure that their book is of a certain standard before it’s presented to a buying readership. And some books won’t come up to that standard. Even by established authors. And they’ll have to be reworked until they do. That’s the way the business works. That’s what a lot of people who download stuff from the kindle store for twenty pence don’t understand. They think it looks easy.
Now, I may have got all this wrong. And if someone wants to put me right then please feel free to do so. Because having said all that, if the time comes when I have to move to digital, I’ll do it. In fact, I’m thinking of writing something next year that will only be available as an ebook. Just to see what happens. It’s an experiment. I don’t even think any publisher will be interested in it.
I have no idea if it’ll be successful or not. As I say, it’s just an experiment. But I do know a couple of things about it. I’ll approach it with the high degree of professionalism I try to apply to everything I do. And the other thing: it’ll be hard work.
And that’s the way it should be.