Hard At Work

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.

6 thoughts on “Hard At Work

  1. Allison Davis

    That actually is a heartening post. Even though today I feel like the entire book is drek. I can be tenaciuos, stubborn, and not take no for an answer. That I can do.

  2. PD Martin

    Yes, writing is hard work and I agree that too many people finish their books, self-edit, think it's brilliant and with a few clicks the book is available to the general public. Having said that, I do think getting published is getting harder – and it has been for many years. My first published novel came out in 2005 and the novel I'd written before that got great feedback, including 'If this was five years ago, I'd snap this book up, but times are harder now'. And that was in about 2003, and I think it's only got harder since then. While editors and agents ARE looking for an exciting new project, a new voice, they're also more risk-averse. As a result, I think there are some writers who are good writers but aren't published…yet. I teach writing and the range in work is large – including a few writers who are very good at what they do, yet aren't published yet.

  3. Art Matters

    "A professional writer is just an amateur writer who won’t take no for an answer. That’s bang on."

    Actually that's simply not true. A professional writer is a writer who gets paid for his or her work. It doesn't matter if that work is published as book by a regular publisher, or if it's self published on the internet. Not every writer is lucky enough to get a publishing deal and Tania Carver aka Martyn Waites really has no right to say that they shouldn't be allowed to sell their books. Making a comparison with plumbers and surgeons is just plain dumb. A book is a work of art, something that has been created, and the work of an enthusiastic amateur who has yet to get paid can be every bit as good as a writer who has a publishing deal. It's the quality of the work that matters, not the pedigree of the writer. Yes, I have looked at some of Tania/Martyn's books and they are okay. Just okay. Certainly not good enough for me to want to part with my hard-earned cash, especially at the prices his publisher charges. But I have found dozens and dozens of really terrific self-published books on the Kindle. It's not for editors and agents to decide what we should read any more – we can make our own choices! Long live the Kindle!

  4. Lis G.

    I agree in part with this post. Editing is definitely the unsexy side of writing but it is essential to a good story. And self-publishing is full of people who don't undertake this necessary aspect of writing.
    I do, however, think it is simplistic to assert that publishers are eager to find new talent. Publishing is a business and like any other business, its purpose is to make money. Now if that new talent equates to lots of sales, then, yes, publishers want to find that talent. But I've seen plenty of less-than-stellar novels written by celebrities that you know darn well were published because the book could make money — not because it's a terrific book. So if only a limited number of books can be produced each year, then how many talented writers had their work end up in the circular file so the book that was guaranteed to bring in money could be published?
    Why do you think there are so many vampire related YA books out right now? Because they are all excellent? Doubtful. My guess is that publishers want to capitalize on the Twilight craze. Notice lots of novels about a messed up futuristic society? Thank the Hunger Games. I'm not knocking these series at all .. I'm just saying some books have been published to try to capture readers who were fans of these series, not necessarily because they were the best books submitted.
    Not long ago I read the new release of a big-name mystery writer who has been around for decades. This book was so bad I couldn't believe any editor in his or her right mind would put a stamp of approval on it. So why did it make the cut? Because this writer's name guarantees sales. I'm not faulting publishers for wanting to stay in business by making money but I think we should be realistic about the nature of the business. It's not an altruistic organization that seeks to help undiscovered talent. It's purpose is to stay in the black — and the way that seems to be done today is to stick with a sure thing. I think it's harder than ever for undiscovered writers to get that first break and that they would turn to self publishing doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

  5. Martyn Waites

    Thanks for the comments.

    'Art Matters' – You've misunderstood what I've written. I didn't say people had no right to sell their own books on the internet. People can do what they want.

    The thing about a professional writer being an amateur writer who won't take no for an answer? You're wrong. It is true. In the five years it took for me to get published I listened to every piece of advice I got and rewrote accordingly. Then I represented it. And listened again. And again. And eventually I got a breakthrough. And yes, I was paid for it but not a huge amount by any means. But that's just my example. Take a writer who self-publishes. But does it properly – gets their work professionally edited, copyedited, proofed, typeset and designed. Then, when it's on the internet they market it well. Then a publisher becomes interested and picks them up. Publishes them in hardback or paperback. And they're off. There's more than one route to being published, to going from amateur to professional. But the principle is exactly the same. They keep going. They don't take no for an answer. They get there in the end.

    And that's another thing – every writer I know who's come up the self-publishing route has jumped at the chance of a proper publishing deal.

    What does annoy me about self-publishing is the sense of entitlement that seems to go along with it. I remember one woman at Harrogate saying she finished her novel and sent it out to agents. After six months of rejections she decided she'd had enough and self-published. What? Six months? That's just getting started.

    And as you say you haven't actually read any of my books but the price of them? It's not exorbitant. That's rubbish. Paperbacks in the UK sell for slightly more than the cost of a coffee in Starbucks. And publishers pay tax too in the UK, unlike Starbucks (and Amazon for that matter). It's less than the price of a cinema ticket. Greetings cards cost more. And in a paperback you get a (hopefully) well-written, professionally edited, copy edited, proofed, typeset, well-designed book that will give you hours and hours of reading pleasure. Considering the work that's gone into it, how is that expensive?

    Yes, you can make your own choices and read what you like on the Kindle. And good luck to you. But without the dedicated system of development in place for writers that the traditional agent/publisher set up provides, and with nothing on the horizon to replace it, Amazon's race to the bottom business model will adversely affect the quality of self-published books. Your choices will become severely limited.

    And the majority of books are not works of art. Maybe some, a small percentage, can aspire to fulfilling the tenets of art but the vast majority get nowhere near that. And they're none the worse for it. In fact they're probably better, or at least more enjoyable. That's because writing isn't an art, it's a craft.

    PD – I take your point as well. There were ten in the last group of MA Creative Writing students I taught. Out of that one of them has been published. (And it was a great book, incidentally). Out of the other nine I'd say one, perhaps two others should have been published. But Im fairly sure that if they keep going they'll break through. Because they were good. They just needed to find something that would appeal.

    And yes, Lis G, publishing is a business and there is an awful lot of mediocrity out there. And it's just put on the market with the express intention of shifting units and making money. But that's the same in any branch of the creative industries. The Rolling Stones are back – does anybody honestly want to hear new songs from them? Or just buy another repackaged version of their greatest hits? Again? Or pay six months mortgage to go and see them live? (Or as live as they can manage). Probably not. But people will. They're a brand. They sell. It's the same with some writers (in any genre) that are still there because they've become a brand with a locked in audience rather than a writer who still has something to say. And as long as people are buying, publishers will keep on selling.

    But I'm still convinced they're looking for new voices. Because we all are.


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