Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Reality of Writing

Since I was able to announce that I'm soon to be published, a number of colleagues and acquaintances have said to me ... 'I quite fancy being a writer. Where do I start?'

Well, my answer is always that you start by accepting that life is going to be very, very, very hard. Agents and publishers receive thousands of manuscripts per week and something has to grab them by the nadgers (or equivalent) on Page One or it will go onto the 'thanks but no thanks' pile. Agents will happily tell you that nearly all of them have 'let one go' at some time or other; where they've passed on a book that later became a bestseller. But, unless that first page grabbed them, what else could they have done? The problem is volume; if it's true that everyone has one good book in them, that's a hell of a lot of books.

So, that's the first thing to accept: Unless you really have produced the greatest Page One that an agent or publisher has seen all week, you are going to be rejected. That happened to me every month for 18 years. It hurts ... but the lure of writing has always been stronger and I've perservered.

Of course, there are other ways to get your manuscript read (apart from bribery and offers of sex).

My late father, Michael Colgan, was a budding writer who'd had many pieces rejected for magazines and newspapers. So he decided to make his name stand out on the page and changed the spelling to Myghal - that's the Cornish way of spelling it - and, suddenly, his work was being published. It's why I call myself Stevyn even though, as many of you know, my actual forename is Stephen. Besides which, there is an eminent psychiatrist called Dr Stephen M Colgan (my middle initial is also M ... perhaps we are the same person?) who has already published a number of scientific papers and I was keen to avoid any confusion.

Another tack I took was to get the book endorsed. As it's essentially a book of interesting facts, albeit arranged in a novel and original way, I thought about who would enjoy it. My first choice was Stephen Fry so I sent it to him. And, because he's such a thoroughly nice chap, he did endorse it. There's no doubt in my mind that having Stephen's name of the cover of my manuscript made people pick it up. That said, had the book been a complete dog, I still wouldn't be getting published.

A third method is to have a really strong title. I've been attracted to books solely by the title. Among my favourites - recent and old - are How to be Idle (Tom Hodgkinson), The Neverending Days of Being Dead (Marcus Chown), Rat Scabies and the Holy Grail (Christopher Dawes), Around Ireland with a Fridge (Tony Hawks), The Astrological Diary of God (Bo Fowler)and my favourite ever - Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis. All of them are worth a read, incidentally.

So, there you go ... my advice, for what it's worth, is (a) be prepared for rejection, (b) have a brilliant Page One, and (c) make yourself stand out out from the crowd even if it's just to get the agent's or publisher's attention - you can always revert to your real name or change the title once you've got the buggers hooked.

As for other advice, the best I've read in a long time - especially when talking about earnings as a writer - came from John Scalzi's blog Whatever (My thanks to Bristol-based folk hero Jim Moray for the link). UK readers substitute Inland Revenue for IRS. Or some other suitable epithet for the taxman. I can think of a few ...

I would also direct you to the following sites:

Robin Kelly's excellent Writing for Performance site.
Michael Stelzner's Top 10 Blogs for Writers.
The BBC World Service How to Write site.
How to Write for Film at Screenwriters.
The many WikiHow Guides.
Jim Heath's guide to writing non-fiction at Viacorp.

And, if you're interested in romance and paranormal writing, check out Michele Cwiertny's blog and the A Slice of Orange site.


Michele said...

Hey, thanks for the shout-out, Stevyn!

And all your points are dead on. You've put in your time and I'm putting in mine...I honestly don't know any author worth her salt who hasn't shown perseverance, good old fashioned luck, and talent to become published. And to stay published...She'd still have to worry about keeping the level of writing up in the next book(s) in her contract while she promotes her current release and networks: interviews, fans (one hopes), and speaking engagements. A lot, if not all, of these are arranged by the author, especially when just starting out.

When I talk to people who ask me the same thing about becoming a writer, let alone a published author (because EVERYONE gets their book published, right? HA!), I tell them it definitely has to be something they really want to do, something they HAVE to do. I'd write no matter what happens. That's me.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Then you, young lady, are a writer. There's no better definition that someone who gets up in the morning and writes, regardless of whether or not they are ever published. It never stopped me and never will. If all else fails, there's always ye olde faithfulle blogge.

Good point too about 'A lot, if not all, of these are arranged by the author ...' I contacted Stephen Fry ... I got hold of John Mitchinson and got the endorsement of QI ... and I got hold of John Lloyd and asked him to write my foreword. While I do have an agent now, it was all down to my efforts that I am where I am now.

As I said to all you budding writers out there ... it's hard work. Don't expect someone to seek you out and make it all happen for you. They won't. Unless, of course, you're some D-list celebrity with big hooters, a home made porn film on the Net and no discernible talent ... then they'll beat a path to your door.