Writers: Shatter your dreams and don’t give up the day job

The Elements of Style by Strunk and WhiteI’ll begin by giving you my résumé, and then we can tie up all that other stuff later. After all, if you don’t think I’m qualified to give you advice there’s no point in reading, is there?

My name’s Samuel Bonner and my writing career began when I graduated from London Metropolitan University in 2008 with a creative writing and film studies degree. I’d like to add at this point that a creative writing degree doesn’t mean jack shit as far as being a writer goes; it just means I have a degree in the easiest thing to get a degree in.

I’ve gone on to publish two novels, neither of which were self-published (although both were published by self-publishing houses, which is ironic – I’ll explain that later), and my debut novel, Playground has been considered for adaptation by a few film companies (at a later date I’ll tell you how convoluted that whole process was for me). In addition to that, I’ve won short story competitions, worked for both traditional and self-publishing houses, written and edited content for a fashion magazine sold globally, been a freelance editor, a content editor, and currently work as the marketing manager for Indepenpress. I’ve also had a few dealings with film companies for screenplays I’ve written.

Calling yourself a writer, and why I have a problem with it.

 

First of all, if you’re serious about eventually becoming a (good) writer, you should own two very important books. The books I am about to mention, have been more valuable to me than my entire university education studying the craft. They are:

  • The Elements of Style, Strunk, William, JR
  • On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft, King, Stephen

Don’t be a snob about it just buy them. Stephen King is one of the most successful American authors of all time, so even if you don’t like his books, read what he has to say. Trust me. The Elements of Style is a tiny little pocket book with everything you need to know about grammar, structure, vocabulary and language. This will make you a slicker, tighter, deadlier writer.

To use a horrible, cliché of an analogy, being a writer is a lot like being a professional athlete (I know, I nearly threw up writing that but stay with me). No professional athlete is simply brilliant at what they do, although they may have had some natural knack for it before taking it to the next level. That’s like writing. You may enjoy writing and may even think you’re good at it, but you probably suck. If you like writing for a hobby (and I can see why you would; it has a certain therapeutic quality), and you don’t want to take it any further than your laptop, then that’s fine. But don’t call yourself a writer. Because you’re not.

The writer, like the aspiring athlete, must toil at their chosen subject, dedicating themselves wholly to it until they are seasoned enough to ascend the ranks of their field, in our case, publication. You need to know the fundamentals, the tricks of the trade – in short, you need to be able to identify good writing from the retarded ramblings of a daydreamer. There’s a lot to learn, and it can only be done through reading a lot, and writing a lot.

The thing about writing is you need a great deal of discipline to be good at it. You must write volumes before you are worthy enough to be read by anyone apart from a family member or friend that loves you. You need to be a monk – enveloping yourself in your writing, getting into a regime, consuming as many books as you can, until all you think about is writing and what you’ll write next.

It’s for this reason that there is a stigma with self-publishing, simply because it suggests that the person has written a book and paid to have it published, without going through the grinder to obtain the acceptance of a traditional publisher (for the sake of this article, the grinder is a literary agent, rejection, and misery). This also suggests that they are not worthy of being read because they aren’t proper writers, which is not necessarily true.

When I was doing a nine-month work placement for a vanity press, I had to sift through a lot of the submissions and write a report on which ones I thought were good enough for self-publication (as there must be a standard, even when a person is paying the publisher for their services). Well I got pissed off with that chore really quickly. For every good manuscript I read, there were ten dreadful ones. And I mean dreadful. They weren’t formatted properly, single spaced with ridiculous fonts and tonnes of spelling mistakes – and all of this was before you even got to the story itself. Now the reason for this was because people weren’t taking their writing seriously. Editing, is as integral, if not more so, than the writing process. The would-be authors who sent in those hideous manuscripts didn’t give their craft the time and respect that it deserved, and you can spot that kind of car crash a mile off.

Another disturbing trend I found was people submitting autobiographies. Now, I don’t necessarily believe you have to have been famous to write an autobiography (although it helps), but you have to have done something with your life to warrant writing a collection of memoirs. And the majority of ones that I had the misfortune of sampling were diabolical. One guy, who was some transsexual dude that married a Muslim woman and had kids with her (or some shit like that), sent in his manuscript and had a covering note that said this book will sell well over as million copies.  The nerve of some people still astounds me.

I’m getting sidetracked.

The point I’m trying to make, is that simply writing doesn’t make you a writer. It makes you someone that writes.

I was in my final year of uni when I decided I was going to try and become a writer (pay attention to the way that was worded), and I knew if I was going to seriously do it, then I would have to step my game up. I did a bit of writing, mostly short stories and a bit of poetry, but it was always a hobby. I wanted to try and exploit the only thing I felt I was reasonably good at, and see if I could make it lucrative because in my mind, I was like “fuck working a regular 9 to 5. I began reading like a demon, book after book, writing furiously – different stories, novellas, and in truth it took me a good two years of doing that on a daily basis to get enough confidence to think of myself as a writer.

Then I got the best bit of advice ever. A publisher once told me, “Sam, don’t think you’re going to pay the bills with writing stories. You won’t be JK Rowling, even if you think you will be.” Now, despite that being true and the realisation that I will probably never be up on the bestseller list with a nice middle-class literary bore and some woman that bakes cakes, I have been able to make a living out of the skills that I acquired whilst becoming a writer (namely editing and marketing books). I wouldn’t say I’m lucky to be in that position because I’ve worked like a bastard to acquire those skills and learn a trade – because that’s exactly what writing is. It takes time, dedication, effort, and blind perseverance to become a professional. If you have enough love for what you’re doing, it’ll be a fun ride.  

 

Set realistic targets; anything worth having is worth working hard at.

 

The chances of your debut novel being picked up by a mainstream publisher and selling millions of copies are about the same as getting struck by lightning twice while a hurricane blows your house down and takes your winning lottery ticket with it. The sooner you realise that, the sooner you can dispel the ugly dream and get your hands dirty.

While some people are fortunate enough to have their books published by one of the big boys, perhaps even their first novel, I can tell you that even then the majority of the publicity work is left up to the author. I was once a guest panellist at a crime writing convention along with two other authors, whose publishers were far more prestigious than Empiricus who published my debut Playground. For the record, Empiricus is the traditional offprint of Janus Publishing, which is a self-publishing press.

So these other two authors, published by really great publishers, were sat with me in a gloomy church hall (I don’t know why that was the venue but it hardly seemed appropriate considering I began talking about my book which contained rape, drug abuse, and some satanic shit), and we were talking to a staggering crowd of about seven people. I’ve been to a few of these events and I fucking hate them. They embarrass me to death and they just aren’t worth the hassle. I’d rather watch Loose Women for three hours than do one of those things. Funny thing is, you always go there thinking there will be a crowd and you’ll shift all the books you brought with you, but the truth is it’s a hustle. Anyway, these other two guys, let’s call them Bob and Amy, they were late thirties (at the time I was 25), and they were really trying to sell their book to this massive crowd during this Q and A session. It might be worth mentioning that the audience hardly asked any questions and I got the vibe they were there out of some kind of obligation to the organiser. So whatever. I didn’t really give much of a shit because even if I sold all ten copies of the books I brought it still wouldn’t be worth me sitting through that kind of awkward bullshit.

Bob and Amy weren’t exactly loving it either, but I got the impression they liked the whole author role, as though that made them somehow exceptional to the congregation. Me, I seriously wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here’s Bob and Amy, with big publishers behind them, sitting in a decrepit church hall on a Sunday afternoon, talking about their books. Since then, I vowed not to do another one of those cringe fests ever again. Ironically, I saw stacks of Bob’s books in a Waterstones’ sale last Christmas, but he gave me a free one at the discussion so I wasn’t gonna waste the £2.99.

Authors need to be proactive but it takes courage and energy. While I sit here telling you how awful those kinds of author talks are, please note I’m not trying to deter you. What I’m actually trying to say is that to get recognised, to get to a stage where you’re talking to maybe two hundred people as opposed to two, you need to set realistic goals. Success comes with hard work. I’ve published two novels, none of which have made me rich, but slowly I’m building up a body of work. In four years when I hit thirty, that body of work should be substantial and I should have enough experience and publication history to get me ready for the mainstream. But even then I’ll probably end up doing another talk in another empty church filled with cobwebs, so swings and roundabouts.

Mister Optimist says always aim high. I say fine, just don’t give up the day job.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.