Since becoming a published author, I have twice been approached by aspiring writers, eager for advice, hints, and general know-how. Both of them have turned up, uninvited and unexpected, at my front door, and I’ve given them each two hours of my time – after which I send them away with a wave, and a tear, and a sheer, desperate hope that I never see them again...
The thing is, though, I completely understand why they came to me, and if I had a writer living nearby when I was struggling, I’d have probably done something similar. (But I’d have brought along some Wine Gums as an incentive...)(Yes, that is a hint.)
Here’s the thing about writing - you’re either born to do it, or you’re not. If you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling that you were born to write. I need you to understand that even the awful writers out there, who will never get published, believe this too. You’ve got to be honest with yourself. Are you good enough? Are you REALLY?
Fully confident that every single one of you has answered “yes” to that question, I’m going to point out that I was the same as you. I worked on my father’s farm, refusing to get, or commit to, a real job, gambling my future on the belief that I was good enough to make it. I made it, and people say how much they admire my unwavering certainty. I was a dreamer who dared to dream, they say. But if I hadn’t got my break, I’d still be on that farm, and those same people would be shaking their heads at my refusal to face reality and get on with my life.
Writing isn’t easy, but you probably know that. But something even harder than writing is catching that break, because that isn’t up to you. So the only thing you can do is stack those odds in your favour as much as possible. And here’s how to do that.
It’s a cliché that is largely unhelpful unless you truly understand what it means. If I had taken that literally, I’d only have written about a blackbelt who worked on a farm and loved comics- in fact, my first script, Dead Bodies, was actually a variation on that. The main character was a slacker blackbelt, wandering aimlessly through life (who kills his girlfriend and buries her body in a park). But it was while we were shooting Dead Bodies, and while we were developing my next film, Boy Eats Girl, that I stumbled upon the meaning of “Write what you know”.
A sliver of humanity can change a room. One single moment of absolute honesty, of the writer baring his soul, can change the mood of the people around you. I attended a week-long writer’s course, and one of the assignments was to tell a story from your life. The three people before me told amusing stories, and the room was happy. I told the story of the day I found my dog dead. It had happened 10 years earlier, but as I was talking about it, I was reliving it, and as I described walking to the side of the road, my voice broke. That moment changed the room. The men looked away, and the every single one of the women raised their hand to their mouth. It was a revelatory moment for me.
When you write what you know, you’re not restricted to writing about the job you have or the life you lead. When you write what you know, you’re sharing a piece of yourself with your readers. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never owned a pet, they’re still going to understand love when they see it, and when they see true emotion they’re going to be drawn to the character.
You can write about zombies, cannibals, vampires, aliens, assassins, sorcerers or skeletons- and as long as you invest a piece of yourself, it’s going to be a human story.
Fun is contagious. I firmly believe if the writer is having fun writing, the reader will have fun reading.
Write about whatever you want to. It doesn’t matter how quirky or odd or unique it may be- if you find it fun, then there’s probably a group of people out there who will find it fun also. And if your idea is completely mainstream? Don’t be ashamed. I love mainstream. I adore it. The problem with mainstream only occurs when it’s written without passion. Without passion, without a real love for it, it becomes flat, and routine, and unexciting. Embrace your story, whatever it is. Take it as far as you want. Revel in it. Splash around in it. Writing is the best job in the world and the least you can do is allow it to consume you when it wants to.
Personally, I’d send your finished manuscript to an agent before a publisher. Apart from anything else, a good agent will work with you, knocking the book into shape, so that when the publisher gets it, it’s in the best shape it can be.
I got my agent when I was writing films. I was given a list of ten agents by my producer, and he told me not to stop unless I had one of them. If I were to start now, I’d look up the Writer’s Yearbook for a great list of agents and what they’re looking for.
I printed up ten copies of my script, and I wrote a letter, and I sent it all off. The letter, by the way, is important...
Here’s what you CAN’T afford to do. You CANNOT afford to sound desperate, or unreasonable, or highly-strung. My agent told me later that the reason she even looked at my script was the letter. She said I sounded calm, confident, and funny- even though I didn’t make any actual JOKES in the letter.
She also said I sounded professional, like I took the business seriously and I’d be good to work with.
I’d love to give you an example of what I wrote, but in all honesty I can’t remember any of it.
Rejection for writers comes twice. The first time, when you’re looking for an agent. The second, when you’re looking for a publisher.
If those ten agents say no, write to ten more. If they say no, write to more. If all of them say no, take a look at your book, and either rewrite it or write something new, or face facts and think hard about your life.
Out of the ten agents I sent my script to, my agent was the only one to answer. The script was a zombie comedy – NOT her usual fare – but she loved it, and I was lucky enough to snag one of the best agents in London.
Let’s say you have your agent, and you’ve worked on your book, and she’s made the decision on who to send it to. Off it goes, and you wait, and you wonder if anyone will like it. This is where the second round of rejections come.
Rejection is tough. It’s a battering experience. It makes you question yourself, and it makes others question you. Your friends and family will start to have doubts, and then you’ll start to echo those doubts, and still the rejections will flood in...
There’s really only one way to survive, and that is to be absolutely sure that you are right, and they are wrong. If you don’t have this confidence, you might not make it.
Writing is a wonderful job to have. There is nothing I love more than writing. And yes, I get up when I want to, and I don’t work in an office building or out in the rain, and I get to create and have fun every single day, but there are downsides. The hours are long, and the work consumes you, and you stop talking to people, and you begin to realize that your house is slowly filling up with cats, and you don’t even LIKE cats...
But hey, if you’re a writer, you’ve really got no choice in the matter, now do you?