A few months ago I read a truly rubbish book promising easy money from your writing. Apparently you don’t have to be any good at all or even want to write: just follow the set formula and ker-ching! Writing fame and fortune are yours, practically overnight. Agents will be knocking on your door! Publishers will be writing cheques! The public will be going mad for your musings! And all for half an hour’s work every other day. I suspect the only person making any money from such methods was the author who charges £2.99 for his book.
But what is the secret formula that will guarantee us writers a bestselling novel? Is there even one? After all, everyone has a book in them (however, this cynical writer can’t help feeling that in many people, that’s right where it should stay!) On Twitter, I follow several very well-known and celebrated novelists with books consistently in the top 10 fiction chart and I can reveal the biggest, simplest and most important formula they all apply to achieve their success:
Sit down and write. All day, every day. Repeat as necessary. That’s every single working day, every single week, with a bit of time off for holidays. Year after year after year. No excuses, no procrastination.
Yes, there is huge talent involved and research and persistence and knowing your marketplace and getting a good agent. But without the sheer hard graft of writing, re-writing and editing, your magnum opus will remain in your head or, like mine, scribbled on post-it notes.
Bestselling novelists are grafters. The handful that I have met in real life as well as on Twitter (and they’re really lovely ladies too – most bestselling writers are the nicest people, never too busy to chat to their readers and encourage new talent) get up early in the morning, sort out the kids and dog and then sit down and write and write and write all day. They certainly don’t appear to lead lives of luxury, reclining on a velvet chaise or lounging on the deck of a yacht. They treat their writing like the serious and full-time job it is. Then there is also the networking, publicity, tours, guest appearance, book signings. It is certainly not glamorous, can be lonely and there are much, much easier ways to earn a living. It is sheer hard work and requires steely motivation.
I am queen of the displacement activity. I have read hundreds of ‘how to’ books and online articles, done writing courses, joined a writers’ group and faffed endlessly on social networking sites. Yes, I am a qualified journalist and proofreader and I write a newspaper column and a blog and I have articles, fillers and short stories published and contribute as a guest writer to several websites. I have my first book on Amazon. But as for The Big One, I have spent weeks planning character and doing plot diagrams and research and then spent years thinking about every aspect of the novel — and occasionally wasted time daydreaming about collecting my Man Booker prize or seeing my book displayed in the number one fiction slot in the supermarket. (This probably won’t happen but we can all dream, right?) I have files and files of rough notes for my book. I have even written the first three chapters in draft in 2009. I just need to put my backside on a chair in front of a laptop every single day, and write the bloody thing. But in the meantime there is rubbish daytime TV to watch, nails to be painted, friends to catch up with and Facebook. Oh, look, it’s 9pm already. There’s also the matter of a full-on, full-time day job and a punishing four plus hours a day commute – although this is golden writing time.
I also lack confidence, and I’m not alone. Several years ago when in the departure lounge of a remote Central European airport, I was reading a chick lit novel which was hovering at around number two in the fiction charts. The family sitting opposite, after whispering to each other for a while, struck up a conversation with me. The mum was the author’s best friend and was thrilled to see me reading the novel and wanted to know what I thought of it. Her friend, she said, of whom she was obviously very proud, worked like a Trojan: in fact, she still produces a chart-topping book a year. I said I was enjoying the novel, in fact, the author was a favourite of mine. Her next words really struck me, “She’ll be delighted to hear that. She still has no confidence at all in her writing.” And that’s a household name author who has sold millions of books worldwide, ladies and gentlemen! Is it fear of failure which drives her to write at such a pace? Either way, she pushes through it and writes every day.
Who was it who said overnight success takes many years to achieve? Like losing weight, there is no quick and easy fix for writing a bestseller. But putting your bum on a seat and typing is a good start.