Monday 5 May 2014

Week Two: Fake It Till You Make It

When I was young, my mother was a writer, my father a Fleet Street journalist. My older sister started publishing Mills and Boon romances when she was about twenty-one. There was never any spoken expectation that I would write too, nor any overt encouragement - frequently the opposite - but writing was always there in my head as the default profession, in much the same way that the sons of miners once inevitably followed their fathers down the pit and became miners too. (A fate my own father escaped by taking a job at fourteen as 'tea boy' on the Folkestone Herald.)

Newbies, always discreetly check the credentials of people offering you writing advice. (See My Novels, in case you're wondering.) People who have never published a book, or only published one, or whose entire oeuvre is digital erotica, may not be best placed to help you.

However, feeling 'born to be a writer' does not make you a writer - or so conventional wisdom tells us. Most people would agree you have to write something and get it published to be a writer. Vast swathes of dewy-eyed attendees at Creative Writing courses would argue the opposite, of course, insisting that you can be a writer without ever being published. After all, a staggering number of Creative Writing students have tutors who are new, unpublished or obscure writers, so it is probably a doctrine they learn early on. That you should fake it till you make it.

Evangelical mission strategists have a catchphrase for this progression from outsider to insider: 'Belong. Believe. Behave.' That is, the important thing is not for you to be a brilliant writer from the outset, but to join other writers and learn to self-identify with the group. This very act of belonging, of membership, rapidly leads new members to believe in what the group represents as a whole, and consequently to behave the same way as all the rest.

In other words, if you tell yourself you are a writer, socialise with other writers, and most importantly join writers' groups and organisations, then apart from all the insider knowledge you are soaking up, you will be better placed to believe that you are a writer, and produce something of publishable quality.

And so we're back to publishing. I apologise, but you really can't get away from it as a writer. Whatever those lovely CW teachers may have told you.

To publish means to make one's work public, for your novel to be read beyond your little circle of intimates or the other students in your class. In most cases, the very act of being read changes the way a writer sees themselves, and that's a big step towards becoming a professional novelist.

I'll come back to that issue in a future post.

It is my personal view that you need to publish a novel in order to be considered a novelist - whether traditionally or digitally is less important, so long as it is for sale - and therein lies the rub. Because publication is not easy.

It's not easy to be a novelist. But at least you're not a poet. They have it REALLY hard.

It's not easy to write a novel, but if you manage it, that's just the start of your journey. It's not easy to get an agent. It's not easy to get a publisher. It's not easy to persuade a retailer to stock your book (bizarrely, this can be the case whether you're with a big five publisher or a small press). It's not easy to get signings and publicity. It's not easy to write a second book after the first. It's not easy to keep writing novels and settle into a strong mid-list position as most novelists have to if they are to continue paying the bills. It's not easy to keep publishers interested if one of your books - the last one - sells poorly, even if those poor sales had nothing to do with you but were the result of marketing or promotional choices, or other external factors.

It's not easy to be a novelist. You're getting that, right?

But if it's still easier than everything else in your life, if you still sit down to your latest manuscript with steely-eyed determination and the occasional flash of excitement, despite all the setbacks and disappointments, then it's probably what you're meant to be doing.

For some lucky souls, becoming a novelist happens magically. They write a novel, find an agent like falling off a log and garner a huge advance after a bidding war for their debut novel. All of which is followed by media interest, mega-sales, film deals, with yet more contracts to follow. Some have the Midas touch, it seems.

And here's another question for you. You can leave your answer below, if moved to join the debate.

QUESTION: does belonging to a writers' group or professional body - such as the Romantic Novelists Association, pictured here at conference - make success in publishing more likely, for published and unpublished alike?

So to add to the complicated business of writing a novel, if you lack the Midas touch, you must possess certain qualities instead to make it as a novelist: speed, competence, stamina, grim determination, flexibility, a bombproof disposition, more than usual cunning - and of course charm.

Never underestimate charm. It will serve you far better in the publishing world than haughty reproof or a hissy fit, even when faced with the most startling incompetence. After all, we have all been guilty of that on occasion.

And those huge advances? (I know you're still thinking about them.) If you don't sell enough copies to earn out what they gave you up front, my starry-eyed friend, I hope you have a nice alternative career lined up. Something with a pension plan. Because you're going to need it. There's only one prospect harder to sell than an unknown would-be author, and that's an author who didn't earn out their advance.


  1. Great post, Victoria. And in answer to your question, I would NEVER have achieved publication without my membership of Romance Writers of America. Through them, I learned the craft, the business and got lots of support from other writers. My novels are historical thrillers but have large elements of romance (sound familiar?!) but I will always keep my RWA membership up.

  2. I'm sure it does help. It's no guarantee - there are none of those anywhere, these days - but the community support and guidance of your peers makes it easier to place a saleable manuscript with the right publisher or agent. There's no sense in reinventing the wheel and writers groups help a fledgling writer to leapfrog over many of the obstacles they might otherwise founder against. Even if you go the direct publishing route, the passed-on experiences of others who have already achieved successes can help you to present your ideas and storylines more eloquently and to give that very valuable first impression you need to make on everyone who reads your work.

  3. Funnily enough, you have to be published to belong to the Romantic Novelists Association. They do have a scheme for a limited membership of non-published authors, but generally it's publication first and membership later. So, the answer in that particular case is "not really". I was published first and then became a member.

  4. Michela, it's perfectly true that the RNA limit full membership to published authors, but i can assure you, as a member myself, that many of my friends in that association are unpublished writers. Not merely entrants on the New Writer Scheme, which is also over-subscribed, but as attendees of RNA-satellite lunch groups and also as Summer and Winter party and conference-goers, all of which are open to anyone, including non-members. And frankly, the real, genuine help given by the RNA is always going to be via that kind of informal networking, with published and unpublished chatting and getting to know each other, and continuing the conversation on social media. It probably is the case that some professional associations for writers delineate more strenuously between professional and unpublished writers, but the RNA is not like that. In my personal experience, which I admit may not be everyone's. The goal is to become published and a full member, but you can still attend events and be a part of the wider social network without full membership.

    Do please chime in, anyone reading this, if you wish to agree or disagree with what I've just said.

  5. I'd been published for several years before I joined the RNA (to be honest, I didn't think I wrote romantic fiction, still don't really but the RNA is a broad and inclusive church). I have always been massively happy that I did join as the fun, friendship, support and information I've had from the members has been fantastic. Writing can be a lonesome old business and it's easy to get disheartened on your own. Having an online grumble about How Things Are or chatting in the pub after an RNA meeting can make all the difference.

  6. Join a group if you wish. Mostly full of middle-aged women, strong, vocal, clever, who will tear your work to shreds, show loop holes, mistakes, your prejudices which you thought you'd hidden so carefully. Be prepared! You won't be allowed to get away with anything. I'm happier now working alone and not writing to try and please a group so they won't 'hurt' me. But give it a writing group a try - it's an experience!

  7. I joined a local writing group, as well as the RNA's NWS, and do not believe I'd have been published had I not. For me, both groups have provided me with positive experiences, great encouragement and lovely friendships.

  8. The question, I think, applies to both novices and published writers. 'Success in publishing' can mean many things, not simply getting a book published. Should have made that clearer. Personally I think even for published authors it can be massively helpful to get a chance to network and meet editors as well as other authors, to get a feel for changing trends in fiction. You never know when that chat at the bar will turn into a 3-book contract a year - or even 10 years - down the line. Networking in publishing can be a very long game.

  9. As someone starting out on the long and winding road to (hopefully) publication, I have found attending both a writing group and occasional RNA events (open to non-members) really helpful. They won't make me a good writer or get me published, I fully understand I have to do both of those things by myself, but the lonliness of writing can sometimes be overwhelming. At a time when I felt low and lost, they offered hope and advice. Sometimes the advice is contradictory, but often it has proved helpful and thought-provoking. Ultimately, the support of those who have travelled the road before can just makes the journey a lot more pleasant.

  10. Certainly belonging to a writing group, whether that's a group aimed at the specific genre you write or something broader, can be really helpful. I think I would have learnt all the things I've learnt at these groups anyway but in double the time and with triple the trauma. The biggest gift that the RNA has given me is a belief that publication is possible which has led to increased professionalism on my part and greater determination. It has also given me courage in the face of rejection and better than anything- friendship with people who share my interest in romance- both reading and writing it.

  11. Thanks to all those commenting.

    This is becoming an interesting debate, and although I don't always agree with views stated here, all opinions based on personal experience are valid. My own personal take on this is that groups are positive to all writers, published and unpublished alike, and bring people into contact with others in a highly creative and non-threatening way via social networking events.

    I respond deeply to the idea of the 'group' and am happy to facilitate its workings while not necessarily needing it for myself. It is my hope that blogs like this one will cement the idea of a writerly community online and encourage those who might consider themselves 'outside' other groups to feel at home here. But always in a non-partisan way.


  12. I joined the RNA years and years ago when I was convincd I could write Mills and Boon romances. I was wrong. (There are two republished out there right now, but...) I left, but was persuaded to rejoin years later, when the very first "cyber chapter" was born. Since then, the support I've received, and the friendships I've made have been invaluable. I have also taught CW for the local Ed Authority, and mistakenly did a Master's Degree. The only good that did me was to introduce me to my publisher, but, you see, Not Wasted. I don't write romance or romantic fiction either, but I'll always remain a member of the RNA.

  13. I was a member of the RNA NWS for three years. It took me two years to be accepted due to the many writers wishing to join the scheme. My novel, that went through the scheme in my second year, was accepted by a publishers and not only did I graduate last year but I'm now one of the fortunate authors up for the Joan Hessayon Award later this month.
    I'll always be a member of the RNA for the support it gives us writers and the friendships I've gained. I will say that members must get off their backsides and join in. Attend Chapters, save up and go to the annual conference. You will be paid back tenfold from fellow members. Writing groups and clubs are fine but joining the NA is like moving up to 'the big school' - daunting but fun!
    I'm always banging on about joining the NWS and many of my CW students are now members. Two have recently graduated. We almost have our own chapter in NW Kent!

  14. Firstly an excellent blog Victoria, there is certainly some truth in the 'fake until you make'. I joined the RNA NWS two years ago and yes, the when I first met and mixed, I felt not only in awe of the many novelist I loved but almost a fraud, I hadn't finished my novel! I was determined but I needed to believe. Not the same for everyone I'm sure. However, attending events and getting advice and support from so many who had gone through the same experience, can switch this button on. I also joined Elaine's The Write Place class that same time so,encouraged to send out work was very sound advice for confidence. My first title is being published next week. Look forward to your next.

  15. Thank you, Victoria for this blog. Years ago, I was involved with several different groups and I must admit, some of them were supportive but some people used the groups simply to chat about subjects unrelated, or the same writers each session, demanded the time and attention! This frustrated me as a new writer and I got little feedback. This wasn't because I lacked the confidence to speak, either. So for years,I continued to write alone, until last November when I did join Nanowrimo and wrote a novel. For the first time, I felt as though there was support out there (though some people don't respond when you message them....) so for me personally, mixed feelings. Anjelika

  16. Thanks to everyone for commenting. I read all the comments, and they are very useful, do keep them coming!


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