“Slowly but surely.”
For the past nine years this has been my default response to the question: “So, Guy, how’s the writing going?”
“It’s fine. I’m getting there, slowly but surely.”
My friends and family usually laugh before waiting, expectantly, for a “proper” response. But my response has always, and will always be, the same.
“Seriously guys, I’m getting there. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.”
I don’t think my friends and family ever took me seriously. Wanting to be a writer is a common dream now after all, especially around university campuses, so I can’t blame them for thinking I was like every other wannabe raconteur. I’m sure they have all been waiting for the day when my response would inevitably change to: “Actually, guys, you know what? The writing’s been going badly for a while now and in all honesty, I’m probably just kidding myself. I think it’s about time I followed everyone’s advice and gave it up. I need to focus on my ‘career’ after all.”
But that day never came, because, let’s face it, being realistic has never really been my strong point.
You see, most people who don’t want to write think that people who do want to write simply sit down in front of a laptop and begin, almost whimsically, to type out the perfect story – preferably one that came to them whilst sipping macchiatos at the local café. They believe that once the great coffee God has slipped his/her imagination pill into your caramel swirls the words simple vomit out of you until perfection is achieved. They believe that if that novel isn’t perfect once that final full stop punctures the screen then you are simply not worthy of the title of writer and must give up the momentary muse immediately before crippling alcoholism sets in.
But they couldn’t be more wrong. Seriously, that’s not how writing works – for the majority of us at least.
On Saturday (27th February – I think) I received a phone call from an agent – one that I have been working with for quite some time. During this phone call I was told that my writing was in fact good enough (who knew?) and said agent would very much like to place her name next to mine and represent me from here on out. I was over the moon! Genuinely, words cannot express the sheer delight that fizzed through me. Because, you see, contrary to popular belief, I had not just hammered out a perfect first draft and sent it off (if only!). I’d pretty much re-written the novel from scratch with the agent acting as a mentor, and then redrafted over and over, polishing it to an ever greater shine with no real clue as to whether the agent would take me on or not. But she did! And guess what? This wasn’t even my first novel! It was my fifth! I’ll give you a moment to let that soak in. Five novels. Not one, or two, or even four, but five novels! That phone call was the result of nine years hard work, and I was chuffed to bits.
I realised I wanted to write books for a living when I was eighteen years old. I have been writing near enough every day since then (I am now twenty-seven), and despite the doubts, despite the rejections, I kept going. You see (again, contrary to popular belief) writing takes time – good writing, at least. Like an apprentice sculptor you might have that vision of perfection in your head, but it takes years of working on your craft before you can even begin to carve something that looks vaguely similar, and even then you’ll always be far from perfection (something I now believe doesn’t, and should not, exist).
But why would any self-respecting human do that? Why would anyone spend so much time on something only to get nothing back?
Well, I suppose there are many reasons.
The first being my obsession with already super-successful writers. When I find a writer I like, it’s not enough for me to simply buy their books. I need to know them. I need to know their journey – the pilgrimage that has lead them to this pinnacle of human achievement that I admire so vehemently. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, John Wyndham, etc, etc. I needed to know their life stories – I needed to know their secrets.
And you know what?
I found them.
And by them, I mean it.
That’s right. It. Singular.
I found that thing that all the great writers possess that everyone else does not. I found the Holy Grail of knowledge that would ultimately lead me to that phone call – that great, life changing phone call. And it was this:
No, seriously, it’s that simple.
Don’t give up.
But that can’t be it! I thought. That – that’s insane! It can’t be that easy!
And it isn’t – not really. Stubborn determination is not easy. You have to suffer. A lot. And I don’t mean to sound depressive or like writing was a chore, because that is not it at all. I write because I have to. My head is a bucket and it needs emptying on a regular basis. If I don’t tip the words out, I get cranky. It’s not good. The writing isn’t the problem, it’s getting your writing noticed. For that, you need to take those hits. You need to receive those rejection letters, you need to feel that disappointment . . . and keep moving forward. You need to sit in front of a page of writing and hate it . . . but then keep moving forward. You need to send your book to agents and get “No” after “No” after “No” . . . but then keep moving forward.
Not everyone will go through this. I’m sure there are those really annoying people for whom a caramel macchiato is enough, but for me I needed that determination. I needed it like a plant needs rain. Without it I would have withered and died at my desk. Thankfully, I learned this lesson early. I was taught it by the best.
Book one, for me, was the hardest. It was my greatest achievement and my greatest disappointment all rolled into one. I was naïve. I was young. But I kept moving forward. Book two was still hard, but the edges had been rounded off. After rejection, Ikept moving forward. When it came to book three I sent it off expecting rejection, but it was still sprinkled with hope. It was the same with book four! And by the time I reached book five, nine years of none stop writing had filled my noggin! Nine years of rejection and iron-clad determination coated everything I did. By book five, I had made a plethora of mistakes – mistakes that would have made most wannabe writers throw in the towel and yell: “ENOUGH!”
But by book five, I had it. That stubborn determination. That refusal to give up. That belief that if I simply kept pushing forward I too could have what my hero’s had. I too could get that elusive publishing deal.
I imagined myself a runner in a great race. In it, every human who wanted to be a writer was running alongside me and the finish line was a publishing deal. And we were running. Sweating, bleeding, crying, we were running, and all around me people were dropping out. All around me there were people who had had enough, and one by one they were pulling over to breath. But still I knew, the more people that pulled out, the greater my chances of being the last one standing. And that’s all that matters. So I ran. I ran and I ran, over and over, getting fitter, faster. Still, all around me people were dropping, but that stubborn refusal kept me going. I had the idea that if I could only keep running, eventually everyone else will quit and I will be the last man standing. Then I’d be guaranteed the deal!
I have lived my life by that race. Every time I felt like quitting, I told myself: “No! If you quit, someone behind will overtake. Keep moving forward.”
And now I have an agent. The biggest hurdle so far has been conquered. But even bigger hurdles await. Will the book that secured my agent be published? Well, the figure that seems to be sliding through the publishing community is 50%. That’s half of all agent-submitted manuscripts accepted by publishers. Those odds are the best I’ve ever had. They’re not perfect, but they’re still pretty darn good. I have as much chance of being rejected as I have of being accepted.
But guess what?
A rejection doesn’t matter! If the publishers say no, then I will write another. I am writing another! And I will keep writing books until the publishers have no choice but to say yes. Even then, when they do say yes, a new battle will begin. I’ll go on school visits, talk in libraries, take part in book festivals. I’ll even have reviews! Good and bad. But no matter what the world throws my way, I will forever keep moving forward.
When I told my friends I had an agent, they were chuffed. They congratulated me and praised me and made my ego swell like a party balloon. But when they asked what would happen next – when I’d be published – my response was the same as ever:
“I have a long way to go yet, but I’m getting there. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there.”
“But you have an agent now! That’s got to make it easier!”
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe not. But as I said, I’ll get there eventually, slowly but surely.”
The publishing industry is in no rush. It is the race track, and we, the writers, must decide: is it better to be a hare, or a tortoise? Sure, we feel like hares. We want to rush towards that publishing deal. We feel ready. We think our books are perfect and genius and the world needs to see them! But we all know that it is better to be a tortoise. Why?
Because they get there in the end – slowly but surely.
So if anyone out there wants to be a writer, remember: be the tortoise. Work, write, edit, submit, reject and repeat. Work, write, edit, submit, reject, repeat. If you follow this system, you too will get there.
Slowly but surely.
Just keep moving forward.