No one tells you how to navigate life as a fiction writer. There’s no route map, no time-honoured career path. The process can be lonely, and rejection is an inevitable part of it. That said, there are strategies that you pick up along the way which give you a fighting chance of success. Here are one or two.
Know where you’re going, and don’t start until you’re ready. Inspirational quotes are as annoying as the notion of inspiration itself, but it’s worth remembering the words of Abraham Lincoln. “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Find a working pace that suits you, and if you get stuck mid-scene, go outside and walk. It’s hard to untangle your thoughts sitting in front of a computer screen. Embrace your displacement activities. Many writers find ironing particularly soothing (in this connection I would recommend “How To Get Things Really Flat” by the novelist and housework guru Andrew Martin).
No one becomes a writer in order to fail. Acquaint yourself with success. Examine the best seller lists, and as an exercise, read The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey. You don’t have to like books like these, and you certainly don’t have to write them, but you do need to understand the fantasies that they’re addressing, and why millions of people have bought and read them. The job of the novelist is to lead readers out of themselves, and into an imaginative dimension that’s at once emotionally truthful and satisfyingly other. To do this, you have to breathe the same air that your readers do. If you think you’re cleverer than they are, that journey’s never going to take place.
Readers like to be challenged by ideas, but are less keen on being mugged with literary theory. Calling fiction ‘literary’ is as meaningless as calling art ‘fine’. At best it’s a shelving category; all too often it’s a synonym for ‘precious and self-regarding’. I remember a colleague bemoaning the fact that the critics who’d disliked his debut novel had failed to spot the ironic references to Jonathan Swift. Trust me, no one gives a monkey’s about all that stuff. Good writing, like good conversation, doesn’t show off. That wry, elliptical opening paragraph comes across like a bad chat-up line. It’s not how your words launch, it’s how they land.
You’re in a railway station or airport bookshop, looking for something to read. In front of you are scores of books that you could buy, if pushed, but that you don’t really fancy. There’s the 19th century classic you’ve always avoided, now an ‘A’ Level set text. The critically puffed state-of-England novel. The ‘gritty’ crime procedural with the depressive, alcoholic detective. The beautifully observed love story, set in Canada. So where is it, the book that you’re searching for? The book that you might feel a bit self-conscious about your smart friends seeing you buying, but that you really, really want to read? The answer, of course, is that you haven’t written it yet.
Luke Jennings is the author of the Villanelle novels, the basis for the hit TV series Killing Eve, and of several other fiction titles. His memoir Blood Knots was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes. As a journalist he has written for Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Time, and he is currently the dance critic of The Observer.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.