How Prepared are Writers for Success?

Life in the Big Ocean

As an Author-in-Waiting the thing I am most often warned to prepare for is rejection. Every writing book or magazine maps out the hugely competitive ocean that you venture into when contemplating a swim in the waters of the fiction novel.

Evidently, agents are out to get you and publishers plan to humiliate you. It seems that everyone is looking for a reason to say 'no.' They are the sharks and you are the lowest possible bottom-feeding scum.

Logically, I know this is B.S. as the entire system is dependent upon the scum at the bottom of the food chain. Immortality of a kind may be obtainable in print but taxes aren't the only inevitable consequence of life. Sooner or later, old authors must shuffle off elsewhere and whilst a cash cow can bring in healthy numbers and column inches, a dead parrot can't attend book signings. Sooner or later, the sharks must look lower in the food chain for their next meal.

This brings me to the point of my argument. Eventually, they'll reach you. Eventually - with a bit of luck and a following wind - you'll be looking into the eyes of the sharks and weighing up their offers. This is where the story finishes right? You get a deal and it's 'happy ever after?' I'm not so sure. In my experience, failure is easy. The tricky thing in life is success.


When you evolve from a 'would be' to an 'is,' things change. Expectations and deadlines must be met. Your ability to determine your next move becomes a thing of the past. As an Author-in-Waiting, you can dream the dream but as an Author, you must live it. The real world is never as fluid as the imaginary one. Just as there are unlimited possibilities for a story when you first start to type but the options are few when it comes to your final edit, so your options when starting on the journey towards publication stretch out before you like a never-ending red carpet but once you've been fished out of the ocean, you can only be served up to the public in a finite number of ways.

Dish of the Day

The general guidance is that you must become a brand. Your particular style of writing must be labeled. Once attached to your own name, this style is the one in which you must continue to write. You are branded 'literary', 'commercial', 'chick lit novelist', 'crime novelist' etc and that is where you must stay. There are exceptions to the rule but they are relatively few. The sharks want their brands and you must become one.

Welcome to the Goldfish Bowl

You want fame? Really? Why? Personally, I want to be successful. I'd love my work to be enjoyed and maybe even admired but the only fame I want is for my work not myself.

Of course, it doesn't work that way. People are interested in the people behind the books. They want to know how much of the work has come from your imagination and how much is the bubble-and-squeak leftovers of your own existence. They want to be able to say:

'You know Mr X in that novel? That was based on Mr Z from down the road.'

The idea that writing is a creative endeavour suddenly disappears once you are published. Fiction fails to exist. Everything is autobiography. Hunger for the 'real' back-story means your personal life is up for grabs. Bye bye anonymity.

Steps to Success

You can't fight all this. It's a business. It's a machine. Without the publicity, the books won't sell. Without the sales, the publishers won't survive. Without the publishers, we all have to work much harder by going the self-published route.

I can't change it, but I can prepare for it. I've thought through my good and bad points; worked out the markets on which I'm best placed to focus, and put aside pennies for an outfit for my first interview. When success and I finally meet, I'll be as prepared as I can for the next step. Will you?

Eric  – (8 May 2009 at 16:35)  

A great post, and one I take to heart. Despite all the negativity that seems to be prevalent with "trying" to get published, I still remain hopeful and optimistic. Just remember us little fish when you start swimming with the sharks :)

Mark P. Henderson  – (9 May 2009 at 11:27)  

Lovely to hear from another British author - I hope the food and heating budget holds out!

I wonder whether branding is so irreversible. When "Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales" was published in 2008 it was branded 'supernatural' or 'paranormal' fiction (though I don't think any of my stories have ghosts in them). But that didn't stop Eloquent Books publishing "Perilaus" last month and branding it - imprecisely, though not entirely inaccurately - a 'crime novel'. Maybe I'm just too low-profile to be worth branding permanently, or maybe I'm just lucky... or maybe you've just had a misfortune with branding?

Whatever the truth, good luck with what you're writing now - and with quick royalty payments!


Rebecca Woodhead  – (9 May 2009 at 13:27)  

Thanks for the comment Mark.

I've not been misfortunate with branding actually, this is all half-arsed presumption on my part based on the reports of others.

I'm not even sending my work out at present. I only wrote to one agent back in December and they'd retired by the time my letter arrived so nobody's seen my work yet. I'm starting a big manuscript send-out in June. Many things to get sorted before then so that I'm ready for my success! (I may as well be an optimist eh?)

From what I've read, this branding thing may be a gender issue. The 'Chick Lit' effect. Obviously, men are important to brand too but there seems to be a greater need to pigeon-hole women. I read of a similar situation in journalism the other day called 'the Carrie Bradshaw Effect' which is leading to a dumbing down of female journalism (editors pushing women into features only and away from serious subjects etc.)

Unless you go in with a really serious, feminist tract or something very literary or in a specific genre - e.g. crime - as a woman, you are filed under 'chick lit.' This is what I have heard anyhow. Anyone shed any further light on this?

Personally, I'm poor and willing to shelve my feminist and literary principles for an adequate heating budget(or at least, weave them in very finely) so if they want to throw me in the 'chick lit' basket, let them. It outsells all other genres and I can rediscover my principles when I'm obscenely rich!

Toad  – (10 May 2009 at 05:38)  

When you become famous don't....

Last month following a friends recommendation, I read a book, that I would not have normally tried. I liked it, although it was the latest in a series.

Yesterday I went to the author's web site in an attempt to locate earlier titles. I found what I was looking for, but was taken aback when I saw this notice. "Avavailabblele May 15......"

Like a dunce I emailed the author, with my view of the number of times v appears in available. Nary a word was written to me, but the web site changed in several hours.

Even when you're famous you should remember your buyers.

Deb Shucka  – (10 May 2009 at 22:17)  

Lots of good points to think about. Thanks for such an articulate analysis of a writer's journey. I'm enjoying following yours as I travel my own path as a writer.

Rebecca Woodhead  – (12 May 2009 at 00:55)  


You're right, as ever. I have every intention of being ridiculously successful and deeply humble. They can go together can't they? I'd never forget the buyers. They're the ones steering the ship.

Rebecca Woodhead  – (12 May 2009 at 00:57)  


Thanks so much for your comment. I just babble away on here and hope something sensible gets tapped out more often than not. If it's useful to fellow writers that's great to hear.

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