This is a post I have been meaning to do for a while, but never quite got round to. However I have been inspired recently by a brilliant post on a similar subject by novelist Faye L. Booth: http://fayelbooth.blogspot.com/2009/01/when-emperors-are-in-buff.html. Faye’s post is much more comprehensive than mine, but I feel the pressing need to add my twopence to this discussion.
Writing a book is a labour of love. If it wasn’t then you would never get past the first chapter before you sickened of it and threw it in the bin. When you’re first starting out, you need a tremendous amount of faith in your own novel if you’re ever going to succeed in getting it published. I firmly believe that there must be unpublished novels out there that are phenomenally good but will never be published for the simple reason that their authors just aren’t determined/bloody-minded/stubborn/arrogant enough to withstand the ego-battering onslaught of rejection letters, and to send the book out again and again until it lands on the right desk of the right editor of the right publisher at the right time.
The ‘correct’ philosophy here is to say that everyone has their own opinions yadda, yadda, yadda, and not to be too disheartened because even if some people don’t like your book, others will. I accept this, in principle. But I also believe that not only must you have faith in your own work in order to succeed, but that you must love it practically to the point of being quite arrogant about it. There is no room for modesty here, my friends. If you don’t think your book is the best thing since sliced bread then how can you expect a publisher to? If you can’t be defiantly proud of your book even when it’s being rejected left, right and centre then you’ll be in danger of giving up at the first hurdle. There are countless examples of famous books (now considered masterpieces) being sent out time and time again before someone, somewhere recognised them for what they were.
Here I would like to direct anyone who hasn’t already seen it to go and watch Randy Pausch’s ‘Last Lecture’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo This lecture on achieving your childhood dreams is probably one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen in my life. One issue Dr Pausch talks about, which has stuck with me ever since I first watched the lecture, is that of brick walls. These are the hurdles and problems that anyone will face when trying to achieve their dream (whatever it may be). I think any writer can sympathise with the disappointment of a generic, single sentence rejection letter, or a witheringly negative review. But as Dr Pausch points out, the brick walls are there to give you the chance to prove how much you want something. They are there to keep the other people out, not you. They are there to stop those who only half-heartedly work towards their goals, rather than those who are utterly determined to get there even if they half kill themselves in the process. You can’t half-heartedly want to be published – you must be prepared to fight to the death for it.
I think this especially applies to writing – and trying to get published – because writing is its own reward even without publication. You can therefore, if you are so inclined, decide to write for yourself alone. You can view writing as a pleasant hobby and nothing more. You’re certainly not (with a few obvious exceptions) going to get rich and famous pursuing a writing career. So the only reason I can see for embarking on the rocky, perilous road to publication, is because you love your novel so much that having it all to yourself is simply not enough – you want other people to read it and enjoy it too. That is why hearing someone praise your book is one of the very best feelings in the world. But it is also why negative reviews are so abhorrent to a writer. If your final goal is not publication itself, but for people to enjoy your work, then getting a bad review is like falling at the last hurdle. I have now acquired a much thicker skin with regards to bad reviews, but at the beginning, when The Ninth Circle had just come out, I will admit that I found poisonous critiques of my work almost physically painful to read. And it was one of those unfortunate facts that a good review would make me feel good for about ten minutes, whereas a bad review could ruin my entire day.
Really, this is a case of: ‘If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’ coupled with ‘if you stay out of the kitchen you won’t get burned, but you will go hungry.’ If you can’t take criticism of your books, then you’re probably better off writing for yourself alone. But if you are going to attempt publication then, in my opinion, you really do have to be an arrogant little so-and-so. You have to be able to look at rejection letters you receive from publishers – actual professionals in the industry – and think ‘you are wrong, and I am right.’ That is harder said than done. But, assuming you do not get picked up by the first publisher/agent you approach, it is necessary. You must love your book so much, that anyone who doesn’t like it must a) have bad taste, or b), be an idiot. Of course, logically you can acknowledge that this isn’t really the case because people have different literary tastes etc etc, but this is the illogical feeling you must feel with conviction when you first open that rejection letter. That way you can stick your tongue out at it, rip it up into little pieces, throw them in the fire and firmly tell yourself that clearly this commissioning editor is an utter fool who has just lost their publisher an awful lot of money by passing up on your masterpiece. Ahem.
But – and this is the tricky part – you somehow have to counter-balance that arrogance with some degree of humility, especially if you are fortunate enough to get any kind of professional feedback. I’ve been extremely lucky with my editors, both at Gollancz and at Headline, in that they have both vastly improved my books with their comments and advice. It’s no use clinging to the idea that your book is perfect and cannot be improved. That’s taking the whole arrogant thing just too far.
Ultimately, readers and reviewers are entitled to their own opinions, and I would never begrudge someone for disliking one of my books. No book, no matter how wonderful, is going to appeal to everyone. Even geniuses like Terry Pratchett and J K Rowling are not universally adored by every reader in the world. You cannot do more than love your own book absolutely, and trust to the fact that, eventually, it will find its way to the people who are meant to read it.
My point, then, is that I am extremely arrogant when it comes to my books, and I ain’t sorry for it because the fact is that I couldn’t have got here if I wasn’t. But, at the same time, I would hope that I’d always be humble enough to acknowledge that nothing I write will ever be perfect. I would always strive to make my new book just a little bit better than the last one. And for that reason, I am certainly going to listen very carefully to anything any editor, reviewer or reader says to me about my books – i.e. I will pull the little pieces out of the fire, paste them back together, and read the letter/review/rejection again later when I can be calm and professional about it. If I still don’t agree with what’s been said then I will throw the letter back into the fire, and leave the damn thing there for good.