Writer on a Train: You Can’t Do Everything 1



I was at a party.

That, in itself, makes the whole thing unusual. I write best early in the morning. That means I’m generally in bed by nine-thirty, tucked up with a glass of wine, Husband and a book. 

It was a literary gathering, so it was something to do with my day job – I’m a lecturer on Bath Spa University’s highly successful Creative Writing courses. Anyway, at this party, a commissioning editor from Walker books spoke to me about what she really wanted. She wanted, she said, a stand alone fiction book, a real, old fashioned story for 8-11s, with a little bit of magic.

Now, if I was another kind of person, I would have remembered her name. I would have come up with a killer idea and pitched it to her within a fortnight.

Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of a person. I’m the kind of person who forgets all about it until a year later when she finds herself writing…an 8-11 narrative with just a little bit of magic in it. That’s why I have Sophie, my gorgeous and clever agent. She’s good at remembering things like that. I’m good at imagining clumsy school caretakers.

Sophie is her own person, she’s not me doing a different job.  She doesn’t do exactly what I want. But then, I’m sure I don’t write exactly how she’d like. We have enough in common to understand each other, and that’s the important thing. And we quite like each other, and that’s even more important. It’s a long relationship, a bit like a marriage. You will mess up and so will your agent. You have to be able to forgive each other and get on with the job. That takes goodwill and good communication.

At some point, editors also come into the equation. I know how important a good editor is to me and my writing, because I’ve had bad editors. Twice, I went with a certain publisher so I could work with a certain editor, only to have that editor leave the employment of that publisher (they hop around like bunnies). Now, I am wary. I will only do a one-book deal. We’ll see how we get on and take it from there.

The fact is, writers need help. We can’t do it all. Yes, it’s a good idea to have some concept about what’s going on in the publishing world of your chosen genre. Yes, it doesn’t hurt to get out every once in a while to prove that you can, indeed, talk to people sensibly. Publishers want to know you could be taken to fairs and festivals without disgracing the entire imprint. But writers usually can’t keep up with everything that’s published or who is now working where or why so and so’s book didn’t get into Asda. We can’t talk to Waterstones about how brilliant own book is or… well, it never ends… We can’t do everything.

Even most of the great ebook successes have been due to teamwork.  At some point, if you want to write, you’ll have to work with other people.  In films, you just sit in a room and then are discovered and immediately become a best seller and a millionaire…but it doesn’t really work that way in the real world. In the real world, you have to negotiate what you want from your book with what your agent wants from your book and your editor wants from your book and their sales and marketing team wants from your book. And when you are in the middle of all that, trust me – you’ll have enough to do without reading Bookseller or Publishing Weekly cover to cover. If you can blog, tweet and remember what you were trying to write, all at the same time, you’ll be doing better than most of us.  

The fact is, any time you spend trying to read the market so you can do without your agent, trying to second guess or supplement your publicity department with some grand, splashy scheme…that’s time you are not writing. And the writing bit is what only you can do. The writing bit is the whole point of you being in the business.

Heck, if I just read all the ‘how to market your book’ blogs that were tweeted at me last week, I wouldn’t have any time to write at all. And anyway, the bestsellers and prizewinners I know don’t do any of that stuff. They just write really good books and people do the rest for them.

My job is to tell stories. Although maybe, just to help Sophie a little bit, I’ll go onto the Walker website and stare at editors’ pictures for a while. She had a nice handbag…I remember that…and shiny hair…

It was hot and loud and my glass was warm in my hand. Someone next to me wore too much Chanel no5. There was a lot of that kind of trying too hard, the desperate energy of people looking for money and fame. Then the door opened and, for a moment, you could smell the rain.  She looked at me and I could tell she wanted to go out in the cool air. She looked for somewhere to put down her empty glass, and I took it for her. She smiled back over her shoulder and ducked under someone’s arm to get outside…

I’m sure her name will come to me. Eventually.



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