Tuesday, 4 October 2011


...is generally a long one. There perhaps exist shortcuts for some (so-called celebrities, the very lucky and the obscenely talented – although this last group’s virtue usually has its origin in hard work / time spent on the road), but for the rest of us we’d better get used to the long game.

And so, with the luxury of a book deal, I wanted to look at the reasons I think I finally got there, lest you think I’m just a lucky so and so. Or a celebrity.

Ø   An apprenticeship served. Somewhere between plucking a few strings on your first acoustic guitar and appearing on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage on the Saturday night is, you’d hope, some practice. A lot of it. About ten thousand hours I read somewhere - an arbitrary figure plucked to demonstrate the work needed to achieve virtuosity in anything. And this goes for writing. 

Ø      A commitment to your art/craft. No longer merely a hobby, you will need an obsessive devotion to your writing. Days you do not write (and read) are exceptional. Indeed, you resent them, that little precious time you find for composition more precious than almost anything else in your life.

Ø   A desire to constantly improve. Rejection hurts, but it’ll be one of your most valuable (and frequently visiting) friends in the early days. Don’t fall into the lazy trap of dismissing those who deliver bad news as wrong or elitist or incapable of recognising your thus unrecognisable genius. Come back to their words in a few days and look honestly and hard at them. Give them no reason to reject you next time.

Ø      Writing is re-writing. I save my biggest belly laughs for those who post in forums that prose, like visual art, can be spoiled by too many strokes, that you need to know when to leave it alone, to not over-egg it. For me, at least, I can never edit enough. The work can always be improved. Only deadlines and a gathering insanity allow me not to work on something indefinitely.

Ø     An original voice / concept. Fuck. Thought I’d put this one last, as it’s a little intimidating. It’s also, I believe, the single most important factor that led to the bidding for my book. Publishers want something fresh, a story or voice they’ve not heard before, that’s going to stand out, firstly from the thousands of manuscripts adorning their desks, and, eventually, from every other book coming out that year. Now, I didn’t start the book with this in mind, so perhaps this is the luck element, a concept that found me. But you can find a unique voice, though, alas, not generally by looking for one! A post on voice to follow soon.

Happy writing.   


AliB said...

Hi Tom

Excellent advice for those of us slogging along. Yep, the last one is the killer, but it may come. V. impressed by the way that you get over rejection/negative feedback in a few days. Usually takes me months to admit that picky critic was actually right!

TOM VOWLER said...

Thanks Ali. I suppose once rejection is accepted as the norm - which it certainly is intially, and to a lesser degree always part of a writer's life - then you can (often) regard it as containing a clue to making your work stronger. But of course there will be times when the story/novel is strong but just not for them.

Marisa Birns said...

Practice, editing, rejection...all important truths.

And a lot of luck.

But while there are setbacks to the writing life, there is also enjoyment. Can't imagine any other life.

Marc said...

Hello Tom,

Everything you say is so true and even though I am not a the stage of thinking about sending off to any publisher yet (I am indeed v picky like you say over re-writing) I know that its a long road. What are your views on ebooks and the idea of self-publishing?

TOM VOWLER said...

Hi Marc

I think the jury's still out on the impact of ebooks. I see them co-existing with their physical counterparts for some time, prefered by some, shunned by others. Cries that they will soon signal the death of the book feel a little overblown. For now at least.

Self publishing strikes me as very hard work, with no guarentee your work will reach much of an audience. Obviously there are exceptions, but you have so little access to the major chains (chain!) etc. Whilst they're still there. Turbulent times, yes, but I advise anyone to begin with traditional routes of publication, however hard they are to access. Do your research: who is publishing that genre; which agents? If the work is good enough and original, someone will likely pick it up.

Jonathan Manor said...

What's your take on writer's who choose to publish their books and sell them on their blogs?

I know well known writers like Tucker Max and Tim Ferris used blogs to build large readerships and then sold their books to the public.

TOM VOWLER said...

That's great if you can achieve this, but I imagine sales must still be moderate without access to a publisher's promotional machinery, mainstream reviews etc.