Author, poet and journalist Benjamin Myers serves up a list of writing tips they never teach you.
I’ll be frank: I’m afraid I can’t offer much in the way of practical advice as to how to strike that elusive book deal. My last three novels – dark and squalid poetic explorations of landscape and man’s wanton savagery - were each roundly rejected by the major publishing houses as largely unsellable, yet each went on to win awards and sell respectable amounts when published by independent publishers. Some are going into translation, another is soon to be developed for television.
This has lead me to believe that either a) the big publishing houses are way behind these forward-thinking indie companies who take bigger risks and now almost serve as hothouses for developing talent or b) someone has been spreading scurrilous rumours about me.
I do hope so.
Ah, well. I feel more at home on the edges anyway. I’m with Groucho Marx: I wouldn’t care to become a member of any club that would have me (and it’s a bloody good job too). I’m outside in the cold, tapping at the windowpane, coveting the buffet. But I like it here. There are no walls. I’m free to roam wherever I want.
There is no easy way to get a book deal. Often it is a game of pure luck, though there are few factors that might help you nudge ahead. As is often the way in Britain today, graduating from Oxbridge is a boon, though not because you have a degree, but because Otto who you used to buy bad hash off is now Head of Digital at one of the majors and can get your manuscript read. Nepotism, you see: it’s the grease that oils the wheels of the book world. Even better if you can persuade your parents to own a publishing house or insist upon Ian McEwan being your godfather. (Don’t worry: you won’t have to read his books.)
I’m being flippant and cynical of course, and I encourage all academic learning, but this is the reality that a new writer faces today. It’s actually fine though. Great writing will still prevail. Great writing is timeless.
All that really matters is that you make the work the best that it can be, and get it out there. If you can enjoy the experience, even better. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some thoughts on the writing process in the hope that one day someone will be insane enough to commission an 800-word piece on such matters.
Here we go, then.
Novels rarely begin at the beginning. A spider weaves its web from the centre.
Who will play the lead?
Do some physical labour. Move furniture, chop wood, pull up weeds. Sweat. Then write.
Monarchs and politicians come and go but William Wordsworth is forever.
Quicken your reader’s heartbeat.
Sometimes you must offend people. In fact, it is your duty.
Learn a new word today. Insert it.
Dialogue. Ask yourself: do people really talk like this?
People who tell you to grow up have lost their ability to fantasise or play.
Steal and be stolen.
Watch Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Your book is the boat. You are Klaus Kinski. You're covered in mud and everyone hates you. Now push.
Move into a different room and drink a large glass of water.
Shift gear. The Venus De Milo was once an unremarkable lump of stone.
Be honest: would you buy this?
Your loved ones are your worst critics because they will rarely deliver the truth.
Write with your enemies in mind.
Read more poetry.
Change your lead character’s name. How does this alter their behaviour?
Stop everything and walk in the same direction for 30 minutes. Return.
Who is speaking?
Try and reduce your last paragraph by 50%.
Read more poetry. (I see a couple of you are napping at the back, so this bears repeating.)
Everyone has a book inside them. Most should remain there.
Stroke a dog.
If you are stuck in a hole, write yourself a ladder.
Epic is relative. An ant’s journey is epic.
It’s OK to be frightened.
Eat an apple.
It’s OK to question your sanity.
Mistakes are necessary. Perfection is a concept created by salesmen.
Put a hat on.
Success and money are entirely unrelated.
Fashion is fleeting. Therefore, unfashionable can only be good.
A little blood may be shed but the human body is remarkable at regeneration.
If you’re bored then the reader is too.
You never finish writing a book. You only stop.
All writing leads somewhere eventually.
Turning up is half the battle.
Never, ever, ever give up.
Congratulations. You are already a writer.
Benjamin Myers is an author, poet and journalist. His novel Beastings (2014) won the Portico Prize For Literature and a Northern Writers’ Award, and Pig Iron (2012) was the winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize. A bestseller, Richard (2010) was chosen as a Sunday Times book of the year. He has recently published three novels in one year: Turning Blue (Moth), The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose Books) and These Darkening Days (Moth), which is comes out September 22nd 2017. www.benmyers.com