“Brace yourself,” my doctor said. “This won’t come easy” he fiddled with his pen “for either of us.” He averted his eyes. I braced myself.
“You eat junk food,” he muttered. “You smoke and drink in industrial quantities. You take no exercise.”
I protested. “I go jogging with my tortoise!”
“Yet by every test known to medical science, you are in perfect health.” He glared at me. “People like you put doctors out of work.”
Some authors are like that. They consume junk fiction, take no exercise in their craft, and have the work ethic of a sloth. Yet they can scamp out a novel in three months. Then they trip over a literary agent at a cocktail party and - lo! - next day they get a contract from Random House. It happens. And it isn’t fair.
Worse, it fools every would-be author that they can do the same. After 100 rejection slips and a fling with clinical depression they discover the truth. Success in fiction writing is 50% practice and 50% persistence.
Talent is optional.
Or so I tell my students at the creative writing classes I teach at a UK university. They don’t believe me, especially when one of their number goes on to sign a three-book contract after one term’s work. It’s all in the genes, I say. Some authors are lucky, like that, but most have rotten genes.
It took Agatha Christie 20 attempts to get The Mysterious Affair at Styles into print. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times. Joanne Harris broke into print with Chocolat only after 15 years in the wilderness. And The Lord of the Flies was published by the purest accident.
“So what are we doing here?” some students moan.
“Learning to write stories,” I tell them “in the event that you have rotten genes. It might take you just three years, with practice, to write a story that works. Then you can embark on a novel. The rest is persistence.”
Earn while you learn
Better still, I say, you can earn while you learn.
Write a story every week, enter it in a story contest, and you might soon be winning a cash sum from every three in five contests you enter. What’s more (I add, returning reluctantly to the syllabus), each story is a five finger exercise in craft technique. Focus on exploring a new skill in every story. One week it’s characterisation, the next could be body language. In time, you might even explore emblematic resonance!
“You’re only saying that because you run a story competition,” they protest, cheekily.
“True,” I sulk “yet it’s true.”
To punish them, I then assign them an exercise - to rewrite the top news story of the day in the styles of James Patterson, Proust and Annie Proulx, successively. (The latter is a punishment very cruel.) To do that, they have to read the authors first. Blatant imitation is another way to learn one’s craft, and quickly. I tell them. And it’s true.
Of course, I already know which of my students will get a solid B+ - the ones who practise most. But I shall have no option but to grant, as always, a sparkling A- to those who practise least, rarely turn up to classes and cheek me when they do. But who were born with lucky genes.
I hate such people. They put doctors out of work.
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. His free course in winning story competitions for profit can be found at: http://www.writers-village.org/contest-success.php