A few thoughts on writing

Why do I write? For me itís a compulsion, a nervous tic, I canít seem to stop myself (as opposed to my perimenopausal Touretteís which is another kind of nervous tic where I canít seem to stop telling irritating people to fuck off). If Iím not writing a script, Iím working on a book, pouring my heart out in my journal, boring someone with my loooooong emails (sorry if youíve been the recipient of one of those) or working on a blog post like now.

 
It took me a long time to call myself a writer. I am one of the fortunate people that earn my living from my writing, and I have done for the last fourteen or so years. But when I say I earn my living from writing, I mean from my TV writing. I earn a very respectable income as a television scriptwriter and script editor. And despite what everyone thinks, I make a pitiable amount, in comparison, from writing novels. Luckily, I donít have to rely on the income I make from my books. If I did, my children would certainly not be privately educated, frankly they wouldnít be educated at all, nor would they be eating, they would both have been sent out to work Ė when they were four.
 
I had a hilarious convo with someone at the daughterís school recentlyÖ
Him: but your bookís doing so well! You must be making a fortune from it.
Me: Nope, you make about ten bucks a book and if you sell a thousand, youíre lucky
Him: but a thousandís a lot and books are really expensive. Whoís making all the money then?
 Me: No-one.
Him: *skeptical* not even the publisher?
I could just imagine all my publisher friends guffawing at that. It is a sad fact that SA fiction makes no money.
Him: But why do you write then? I mean, if youíre not going to make any money out of it?
         
Itís a good question. Why do I write novels? The answer is: because I canít stop myself. I wrote my first attempt at a novel when I was twenty-nine, I started writing my second when I was thirty-five, I finished the second novel when I was forty and I finally got published when I was forty-four. Iím telling you how old I was because I think itís comforting to know that not everyone is getting a publishing deal from their very first attempt at a novel when theyíre twenty-two. And itís not like my life stopped while I was trying to get published. Aside from writing novels, I also gave birth to two children (having kids = v time-consuming but excellent source of material), did a masterís degree and taught at Wits drama department (v gratifying as most of my students are now waaaaaay more famous than I am). Plus I had my own little educational theatre company so I was busy writing educational theatre scripts, including two musicals. Then, at thirty-four I started writing for television and since then I have written literally five hundred or so scripts.
 
I recently read a tweet that said that scriptwriters cannot be novelists. Personally, I think writing for television has made me a better writer. Itís taught me how to write decent dialogue and how to construct a story and Ė most importantly Ė itís taught me about cliffhangers, meaning how to keep your audience coming back for more. A little tip: if you want to write good dialogue, you need to listen to how people speak, itís also a good idea to speak the dialogue as you write it (yes, you will look insane, no, it doesnít matter). Because I spend my life writing and editing dialogue, if the dialogue in a book is stilted, I wonít read it. I suppose I write the kind of books Iíd like to read. And, boy, do I like to read!
 
I have a very bad reading habit, which I have had ever since I read my first Secret Seven book as a kid. If you want to be a writer, you need to read. You also need to write. Practice seriously does make perfect. Currently I have written 3.75 books:
  1. She-mail (chicklit written in the form of emails and letters - unfinished)

  2. Ms Conception (Chicklit)

  3. Things Unseen (psychological thriller)

  4. De(lie)lah or #WhatWouldHenryDo (domestic suspense)

    And ideas for my next book are already swirling around in my head. As Fourie Botha @umuzites said to me just after I submitted my last ms: writers donít really get into their stride until their fourth book, (subtext = get a move on with the next one).

People assume that once you have published one book, itís all plain sailing. Sorry, but no. Unless you have had a massive success with your first book, you are going to be required to submit your book and have it okayed by a reader before they will even think about publishing your next one. A case in point, the reader did not like my psychological thriller, so that wonít be published by @PenguinBooksSA, itíll be published by @clockworkbooks. Although, @umuzites is so adorable, he did not want to tell me that he didnít like it and waited eleven months to break the news. Luckily, Iím used to being told Iím shit on a weekly basis on the TV show I work on Ė the writersí room can be a brutal place and the fans are also not shy to tell you how crap they think something is - so I wasnít completely devastated.

 

But Iíd be lying if I said it wasnít a bit of a blow. I spent a shitload of time writing that baby, of course it was a downer! However, because of my uphill battle to get my first book published, I also know how subjective the industry is. One person might hate your book, another will love it (I still have my first rejection letter from Penguin to remind me of this fact Ė my ms was first rejected by Penguin and then went on to be published by them). I think what soothed my ego was that when I spoke to Sarah McGregor at ClockWork Books, she didnít even want to see a synopsis of the psychological thriller she wanted to see the manuscript, and luckily she loved the book and wants to publish it.

 

Another misconception people have (Ms Conception, geddit?) is that my publishers fly me all over the country and pay for me to attend book fairs, that @LoveBooksJozi pay for me to attend book launches and tweet about books, that #Convoy pay for me to wear their clothes, that @WOOLWORTHS_SA pay me to hide out in the wine section, glugging wine straight from the bottle so that I can then post pics about it. Nope. I tweet about the stuff I love and want to promote (usually South African/African) and occasionally about the stuff that pisses me off, which has sometimes got me into trouble. I have been shat on for stuff Iíve tweeted *side-eyes her adorable work husband @taxi2venus* which made me realize that not everyone shares my sense of humour (I know. I donít understand it either. I have a FABULOUS SOH).

 

Oh, God, what point was I trying to make? I canít remember (perimenopausal brain mush). Anyway, while I try and remember let me dish out a few pointers for aspiring writers:

  1. Read. A lot. And especially in your chosen genre.

  2. Listen to how people speak.

  3. Do a writing course (I did an MA in creative writing at Wits Ė got my TV writing career out of it and got published because of contacts I made)

  4. Go to book launches. Network (but not in an irritating way. Donít ask people who make their living as editors to ďjust have a look at this for meĒ and then hand them a 500 page ms)

  5. Finish your damn manuscript! As the writer @lisajewelluk says, that is the most important part of the whole process.

  6. Be persistent. Donít think thereís only one way of doing things. I got published by the digital imprint of Random Struik before I got published in print. Lots of people self-publish.

  7. Donít get bitter when people donít like your work/donít invite you to things. Going on a rant on social media is really, REALLY not going to help you. It will just scare people and make them not want to work with you.

  8. Be generous to other writers. If you like their work, tell them (@KarinaMSzczurek is an excellent example of this). Help promote other peopleís books. Weíre all in this together (I wonít start singing ďWe are the worldĒ promise. The daughter made me stop doing that)

  9. Love what you do. Although itís great to be published, even if I wasnít, I would still write.

  10. Donít expect to make money off your books, especially not at first.

  11. And most importantlyÖenjoy every single moment of the journey. I know I have.

 

As the teen says: look at Mom, sheís in nerd heaven.

 

And heís right, I amÖ

 

PsÖhave just remembered the point I was trying to make. Being published may not make you rich financially, but it will enrich your life in so many other ways. Soppy but true.