Before I began writing for a living, I always imagined by some miracle the journey would be simple.
All I needed to do was write well and someone, somewhere, would offer a book deal, whether I was ghosting or writing under my own name.
But as John Lennon once said: ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’
And when it comes to writing, especially if you have the goal of finding a publisher, lots of ‘life’ is likely to ‘happen’ while you’re trying to create a bestseller.
Dammit. Turns out it ISN’T just talent and hard work that’ll find you that coveted publishing deal. It’s persistence. And unless you’re very, very lucky, you’ll need it in bucketloads.
Cormac McCarthy said: ‘Keep a little fire burning, however small, however hidden.’
Despite having ghosted 20 books, including four Sunday Times bestsellers, I still have to stoke my little fire (which includes persistence). Here are six things I’ve learned:
1) Expect there will be challenging times. The book writing process often follows a well-worn pattern: excitement, challenge, the need for persistence to overcome the challenges, resolution, relief and excitement again when it’s all finished. It’s never an easy job because all good writing is hard, even if some sentences and paragraphs and chapters are easier than others. Persistence is needed with every bump in the road, with every edit and rewrite.
2) Every book I work on, at some point, hits The Wall. So break it. The Wall usually consists of a feeling of frustration, despair, even hopelessness. Rarely does a ghostwriter share such honest thoughts with the client. Nobody wants to panic the author. And a good ghost will find the way through. Whether you’re writing your own book or for someone else, the process involves a level of creativity. Decisions need to be made about narrative arcs, chapter lengths, depths of emotion explored, sometimes even plot holes. The Wall is hit, confronted, then only with persistence can the narration be smoothed, edited, reworked… and The Wall is sailed through. I don’t let The Wall worry me now; I just know it’s coming.
3) Rejections CAN turn into success.. eventually, but only if you keep going. Although finding a publishing deal isn’t a ghostwriter’s primary job, it’s something I’ve been involved with several times. Dealing with publishers definitely requires a big dose of persistence. You WILL be rejected. Your hopes WILL be raised and likely dashed. Once I was told my book idea for a client was worth a six-figure deal (buy the champers!), then a major publishing house agreed it was amazing (crack it open!). But then it got turned down (Argh! Can we re-cork the bottle?). There were several other publishers keen so we didn’t lose hope, until one by one they all said no (despair!). But I kept telling my client not to lose hope until everyone had said no — and, lo and behold, the very last publisher said yes! It wasn’t the big money deal we’d first expected, but they loved the book idea and were committed to a big publicity campaign. Persistence was key to this success, rather than luck.
4) Being persistent isn’t a comfortable feeling. Nobody likes it and writers rarely talk about it either. At the lowest moments, it’s not easy to focus on the positives. Turning someone’s story into a page-turning read is a challenge. Dealing with publishers can be maddening. Rejection is painful. Being zen and philosophical doesn’t come naturally, so I don’t expect to feel it. What I do instead is just keep swimming, just like Dory from Finding Nemo. Because eventually, just like the lost, confused little fish, you’re likely to bump into what you’re looking for.
5) Stoking the hidden fire of persistence involves conscious effort. Writing well involves thinking clearly, and to do this consistently I must persist. Day in, day out, hours at the desk. When I reach a difficult chapter, I might go for a long walk ( ideas always come easily on a walk, for some reason), or have a break and then print it out and read it aloud (reading aloud is magic when it comes to spotting mistakes). Occasionally I might read a similar memoir for inspiration or watch a film on the subject. My muscle for persistence is strong, but only if I am well-rested, inspired and looking after my own mental health.
6) Persistence means taking breaks from being persistent, too. Nobody can maintain a feeling of enthusiasm and persistence 24/7 like Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. Learning to rest rather than giving up is key to writing a good book. My client will need a rest from it and so will I. Regular breaks during the day and during the project aid the process. Exhaustion and fatigue not only make writing harder but also erode the persistence needed to make it a success.
All in all, persistence is the glue that transforms a so-so writing experience into a brilliant one. Every book on a bestseller list will involve hundreds of micro-moments where the writer was persistent. And there’s no doubt, when the book hits the shelves, that persistence always pays off.