It can take a long time for a writer to become successful. Neil Gaiman recommends that an aspiring writer needs to knock out 120,000 words or more before he or she will reach a competent level. For some, it can take literally decades. Here's Ray Bradbury's wonderful description of his struggles:
The amazing Blackstone came to town when I was seven, and I saw how he came alive onstage and thought, God, I want to grow up to be like that! And I ran up to help him vanish an elephant. To this day I don’t know where the elephant went. One moment it was there, the next — abracadabra — with a wave of the wand it was gone! In 1929 Buck Rogers came into the world, and on that day in October a single panel of Buck Rogers comic strip hurled me into the future. I never came back.
It was only natural when I was twelve that I decided to become a writer and laid out a huge roll of butcher paper to begin scribbling an endless tale that scrolled right on up to Now, never guessing that the butcher paper would run forever.
Snoopy has written me on many occasions from his miniature typewriter, asking me to explain what happened to me in the great blizzard of rejection slips of 1935. Then there was the snowstorm of rejection slips in ’37 and ’38 and an even worse winter snowstorm of rejections when I was twenty-one and twenty-two. That almost tells it, doesn’t it, that starting when I was fifteen I began to send short stories to magazines like Esquire, and they, very promptly, sent them back two days before they got them! I have several walls in several rooms of my house covered with the snowstorm of rejections, but they didn’t realize what a strong person I was; I persevered and wrote a thousand more dreadful short stories, which were rejected in turn. Then, during the late forties, I actually began to sell short stories and accomplished some sort of deliverance from snowstorms in my fourth decade. But even today, my latest books of short stories contain at least seven stories that were rejected by every magazine in the United States and also in Sweden! So, dear Snoopy, take heart from this. The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.
Fourth decade! How did he last that long? Was he inspired, dedicated, surrounded by supportive, motivating people or was he just plain nuts? Writing, particularly when one is not getting published, is mentally tough, although I still think it beats commuting. Even successful writing may not be much better. George Orwell had this to say about writing a book:
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George, it seems, would have plumped for Ray Bradbury being nuts.
if writing is like being ill, then writers need medicine from time to time. They don't want the medicine to cure them of their affliction, as they don't want lose the strange, heady malady that bewitches them, but they usually want some of its worst symptoms - low confidence, dwindling motivation, creeping loneliness and patchy ignorance - to be alleviated.
I know of a medicine that can turn a hermit-writer that's moaning and scribbling uncontrollably into a motivated and more knowledgeable member of the creative world. The effect doesn't last forever but boy, it's a shot in the arm. That medicine is a week on an Arvon course
. The Arvon Foundation organises one-week courses in its own properties around the UK on a wide variety of writing subjects. Course attendees spend a week in the company of fellow writers, living in beautiful rural surroundings, and receive motivation, guidance and knowledge from industry professionals. It can be a wonderful change from sitting in your room, pounding away on your keyboard with nothing for company but the radio. An Arvon course won't necessarily transform you into a writing demigod and catapult you into literary stardom like a flaming missile from a siege catapult, but it really benefitted me. The last course I went on was a graphic novel course taught by Bryan Talbot and Hannah Berry, which I chose on a whim. Since then, I've completed a graphic novel
; an achievement I would have barely believed five years ago.
For those of you who are working to become science fiction writers, Arvon are running a science fiction course
next month, tutored by Simon Ings and Liz Jensen. Simon is the editor of 'Arc
' science-fiction magazine, the digital magazine developed by New Scientist. 'Arc' has played a huge part in my science-fiction writing development and so I'll be forever grateful to Simon for that help. It's taking place at Arvon's Totleigh Barton site, in the beautiful county of Devon.
They even have house-martens! :-)