So You Want To Be A Writer? Yeah, I Did Too...by Alan Devey on 11/27/19
In the wake of the publication of what will likely be the final novel I write (The Gestalt Switch) I've decided to post the following autobiographical essay; an edited extract from my unpublished memoir. This chapter covers my discovery that I wanted to write prose fiction and how difficult it can be for someone without the requisite connections. Hopefully other budding writers in similar circumstances will find it an eye-opening, salutary tale.
I went to university with the help of the state, the first member of my family to do so. In the mid-90s I caught the tail end of student grants for the academically skilled from poor backgrounds. This funding just about covered my rent and food as I worked part-time and through the holidays to pay for everything else. But after three character-building years it was time for me to enter the nine-to-five world. Data entry in an office came up immediately for an arts graduate like me and although I threw myself into it as much as I could, it soon became apparent that office life wasn’t really for me, it simply didn’t suit my low-boredom threshold. I was labouring under the belief, since widely disproved, that I was capable of better things. This delusion had been fatally inspired by the Mensa examination I took shortly after graduating, in the hope of boosting my fragile confidence and negating what we would today call ‘imposter syndrome’. The result had the desired effect in the short-term and, emboldened by the idea that a high Intelligence Quotient meant I could offer the world more than accurately entering alphanumerics, I would scribble down ideas most evenings and over the weekends. As an independent person, away from my parents and the education system for the first time, and with a little cash in my pocket to indulge myself, I was suddenly overwhelmed by ideas. Part of my inspiration came from those novelists I had recently discovered; Don DeLillo, Douglas Coupland and Thomas Pynchon among them. These were American writers reporting back on the strangeness of contemporary society and it seemed only natural for me to try and emulate them, here in the UK.
Novel writing was something I felt I could do and desperately wanted to try. During the first half of 1998 I assembled the ideas that had been building and scraped together enough to support my frugal existence outside work for six weeks. By this point my employers had actually found things for me to do but I convinced them to give me a month and a half unpaid leave before renewing my contract. Then I set about writing what would become my first work of fiction, a comic caper entitled ‘Another One Won’t Kill You’, trying to hit three thousand words a day, seven days a week.
Just over a month later I had a first draft, one that would turn out to be horribly flawed, but I had one. Today I understand that real writing is in the rewriting and, because of this, I go back over manuscripts multiple times, spending more hours revising than it took to complete a draft. But in 1998 I made the mistake of trying to rewrite and polish a whole novel several times in ten days. This resulted in a book that wasn’t as good as it could have been and me eventually going down with nervous exhaustion.
But my first book must have started well, because when I sent off the opening chapters to the first literary agency that caught my eye in the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’, I received a letter back. In it the intern charged with reading submissions said she thought my sample section was “quite sharp and immediate” and asked to see more.
This appeared to be proof I was onto something! I printed off the full manuscript and carried it to the post office feeling jubilant - I was on my way to becoming a professional writer! Such optimism was quick to die over the following months, as I received no further response and, on contacting the office, had my manuscript returned with an insightful note, for which I was grateful. The intern pointed to a number of problems with later parts of the book which, a few years later, I would endeavour to fix. Looking back now, I’m surprised and pleased anyone put in the effort in to read such problematic, immature work. It isn’t something that happens very often. As if to illustrate the point, not long afterwards that particular agency stopped accepting unsolicited submissions. Today they only consider personalised recommendations from contacts; people they know and trust. I hope this change of policy isn’t connected to all that time their employee spent, considering my efforts.
So I was disappointed but still encouraged. Little did I know, back at the end of the millennium, that it would be another seven years before an agent looked at something I'd written and decided she wanted to read more. That was in 2005, and it hasn’t happened again since. If I suspected back then that now, more than two decades after sending out my first novel, I would still be stuck in the same cycle of struggle, rejection and despair, would I have persisted with all the fiction I wrote in the meantime? Probably. I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. The compulsion to write won’t go away, and it only seems to have grown stronger with age and mounting failure.
Every year or two, through my twenties and early thirties, I would have an idea that gripped me enough to take time off the day job, after an eighteen month stretch of saving up. I would see the concept through to fruition as best I could, all the time telling myself; if this one doesn’t work out, if nobody is interested, I won’t worry about it again, I just need to get the thing out of my system. The first time, after writing a book-length fiction in six weeks, it felt like an internal organ had been removed. Later on the process would become less visceral, not as much of a wrench. Part of me always believed that when my next book was done, I would settle into a permanent job, with promotions and a pay rise every couple of years, just as my mother wanted. Think of the money I told myself, give up on foolish, impractical notions. Do what the system tells you to. But I never seemed to find fulfilment that way. By my late-thirties I had to concede that the life of a salaryman wasn’t for me, however well remunerated it might eventually become. I would always have a fresh idea that demanded to be written, a creative itch needing to be scratched. Failing to give in to the renascent urge could only leave me dissatisfied; melancholy, and it also had a negative effect on my mental health.
I continued with this pattern because it was rewarding and I have a certain capacity for it now I think; a level of aptitude. Writing is the only thing I know how to do, having undergone educational guidance and training to accompany years of auto-didactic tendencies and hands-on experience. But if you’re writing fiction or scripts or non-fiction on spec then you’re in amongst so many. One out of every five hundred writers, perhaps only one in a thousand, earn anything close to a living from their efforts. These tend to be the people with connections, either intrinsic to a privileged position in society or because they're fearless enough to get out there and hustle. I tend to be incapable of this. As for so many with the inclination to write, social awkwardness turns out to be a hindrance when the time for networking comes around; the approaching of strangers and putting oneself out there.
My other problem was also self-inflicted. In my wilfulness and idealism I wrote what interested me, as opposed to anything the market required. For years I would produce novels I liked rather than working to an existing niche. My prose followed a path the English literary industry doesn’t recognise; transgressive tales or stories that depict those at the bottom of society, work inspired by writers who struggled to earn a living too, at least early on. If you want to turn writing into a career and sustain an existence from it, you have to abandon the romantic notion of doing it for the art. The idea you should write what's in your heart, because the passion in your words will become obvious and then the world simply has to pay attention, it couldn’t be worse advice for anyone who aims to be a working writer.
Honest literary agents will tell you to identify a gap in the current scene instead and aim for that. Perhaps you could think up what the film world calls a ‘high concept’, put a new spin on some recent success then craft an attention-grabbing pitch. The quality of your writing can always be fixed, but if you have a striking and not-completely-derivative idea, that catches their attention; it’s what they’ll be able to sell. A good deal of time and money will then be directed to promote your book through the marketing machine and, if you’re lucky, readers will start to pay attention.
That may sound cynical, but it’s a wisdom borne of long experience and time spent listening to agents and publishers. Of course, the work I produced through what I think of as a twenty year apprenticeship was imperfect, with ill-conceived strands and flawed character moments that embarrass me on returning to them now. Your old stuff always feels amateurish compared to what you’re writing now, that’s one of the addictive things about fiction. An author senses they’re improving with every effort, even if you're not the best judge of what has been achieved. Certainly I wouldn’t show any of my first three books to anyone, and there are significant problems with the next five, but they were all part of a process. When it comes to more recent efforts, I really feel like I'm getting there. Not that I can say I’ve ‘mastered the craft’ exactly (if I had, the world at large would surely have been more receptive). But it feels as if I’ve produced something of value with ‘Beyond the Bailey’ (currently unpublished). It's a mystery story people who follow the genre will likely enjoy, if those I’ve sent a hard copy to are anything to go by. Even with many failed attempts and so much disappointment, completing a draft I’m happy with still generates optimism, genuine self-esteem. Predictably enough, ‘Beyond The Bailey’ was rejected by everyone I approached, which eventually amounted to more than a hundred agents.
That’s the thing to remember when you’re starting out. If you’re one of the minority who can complete a first draft, which is around 10% in my, admittedly anecdotal, experience, then congratulations. Your effort and commitment should never be underestimated. But unless you have a significant public profile already, or enough of what Pierre Bourdieu calls social capital to get a foot in the door with the gatekeepers, the sad truth is that no one really cares. Most people don’t read books, certainly not fiction, and while your family may be polite, they're unlikely to understand the purpose of such high-risk, low-reward endeavours. 99% of the novels written in the United Kingdom every year will never see the light of day, even with many authors hunting for an audience through self-publishing, a democratic development anyone can pursue. The harsh reality is that agents, their interns and readers, publishers and assistants, the world at large; they have enough on their plates. Industry professionals are usually behind on a hundred different things, including the reading they absolutely have to do and their responsibilities to existing clients. Considering the work of an unknown simply isn’t a priority, however open to it they might claim to be on agent websites. Perfecting a draft then sending out the first three chapters might be a really big thing to you, as it always was for me, a milestone in your life. But no one else feels the same way and most likely they never will. Accept this, and if you still want to write, for yourself and to improve, for catharsis and self-expression and maybe a small readership that does enjoy fiction, then go ahead. But be aware there are hundreds of thousands of writers scattered across the British Isles, many of them hugely gifted, and no one is paying any of them a penny to do what they’re doing.
That’s why I fail to understand why anyone who doesn’t find writing pleasurable, or has a deep drive to pursue the written word, would ever choose to pursue it. This vocation isn’t going to provide a shortcut to fame and fortune, or even modest recognition in all likelihood. If you’re after a stable career there are plenty of easier, less maddening things to do that will earn you a crust. Neoliberalism, that failing economic system of the West, holds opportunities with an ongoing demand, however much the work might not sound like ‘proper jobs’ to older generations. A decent living, providing for you and your family, can be achieved as a personal assistant, project manager, loss adjuster, IT expert, risk analyst, content provider, stakeholder engagement specialist or change manager, and all with the minimum of stress. Those careers make sense in today’s corporatocracy, they are defined roles in existing companies that utilise specific skill-sets. Pursuing any of them allows you to be clear when someone asks: “what do you do?”, and in a way the wider world understands. Such work gives the consistency and progression employers look for on a CV. As with any artistic endeavour, being a writer simply doesn’t have the same financial cachet. For the majority of people trying to be wordsmiths, their efforts aren’t easily monetised, and so their toil isn’t valued by society. For someone like me, who seemingly has to write, I get a rising frustration if the compulsion isn’t satisfied. This dejection only grows in strength, the longer I’m prevented from putting pen to paper by my circumstances, denied whatever endorphins are released through the endeavour.
You might think an advanced civilization would find a way of accommodating this activity by now, particularly when it can be an overwhelming need for certain individuals. If the fiction I put out isn’t valued, even though its production is absolutely vital for my sanity and happiness, why doesn’t some kind of mechanism exist that permits me to continue? That would ensure all energy goes to an end that means I don’t starve to death, at least? If all your time is spent writing, to the extent you're temperamentally unsuited for any other routine, but can yield no mercantile reward in a system designed to keep people such as you out. And if the adoption of less meaningful employment fills you with an overwhelming sense of dread, should there not be an alternative possibility in place? Some system that ensures you can put the skills you've developed to use, in return for goods and services? Something like that promise of a ‘Universal Basic Income’ perhaps; for the poets and artists and writers and musicians who are utterly committed to the path they’ve chosen and have become extremely accomplished down the years.
I hope this isn’t coming across as entitlement; I’m simply trying to think my way out of a certain situation, because a solution that works has eluded me so far. I consider myself a writer, all the way through to my bones, and in order to pursue that goal I’ve lived frugally all my life, eschewing holidays or expensive luxuries, avoiding modest ambitions most would embrace in their thirties and forties; a house of my own, expensive holidays, even a car. We look back with admiration and awe on those authors whose work ethic led to a phenomenal output, men like Dickens, Simenon, Balzac or Proust. As their kindred spirit, Joyce Carol Oates, once said: “in the end it is our work that matters, and our work that can be a solace and a lifeline”. But what about writers who never get an audience? The ones who produce book after book but don’t break through and gain recognition? Would it not be healthier for them to spend more time with loved ones, to get outdoors and breathe the air, to spend time engaged in something that doesn’t make them feel like such an abject failure, the older they get?
I think my work has relevance but then again, I would. When I’m in the midst of the words, and for a brief period afterwards, it feels ineffably right, what I should be doing with my time. No doubt many penniless scribes feel the same way. After decades circling the English literary industry, receiving only silence or generic rejection, I have to accept that anything I write means little to anybody aside from myself, a fact that can be fantastically liberating if you look at it a certain way. But if you simply cannot stop, and what you're doing truly doesn’t matter, I suspect this leaves you in the market for medical help. If there was a pharmaceutical available to do away with a condition that benefits no one - not even me in the long-term – would that not be the most merciful solution? If I could medicate away that need to write, nullify the part of myself that's put out into the world only to be dismissed, again and again, I feel like I should, for the benefit of everyone. Then I could become a conventionally-productive member of late-capitalist society and spend the rest of my life directing my energies to upping the profits of some company; as an account manager or recruitment advisor, or whatever the current economic system wants me to be.
In the future, probably too far-off for me to benefit, there may be an alternative to suppressing artistic impulses or giving up altogether (with the concomitant knock-on effect on a nation's mental health). But as we approach 2020, I find that I’ve been banging my head against the UK’s literary industry for well over twenty years, and have only ended up with nearly a thousand rejections and a very sore head. It’s time to end this fruitless pattern, and find some relief.