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Looking at leaves

It’s an odd one this week.

Normally, I don’t find any difficulty in finding stuff to talk about. There’s a lot I want to say, so I stumble blearily into my Shed of Ideas, crash into a couple of seed trays, spike my foot on a garden fork, grab something off a dusty shelf, and stagger back out into the light to discover, properly, what it is I’m holding.

And today? Well – 

An American election, a hugely consequential one, is stumbling towards some off kind of denouement.

England has just entered its second national lockdown. A lot of things that were normal on Monday are illegal on Friday.

And (something that doesn’t theoretically seem like it should belong on the same list, but is about equally insistent in my head) – 

This morning is brilliantly sunny. The beech trees are towers of gold. Field maples flare in the hedges. There’s something about so much beauty that makes it hard to concentrate on the page.

So what do I need to tell you this week? I don’t know. My normal Shed of Ideas strategy isn’t quite working, so instead I’m going to steal.

The person I’m stealing from today is David Gaughran, the Lord High Wizard of Self-Pub. (And if you are self-publishing and don’t yet subscribe to his newsletter, then you should.) A week or two back, he launched a little homily reminding you that you don’t have to be great at everything.

He meant this in marketing terms. With self-publishing, if you can attract traffic via Facebook and retain readers via emails, you’re fine. You have enough. Just write good books, put good covers on them, do the other bits intelligently, then rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat.

Yes, there are other tools for getting traffic. (Amazon ads. Bookbub ads. Newsletter swaps. Blog tours. Giveaways. Social media. Yadda yadda.) And if you enjoy them, if you’re good at them, if they make you money, then great. If not, leave them.

I’m a good writer and a moderate marketer, but that’s been enough for my self-pub stuff to do well. You don’t need to deploy all the tools that exist. You just need to use the ones that work for you.

Same when it comes to writing.

If you have a great idea and a powerful plot, then quite honestly, if your goal is Big 5 publication, you can probably achieve that so long as your other things (prose style, characterisation, etc) are reasonably professional. And ‘reasonably professional’ is a very achievable standard. It’s the sort of thing that you may arrive at naturally, just through your own savvy. Or maybe you work at it – take a course, attend some webinars – and make the grade that way.

Likewise, if you aiming at something more literary than genre fiction, you don’t have to excel at everything. Most literary fiction is limply plotted. I remember my editor at Orion talking about a Booker Prize winning novel and shaking his head in disbelief at the story’s calamitous failure to cohere. But – the idea was interesting, the writing was strong, and the book worked those assets hard enough to secure its victory.

You don’t have to be good at everything. And you won’t be good at everything. So don’t fret about it.

It doesn’t even matter whether you are a natural born talent or just someone who works hard. The reader doesn’t know or care. Your editor won’t know or care. It just doesn’t matter.

So maybe you built your writing and self-editing skills by living on a remote island and honing your craft, page by page and book by book. Or maybe you do those things in company – on a course, via our lovely webinars, and whatever else.

And it doesn’t matter. Whatever works for you. You don’t get extra points for figuring something out entirely by yourself. All that matters is what you end up putting down on the page. No one cares how you built the skills you have.

And yes: there are some real, honest-to-God geniuses out there. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was perhaps the best crime novel of the last twenty years. The idea was a gem. The writing was golden. The characters were perfect. The plotting crunched a bit in places, but it was better than fine overall.

And OK. Probably none of us are going to write a book as good as that one. But you can be outstandingly successful – commercially and artistically – without being a genius. Most very successful books are not works of genius. Most very successful authors aren’t geniuses.

They’re not perfect. You don’t have to be.

Don’t beat yourself up.

Go look at some autumn leaves. They'll still look pretty no matter who wins the election.

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Comments (7)
  • This really boosted my moral!! I know I have a good story, but I don't have the experience to write literacy prose. I can get it decent and good, I like to keep it clean and simple so this post made me glad! 

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    • Excellent! I’ve found a couple of Harry’s emails have really helped with my confidence too, especially the one a while back on Universal Workshop Style. I was very nearly put off writing entirely by one or two workshops I attended last year, but that email rang so true with me that I didn’t entirely despair. And now, with some feedback here and a first competition result, I think I was right to trust my instincts and believe that I can learn to write good stuff.

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    • Thanks for this encouragement and I prefer the brilliantly sunny morning that is insistent in your mind to its competition. I beat myself up for how long it is taking me to write my book, then I remember I love the process and that's why I write. Other people reading and enjoying my work is just whip cream on top. Of course I dearly love whip cream and hope to enjoy it more thoroughly in the not too distant future. 

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      • I found this email comforting. Thank you.

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        • Words of encouragement are so needed sometimes. I have been giving myself a hard time.  Thankyou

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          • Screw the weather, we gotta look out for snakes. 

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