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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Write Like You’ve Never Been Published

There’s a fairly soppy and nausea-inducing email that finds its way into my Inbox every few months. Something along the lines of, “dance like no one’s watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one’s listening”. In fact – now that I come to think of it – it may even have been written by someone like Mark Twain. What’s that, Mr Google? Someone exactly like Mark Twain? All right then, thanks.

So I’d like to add another one to the list: write like you’ve never been published. I recently finished Carole Matthews’ latest novel “It’s Now Or Never” and am still struggling to come to terms with the disappointment. When I saw it lurking on the shelf in New Releases (just a couple of books down from Trinity On Air, I was happy to note), I fell upon it with glad cries. A new Carole Matthews, I crowed. Hooray! My weekend was made.

The first inkling I got of the let-down in store for me came in the Acknowledgements section in which Matthews thanks various people for the super hiking holiday she had on the Inca Trail in the Andes. Now I don’t know about you, but for me the knowledge that an author has taken some kind of fabulous holiday to prepare for a book doesn’t inspire me with confidence in the spontaneity of the plot. In Matthews’ book, for instance, the heroine spends most of her time agonising over whether to hike the Inca Trail or not. But the reader already knows damn well that she’s going to because the author already did.

Likewise, when Katie Fforde gushes about the joys of life on a canal boat, you just know her heroine is going to be pitched into the world of canal boats, and that the book will be littered with gratuitous information about guiding boats through locks and how to cook in a galley kitchen.

The same syndrome abounds in the world of romance writing. If I open a book and see that the author has been writing for Mills & Boon for the past thirty years, I know beyond a doubt that it’s not going to be very good. (And for some mysterious reason, there will be virtually no sex in it. Whether this is because older romance writers are just not comfortable writing about sex, or because they’re so darn sick of it after all those years, I have no idea.) But the young Turk of a writer who is only on her second or third novel will almost certainly produce a page-turning read, crackling with pace and sexual tension.

A depressing number of highly successful writers fall into the trap of believing that they have nothing left to prove. Their fanbase is so strong that they’re immune to criticism. Not the nastiest stick of a review has the power to dent their sales. Their name is such a powerful brand that their books will continue to sell in staggering numbers long after the original quality of their writing is gone.

It’s only the poor old first-time novelist who bothers with mundanities like plot, character and dialogue; who throws all her efforts into hooking the reader from the very first sentence, and doesn’t have the luxury of a reputation to fall back on. No one is offering her free holidays in exchange for a mention in her book, but she is still hungry enough for publication to put in the hard graft that will make her manuscript stand out from the slushpile.

So this blog is a note to my future self – in the unlikely event that I ever get famous enough to stop caring about the quality of what I write…

Write like your career is just starting. Write like you’ve got everything to prove. Write like you’re trying to stand out from a teetering pile of manuscripts in an overworked publisher’s office. Don’t take short cuts. Don’t take a fabulous cruise on the Med and then set your next book in a fabulous cruise on the Med. Don’t get so greedy that you sign a contract for so many books a year that you can’t keep up without producing McNovels.

Write like you care. Write like it matters. Write like you’ve never been published. (And tell Mark Twain from me that he should have stuck to the hard-boiled, cynical stuff).

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    April 10th, 2010 @11:42 #
     
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    Well said, Fiona. (Publishers should do the reading public a favour and reject their stalwarts' novels from time to time... course it wouldn't happen as said trash would be snapped up by their competitor... but we dream big.)

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    April 10th, 2010 @12:08 #
     
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    Perhaps we as readers should cartelise and refuse to buy books from writers who are just trading on their fame? There are some writers, like Katie Fforde, that I have completely given up on. But then there are others, like Patricia Cornwell, that I keep going back to in the hope that they will have regained their form.

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    April 10th, 2010 @12:30 #
     
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    sign me up for absolutely refusing to buy any book that has a heroine in it - I got my fill of them during my Blyton days ;-)

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    April 10th, 2010 @14:41 #
     
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    Awww ... I never get tired of heroines. Either reading about them or writing about them. Blyton wasn't very heroine-heavy, was she? It was usually a group of kids having adventures.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    April 10th, 2010 @16:05 #
     
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    Yaahh, 'cartelise', not so much... Imho, readers and writers should just be allowed to get along with what they want to do (including criticising formulaic writing if they wish). You shouldn't try to legislate taste.

    Plus, remember, it's Cornwell, Patterson and Grisham and their fans who allow publishers to take a chance on new, barely-break-even writers.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    April 10th, 2010 @16:13 #
     
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    Well, I was kidding about the cartelising ... and you're absolutely right that it's the big names that allow us little names even to exist. Thanks Joost for funding Home Away!

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  • <a href="http://www.darlingtonrichards.com/" rel="nofollow">moi</a>
    moi
    April 10th, 2010 @16:36 #
     
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    as I remember from my Famous Five days, Julian was alpha male = hero. Little brother/cousin was the side dick. Georgina was wannabe dick so never got to be hero or heroine. Sister Ann(?), good and stout-hearted and most importantly, unswervingly loyal to Julian gets to be heroine, which meant she could have saved the day if only she'd not twisted her ankle and had to be saved by the hero. Even Rover got to be hero for the day some days, but the heroine can never be the hero becasue where would that leave the alpa male?

    Maybe I've got it wrong, it's decades since I always had one in my schoolbag and, thank the goddess, I got to devour them all with relish before the F-word came along and soured my cream on the buns they were served for tea :-))

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    April 10th, 2010 @16:43 #
     
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    Were not, Fiona - I know what a Commie you are. Your house is a veritable house of revolution.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    June 1st, 2010 @09:56 #
     
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    Love editor's picks. I was whirling round Delhi when this was posted, so nearly missed it. Such a cheering post, a happy reminder that doing anything sans passion is pointless.

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  • <a href="http://rodmackenzie.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rod Mackenzie</a>
    Rod Mackenzie
    June 1st, 2010 @10:50 #
     
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    Thanks Fiona, actually, your title said it for me. However.... i have re-dedicated myself to a decision to stop reading a book if the author fails to engage me after fifty pages I give up (which I think is a fair trial and more or less fits in with the typical publisher or agent's requirements) . Hence I recently read J.M. Coetzee's Summertime in one sitting and flipped through a few other books and have just started a memoir about Pablo Neruda by his wife Matilde Urrutia. It is passionate, honest, intense and I will probably finish it in one sitting, like Summertime.

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