Wednesday, April 3, 2013

7 Advice for Writers at Different Stages of the Journey by C.J. Skuse

Publishing’s a rocky road –
but as long as you’ve got the right shoes,
your feet will be fine

I don’t really feel, after having only published three books that I’m qualified to pass on many gems of wisdom to new authors, but I can have a stab. I guess it depends on where you are in your creative process. If you’re just at the thinking stage, my advice would be JUST DO IT. Don’t let anyone hold you back or keep you down or tell you you’re not good enough. When everyone around you is swimming in the other direction, paying the mortgage, raising the kids, complaining about their humdrum lives and you just wanna write - you damn well swim against their tide. You damn well put that pen to the parchment and write. Sorry, got a bit carried away with all the damns there...

If you’re midway through your manuscript, then I would advise you to KNOW WHEN (AND HOW) TO TAKE ADVICE. When you’re on your own, slaving away at the coalface, thinking you’re knocking out 24 carat diamonds in word form, remember - it’s more than likely just quite nice quartz. I had 48 rejection letters for my first (unpublished) novel that I started at 17, and these were all from reputable agents. I couldn’t understand it. It was brilliant, wasn’t it? I liked it. My mum liked it. My mum’s friend Sue liked it. Then the epiphany came and the epiphany was that I just wasn’t good enough to be published yet. Forty eight agents couldn’t all be wrong. It was a jagged little pill to swallow, but because being published was something I wanted so much, I determined to make myself better at writing and force these agents to sit up and listen. I enrolled on a creative writing degree to get myself to the standard required so that I would one day see my book on a shelf in my local bookshop. I went to every class. Read every book they told me to. Made the contacts I would need. And I took on board all the advice. I didn't agree with all of it, sure, but I still took it.

And try not to get huffy about criticism either. I mean, yeah, you probably will get huffy at first when someone takes their red pen and puts multiple stab wounds through your masterpiece. But I’m telling you, it will be so much better once it’s gone through the process. Let’s take the rock metaphor further. Try and think of your writing like a grubby old piece of stone. The more it’s read and redrafted and read again and redrafted again and polished and honed and revised, the greater chance of it being sculpted into a precious jewel. Yeah, some people still might say it’s gawdy or garish, but to you (and your publisher) it will just shine.

The next pebble of advice I would skim across your millpond (see what I did there?) would be that you need to READ WHAT’S OUT THERE. If you wanna write for YA and you don’t read any YA or know or like what young adults like to read, how could you possibly think you can write for them? I don’t mean read to know what the market wants – you can’t ever predict what the market is going to want and remember, it’ll be a year plus before your manuscript gets onto a bookshelf – but I think it’s vital to at least know what your market likes.

I’ll also let you in to a little secret no one told me before I was published – the REJECTION DOESN’T END ONCE YOU’VE SIGNED THE CONTRACT. I had the delusion that once I got a publisher, that was it. Everyone would love me. I’d be world famous. I’d be invited to the Oscars for no apparent reason, I’d have as many swimming pools as Jackie Collins and get given all the free Ben and Jerry’s I could eat (you know the kind of dreams you have). But the level of rejection just goes up a notch. Instead of UK agents or publishers rejecting you, you then get to be rejected by foreign publishers too! And film companies. And booksellers. And some reviewers. Being published opens you up to a whole new world of pain and people ready to tell you your baby’s ugly or unwelcome or just generally shove them from wall to wall in the book playground. The first time you see your book in the bargain bucket of a discount store, you’ll wanna buy it just to get it out of there, like you’re liberating a hostage (not that I’ve done that of course). I try hard not to take it all personally – publishing is a business after all – but yeah, it always hurts. My advice? Try not to read too much into the bad stuff – it’s not personal. If you accidentally read a bad review, use it as a pin to prick the bubble if your head is swelling from too much praise. I couldn’t think of a rock metaphor there so the balloon one will just have to do.

At times of extreme self doubt, when I’m wandering around the bookstore and seeing that the only books selling are Dystopian or Dark Romance, you know what my stolen maxim is? ‘TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE.’ You don’t need to deviate from the path you have taken if it’s neither of those paths. You don’t need to try and write something more suited to what you think people want. You shouldn’t think about giving up or making a spineless compromise just ‘cos it’s “not the right time for YA contemporary” or if someone says your main character is “squalid” and “loathsome” or that “teenagers don’t act like that” (not that bad reviews play on my mind, of course). I guess what I’m trying to say in my ill-educated-only-three-books-published-never-gonna-be-Salinger kinda way is try and remember why you chose to do this as a career and just keep going. Have faith in your books, have faith in your publisher and stay true to your method.

Roald Dahl always crosses my mind whenever I’m starting a new project. There’s a quote from Matilda that always galvanises me into action:

”Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”

Because that’s the reason I started doing this. Not to get published and earn lots of money and get a film deal and cast Ryan Gosling as the hot dad who’d I have to have lots of private script meetings with. There is that as well, but most of all it’s that line in the quote: You are not alone. Books kept me company at a time in my teenage years when no one else would. I wanted my books to do the same. I wanted my readers to latch on to some aspect of them and realise someone else had gone through the same thing, be it grief or anger or resentment or passion or loneliness or friendlessness or pain. The humour works to sweeten the medicine, but overall I wanted them to reach the people they were written for – the Matildas of this world who think they’re alone and who have no idea how awesome and unique and understood they truly are.

And we’re back to the rock metaphor again. The scenery on that long and rocky road to publishing gets more pretty the further down it you travel. For every one wicked fairy that comes to your feast just to tell you they don’t like your writing, another ten will bestow it with the best gifts you can possibly imagine. You’ll get emails, tweets and letters from people who identified with every word you wrote, from guys who were forced to read it by their girlfriends and found themselves really enjoying it. From people who read your book on a train and laughed the whole way home after being told they’d been laid off. From girls who read it after their grandfather’s death and for just one day, it transported them from darkness and back into the sunshine. Those are the gems for your collection. The rest can be thrown back into the sea.

Walt Whitman had it right when he said ‘THE POWERFUL PLAY GOES ON AND YOU MAY CONTRIBUTE A VERSE.’ For authors, their verse is their books. Don’t fret it or sweat it. Don’t copy others. Be brave. Be bold. Be true. Decide on what your verse will be and then sing it as loudly and as proudly as you can. Because no one can sing it better than you.

C.J. Skuse is the author of PRETTY BAD THINGS, ROCKOHOLIC and DEAD ROMANTIC. She was born in 1980 in Weston-super-Mare, England. She loves: graphic novels, sitcoms, Gummy Bears and My Chemical Romance. She hates: hard-boiled eggs, carnivals and coughing. The movies Titanic, My Best Friend's Wedding and Twilight were all based on her ideas, she just didn't get to write them down in time. Before she dies, she would like to go to Japan, try clay-pigeon shooting and own a malamute. C.J. has First Class degrees in Creative Writing and Writing for Children and, aside from writing novels, works as a freelance children's fiction consultant and lectures in writing fiction for teens at Bath Spa University.
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ROCKOHOLIC, available now 

She's got it bad, and he ain't good -- he's in her garage? Gonna have to face it: Jody's addicted to Jackson Gatlin, front man of The Regulators, and after her best bud Mac scores tickets, she's front and center at his sold-out concert. But when she gets mashed in the mosh pit, loses her precious moon rock, and bodysurfs backstage, she ends up with more than a mild concussion to deal with. By the next morning, the strung-out rock star is coming down in her garage. Jody -- oops -- kind of kidnapped him. By accident. And now he doesn't want to leave. It's a rock-star abduction worthy of an MTV reality series . . . but who got punk'd?!


ROCKOHOLIC on Goodreads 


  1. Love this. It is so true that writing can make you feel alone, but you're not. It's also one of the hardest things I've ever set out to do, but I love it. Thanks.

  2. I love this post. :)

  3. Very good advice about criticism here. Cool post:)

  4. Thanks for the great advice! And I love the Whitman and Matilda quotes :)

  5. Absolutely love this. Copying down that Matilda quote to add to the things I surround myself with.

  6. Gold star for this post, C.J. Wise and funny.

  7. Love this and will reread it many times!


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