How to write a best-seller
Do you harbour literary ambitions? It seems almost everyone I speak to dreams of being a published author – one friend has put ‘write book’ on her list of new year’s resolutions every year for the last decade, while another has had a file on her computer called ‘Book’ (word count: 0) for as long as she can remember. Making that leap from pipe dream to picking out your dress for your launch party is a tricky business, to put it mildly.
Elizabeth Heathcote, above, knows all about this – the former Women’s Editor at the Indy on Sunday, took 20 lonnnnng years to get published, but – spoiler alert! – she managed it in the end, with a whole load of grit, perseverance and desire. Her psychological suspense novel, Undertow, was published last September to great acclaim, and I actually welled up when she told me she’d finally made it because I knew how long she’d carried her dream, never knowing if she was going to make it and sacrificing plenty along the way.
With the paperback due out today I thought she was the perfect person to offer some words of encouragement to any budding novelists among you, or indeed any of us who are striving for something that can feel at times untouchable or impossible to achieve.
Over to you Lizzie…
How long must you wait for success?
It is almost exactly 12 months since my agent rang to tell me she had exciting news – a publisher wanted to buy my psychological thriller, Undertow. A dream come true for me of course, and it has been a whirlwind year. Undertow was published last September, and further editions will appear in Germany, Russia and America later in 2017. But before you hate me too much, let me tell you I had been waiting for this moment for 20 years. I have a drawer full of work to prove it. Writing in my spare time, I had accumulated two novels, a screenplay, short stories, poems – all written in the hope that one day I would get my break. For me, more than anything, getting published has been a lesson in tenacity.
Do you want it enough?
Striving for any dream means sacrifice. I would be a lot richer now if my focus had been solely on my career (journalism). I would also have had a lot more nights out! You have to devote proper time to a dream, and that means less time for friends, family, earning money, having fun. So do you want it enough? For me, writing was something that just wouldn’t go away. I loved journalism, but there was always this niggling feeling – what really matters to me is the creative writing.
There are no guarantees of success
Persistence is one thing if you have an assured end-point in sight – if you are training to be a doctor for example. But trying to be a novelist isn’t like that. There are no guarantees. At some point on my long journey I remember thinking, if I knew today that I was never going to get published, would I keep writing? And I realised the answer was yes, because this was what I wanted to do. Psychologically that was a big turning point. I was no longer striving after what might prove to be a pipe dream. Instead I was choosing to do exactly what I wanted with my life.
What about self-doubt?
Of course I have had many dark moments thinking, it’s never going to happen, every word on this page is rubbish. But talking to others I realised that self-doubt is an inevitable companion in any creative endeavour. Accepting this really helps. Having said that, I do think it is important to get proper feedback – and not from your mum or your best mate. Sometimes you need a professional to cast a cool eye over your work – and your prospects. I was lucky in that I had an agent and serious interest from publishers for my first (unpublished) novel, so I have always had that sense of validation, that I was a contender. Without that I don’t know if I would have persevered so long.
Undertow is out now in hardback and ebook, and comes out in paperback on 23 Feb