19 March 2021
The high-concept thriller author on the survival strategies writers need to develop to be successful
It’s tough being a writer. That’s what they ought to tell authors at finishing school, if these things for writers existed. Yet many of us still keep plodding away at our desks, pouring our hearts and souls out on paper. The question is why? Why do we persevere? Why should we?
Remember why we write
We write because we want to. We also write because we enjoy the process (and because some of us have faith in the eventual outcome). However, the process is more important than the end result. Happiness is a process, not a state. If the process of writing gives us genuine satisfaction, we will keep returning to it. Of course, the dream of a shiny finished hardcover (with one’s name emblazoned across the front) also keeps us in the game. Yet the joy from an innate object is often ephemeral. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling that lasts days, not years. It may not necessarily keep an author going in the long term. However, if the process of writing is inherently pleasurable, one is likely to persist for months and years, perhaps even multiple decades.
Prioritise the process
For many writers, nothing makes us happier than the process of coaxing words from within, conjuring something out of nothing, creating stories out of stardust. Watching how nebulous ideas grow with each passing day, take the form of beautiful constellations on paper. For me, nothing is more pleasurable than watching my characters come alive, seeing my stories take flight. My tutor once said that the process of novel writing is like chiselling a sculpture out of stone, that our books are in there, somewhere. It’s the job of the author to work out what the figure looks like, chip by chip, to keep going even if the task is painstakingly tedious. If the process of hewing a novel appeals at a deep visceral level, we will stick at it despite setbacks along the way.
Win the struggle
I struggled to write my second novel Future Perfect. I came back to my apartment one day to discover that it had been ransacked from top to bottom, that the burglar had taken every last piece of jewellery I owned. He also stole my laptop at the precise moment all the files on it were being transferred to a brand-new one (he took both computers, most unfortunately). As I went through the ashes of what he left behind, I discovered I hadn’t backed up my work properly for months. My manuscript had vanished. Soon after, I attended a yoga class to chill out. My bag fell on a candle during the session and my third replacement laptop went up in smoke.
I cried, pulled my hair out for a while. But then it occurred to me that if I gave up, the thief would have the last laugh. I didn’t want him to get the better of me, so I bought yet another laptop, planted myself back down on my desk, tried to recall all the words I had lost. Page by page, my characters returned. The process of remembering proved dreadfully ironic as my debut novel Yesterday is a murder mystery set in a world where people can only remember one day – or two. However, it also proved to be a perversely-enjoyable challenge, a stick-up-my-middle-finger act of defiance against the odds. I consoled myself that the words I couldn’t remember probably weren’t worth remembering (and the characters who failed to return were probably worth forgetting). Word by word, I kept going until I re-wrote the whole book.
Keep on keeping on
During the process of re-writing, I realised just how important it is for writers to keep burning the midnight oil, to keep gritting our teeth. It’s because our characters will never appear unless we do. Half of the job of being an author is to show up at the desk with an open mind and heart, with the hope that something good might happen. That’s how books are written, the only way they are written. There are, of course, days when our characters will go on strike despite our best efforts. There are days when our brains will feel like gloopy treacle, when our neurons have stopped firing and gone on vacation. But if we don’t persevere, we will miss those magical moments when things actually work, when our characters swagger happily back on screen. Persistence and resilience are key elements of the process, quintessential dimensions of the writer’s journey.
Find your place
I have also realised that it’s important to apply one’s creative powers to finding the best environments to write, the most conducive settings to create. In my case, I worked out that I write better away from home, and so I began travelling to finish the book. I discovered along the way that I write better in places where my circulation works better (it’s all about the flow of blood to the head, it seems). Yet there is no one-size-fits-all approach and each writer must figure out what works well for them – and what doesn’t.
Persistence brings rewards
When the proof of Future Perfect arrived at my doorstep a few weeks ago, I realised that my struggles with the manuscript had not been in vain. While there are tears of pain in every journey, there are also tears of joy. Yet for us writers, the thrill of holding a finished manuscript is merely the icing on the cake. The pleasure of the process is what truly keeps us going.
Future Perfect by Felicia Yap is published by WIldfire at £18.99
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