11 February 2022
Persistence pays off if you dream of being a published writer, says Crow Court author Andy Charman
It is said there was an inscription in the temple of Apollo at Delphi that offered simple advice: ‘Know thyself’. Accordingly, this much I can say of my own character with confidence: I am persistent. And everyone with ambitions to become a published author knows how important persistence is. Now that my persistence has started paying off, I can see that ‘knowing yourself’ also has an important part to play in writing fiction.
I started writing in 1982 and for 40 years I persisted with an ambition that only ever seemed to grow further out of reach. When my teenage confidence was still strong, I wrote a lot of lively, energetic science-fiction, none of which took me anywhere. Then, as my writing calmed down in my twenties, I wrote a lot of very portentous, symbolic twaddle that could only ever have led to indigestion. My thirties were dedicated to a not-quite-publishable novel set in the First World War, and I spent my forties writing a spy novel and a crime novel. In those many decades, I received every type of rejection imaginable; terse, strangely resentful, functional, encouraging and even tantalising. And then, finally, an agent’s reader left me a voice-message saying she loved my crime novel; she’d stayed up until two in the morning to finish it. My hope was reconstituted. However, the agent for whom the reader worked didn’t share her enthusiasm. I dropped from elation, deep into utter despondency.
So, after forty years, I stopped. I stopped writing for other people; I stopped trying to write something that was marketable; I stopped trying to fit the conventions of the genre, caring about my audience and obeying all the rules. I actually gave up on everything except writing itself. I rejected all I had learned and had been taught and I wrote purely for my own satisfaction.
So began Crow Court, my first published novel. It started as an experiment without a readership in mind; a vehicle for researching life in the 19th century. I combined lengthy, luxurious reading with writing that deliberately broke the rules. I employed a variety of styles; I deliberately switched tenses; I flipped between first, second and third person; I wrote from perspective of men, women, children and I explored dialogue using an old form of Dorset dialect that is no longer spoken.
Gradually, all that curious, cantankerous, impossible experimentation moulded itself into a novel. It grew form and structure and I simply polished it. I didn’t expect anyone to ever consider publishing it because it broke every rule imaginable. And yet, when I showed it to an editor at Unbound, she was unfathomably enthusiastic about it.
A month or so after it was published, Crow Court was longlisted for the prestigious Desmond Elliot prize, which recognises debut novels of notable merit. Crow Court was reviewed in the Sunday Times, The Daily Mail, and iNews, and it received enthusiastic backing from its publisher, Unbound.
In the archetypal story arc, there is a stage in the story – a moment of crisis – when the protagonist realises the stakes have been raised. It’s the point in the movie when ‘it gets personal’. At that point there is a transition and the protagonist surrenders their concerns for their own welfare and prioritises something greater than themselves; they turn outwards. But this archetype is very often inverted when the protagonist is a struggling artist. For the artist, the change comes when they stop trying to deliver what other people want and they turn inwards. That becomes the key; the story of the artist is resolved when they focus on the honest, heartfelt expression of their true beliefs and feelings.
You may well be familiar with all the advice about knowing your audience, understanding your genre and following its conventions. You may even have a target market in mind – but none of that can trump an instruction that is more than four thousand years old. Know yourself. Know yourself first and foremost and write from the very centre of your heart. And if it takes forty years to learn how to give full expression to that truth, well then, so be it.
Crow Court by Andy Charman is published by Unbound
For more insight on making the leap to being a published author, read these insights from Julie Ma, Richard and Judy Search for a Bestseller winner.