As a child, I saw school as a competition.
I wanted to be top of the class, and that meant comparing myself, and my work, to other people. It’s an attitude which worked as a child, and even through secondary school – GCSEs and A Level exams offered yet another forum for competition. But, as an adult, studying at one of the best universities in the world, that attitude had to change. If you try to be the best at Cambridge, you’re inevitably going to be disappointed. In fact, a number of people I studied with quickly became more than disappointed. They became defeated, verging on nervous breakdowns because for the first time in their lives they weren’t the best. They had gone from big fish in small ponds, to tiny fish in an enormous ocean, and they couldn’t handle it.
It was at Cambridge that I realised a change of attitude was necessary, to survive, and to stay sane. It was no longer about other people, and what they were doing. I went from being competitive, to being a perfectionist. I was simply going to do the best that I could do. Whether that was in my studies, or in my extra-curricular life. Regardless of how well others were doing, provided I was doing the best I could do, then I was happy.
And for the most part, I think this attitude works as an adult. If you stop comparing yourself to others, and simply focus on what you want from your own life, then you’re likely to be far happier, and probably far more driven, because you’re doing things you want to do, not things other people want to do.
But there’s a problem with my logic. Because being an author requires you to constantly be surrounded by the works of other writers. Most writers start writing because they themselves love to read. The written word surrounds them, and its not just their own.
I write Young Adult fiction because I enjoy Young Adult fiction. I love the genre, and so when I pick up a book in a book shop it tends to be a YA fantasy novel. That’s how I recently discovered the fantastic Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
But not everything you read is fantastic, by any stretch of the imagination! And I think this is one of the most difficult parts of being in author-limbo. After months of crafting words and constructing plot lines and sub-plot lines… After gritting your teeth and bearing subjective rejections from agents, editors and publishing houses … You have in your hands, the one thing you’ve been dreaming of attaining. A physical published book. Tangible acknowledgment of someone else’s literary success. And it’s crap!
Now obviously that’s just my subjective opinion! (Just like all those publishers’ subjective opinions of my manuscripts!)And I’ll spare you from the details of exactly which book it is that has got my shackles up, because it’s not the only time it’s happened, and I don’t really want to turn the blog into a forum to bitch about other YA authors … but what I will say, is that as an unpublished author, who has spent the past three years writing and rewriting sentences – treating creative writing as a craft rather than just an outpouring of words – it’s quite depressing to come across something that really doesn’t read like anywhere near the same amount of work has gone into it. Maybe it just slipped through the publishing net. Maybe at times the insurmountable hurdle I feel like I’m facing actually gets a bit lower, and some less-deserving manuscripts make it through the ‘Total Wipeout’-like obstacle course to final publication. Or maybe that’s just the whole point of opinions – they differ, and not everyone agrees that something is very well written. To be fair, even highly successful recent ‘greats’ – Harry Potter, Twilight, Eragon, are not without copious critics.
So I guess there are several ways, as an unpublished author, that you can deal with reading a published book, which has (if you think competitively) beaten you over the publishing hurdles, and successfully come to print.
1) Accept that everyone thinks different things are good. That’s why your agent might rave about your manuscript, but it doesn’t immediately get fought over by every publishing house it’s sent to!
2) Sometimes crap stuff gets through the filter – and if you start to see a pattern, and are beginning to lose self-belief, maybe try sending your manuscript to the publisher happily printing all the crap?! (This is a joke … kind of 🙂 )
3) Take on the positive message I always try to convey in my posts – that everything works out in the end, you just have to believe in yourself and your writing, and work your writing butt off … so use the annoyance at someone else’s success to power your own success
4) Use the book as an exercise to improve your own writing – don’t just bin it for being ‘bad’, but really think about why you don’t think the book works, and then try to apply that reasoning, and those criticisms to your own work. That way your own work can become stronger directly as a result of the poorer work!
I think the important thing to underline, is whilst you do need some competitive spirit, or at least some desire to win in this publishing business, that shouldn’t mean you
a) shun all other writing all together, or
b) shun all other writers!
Being an author is a lonely enough profession in itself. Unless you have the luxury of a co-author, you work alone, and the only way to get things done is by spending long hours in front of a lonely computer screen or blank page. So your own quest for success, shouldn’t result in you losing a sense of author community. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, as blogging authors, we’re have a very real opportunity to create a writer community – published or unpublished – and social media will allow us to communicate in that community. Don’t become so bitter and twisted because you think your own work is being overlooked, that you shut yourself away from your peers. Often their feedback and criticism will be the most useful.
For example, I very recently discovered another author, of a similar age, represented by my agency, who not only also writes YA, but is also unpublished and lives within an hour of me. So now, my plan is to see how many other writers I can find fitting those rough credentials – signed, but not yet published – so that perhaps we can form our own kind of writers’ group. A forum for discussion, reading, and most of all growth.
And as for stopping reading altogether? Well that should NEVER happen! Because, like I said earlier, most writers get into writing a particular genre, because it is THAT genre which he or she loves to read. So stopping reading a genre, simply because you don’t enjoy comparing the work to your own, is a really sad bi-product of choosing to become a writer.