The Great British Write-off!

When it comes to finding success, writing is much like baking. At the weekend I went to author Christie Barlow‘s publication party and was determined to take a cake to celebrate. However, my scales were broken, so I decided I was such a good baker, I could guess the ingredients’ weights. What a mistake. That cake ended up in the bin. The next cake’s icing was too runny but looked okay. So we strapped the cake onto the car’s back seat and off we set – not thinking that the backseat is set at angle, plus the heating was on. Needless to say, the icing melted and the top layer off sponge slid off. The result is below!

cake fail christie

I’ve always prided myself on my baking but learnt many lessons from this episode and, effectively, this failure will (hopefully) lead to success next time I attempt such a cake. And it is much the same for writing. I have failed time and time again over the years – still do – but those failures were/are essential, in order for me to learn to improve and hopefully succeed.

When I first started writing, hands up, I felt a teeny sense of entitlement – I’d written a novel. Not many people did that. Surely I deserved a publishing deal? Time and time again I’d be disappointed when rejections came back. But these continued failures eventually made me realise my expectations were not realistic. If I’d given up writing after the first book, I’d probably, still to this day, be thinking that that particular book deserved a contract. But by not giving up, and continuing to fail in this way, I eventually realised that to succeed, I needed to wake up and understand that writing a novel was just the beginning of a very long journey to finding a book deal. And I thank goodness now that my first manuscript never saw the light of day! I learned a lot from all the rejection letters, pictured below.

rejection letters

 

Also, at the beginning, I kept making the same two mistakes – I’d create a main character that came across as whiny (I thought she was simply sharing her angst) and I would also drop a lot of backstory into the first few chapters. Being told where I was going wrong, more than once, eventually made me work really hard at developing appealing protagonists and opening chapters that dived straight into the immediate action instead of giving away the plot of the whole book before I’d hardly started.

I wrote several books before I eventually signed my deal in 2013 – no, I’m not saying how many! And, I learnt so much from each “failure”. One, for example, was a totally high concept book preceded by nothing on the shelves. Agents and publishers had no idea where to place it. I’d written 100% what I wanted, without keeping an eye on the market. And I’m all for that, if you aren’t so concerned about publication or sales figures, but writing is my job, I have bills to pay, I can’t afford to take a risk at the moment. So I learnt that, whilst writing from the heart is paramount, to fulfil my own personal aspirations I must keep an eye on the current market and be prepared to make small compromises in order to make sure that any book I create will fit into a genre already out there.

In fact, that reminds me… the original idea for my bestselling 2015 novel, Game of Scones, was set in… heaven. Ahem, I can still remember my editor’s face when we discussed it. I’d failed to realise that I needed to keep within my brand. I learnt through this and came up with a different idea that I loved. It taught me to think more about readers and what they want/expect from me.

Rejections can be seen as failures. But they aren’t. They are simply the industry’s way of telling you there is more to learn. I can honestly say that every author I know, who has been determined and persevered over the years, humbly learning from their mistakes, has “made it”.

Nor should bad reviews be seen as failures. I’ve learnt a lot from the constructive ones and, hopefully, they have helped me improved my craft and inch nearer to success.

So, try to keep some perspective when you feel you have failed. You haven’t. Don’t ever think you are a write-off. No doubt Mary Berry suffered many soggy bottoms when she first started out! It is hard. I’ve shed tears. Proclaimed at the unfairness of it all. But we aren’t failing if we put our work out there. That takes guts. And the bravest part is being able to admit when we are wrong and start again.

As Colin Powell once said:

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.

 

Are You your Job?

First and foremost, let me make it clear, I love my profession and thank the universe every day, that I am lucky enough to do a job I adore. But is there the risk that it represents too much of my identity? To me that’s an easy question to answer. My CV is almost the length of a football pitch (okay, slight exaggeration)… In the past I have been a translator, tutor, doctor’s receptionist, hotel worker, envelope-stuffer, retail assistant… you name it, I’ve probably got the T-shirt. But never, ever, before being an author, has my feeling of self-worth been so closely linked to my career.

The good side of this? It drives me to succeed as it is my reputation and self-pride at stake. I think this applies to anyone who is self-employed. I work long hours. I strive to be my best. I do lots of promotional work and forever look to improve my writing. I write speedily to increase my output and become as prolific as possible.

Photo0026

But the bad side?  Recently I realised that striving to my best – for me – means striving to be THE best and that is an unattainable and dangerous goal. If a book doesn’t sell as well as the previous one, a little voice hints that I’VE failed. If I get a bad review, it feels like a huge blow to the person, SAMANTHA TONGE. If I lose followers on Twitter, I wonder what I  am doing wrong. Writing is so closely linked to an author’s ego. If I were merely tweeting on behalf of an employer such as a school or doctor’s practise, the ups and downs of that platform’s success would have little effect on me as a person.

In my opinion,  the important thing, as a writer – or artist, actor… any of those professions where you give away a little piece of yourself during the process – is to distance yourself as much as you can from the business side. You won an award (like I did for Game of Scones)? Great. Recognize it as an appreciation of your work, not your soul. It might happen again. It may never. That doesn’t mean you, as a person, have succeeded or failed any more or any less. Just received a bad review? The reader isn’t saying YOU deserve to be the target of rotten tomatoes. They simply didn’t enjoy one of your pieces of work in the way that some people love sushi (yuk) and others don’t. Not gaining as high rankings as another author? No matter. That’s the nature of the business. There are lots of contributing factors and whilst you are the face on the tin, you aren’t responsible for everything like the packaging or final recipe – or amount of luck.

me award 2

 

Plus social media  – whilst highly enjoyable – can easily feed into a writer’s fragile ego. Are my photos appealing enough? Are my tweets and statuses funny? Why have my ‘likes’ gone down lately?

I strive to stand back and see being an author as just a job. And this isn’t as hard as it sounds, luckily for me, as I have a lovely family to enjoy time with. If I had come to writing as a younger person, without other responsibilities, the knocks might have hit harder. So my advice? To start with cut down on social media outside the 9 til 5 or during the day if your writing life starts in the evening. See your social platforms for what they are – tools to drive your career and not an indictment of the kind of man or woman you are. A little hint that you are connecting too closely with your job is what you talk about when you speak to a distant relative on the phone. How much of your news is about your work? Have you anything else to say about other aspects of your life like hobbies and trips out? Try to find an even balance.

So next time you get a bad review or your book doesn’t soar, still pat yourself vigorously on the back. Or as you launch a new book, like I will be doing soon with my summer novel Breakfast under a Cornish Sun. You are doing the hardest thing ever – putting actual parts of your soul out into the big wide world, to be scrutinised by Joe Public. That earns you the permanent judgement of being one hell of a gutsy person, who looks failure in the face – instead of creeping around it, too scared to ever dare step out of its shadow.

The Squiggly Line of Success

Victoria success

Recently, my lovely editor at CarinaUK gave a talk at a book event and tweeted this photo of one of her slides. The line on the left represents how people feel the road to success progresses. The one on the right represents what it actually looks like. And I would definitely say that is true in my experience.

I’ve had a long and rocky road to publication and penned my first novel in 2005. The very first agency I sent it out to was Darley Anderson. It came back with a swift, standard rejection letter (thoroughly deserved). To my disbelief, ten years later, I have just signed with this agency, a moment of success for me. But the line of progress in between those two dates has certainly been squiggly, with ups and downs and moments where I felt I was going around in circles.

Whilst completing a first novel is a huge achievement, it represents the beginning of a long and tough journey only those with a thick skin will complete. I wrote novel after novel that got rejected. Sometimes the line of my progression halted when I declared I’d give up my dream of becoming a published author. Of course, that was like declaring giving up food or water – the compulsion to write is in my bones and I never stopped for longer than a couple of days.

Then in 2011 my line progressed a little further. I sold my first short story to a women’s magazine. I went on to sell over 50 to the People’s Friend. In 2013 publisher Alfie Dog Fiction brought out a collection of my short stories in paperback and Kindle form, called Sweet Talk. That was super-exciting and a huge boost to my confidence and my little line edged a further forwards. I even bagged a great romance agent so, on the surface everything looked like it was going to plan.

However lots of squiggly bits were happening at the same time. I failed to sell more than a couple of stories to Woman’s Weekly, for example and the first novel my agent submitted didn’t find a publisher. Despair set in time and time again. In publishing, I find that highs are often followed by lows and then circles where nothing seems to change for a while and then you might hit another high. The one constant is that words, with hope, continue to be written. Smaller successes become very important such as a lovely comment from a reader or an encouraging line from a publisher who rejected but nevertheless enjoyed your work

And then in 2013 I landed a deal with CarinaUK, thanks to my then-agent and my debut book Doubting Abbey. It got shortlisted for an award. Then my bestselling summer 2015 book Game of Scones actually won an award. For a while the squiggles straightened themselves out which was thrilling for me.

But, of course, my line still isn’t as straight as in the left of that slide screenshot. Some books sell better than others. Bad reviews still come in. I have a long way to go. In my opinion, you are only as good as your next book, not your last. A writer can never, ever become complacent. I am working harder than ever now, with my first novella out on the 11th February, How to Get Hitched in Ten Days. This will be followed by my summer novel Breakfast at Poldark’s in July and after that, who knows…

I guess that means the squiggly bits are important. They prepare you for the lows and make a writer realize that above all, determination and perseverance rule the day. So if you are going through a down or circular bit at the moment, don’t worry. Everyone has been there, it just doesn’t look like it on the surface. Look at all the rock bands who disintegrate and then re-form years later. Or the politicians who fall out of favour but make a comeback. Life is messy – just like squiggles. The important thing is that you are trying, maybe sometimes failing, but picking yourself up, learning and then moving forwards again, even though that may not be in a perfectly straight line.
As Robert H Schuller said:
“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.”