It is twenty years since I first took a correspondence course in fiction writing. At the time I was playing around with short stories and segments of longer stories. I suffered from two main diseases: first, I was a martyr to lethargy and procrastination. Days would go by, weeks, sometimes months, when my only writing output was a couple of ill conceived lines. The other ailment was simple lack of skill. I would write three pages of the finest prose with powerful emotional undertones, then read it back a week later to find it was awful: dialogue that sounded wooden or was laced with “he said,” “she said,” “he replied,” “she countered.” Magnificent descriptions that turned out to use the word “magnificent” nine times in one paragraph. Characters that changed sex or became forty years older from one page to the next. I expected that the course would teach me all the secrets of strong dialogue and credible characters, and that it would focus my energies in writing as university exams had once focussed me onto the art of memorisation. I was disappointed in both!
For the work element, I found that I was doing no more work than I had before, except that now all my work was towards the course, whatever assignment was set in the latest module, and I was doing no real writing, so getting no creative output. This is the weakness (as well as the strength) of correspondence courses, no deadlines, no compulsion to complete in a given time. As to the skill level, there was no secret list of how-tos, just an interminable set of instructions to go and read how other people do it. Most of the assignments involved reading short stories from the likes of DH lawrence and answering Leaving Cert style questions: “What is the central theme? How does the author use colours to communicate the theme?” and so on.
I did not finish. Half way through I let it go and focussed on writing novels, finished two fragments, then managed to finish a whole novel. It did not sell. I started several more fragments, then finished a second novel. It also did not sell. One agent, excited by the quality of the PR package I sent her, with graphics, a cd, an animated sequence, took my novel but wrote back that the plot was weak. It was a kick in the teeth, but more importantly, the moment I read it I knew that she was right. I had known it all along but had not acknowledged it. I hid from the truth in the name of keeping my throughput up.
That was when I started into my second correspondence course. Oh my God, more of the same. Read this, read that. Read, read, read. Understand your market. Why is that writer printed, what is this writer chosen for the anthology.
It took me two years, but I finally churned my way through the course, got to the end of it. That was last September, twenty years and still nothing published outside of a dozen odd web sites, and self publishing my second novel. I’m not undermining the web sites, but I’d like to be accepted by somebody who puts out paper! I’m not greedy. I don’t want to earn a fortune, though I would not turn a fortune down should I find one determined to make my acquaintance. All I want is to see my name on a paper publication, one that I have not paid for myself.
That is where the secret of writing comes in. It struck me. A bolt from the blue. An epiphany! I have spent twenty years reading DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Harris, Edna O’Brien, Douglas Adams, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Dennis Lehane, Dan Brown, Peter F Hamilton, and on and on and on. Read and read and read. What will you find when you read? The answer is there for everybody to see. What is it that separates out a published writer from the rest of the world?
Here it is. Here is the answer. This will save you thousands of euros in correspondence courses and classes and critiques. The answer is: NOTHING! There is nothing, absolutely nothing that links all the authors, all the hundred thousand writers I have read. You can be eloquent or simple, fantastic or plain, devious or straightforward, violent or sweet, steady or capricious, It makes no difference. You will be no closer to getting published. There is nothing that distinguishes published writers from you except that, for reasons unknown, they have been published.
So forget the correct way to do it, just write. Write whatever makes you happy, whatever makes you laugh or cry or anger, or whatever leaves you in a state of divine calm. Don’t worry if you read it back and realise it is unadulterated garbage, send it off to the publishers and magazine editors anyway.
The writing courses can’t tell you that, nor the critiquers, or the self-help book authors. They make their money convincing you they have the secret, then they send you back reading more because the lesson is there for everyone to see: there is nothing that distinguishes your work from published work. Okay, you should always try to improve your work, smooth out your dialogue and develop your characters, but if you think unpolished, poorly conceived work won’t sell, I have only one thing to say: Celia Aherne!