For the past week I have been reading the first three chapters of a series of novels. This is because I’m on the judging panel for entrants to the Apprenticeships In Fiction scheme. (You can find out more about it by clicking on the link on this page labelled Mentoring for Writers).
The course programme involves the chosen writers getting professional help to bring their work up to a publishable standard. So, in addition to submitting the first three chapters of their novel, they also have to prepare statements about how they see themselves tackling the year of work that lies ahead.
The thing that often strikes me on these occasions is how few of the candidates really understand the amount of work involved in writing a novel that is fit to be published. You don’t just write one draft; you don’t just write two drafts; you don’t just write three drafts. You go on and on fiddling with the damn thing until you reach the point where you are ready to murder anyone who suggest you make any more changes. That’s what it takes
Then afterwards, when you’re finished, what’s the next stage? Relaxing beside a pool in the Mediterranean? A world tour? Your own chat show? None of these, I’m afraid. The first thing you do after you sign a contract with a publisher is start thinking about your next book. There’s a well-known joke about a writer on his death bed which sums the situation up very neatly in my opinion. Apologies if you’ve heard it before.
An author was lying on his deathbed when the Angel of Death appeared. 'I don't know whether you realise this,' the angel began, 'but God is a big reader.'
'Really?' asked the author.
'Oh yes!' the angel replied. 'She runs our Heavenly Book Group and she's particularly keen on your work. So keen in fact, that She has sent me down to earth to offer you a choice. You can go to hell or heaven. So what's it to be?'
Now. the author had signed too many publishing contracts to make a rash decision. So he thought about his options for a while. Finally he said, ‘I think I’d like to see exactly what these two places have to offer before making my choice. Would that be acceptable?’
The angel sighed. ‘You authors are all the same,’ he said. ‘Always looking for a better deal. Very well, I will grant your request but you must realise that though there are many heavens and many hells, I can only show you Writers’ Heaven and Writers’ Hell since that is what your life on earth has prepared you for.’
With these words, the angel flapped his wings once, twice and in an instant the author found himself standing upon the brink of a vast pit in which row upon row of writers were chained to their desks, typing away furiously. As they did so, they were whipped and tormented endlessly by grinning demons while other, smaller imps sat upon their shoulders and filled their ears with a stream of mindless chatter.
The author was horrified. ‘So this is Writers’ Hell!’ he gasped. ‘It is a truly dreadful place! Take me to heaven, quickly, for I can stand no more of this!’
‘As you wish,’ the angel replied. He flapped his wings once, twice and in an instant the author found himself standing outside the gates of heaven. The gates were shining with a cold radiance but when the author peered inside he saw, to his dismay, row upon row of writers chained to their desks, typing away furiously. As they did so they were whipped and tormented endlessly by grinning demons while other, smaller imps sat upon their shoulders and filled their ears with a stream of mindless chatter.
The author turned to the Angel of Death in fury. ‘Is this some sort of trick?’ he demanded.
The angel shook his head. ‘There is no trick, I can assure you,’ he replied.
‘But this is just the same as hell!’ the author pointed out.
The angel smiled a patient smile. ‘You authors have such unrealistic expectations,’ he said. ‘Listen to me. The difference between Writers’ Hell and Writers’ Heaven is quite simple. Up here, in Writers’ Heaven, the authors get their books published.’