Writing a novel is hard. Putting it out there is hard. Waiting for a response is hard. Dealing with rejection is hard. Achieving publication is hard. Promoting it is hard (unless you have a very proactive publisher with a big budget). Living on the meagre proceeds is impossible for all but a few authors. The inventory of qualities you need to succeed is long. Here, in no particular order, are ten (some of them closely related) that I think are important.
- Persistence. With no boss standing over you to ensure you keep at it, motivation has to come from you and you alone. You can’t give up no matter what obstacles bar your way, whatever discouragement you face, however stuck you feel.
- Patience. In my experience, it’s rare that words gush out in an effortless stream. More often it’s a case of sticking at it, forcing yourself to summon the language, experimenting, playing with the words till you’re happy with them. A sentence can take a whole morning. A novel is the work of months if not years. Then there is the waiting to hear from agents and publishers you’ve contacted. They warn you: we are inundated with manuscripts: three months/ six months/ if you don’t hear, assume it’s a no. Meanwhile, the agony of waiting – not exactly helped by the odd rejection – goes on.
- Drive. Moving forward, whether by giving yourself a target daily word count or just writing something every day, writing even when you feel uninspired or think you do. You never know until you try.
- Endurance. You have bad writing days when no words come or none that satisfy you. Days when even tasks you normally hate (cleaning in my case) tempt you away from your desk. Days when you question why the hell you’re devoting years of your life to writing words that may never be read, never reach beyond the confines of your computer. To carry on regardless requires massive reserves of stamina.
- Resilience. Without a thick skin and the ability to bounce back after criticism, after rejection, after setbacks of all kinds on what is usually a long and rocky road, you’ll never make it. In my limited personal experience, I’ve had to contend with an agent giving up on me, cancellation of a contract and my publishers folding, as well as hundreds of rejections. Over a period of thirty-five years, I completed six novels that went nowhere before finally achieving publication with the seventh.
- Passion. If you don’t feel passionate about what you’re writing, it won’t work. Why struggle on when the rewards are so elusive, so uncertain? Few novelists make serious money; few achieve fame. The writing itself is your only sure reward. For the time you’re engaged in it, nothing else in your life matters as much.
- Imagination. To create fictional worlds and characters to inhabit them, you need imagination. Research is important too – of a historical period, a location you’re not intimately acquainted with, factual details – but ultimately the story, and its protagonists are creations of your own mind. They may stem directly or indirectly from your life experience, but not necessarily. Either way, they are unique to you, products of your imaginative powers.
- Empathy. Whether or not you like your protagonists, if you’re representing their point of view you must write from inside their minds, view the world as they do. If you lack empathy in the real world, with the people you interact with in your own life, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to feel empathy with the characters in your novel. You have to feel their pain and joy, frustration and grief as if it were you. Even if you’re writing from the point of view of a villain, an anti-hero, you need to see the world as he or she does, in order to understand their motivation.
- Perfectionism. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph matters. It’s not enough to have a good story. I play endlessly with my words, refuse to give up until I’m satisfied. It helps if you love language. I edit as I go along, constantly making changes to what I wrote the day or week or month before. I’m sloppy with most other tasks but in my writing I’m a perfectionist.
- Self-belief. You need confidence to share your work with others, to send it out into the world. When you’ve finally knocked it into shape to your own satisfaction and it’s time to convince others, you have to believe in it.
I’m not claiming this list is exhaustive. Comments on which attributes you think are most important and/or any I’ve omitted would be welcome. I should also add that hard though it is to write a book of any kind and see it through to publication, in the end it’s worth all the slog, the monopolising of your time, the inevitable disappointments and blows to your self-esteem. Otherwise, why would anyone do it?