Joanna Rossiter is the author of The Sea Change (her first novel). She grew up in Dorset and studied English at Cambridge University before working as a researcher in the House of Commons and as a copy writer. In 2011 she completed an MA in Writing at Warwick University. She lives and writes in London. Last week The Sea Change was announced as one of the Richard and Judy Summer 2013 Book Club titles. Here Joanna expands on some common misconceptions about the wonderful world of writers.
1. Being an author is glamorous.
Before I had managed to write a book, I had an image of what an author should be in my mind that was something akin to Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge; sitting down melancholically in the middle of the night at his type writer with the Eiffel Tower outside his window and, after a sip of absinth, typing the words ‘This is a story about love’.
In reality, novels are rarely the results of flashes of inspiration, although they may often begin this way. I like to think of them as a long-standing marriage; the writer weds themselves to one particular idea and then sticks with it through thick and thin, through romance and conflict – times when they wish they could separate and times when they feel like they want to do nothing else but spend time together. Sometimes writing is a lonely business – to finish a book, authors must spend days and evenings in a room on their own filling their head with made-up people. Often, there’s little chance for genuine feedback until the book is complete and nobody except the writer can see the full picture until the book is written. There is a lot of hard graft and very little glamour, but it’s worth it for the satisfaction of a well-told story.
2. Authors are full of new ideas.
It has been said that all the plots in the world can be summarized in one of two phrases: ‘A stranger comes to town’ or ‘a hero leaves home’. Whilst I wouldn’t go this far, I would argue that modern day culture places a lot of emphasis on originality when, more often than not, stories are found rather than invented. Shakespeare wrote most of his plays from stories he had come across elsewhere; renaissance writers recognised that the talent of a writer lies not as much in the chosen story but in the way that story is told.
3. Authors don’t read reviews of their own novels.
Given than my first novel only came out last Thursday, I have had very limited experience of this! However, already I’m finding that the desire for feedback from readers has overtaken my fear of reading a bad review. Authors spend long spells alone with their books in order to get them written and it’s a joy when we finally get to meet people who have read our books and hear what they have to say about them. Every writer writes for a reader, whether they admit it or not.
Note from the Editor: You can read Richard and Judy's reviews of The Sea Change here.4. Authors write word-perfect first drafts.
Novels are born out of an enduring desire to persevere with an idea until it is fully realized on the page. I spend far more time editing than I do writing; for me, it’s the most satisfying part of creating a book. Once the bones of the story are on paper, it’s a great feeling to be able to start drawing out a structure and looking for the hidden meanings in each scene. I often don’t know exactly what a story is trying to say until I have written a first draft; the imagery and echoes and symbols that I want to build on only become clear when I start to edit.
5. Authors never plan their books.
Even though a lot of a story’s nuances can’t be determined until it is written, authors still put large amounts of time and energy into planning their novels before they put pen to paper. The level of detail varies from author to author but I would say that it’s almost impossible to write an engaging novel without a plan to follow. Without a preconceived plot structure, it is difficult to convince the reader early on in the novel that you, the author, know where the story is going and have control over its outcome. It’s like being on a rollercoaster; for the reader it’s great fun not knowing where the twists and turns lie but the ride can only be enjoyed if the reader is confident that the author has built a trustworthy track for the story to follow.
6. A book can be written in a month.
Initiatives like NaNoWriMo are a wonderful tool for helping people get started on books and cultivating the commitment required to finish them. However, they are also misleading in the perception they create about novels. Contrary to what they suggest, I think it’s impossible to write anything readable in a month (others may prove me wrong!). Novels, like wine, need time to mature. They need to be laid to rest and then picked back up again at a later date in order to be read and edited with a fresh, objective mind.
7. Having a story to tell is the only ingredient required to write a book.
The most common response I get when I tell people that I’m an author is not ‘what do you write about?’; it’s actually something along the lines of ‘I’ve got a great idea for a novel myself; I’d turn it into a book if I had the time.’ One of the wonderful things about writing is how accessible it is: unlike paint or a musical instrument, language is a tool that the majority of us use on a daily basis. As a result, there is an unspoken assumption that any one of us could write a book if we had the time. I do believe that anyone can learn to craft a good story, just like anyone can learn a musical instrument. However, there is a craft involved and this craft takes more than time; it takes practice. You wouldn’t expect someone who had never played the trumpet before to pick one up and come out with perfect jazz. Similarly, stories require skill and perseverance and they are as much a practiced art as music or sculpture.8. If an author’s book is good enough, it will get published.
There can be a lot of snobbery on the side of published authors towards unpublished authors. And yet, the fact that a certain author is published is not just down to the quality of their writing; as a published author myself, I would be the first to admit that at some point along the line, there is an element of chance involved. Editors are inundated with manuscripts on a weekly basis. My own editor is sent ten manuscripts from new authors via literary agents every week and, out of those manuscripts, she publishes only three or four a year. There are far more publishable manuscripts out there than there is scope for publishing them. A whole host of factors outside of a writer’s hands go into the decision to publish a book: from the extent to which a story resonates with the culture of the time to its appeal to a particular audience to whether or not it complements the other books on that publisher’s list. As much as editors want to nurture new talent, publishing is a profit making venture and one eye always has to be kept on the ability of a book to generate sales. Yes, there are plenty of manuscripts that are turned down because they are poorly written but there are also thousands that are rejected for reasons outside of an author’s control. A large part of me does want to believe that a good book will always find a way through eventually…9. Authors are creative types who don’t care about the bottom line.
We all dream of making a living from the thing we love to do the most and authors are no different. Whilst we can convince ourselves that it isn’t about the sales, which writer would turn down the chance to have a bestseller? With the move into the digital space squeezing the amount of money a writer makes from each book, it’s not a career that is entered into for financial security. In most cases, it’s a hand-to-mouth profession that goes alongside a series of other day jobs. However, writers, like everybody else, will (albeit sometimes secretly) welcome the affirmation that good sales figures bring. Popularity is not always seen as a good thing in the literary world: literature that is valuable and literature that is popular are often viewed as being in contention with each other. Yet, deep down, I don’t think any author would turn their nose up at the prospect of more readers, a higher profile for their writing and, yes, a royalty statement that doesn’t make you want to weep into your green tea.10. Novels are always, in some shape or form, autobiographical.
All authors ‘borrow’ aspects or experiences from their own lives when they write. In order to create compelling characters, writers often need to be able to relate to the characters themselves and this can mean incorporating into them certain traits that we have seen in our own lives or in others. Whilst stories have their root in the author’s personal experience, they often grow into something else entirely. I’m a great believer in readers forming the meaning of a story for themselves; it’s more about the experiences that they bring to the page than it is about the author’s. In fact, I as a writer can often only spot the resonances of a particular novel to my own life once I have written it and become a reader myself. A good author can present their reader with a carefully chosen set of ingredients that complement each other; but, more often than not, it’s the reader who decides what to concoct.
The Sea Change is out now.