Creatives, inherently, tend to be dreamers with little grasp of reality. A passion and love for the make believe and a tendency to use stories to shape your understanding of the world are basically pre-requisites. Of course it’s all very well and good to wax lyrical about the values of those traits, but they also tend to be what hobble creatives when they reach the point of wanting to leverage their ideas into a viable career. After all, a mind full of stories is scarcely the kind that can identify brutal realities.
I’ve written at length before about how hard it is to make any money in the arts, how it requires almost pathological self-belief and refusal to listen to the people who tell you you’re not good enough. But one thing I’ve learnt is that you can save yourself a lot of pain if, early on, you educate yourself on a couple of tough truths.
A lot of people will tell you that art is a form of self-expression, and any time you see a tedious one-person show or pretentious piece of abstract performance art, you’re seeing that ethos in action. You’re also seeing an expression of profound self-indulgence. Here is the truth that so many people can’t seem to get their head around – nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, gives a shit about your self-expression. Your friends don’t. Your family don’t. The general public absolutely don’t. Even if they say they do, they don’t. At all. If you’re writing a script or book or whatever that’s very personal, then you have to ask why anyone else should care. We live in a world that is absolutely overflowing with entertainment options, and if you want to be a contender then you can’t be producing work that only your Mum will grudgingly come out and see.
Now that’s not to say that self-expression is a bad thing. It’s actually essential to good art. Self-expression is what makes your story unique and special. But it cannot be the only thing your piece has. Is your story funny? Sad? Gripping? Action packed? What does your story have that people might like to see? The trick you have to pull off as a storyteller is to disguise self-expression as something else entirely.
The Boone Shepard series is a zany, funny, action packed trilogy of quirky adventure novels with time travel and absurd cameos from heightened versions of famous people. They’re designed to take kids on a twisty, rollicking, entertaining jaunt through a world that’s a bit like ours but not really, with two central characters who, hopefully, are fun to be around.
But if that was all Boone Shepard was then I wouldn’t be so invested. I wouldn’t have spent a decade of my life working on it. The reason I care so much about Boone is that the three books are also deeply, deeply personal, exploring themes and ideas that mean everything to me. In a lot of ways, thematically, Boone is not all that different to darker work of mine like Windmills. The trick is that all those deep, meaningful, personal themes are not the selling point. They’re not what I mention when people ask me about Boone Shepard. I tell them about all the things that I think make the story appealing, and then trust that if and when they read it they’ll pick up on what I was trying to say. Basically a good story should be like a Trojan Horse; the heart of your intentions hidden in the shell of what someone else wants.
I used to be arrogant when trying to get my work published. I would send agents and publishers manuscripts that I figured would work just because they were there, without ever stopping and seriously interrogating why somebody would spend money on this thing. A reader might be willing to risk twenty bucks on a book that could be bad, but a publisher spends thousands of dollars on editing, printing, designing and marketing a book. And that’s where things get really hard; you’re not asking somebody to spend twenty bucks on a story, you’re asking them to spend thousands on an investment. If you can’t justify making that investment to yourself, then you really can’t expect someone else will.
I made a lot of mistakes early on. I sent out work that wasn’t ready and I took meetings with important people to discuss projects that had absolutely no chance of being picked up. Those people, if they remember me at all, won’t remember me as someone worth taking seriously. That makes a hard task nigh impossible.
If you’re a young writer, I suggest patience. Don’t take the word of a couple of friends telling you your script or novel is a masterpiece. Get an anonymous manuscript assessment. Put it in the drawer for a year before you come back and reconsider if it’s really where it needs to be and use the year in between to work on other projects. At every turn ask yourself what you have that people want. Think of your story as a product; is there any demand for what you have, and if there isn’t how can you change that? Basically, remove your perspective from the equation and look at your story as if you’re a publisher. How much would you be willing to spend on this thing?
Even once you’re 100% sure of what you have, stories are subjective and chances are you’ll start a handsome collection of rejection letters. But believe me, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you’re trying to sell a story that you know in your heart is worth that investment, rather than one you’re just throwing out there in the hopes that it might stick somewhere.
Writing words about writing words.