There are lots of elements which go together to make literary success – and, though most of us hate to admit it, much of life is out of our control and Lady Luck often has a fairly big role to play in terms of helping female authors find their audience.
However, I do think there are key attributes and mindsets which help women as they write their work and then propel them on their road to publication and into marketing their books. I’ve created this A to Z to help women keep these points up front when they face the inevitable ‘burn it all down’/’I can’t do this’ days or even when they’re facing opportunities and their writing dreams coming true as both success and struggles bring up our fears.
I’d love to hear what words or phrases you might add to mine!
AMBITION – It’s okay to be ambitious, to dream big. It doesn’t make you greedy, a selfish bitch, someone who’s too big for her bloomers. That’s just patriarchy trying to keep you out of the way, to keep the jobs and literary kudos for the boys. Ambition actually only means you know what you want and you need that vision for your ideal writing life if you’re going to succeed (see below!).
BELIEF – Self-doubt is one of the most common things I see undermining women’s writing success and it’s terribly dangerous. We all have days when we don’t know whether our work is good, but we must not let the ways patriarchy has made us feel we have to be perfect hamper our creativity to the point of being blocked or procrastinating about sending out or marketing our work. Tara Mohr’s work on playing big is very useful to consider as women writers.
COURAGE – It takes bravery to share our ideas and insights and expose ourselves on the page and then to send out work out and to suggest other people would gain from seeing it and that (gulp) we might even deserve to be paid for creating it and to win awards. You can be afraid, lovelies, but write afraid, send your MS out afraid and stand on that stage afraid at a festival and share your words because we all need to hear them.
DETERMINATION – Becoming a published author involves playing the long game … it often means years of writing and redrafting, followed by rejections, more edits from agents and editors, then facing our critics or even a lack of reviews and simply crickets. And then we have to get up and go again with the next book which wants to be written through us. And this all happens under the shadow of the proven gender bias of the publishing industry, the impact of extra childcare and domestic work on women and the ways we often play small due to internalised patriarchy. Women writers have a lot of shit to wade through, so you have to be prepared to keep going, no matter what!
EXCELLENCE – This is a competitive world and, because we face gender bias in the publishing world, it’s likely that our books need to be even more smoking hot to sell. We need to learn our craft then and to be prepared to edit and rewrite our books and take feedback with grace, all to the end of becoming the best writer we can be. This is not about perfectionism though, which cripples us, but more like ensuring our full talents glow on the page.
FUCK THE NAYSAYERS – Okay, I’ve just said you should listen to feedback with grace and I am a big believer in getting manuscript assessments and professional editing of your work as they can boost your writing and make the difference between your book being published or not. However, a lot of people will knock you down because they’re what Julia Cameron calls ‘blocked artists’ and there seems to always be a bit of a competitive element in certain writing classes. I think we as women in our patriarchal society are generally more prey to criticism of all kinds, whether it be on our looks, weight, parenting or writing. So please just listen to those whose opinions you trust and fuck the rest. Not everyone’s opinion on your book should be given equal weight and you can read about the best ways to get feedback here.
GENEROSITY – Help and support other women writers. Give them pep talks when they’re down after a disappointment and celebrate their successes, rather than envying them. Their gains show that you can do it too.
HELP – Ask for it. Get it. You don’t have to do this alone. I offer sessions on brainstorming a book idea or planning a longer project, as well as creating a writing practice that works for your lifestyle, all the way up to year long programmes to support the completion of a novel, memoir or book proposal. I can even support you through the submission process. If you’re short on cash, I offer an annual scholarship, a Facebook group and free access to my extensive Inspiration Library. Even if it’s not me, please find a mentor or a writing buddy who will cheer you on!
INTELLECT – I’m a former English Literature academic with a Ph.D., so I firmly believe in the importance of investing in our intellects to grow as writers. I also believe patriarchy has us focussed on looks and relationships and family, so many of us don’t develop our full mental powers which would add so much to our lives and writing. Read widely, study things that pique your interest as it will grow your confidence and lead to know who knows what amazing books and projects – like Elizabeth Gilbert whose study of the history of gardens lead to The Signature of All Things.
JUSTICE – Social justice has always been important to me and that’s why I’m passionate about being a feminist writing coach as I believe women writers deserve a fair shake in the literary world. I’d encourage you to find your why (as Simon Sinek says), your mission, as it will give your writing energy and renew your purpose so when you hit walls, you come back swinging. It could be you feel strongly about the environment, animal rights, race equality and on and on. Find what makes you tick – what part of the wall you’re hacking away at, as Kelly Diels says – and use your writing to promote that form of justice.
KEEP GOING – Seriously. Not just with the writing itself, but especially when you get critical feedback or rejections. Use the experience to get better, not bitter. Getting published and creating a writing career are a long game, even though our culture is obsessed with instant results. Books and the publication process can take years – be prepared to last the course and know this is normal.
LOVE THE WORK – We all have days when the words won’t come, we’ve got the news that our MS needs more work or an agent turned us down. But if you focus on loving writing itself and the joy it brings, it will give you the fuel to carry on. Also if you keep the writing as separate as possible from the publishing industry stuff which you cannot control, you stand the best chance of staying sane!
MAKE TIME – Time is a feminist issue as studies show women often have less free time due to having to do extra childcare and domestic work, on top of their jobs. Women writers then face a tough challenge in terms of remaining creative and furthering their writing careers. I also don’t believe women should have to run themselves ragged to keep writing, so I help them create writing practices which suit their lifestyles and energy levels. From using a timer to create pockets of writing time, to postponing certain tasks, there are tons of clever ways you can find time to do the writing that you love. And, no, you DON’T have to write daily to really be a writer. It’s great if you can, but some folks like me are binge writers and bang out up to 10k at a time and that’s fine and dandy. Respect your process.
NO COMPARISONS – It’s a tough one in the age of social media which is basically everyone putting their best/most narcissistic foot forward, so we rarely see their real lives. Often writers know a lot of other authors, so it’s easy to think how we’re rubbish because so-and-so has an agent and this other person got a three book deal and on and on. The fact is, as I said above, if you see someone else succeed in the literary world, be glad as it shows it can be done and could happen for you. Use envy as a fuel to get your arse moving! But also remember that literary careers are a rollercoaster – my mentor told me when I met her, that I could easily have a big deal and rep at some point and she could be dropped by her house … an experience that is sadly common for writers. In this way then, if we compare, we despair, and it’s destructive to our creativity and souls and really pointless as the future holds good and disappointing things for all writers and we’re all in it together. Solidarity is better than comparison any day.
OPENNESS – This ties in with the stuff I was saying above that writers often engage in competition and don’t share their doubts or bad days in order to preserve an image of success. I think this leads to a sense of isolation as we feel like we’re the only ones feeling despair over our work. I believe in sisterhood and support and that’s why I’ve created my Facebook group, the Literary Revolution, so women writers of all backgrounds can come together and be honest about how damn hard writing can be. I also think cultivating openness is key to being authentic in our writing itself as if we cannot be truthful about our feelings in our lives, how will we bring that emotion to the page?
PATRIARCHY SLAYING – Be aware of the issues of gender bias in the publishing industry and how being a woman in our culture means there are frequently more obstacles, both internal and external to our creative success. This doesn’t mean we pity ourselves, but it means we go into battle ready to fight.
STAY IN THE DAY – I was a committed Buddhist for a long time so I was into meditation and mindfulness long before it was hip. Basically, all wisdom traditions though counsel people to stay in the present and I believe this is crucial for writers as otherwise we can easily get utterly terrified by the prospect that this novel may never get published (I saw Welcome to Sharonville going through a shredder in an agent’s office in my mind, before it was even complete and it ended up longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award!). Instead, stick to the task at hand – whether that be finishing a scene, mailing a poem to a competition or editing a passage – and focus the fuck on that. The future will take care of itself! And it’s often way better than the scary stories writers are so good at telling themselves!
TELL THE WORLD YOU’RE A WRITER – Seriously. Own it. One of the first things I do when I coach new writers or run classes for them is to get them to tell someone they’re a writer. If you write, you’re a writer, full stop, period, whatever. The goal posts for claiming the title seem to range from being published, to making money at it, to being able to live on your writing and they change each time you pass one. Save yourself a lot of heartbreak and hassle and claim the title of writer NOW. I guarantee your work will improve if you start to take yourself seriously.
UNDERSTAND HOW TO PLAN A BOOK – This is the boring bit, right? And, yup, I know some peeps can create wonderful novels by just starting to type and I salute those people who love the explore the story as they go. But, the fact is, usually most of those authors are highly experienced and already now their craft. They know how plots work. Or they don’t care if they have to rewrite and edit for years, like Siri Hustvedt did for What I Loved (‘I didn’t say it was fun,’ she said to me). But, kitties, my prayer for you, especially if you’re embarking on your first book would be that you’d learn all about how plots and narratives work. Storytellers have been using these tropes and tricks for millennia and it helps us to get a handle on them as they freakin’ work! If you want to help brainstorm a plot or plan a novel, I’m your gal, but there are also tons of great books on the subject. Respect the craft, lovelies!
VISION – Have a vision. Not only of your book and why you’re writing it, but who you want to reach with it too. So many women writers come to me full of fear and self-doubt (because patriarchy teaches us to stay invisible and silent and writing is the opposite of that, plus cukture demands impossible perfection of us as women) and then I ask them to envisage their Ideal Reader – the woman out there who really needs to hear what they have to say. Once you understand you’re writing for her and it’s not about you really, your inner heroine will kick in and throw aside those pesky worries like the junk they are, so you can get to your sister out there who needs your words. You can even create a vision of you ideal writing life in order to picture precisely the kind of success you truly crave – some people want bestsellers, whilst others want critical acclaim. It’s all good, but you need to know what you truly want in order to get it. Making vision boards can be fun too!
WHO INSPIRES YOU? Role models are awesome for injecting oomph into creative careers. They don’t even have to be writers. I find tons of inspiration in artists and musicians and photographers who push boundaries. Put pictures of figures who you admire near your desk and if you’re at an impasse ask yourself what this idol of yours would do. Frida Kahlo had chronic pain and illness, for instance, as I do, but she still became a bold and significant artist so she reminds me I don’t have to stay within my physical limitations. Find creatives or even sports people or politicians who encourage you to push forward.
X – Be like Xena the Warrior Princess. Or Pusheen. Whatever floats your boat.
YOU MATTER – There’s an awful lot of talk about self-care these days and it’s almost become trite, but, the fact is, writing is a long and often challenging journey, as well as being a true labour of love, and, the reality is, we face extra issues as women writers so we need to remember our needs. We need to remember that there cannot be a brilliant novel, play, film, memoir, or business book, if we’re too frazzled to write or create anything amazing from a place of energy, well-being and groundedness. Find out what helps you love yourself and makes you tick and take yourself on Artists’ Dates to replenish your inner well of creative inspiration. Never forget your story matters either.
ZONE (THE) – We all know it exists – that wonderful flow where time disappears as we write and we wish we’d never have to eat or pee again! And, no, we don’t want a cup of tea, damn people from Porlock! Remember the beauty of this when the lines are hard to find and that it will come back again. We don’t necessarily need inspiration to start writing even, so set a timer for five minutes and start … the zone is often waiting there, just beyond our resistance and excuses.
I hope this list helps to encourage and guide you on your path to literary success and gives you something to boost you up and chew on whenever the road gets tough.
I’d love to hear some of your own A-Z entries, so please pop some in the comments below!
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