YOU ARE WHAT YOU TWEET: an occasional blog strand about particularly perfect and inspiring tweets. Turns out you can say an awful lot in 140 characters or less.
The day PD James died JoJo Moyes tweeted the above anecdote. I remember seeing this on my i-Phone and thinking it a wonderful story. I then continued to scroll through the rest of my feed and logged out. Normally, the things I’ve read and the pictures of baby pandas I’ve cooed over immediately leave my brain. Not this. For days afterwards, I kept turning it over in my head. When, a week or so later, I found myself still thinking about it I sat down and tried to figure out why. What I realised was this. In its tiny and perfectly formed way, this tweet manages to encapsulate a realistic account of the often long and complicated journey involved in becoming an author. It had touched a nerve. A very raw nerve. Think I’m exaggerating? Okay, let me talk you through it.
First off. The tweet contains a huge revelation. JoJo Moyes wrote 3 novels and they were all rejected. Like, the JoJo Moyes. I know, right? What the actual? Let yourself absorb that for a moment and then move onto the implications of that information. JoJo Moyes wrote three novels. That's three ENTIRE manuscripts. And yet, despite being rejected three times, the woman kept going. That's right, each time they told her where to stuff her latest 100,000 words she picked herself up and wrote another batch (it’s at this point that your already fairly high respect for Moyes should take on some next level style admiration). So, already, this tweet has given me so much to look up to and be inspired by. It tells me that perseverance is king, that the term 'overnight success' is both fraudulent and misleading.
That on its own would have been enough, but there’s more.
We also learn that Jojo Moyes' Gran is the sort of person who, when she chances upon PD James in a hotel, immediately corners her and proceeds to tell her all about her granddaughter's ambition and struggle to become an author. Best.Gran.Ever. I can imagine the whole scene: the hotel, the tiny cucumber sandwiches being served for afternoon tea in the corner, the patterned carpets, the brass revolving door by reception. Seriously, I love her Gran for doing this. This is the kind of Gran I one day want to be.
It’s now that we reach the most amazing part of this already pretty amazing tweet. A piece of philosophy from a true great. A piece of philosophy so true, comforting and profound that we all could and should take it to heart: 'Tell her nothing is wasted.’
For me personally, this advice could not have arrived at a more perfect time. When I read this tweet I was finishing my novel and preparing to send it out to prospective agents. I’d already written one manuscript which had taken me four years to produce (a failed attempt at trying to be the next Bret Easton Ellis, thank god it never saw the light of day) and was desperately worried that I might have wasted another four years of my life on something that was also to come to nothing.
Writing a first novel is hard. When you tell people, they roll their eyes a little, smile benignly and then wait for you to quietly come to your senses. Then, when that first novel fails and (worse) you have to tell everyone it has failed, it makes writing the second novel that much harder. The eye rolls are a bit more pronounced, the smiles a little more pinched. The people who first time round admired your perseverance and commitment now start to suspect delusion. They might not say it out loud, but believe me, it’s there. On your second attempt it becomes harder to decline weekend invitations because ‘I need to write’, it becomes harder to justify closeting yourself away during weekends, public holidays, Christmas.
When I read this tweet I was on the cusp of potential failure. Terrified my second novel might go the same way as my first, I was already trying to find ways to (pre-emptively) come to terms. This tweet changed all that. It gave me hope, but also, it transformed how I viewed all the time and effort I’d put in to date. I started to think of all those years at my desk as a kind of apprenticeship, a necessary and important part of the writer I’d one day (hopefully) become. It helped me resolve, even before I submitted this second novel to the agency slush pile in the sky, that if this too failed I’d pick myself up and write another. That maybe, like JoJo Moyes, the third or fourth time would be the charm.
It’s funny, we’ve all heard about brilliant books that were repeatedly rejected before they found someone in publishing smart enough to take a chance to bring them into this world. JK Rowling, Audrey Niffenegger, John Kennedy Toole. They’re all names we associate with this apocryphal multiple-rejection-followed-by-fuck-you-levels-of-success canon. But I think this other, lesser told narrative, the one about the often difficult, non-linear journey to publication is actually far more important for anyone currently toiling over their word count.
Just recently, I’ve read interviews with two writers whose first novel is actually their second, third or even eighth attempt at a book. Sharon Guskin, author of the exceptional The Forgetting Time and Helen Ellis, author of the wonderful American Housewife have both spoken eloquently about manuscripts of theirs that never saw the light of day. Both these writers failed. Multiple times. And yet (lucky for us) they kept going. It doesn’t take too much of a leap to surmise that those ‘trainer novels’ were probably the building blocks for the brilliant books they would go on to produce. Like Moyes, their experience tells us that all work is good work, that those hours spent honing your craft are worthwhile. They count.
Hemingway’s iceberg theory claims that if an author truly knows enough about that which they are writing they may omit things (their character’s favourite film, which side of the bed their protagonist sleeps on, how they feel when they look at an old photograph of their mother) and that, despite these omissions, the reader will still feel them just as strongly as if the writer had explicitly stated them. I love this theory and, again, its not too much of a stretch to see how this theory lends itself to the ‘trainer novels’ of Moyes, Guskin and Ellis. I believe these ‘trainer novels’ are also like icebergs, that they are the supporting structures of the books that one day make it out into the world; that the knowledge and craftsmanship the writers gleaned from them, floats beneath the water, just out of sight.
Finally, this tweet contains within it another wonderful moment. A moment that, appropriately enough, goes unsaid, submerged just like an iceberg. And that is the moment that JoJo's grandmother must have called to relay PD James' precious advice. I wonder, did her Gran wait until PD James was out of earshot and immediately call Moyes on her mobile, or did she wait till they were next together over cakes and tea? Either way, the thought of this exchange, and how it must have helped her to keep going and write the novels that would one day become ‘Me Before You’ and ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. And then of the course the absolute best part of this story is that it has the ultimate happy ending. Namely, that PD James was right. The person she offered this advice to went on to become one of our most respected, much-loved bestselling authors. Like I said, warm AND fuzzy.
So if you’re currently on your first, second, third or even seventh novel then take heed from PD James and the now successful writers of this world who tried and failed only to try and fail again and again. I know the hours you’ve put in, I understand the horrible crushing disappointment you feel when the manuscript you've worked so hard at once more comes to nothing. Buy try and remember that those hours are precious, that those pages abandoned on your hard drive are your iceberg. And none of it, and I mean absolutely none of it, is wasted.