As a writer, it’s easy to be seduced by those stories of instant success into thinking that there are short-cuts to the holy grail of getting published, and I have to thank people like Jane Smith (check out her nice new website) and Sally Zigmond for reminding me that even in this techno whizzy age the traditional recipe of learning the craft and working at it very very hard (and probably for a long time) is still as much of a guarantee of success as anything else. But this week it’s hats off to Jim C. Hines, a U.S. fantasy writer, for doing some empirical research on how some commonly suggested factors may or may not influence the process. A mere précis would not do justice to Jim’s research (which he presents with great care and due attention to the possible flaws in his data) and I urge anyone who’s interested to read it for themselves, and so I’ll stick to highlighting a couple of surprises.
The first myth to be busted by Jim is when he discovers that only a minority of his sample went through the usual recommended route of short story publication. On reflection, perhaps this doesn’t entirely surprise me, if only because it is quite hard to get short stories published (or even noticed) unless you can stick to the strict rules of womag writing or catch the eye of the judges in big competitions. Neither would I take this as a reason to give up on short story writing as it’s an excellent way to learn how to write fiction. However, I’m heartened to feel that never having won the Bridport need not count against me when submitting a novel to an agent.
Another interesting question asked by Jim was how long authors had been writing before getting a novel published – and the average was 10 years – i.e. overnight success is at least as rare as I had always thought. However, although most authors had written 2 – 4 books before finding success, 58 authors in his sample of 246 had actually got a first novel published. Since I had always thought this was a very rare feat, I’m happy to find that it’s not impossible, and don’t feel quite so abashed at having just sent my own first attempt (languishing in a drawer for some time) off to a competition.
If you’d like to know the other myths challenged by Jim do check out the whole article. It is based mainly on U.S. writers of fantasy or genre fiction, but I have a sneaking suspicion his findings would largely be borne out in other genres and on this side of the pond.