Back in the day, when I was starting out as a writer (well, not quite, but we’ll come onto that later), I used to stalk other writers. The ones who won things. The ones who were getting their stories published. The ones who were, in summary, more successful than I was. I would devour their blogs to find out where they were scoring hits and why.
Just as I was beginning to clock up a few scores myself, one of my stalkees suddenly went off air in 2008. There seemed to be no apparent reason, because he still seemed to be doing pretty well. I used to wonder if he was OK and if he was, what it was that had caused him to throw in the towel.
Last week, however, his name – or at least the name of a piece of his that I’d particularly liked – popped up again in a new anthology, and I went hunting for his blog. Unexpectedly, it was still there and even more unexpectedly he seemed to have resumed blogging and writing earlier this year. There was no real explanation for the hiatus.
He isn’t the only writer I know of who has suddenly gone offline, although he’s probably one of the more successful ones. And I think this happens more often than we night imagine. You need a considerable degree of determination and sheer single-minded pigheadedness to succeed as a writer.
I wrote my first story since leaving school (actually, my first since O level) in 1986. It was an idea I’d had for ages and I thought it was completely brilliant. I wrote it for a competition run by none other than Rymans (really!) and because you could enter two stories for the price of one, I wrote another. The second one was unfortunately complete bollocks, and I knew it.
Impressively, you got a half-page critique for each story, which basically confirmed that the second story was indeed bollocks, although the first one had some promise. However, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t come up with any ideas for other stories and this basically meant I had one single story to submit anywhere. Which I duly did, a year later, to the BBC. And when this inevitably got rejected, I gave up.
In 1993, after a brief flirtation with writing books for my kids, I wrote another short story, which I submitted to the Ian St James Award (remember that one?). This one was Highly Commended, the significance of which completely passed me by. I wasn’t encouraged at all by this – in fact, I was extremely disappointed that it didn’t win, because I was convinced that it was utterly, utterly brilliant.
I also joined my local writers’ circle at around this time and managed to write another story (my fourth!), which won one of their internal competitions. After a few desultory attempts, I found a home for this at a magazine called Freelance Informer, which had an acceptance rate somewhere slightly above 50%, but never mind.
I wrote a few more stories during this period, but I was painfully aware that they were already dropping in quality and I gave up fiction altogether around 1995. It wasn’t until ten years later that I found my way back, when I joined the circle again. Two years after that, I found the writing communities on the internet and since then I haven’t really looked back.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck with writing stories in either 1987 or 1995. Did I just give up too easily? And how come I did manage to stick with it in 2005? What kept me going this time? Certainly, this time around, I found some wonderful support groups to help me stay sane, both in real life – where the Verulam Writers’ Circle had become a lot stronger and more fiction-focused – and online.
But maybe it was simply that this time I was ready. And the other thing, of course, is that even when I wasn’t writing fiction, something inside me had never really given up and was always looking for the chance to get going again.