Tuesday, 14 June 2011

I Owe My Writing Career to a Hamster

So there I was one Saturday morning, cleaning out the hamster and putting fresh newspaper down to line the bottom of the cage when I saw the ad for a short story writing competition. The closing date was on Monday.

By the time I'd finished sorting out the hamster, I'd come up with an idea for the story. Instead of cleaning the rest of the house I rushed off and belted out my story on the computer. I tarted it up a bit on Sunday, delivered it by hand on Monday. I was so excited, convinced that this was the start of my brilliant writing career.

Months passed. I forgot all about the story competition, and my writing career, brilliant or otherwise.

Then a letter arrived, with a cheque. I'd come second in the competition, and won £50. Suddenly my career was about to be brilliant again. I rattled off a load more stories and entered every competition I could find. I counted out the money I was going to win - plotting that we'd be able to afford a holiday this year.

We didn't go on holiday. My brilliant writing career stalled. I didn't win a single thing. And I suppose this is where personality comes in. If I'd won even one of those competitions I probably wouldn't have carried on. But because I hate being told I can't do something, it makes me more determined to succeed. I set off to write more short stories, enter more competitions, send off stories to magazines. At one point I was writing a story a day, scribbling frantically in gaps between the school run, work and rebuilding the house. (I can remember typing in the kitchen while the builders knocked a hole through the wall to make it open plan. Top tip: Brick dust jams the keyboard.)

And gradually I was shortlisted more often than not. I won a prize or two. Magazines accepted a few of my stories. I learned a lot about writing. And then I decided to write a novel.

But I sometimes wonder: would I have had the impetus to get started if I hadn't been cleaning out the hamster's cage? Do other people get started on this writing road with a chance incident - maybe an encounter that makes them think of a story idea, or something overheard? Perhaps a word of encouragement, or a lucky break, or even reading a book and think 'I could do this better'. I wonder....

8 comments:

Liz Fielding said...

Sarah, I saw a competition on the front cover of a magazine, bought it, got it home and the closing date was the next day. It was for the first 1000 words of a story involving something to do with the rag trade.

I changed a bit of a story I'd started (for the rag trade bit) and sent it off. I won lunch with a Century editor (she took me to L'Escargot in Greek St) who suggested I try Mills and Boon. But the real prize was knowing I could write something good enough to impress an editor. And it gave other people confidence in me, too.

My sixtieth Mills and Boon will be out later this year.

Jill Mansell said...

A magazine did it for me too - I picked one up in the hospital waiting room where I worked and saw an article about women whose miserable impoverished lives had been transformed by becoming best-selling authors. At the time I was pretty impoverished too, so I decided to give it a go and joined an evening class in creative writing...

Sue Ransom said...

Hi Sarah, I was inspired to write so that my daughter could read a book set somewhere that she knew, not in the US. Having never written any fiction before I produced a 90,000 novel on my blackberry and ended up with a 3 book deal. I'm very glad I got annoyed with those American authors!
Sue

Roisin McAuley Lee said...

Hello Sarah, hurrah for hamsters! and hurrah for golf. I was convinced I couldn't write a novel - couldn't go the distance. I was struggling with a screenplay. Then I was commissioned to write a golf guide. When it was finished, I saw that I'd written nearly 80,000 words. My fear of attempting a novel fell away. I put the screenplay into the bin and turned the first scene into a sentence. "We were drinking champagne in the kitchen when the nun telephoned." I was up and away. My fourth novel was published in April. I'm now starting my fifth. Wishing you all the best.

Sarah Duncan said...

I love these stories!

Liz, your competition win was much more impressive than mine (ditto the writing career).

Jill, I hope you've written at least one article about your own journey from impoverishment to best sellerdom.

Wow, Sue, I can't imagine writing 90,000 words on a Blackberry. That's seriously impressive - oh, and the 3 book deal sounds good too.

Roisin, I never thought I'd be saying hurrah for golf, but you're right, realising that you can go the distance with the word count is v inspiring. I wonder how many novels most of us write in a year if they were made of emails, tweets, blogposts etc.

Jane Henry said...

I'm partly here thanks to an English teacher who advised me to get a career in publishing rather then teach English. I duly did so, and had a go at my first romantic short story when I was editing teen fiction and got hooked. Serendipity stepped in again, when I was going off on maternity leave and one of my authors suggested I join the RNA...
But I think without that background in publishing I might never have had the guts to do it, and always thought only special people were writers, not people like me. So thank you Mr Ward. With whom I'm still in contact!

womagwriter said...

I always wanted to write, but was waiting 'till I had the time'. Then one day I realised no one would ever hand me a pile of time on a plate, so if I wanted to write I just needed to sit down and get on with it. Then an idea for a story came to me while I was washing up (nothing to do with washing up though!) so I sat down to write it. An early story was shortlisted in a big competition which made me feel I was not wholly without talent so I kept going, eventually finding a bit of a niche in the women's mags. Now I'm working on an historical novel.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jane, that 'only special people are writers' feeling rings very true with me, but it's interesting that you felt it even though you were in publishing.

You're so right, if you wait until you have time to write you'll never get any done. Think it's important getting a boost early on.