Setting off on a career as a writer without checking how things work is a little like driving a car without reading the handbook. You’ve got the talent and the push. It’s in you and it has to come out. You are into fifth gear before you know it and roaring down the Motorway with a grin on your chops. But if you’d bothered to read up before you flew then you’d be able to set cruise control and adjust the air con. You’d know how to change the music from the steering column. Would know where the heated rear window button was, and, come to that, might have checked your tyre pressures and understood that this has a diesel engine which didn’t run on unleaded, the stuff with which you were now about to fill up.
One of the last things many new writers buy is the annual Writer’s Handbook from Macmillan. At £14.99 a go you can see why. Yet this yellow doorstop compendium of advice and addresses makes pretty essential reading. If you expect to go anywhere other than the end of the street with your stuff then you really should consult it.
The new 2010 edition has just appeared and covers everything from UK and USA publisher listings to prizes, details of literary societies, listings of agents, regional newspapers, TV producers and information on those swirling pools of misinformation, electronic publishing and the future of the book.
Chris Hamilton-Emery, the man behind Salt publishing, contributes a tight and accurate survey of the poetry scene. General editor Barry Turner visits international book fairs – “A word of advice to any author who is thinking of attending a book fair. Don’t.” Nick Hodder covers comedy. Ian Spring explains tax and accounting.
There is also a timely piece on how not to write a novel. “The myth of the lonely, misunderstood writer against the world, destined eventually to emerge triumphant, endures partly by virtue of the occasional exceptions that prove the rule.” The reality is that most failing writers will continue to fail. The big lottery of metropolitan success and bestsellerdom sits out there like gold at the end of the rainbow. You turn up at the corner shop each week and buy more tickets. But you never win. “As a writer you only have one job: to make the reader turn the page.” And to that I’d add that first of all you have to make them pick up the book.
Are there too many writers out there? Maybe. But the activity can generate desirable feelings of self-worth and, for many, do something to fix and explain why it is that we are what we are. Literature can be life enhancing. Buy the Handbook. Let’s have more.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 15th August, 2009