I just finished watching Giles Coren’s documentary, My Failed Novel, which was both entertaining and full of advice for aspiring novelists. Reading mass-market bestsellers and the literary greats for inspiration is all very well and good, but it’s just as helpful to look at novels that flopped and why, so you can avoid making the same mistakes.
Coren’s first and only novel, Winkler, is the definition of a flop: the hardback sold fewer than 800 copies, which as someone working in publishing I can confirm is dismal. It received either lukewarm or brutal reviews. What’s more, he was given a £30,000 advance for the novel. Thirty grand! There’s no way he earned out that advance. His publisher must be kicking themselves, because this is a classic example of banking on the author’s celebrity profile (and it not paying off). Ultimately, any sane person would rather read a good novel by a nobody than a crap novel by a somebody.
Coren realises over the course of the documentary that this was his biggest problem: because of who he is, he was able to get his first ‘proper’ novel – the one that should have stayed in the drawer – published. Most of us won’t face the same problem. I’m glad that agents rejected my last novel, because I realise now that it didn’t deserve to be published. It was a first draft. It needed to be rewritten five more times, which I didn’t have the energy to do. If somebody had taken a chance on it, they would have done me a great disservice; the novel would certainly have flopped, and probably put me off novel writing for good. That’s the first thing I took from the documentary: don’t try to publish until you’re 100% ready.
How do you know you’re 100% ready? Feedback, feedback, feedback. Coren takes the opening of his novel to a workshop with a group of UEA Creative Writing students, and they decimate it. He looks like he’s going to cry. He’s been published and the students haven’t, but they know much more about the craft of writing than he does. The documentary is a good sell for creative writing courses; even Hanif Kureishi (charming, friendly and upbeat as always in his interview with Coren), who in the past has said Creative Writing MAs are a waste of money, admits that you can’t teach someone to write, but you can teach them to write better. Coren thought about a writing course, but decided he didn’t need one, presumably because his talent would be ruined by too much artifice.
That leads to another point I took from the documentary: another of Coren’s mistakes was that he had an Idea of Himself As a Writer. The major concept of Winkler, he confesses, was Me, with a story bolted on. This is a classic first novel mistake, and one I definitely made in my first ‘serious’ novel (which, shockingly, was about an English Literature graduate living in London frustrated at her failure to have a literary career… because everybody wants to read that). Good writing always has to be about telling a story, and nothing else; the writer’s ego shouldn’t get in the way. Some aspiring writers think that if you dress a certain way, talk a certain way, sit in certain coffee shops reading certain books, attend the right events and hang out with the right people, you are therefore a Writer – without doing very much actual writing. When Coren’s novel flopped, his Idea of Himself as a Writer became wrapped up in his sense of failure, which prevented him from trying to write another. I sensed that by the end of his journey he’d started to recover from that, and understands now what he needs to do to write a better novel. I hope he tries again.
As always, determination and dedication emerged as essential qualities for a writer; Coren didn’t have enough. Jeffrey Archer appears on the documentary, being (in my view) rather irritating, telling Coren off for not writing enough and telling us about his amazingly disciplined schedule, where he writes in two-hour intervals all day every day from six in the morning to ten at night. If you have the luxury of being a full-time writer (with an amazing glass-walled flat overlooking the Thames, might I add) that must be easy to maintain, but for those of us who have full-time jobs are are tired all the time, we have to squeeze in bouts of writing wherever we can. I take his point, though: if you’re serious about writing, you have to use whatever time you do have to write, write, write.
Coren also faces up to his harshest critic, Stephen Bayley, who criticised the novel’s ‘lavatorial awfulness’. This part was mostly banter between critic and victim, with Coren choosing which of Bayley’s kitchen knives he would use to get revenge, but one fascinating (and saddening) thing that came out of it is that Bayley didn’t actually read the entire novel. I had no idea that’s the way it worked – how can you be qualified to comment on a novel unless you’ve read the entire thing? – but there go you. I suppose if your novel is good enough to critic will want to read it from cover to cover… Also, Coren’s joyless mirth as he shows us his Bad Sex Award – the plaster foot covered in moss he keeps beside his garden shed, which will be the legacy his grandchildren remember him for – was rather tragic. I admire him for being able to laugh at himself all the more because you can see how it pains him at the same time.
I’d strongly recommend anyone who wants to write or is writing a novel watch My Failed Novel. It’s refreshing to see someone face up to their own inadequacy in such a brutally honest but also light-hearted way; you don’t get the sense Coren’s doing this because he wants to boost his measly sales (the novel’s out of print, after all) but because he genuinely wants to learn from his failure. It’s a human journey, but also full of practical advice from writers, critics, agents, publishers and ordinary readers. If only more writers would own up and admit their novels aren’t all that…