Thank you, The Bestseller Experiment

I think I’ve always been a writer. My mother likes to talk about the poetry and short stories I wrote when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Certainly for as long as I can remember, I have been creating stories, characters, conversations, scenes and even entire fictional worlds, and lived so deeply in my favourite books that it feels, looking back, as if fiction was more real to me than reality.

When I discovered Gogol and Kafka in my teens, I knew that all I wanted to do was to write. Nothing else. But life and circumstance intervened and, anyway, I did not have enough confidence in me, let alone my writing, to actually finish anything and send it off to be scrutinised and rejected. My fragile ego was not up to that test.

At university, I felt that maybe I wasn’t so alone in being a delicate flower with creative pretensions, and I started to write in earnest, finishing a novel loosely based on my life. Quite rightly, my then girlfriend trashed it as being derivative, lazy and insufficiently mature (those were my three principle characteristics at the time, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I turned out a book like that). Instead of seeing her comments as a challenge to do better, they confirmed by worst fears of myself, and I put aside writing, deciding that my ambitions and desires were misplaced and out of step with my abilities.

Years passed. I wrote bits and pieces. Nothing much. Nothing of note. But the ideas piled up and up, and my head was brimming with stories, characters, conversations and scenes that needed an outlet. I wrote micro-short stories at the end of all my emails, I created flights of fancy in conversation, and I felt more and more as if my actual life and my desired life were drifting further and further apart.

Eventually, I started a literary blog, writing ponderous and pretentious articles about London, a city that puzzled and infuriated me at the time. Then another blog, on another topic, quickly abandoned. I wrote a satirical news feed inspired by The Onion, The Day Today and The Sunday Format, where I churned out story after story mocking politicians and the world of newspaper journalism. Again, abandoned, especially as the explosion of the internet meant that everything was increasingly lost in the white noise. No feedback is hard to handle when you have a fragile ego.

Then I set myself a challenge. To write a literary blog – with short stories, mini sagas, poetry, and snippets of fiction called Excerpts from Lost Novels, as well as other scraps and drawings – on which I would post something original every day for one year. It was called The Marching Band Emporium, and was in some ways a success, and in others a failure. The successful part was that I managed to keep it up for the year, give or take a day or two. The unsuccessful part was that I realised, probably for the first time, that creative writing needs repeated revisits and time to gestate if it is to stand a chance of ever becoming good. Oh, and no-one noticed it, at least as far as I knew.

Enter stage left a new friend with whom I wrote screenplays intensely for several years until we realised that the idea of getting anything made without already having a reputation is literally zero (a real Catch-22 if there ever was one). I then decided that I needed to do was go back to the beginning and pursue my first real ambition: to write novels that people loved.

A few months later, I was writing a novel, called Escape, based on a script I had written, when my friend told me about a podcast that he reckoned could be interesting and maybe even helpful.

It was, and is, called The Bestseller Experiment. In it, one Mark (Desvaux) had unfulfilled literary ambitions and the other Mark (Stay) had had some success and had worked in publishing for twenty years, but they both wanted to write a bestseller, together. The tricky part for them was that they started a podcast to talk about them doing that, and gave themselves just one year from starting it to it being published. No pressure.

Slowly, over the course of the year, once I had caught up on the five episodes I’d missed, they took me on a journey, through frank and honest exchanges with each other and fascinating interviews with successful authors, publishers, agents and other industry insiders, that completely changed my life. They showed me not only that I was not alone in having fears about my abilities and myself but also that those fears can, and should, be overcome.

They also showed me that it is possible to learn how to navigate the world of publishing, and to be honest with yourself about your creations. They showed me how to find people to work with to make the best book possible and to be comfortable with taking on feedback, and they showed me that treating writing like any kind of work and bringing that same level of professionalism does not mean that the ‘creative’ side of it need be compromised.

In short, they showed me how to be a real writer. (Oh, and they published their own brilliant book within the deadline and it deservedly became a bestseller.)

A few months ago, I sent an email to Mark Stay saying how grateful I was to them and that, as a result of their help, I had published my first collection: Dear Lucifer and Other Stories. I started falling behind on episodes of the podcast, but a couple of weeks ago, I heard Mark give me a shout out. It was quite emotional to hear him say my name and talk about my work. I felt, in that moment, that my journey to become a professional creative writer had been completed, and now all I had to do was to carry on and write all those books I’ve had swimming around in my head for far too long.

Now, I am halfway through launching my next collection, No Way Home, Escape is in its fifth draft, and I have started work on my second full-length novel.

So this post is really to say thank you to the two Marks, not only for their honesty in their quest to learn for everyone’s benefit but also for their kindness and dedication to us, the writers out there who need a gentle kick up the backside every week to get us over the line and into the life we want.

Andrew