Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Similarly, there are many ways in which a writer can achieve success — usually through a combination of luck, talent and connections — but the majority of writers struggle to work that combination to their own benefit. Not least because some of the factors affecting a writer's success are beyond their control e.g. market trends like those that led to the rise of the vampire romance novel, cue Twilight Saga. So the simple (and rather unsatisfactory) answer to this question is that there is really no way for a writer to guarantee his or her success!
Having said that, there are ways in which writers can improve their odds of success. For a start, there is no excuse for failing to show up at your desk on a regular basis, and doing the work to the best of your abilities. To claim that writers are entirely at the mercy of the muse, and subject to the whims and caprices of the aforementioned muse, is at the very least somewhat disingenuous. At worst, it is borderline delusional.
Most of the time, like other activities, writing is a question of buckling down and getting on with it. Of course, the quality of the work you produce does vary, and that can sometimes be a source of considerable aggravation. But nothing is more designed to ensure failure than procrastination in the name of sitting around and waiting for the muse. The muse is like a cat — neediness turns her off!
Along similar lines, a young writer insisted that he could only work while he was on vacation, because that was the only time he ever felt inspired. Given how little of our lives is spent on holiday, such a precondition is unlikely to bode well for any writer's potential productivity...
As beginners, writers often feel frustrated that their stories are riddled with flaws. Those with more experience know that flawed first drafts are more or less a given. And however dreadful a first draft is, it gives a writer something to work with. With a draft, at least you have the raw material for a story. In order to produce that first draft though, a degree of discipline and the willingness to work when you least feel like it is essential.
Closely related to this issue of discipline, is an understanding of just how much of writing is actually re-writing. No matter how well somebody writes, it is unlikely that their work will be considered fit to present to a reader, a publisher or a reviewer without multiple rounds of editing and re-working. People tend to feel very differently about that process.
Personally, it is an enormous relief for me to actually have a first draft done. So much so, that my subsequent attempts at re-writing seem far less painful. There are even times when I find the delicate work of trimming and polishing quite pleasurable. But judging from the number of people who have told me that they hate editing, not everyone shares my views.
Notwithstanding that, it is almost impossible to get a story to carry its reader along, to ensure that they are seamlessly caught up in the flow of words, until all its rough edges and split ends have been trimmed off. I am often surprised, and always appalled, when I see people eager to share a first draft that has not even been proofed with respect to its spelling and grammatical flaws, let alone substantively revised so that it displays the story to its best advantage. No writer does themselves a favour in attempting such shortcuts.
In fact, I would argue that the success of any writer who approaches their work with a degree of professionalism depends essentially on their own talent and hard work — supported by a hefty dose of luck. Not on the whims of their Muse.
Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, translator and development worker. The author of Fragments of Riversong and the editor of Lifelines, she has been Writer in Residence with the Commonwealth Writers Website.