Deconstructing: Susanna Clarke

I asked some writer friends recently who they’d be interested in me doing a deconstruction of the career on, and one person suggested Susanna Clarke. Somehow, I’d never heard of this person, at least consciously, so she was explained to me thusly:

She found herself in a writing group with the man who would publish her one book (so far) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. She managed to get Gaiman’s attention along with Patrick Hayden. Anyway, the novel was a HUGE success (they just made a very good BBC show out of it), but as to date–she hasn’t written another book, although she says she is currently writing a sequel. That book was published in 2004 and it took her about five-ten years to write it. Also, she’s 55 years old. – Jasmine Brennan

Now, that’s a pretty interesting pitch for an author that one has never heard of. So,  got down to researching Clarke, and that actually led me to the first big lesson of this deconstruction.

Your Audience Will Never Know Your Full Story

This one is fascinating, and I think a big thing that in the age of blogs and social media and sharing, everyone assumes that everyone else is going to know their story. And even if you share an absolute ton, they won’t. Its the signal to noise problem – if you want your story about who you are to be out there as part of your narrative, lots of it is going to get lost in the shuffle.

While Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was her first book, it was neither the first thing she had written, nor her first experience with writing or publishing. Its very easy to forget that short story publications are still a thing, and many people in your audience aren’t necessarily going to know about them until you publish your own collection.

Stephen King, in his book on writing, talks about a perfectly respectable career path for a writer consisting of writing short stories until you get some recognition and publications, then that will help get an agent and get your book sold when the time comes. Now, this position’s strength as the “best” way to do it is arguably at the weakest it has ever been with many authors going straight to digital, but its certainly a fascinating approach to see it being the one that Clarke followed.

Prior to her novel’s publication, she actually has seven publication credit and one award short-listing. Three of these were in the first and second volume of an anthology series, two of these were writing in Gaiman universes (Sandman and Stardust). These, however, are so easy to overlook for someone looking on from an early stage in their career wondering how her first novel took off so well. Part of it has to have been time honing her craft on these shorter works, all published between 1996 and 2001, and during that entire period she developed and honed the main manuscript that would become Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Tied to this is how easy it is to forget that she has talked about trying to write before the ten years that were spent on her first published novel. In interviews she has mentioned other novels that she attempted to write but ultimately fell apart for one reason or another.

Friends, Colleagues, and Self-Improvement

This is another great lesson that we’ve seen before – many a great writer is able to maximize their potential and do well by having friends and colleagues that can help them out. Its the matter of the difference between having a good work but having difficulty telling the world, and being able to quickly get the word out. In her case, she attended a writer’s course in 1993 where she wrote her first short story. One of the teachers liked her short story and sent it along to Neil Gaiman, who loved it and, in turn, sent it along to Patrick Nielsen Hayden where it was eventually picked up for publication in his anthology. 

There’s a lot of great lessons here. Clarke had a background in publishing, eight years on the more business side, and then also editing cookbooks from 1993 until 2003, with other work experience in there as well, so she had some background skills coming in. She was not, however, too proud to go into a writing course and find ways to improve. Also tied to this is a willingness to invest in her writing and her career as a writer. She wanted to improve and be as good as she could be, and was willing to do whatever it took to get there.

Research, Research, Research

A major contributor to the success of the novel, from Clarke’s crediting, is the research that went into it. While writers can so easily make things up, research often allows us to know when we’ve made things up and to make up believable things. She talks about two major topics that she had to research for her novel – fairies of the British Isles (a topic I’ve also researched and written about) and the Napoleonic War (I’ve really been meaning to). Her research also informed her about little additions to the novel that make it more compelling and a deeper story in subtle ways.

1) Plant Seeds, 2) Care for them, 3) Wait

All this demonstrates the phenomenally different approaches that authors and writers can take. Some authors start work and get their novel out the door quickly, others are the kind that polish it behind the scenes and work. Neither method seems to be inherently better or worse, but almost no one is an overnight success. It is easy to say “Wow, Clarke wrote one novel and she’s made it!” but we’re not seeing the decade behind the scenes of writing, researching, and polishing it. We aren’t seeing the frustrated nights and days on previous novels and ideas that came to nothing. Becoming successful takes time, and it takes patience. Being willing to put the time in means that you too can be a ten year overnight success.

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