Next Monday my first book will have been out for eight years. That means that I’ll have been an official, published, author for that length of time. Which will also mean that I’m getting old. It’s also over eight years since I ran my first writing workshop – that happened in the May of 2006. I’m not usually one to give unsolicited advice and I’m certainly not famous or super-successful, but I thought that, being as I’ve been doing this a while (eight years, a whole bunch of short stories published in some very fine places, as well as four books out with another two to come in the coming months) that I’d share a bit about what I’ve learned.
1 Don’t take all the advice you read as gospel. I’ve seen plenty of advice, in magazines and on the internet, and I’d say probably 80% isn’t worth listening to. Not that it’s bad. Whoever’s written it (no matter their qualifications or publication history) will, no doubt, mean it. And it’s stuff that works for them. But there’s your problem, folks. They’re not you. You need to find what works for you. Experiment. Try different methods. Lose the ones that don’t give you results and keep the ones that do. It’s product that matters, not process.
2 Don’t rush. Unless you’re on deadline or doing something for a themed competition there’s absolutely no rush. Agents, editors, and publishers have enough to read (and publish et al) so it won’t bother them when the next Harry Potter reaches them. And you can, and should, use that to your advantage. Take your time. Give your stories time to cook. Give your ideas (the ingredients to your story recipe) time to ripen. Make them the best they can be. Spend time editing. A lot. Trust your stories and your own judgement. And then give them the best next Harry Potter they could have dreamed of.
3 Don’t take rejection to heart. It’s NOT personal. Here’s a fact (and I know this because I’ve judged competitions and edited for mags): GOOD STORIES, PUBLISHABLE STORIES, GET REJECTED. And for a whole bunch of reasons. Often, it’s simply because an editor will have slightly preferred something else or have already chosen or recently published something similar. If you’re rejected, go through it again, see if it can be improved, and send it back out. Or not. Because…
4 Some stories are shit. Some stories simply don’t work. Some wonderful ideas don’t make good stories, for some reason – we don’t know why. I may have been published in some great places, had collections out etc, but I know that I still write some stinkers. It’s okay. So do most people. Don’t forget that nothing’s wasted. Sometimes you try and you fail. Sometimes that thing you were going to write doesn’t work but turns into something better. Sometimes that good idea will be percolating while we’re writing something that won’t work. And who’s to say that you can’t go back to it later? Your story, you’re in control.
5 Being published does not make you a better writer. Sure, it can give you credibility, and money. And it certainly acts as a confidence booster that someone’s prepared to invest their money in your work, and, if you’re lucky, that people buy it and enjoy it. But here’s the thing: the stories in, say, Not So Perfect were all written before they came out in that book. Them being in a book doesn’t make them, or me, better. That next Booker winner may be being edited as we speak by someone who’s never had anything published in their life, which is why it’s important, if you are lucky enough to be in print, to not look down on those who aren’t. That’s arrogance, and that doesn’t look good on many people.
6 That said, with being published comes scrutiny. Accept that not everyone will like what you write. Accept that people might not be interested in what you choose to do as a job. Also accept, because this kind of a job isn’t particularly a typical one, that people will want to ask you questions about it, so don’t moan when they do. Especially if they ask you if you’ve had anything published, or if you’re famous. Oh yeah, and just because they ask, don’t expect them to want to buy your book.
7 Please don’t ever tell anyone how they should interpret your work. You have no control over what they think. They’re their minds. All you can do is write the best story you can and leave it to them. Trust them. People are clever.
8 Be nice to people. Be humble. Don’t patronise. One, because writing and publishing is a pretty small circle – if you’re a dick to someone there’s a good chance you’ll come across them again. And two, because bad news travels fast. A silly reaction to a bad review or of someone taking an age to get back to you might make you look a bit silly. And unprofessional. And don’t forget, folks, that this is a profession. (It could, of course, also ruin your career. Be careful. Be professional.)
9 Write YOUR stories YOUR way. Because what makes them special is YOU. That’s what sets them apart from the rest. That’s what makes them different. Experiment. Have fun. Enjoy the process (even when it gets difficult, which it often will, and should). Be yourself. That’s how you find your voice.
10 Take it seriously. I’ve already touched on this but you should really treat it as a job. That means doing the admin, when necessary. Being careful what you say on social media etc. That means BACKING UP.
11 But not TOO seriously. For me, for example, forcing myself to write every day just doesn’t work. While I accept that it works splendidly for loads of others, I don’t like to have that pressure and, more importantly, I dislike the idea of writing for the sake of it. When you’ve got something to write work damned hard on it, sure. But, for me, the best stuff’s the stuff that isn’t forced. Also – don’t let writing consume you. There are other important things in life. Family, lovers, friends, walks, cake. Often, the best ideas hit you when you’re not expecting them.
12 Never forget that it’s the writing that’s the most important thing. And by that I mean it shouldn’t matter where you live or who you know. Publishers and magazines want good writing because that’s what the public want and what they buy. The writing should speak for itself. I’m not denying that moving to London, for example, will give you the chance to network and mingle, to go to events and to share your work at readings etc, but living somewhere else ain’t the end of the world.
14 And I think that’s about it for now. There are probably loads of things I’ve missed out or forgotten. I may add to this list if something else pops into my head. In the meantime – keep writing. Keep believing. Don’t give up. And have fun.
15 Lastly – see number 1.