Saturday, 11 June 2016


If you are a young writer today - twentysomething, teenager or even younger - you've picked a great time, let me say.

So much information, literally at your fingertips, not just about writing but everything ever in the whole world! So many forums and societies of like-minded folk to belong to, many of them free or at least pretty darn cheap! So many blogs written by real, actually famous authors, sharing their wisdom and experience and giving you the opportunity to 'talk' back to them! And if you want to show the world something you've written, these days you don't have to go cap-in-hand to one of the Big Six, begging them to please please take a look at your stuff, or pay some vanity publishing company squillions to make you a cardboard boxful of your masterpiece to store in your garage for eternity. You can publish it yourself via Amazon, or post it online at sites like Wattpad and Smashwords or a tonne of others.

All of which means that most young writers today are a darn sight more savvy about getting their work out there than I ever was as a young 'un. Back then, the internet was probably something you caught fish from other countries in, a tablet was what you got from the doctor when you had a nasty infection and a blog was the noise someone made when they threw up (yep, it was that long ago.)  Proper famous authors were an elusive species, enigmas that kept themselves to themselves and only emerged from their magical hobbit-houses blinking in the sunlight for occasional interviews with magazines, radio and television - and even then, they weren't speaking to you, they were speaking to the interviewer. Writing advice and encouragement? Pfffft. Pretty thin on the ground back in those Stone Age times.

Put away your tiny violins please, I'm not wearing my flat cap and waving my cane at you. This isn't going to be a grandma rant about How All You Young 'Uns Have It So Easy These Days - far from it, actually. Because while there is a lot more information and support being passed around for young writers today - and hurray for that - I feel there are some things that aren't said very often, and should be. They're the kind of things most of us oldie writers have learned through experience - the long and often painful way. Some of us are starting to talk about them, a lot - Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog, for example, is a champion of the knowledge that should be screamed from the rooftops but rarely is.

And that's the motive behind this post. If I had a time machine and could go back to my teenage writer-self to give her a list of Things You Need to Know Already about Being a Writer, this is what I would put on that list. It's the stuff I wish it hadn't taken me twenty-odd years to figure out.

1 - Finish what you start.

So easy to say it sounds like a no-brainer the second it flies out of your mouth - but so much harder to do in reality. Especially when each day brings new ideas fluttering through your head like butterflies,  oh so pretty and enticing... so you put aside the thing you're working on to chase the new, shiny-pretty thing. Until that one gets old and another shiny-pretty flutters by...

Before you know it you've got a drawer or hard drive full of half-finished pieces, languishing in eternal limbo. Oh, you have good intentions to come back to them again - someday. But someday never comes. (It doesn't, trust me - I've got half-finished novels that I started a full fifteen years ago, still sitting there crying "Pick me! Oh please pick me!" every time they see me poking my face inside their little folder-home. They're still waiting, and are likely to be doing so for a long time yet.)

I'm not saying I never finished anything I wrote when I was a young writer. Short stories? I finished quite a few of them (even got a few published.) Lyrics? I finished loads of them (even managed to write a full set for two stage musicals.) But short stories and lyrics are 100-yard sprints compared to the marathon that is a full-length novel. That takes some serious endurance, and when the finishing line is still too far ahead to see with the naked eye it's easy to believe it's not there at all, and just give up.

You have to believe that finish line is there - even when you can't see it. And the only way to motivate yourself to keep heading for it is to....

2 - Treat writing like a job.

I loved to write, I really did. And because it was something I loved doing, I very quickly fell into the trap of believing it was something I should always enjoy doing, every time I deigned to plop my creative ass in front of a computer or notepad. Whenever I felt inspired I would let the words pour forth and create magic! And when I didn't... I'd play World of Warcraft instead. Or watch a film on telly. Or do pretty much anything other than writing. After all, what was the point in trying to write when I just didn't feel in the mood for it? I couldn't possibly produce anything decent that way, could I?

However much you love it, writing is work. Hard work, if you want to be any good at it. If you only want to write as a hobby, to fill your free time amusing yourself with no serious intent for others to ever read your work, by all means write only when you're feeling the good vibes. But if you want to be published at some point - well, you won't achieve that in the soft play area, kiddo. You gotta pay your dues, clock up the hours and work your way up the ladder, like you would in any other, real-world job. Writing whenever you feel inspired is easy - but writing even when it feels like the last thing you want to do is what separates the dreamers from the doers.

So you have to treat it like a real-world job, which means agreeing your contracted hours and allocated duties and showing up accordingly, on time and ready to graft. You don't have to show up every day, or for a full-on 9-to-5 day, but whether you go full or part-time it needs to be regular and a 100% commitment - even if it's only for your half-hour lunch break Monday to Friday. Sick leave, domestic disasters and holidays are of course allowed - but not ducking out because you're just not feeling it today.

I know, I know - you're a creative and it just doesn't work like that. And you're right, it doesn't. At first. But the longer you force yourself to stick to it, the better you become at sticking to it - to the point where you'll eventually start feeling antsy and vaguely guilty if you try to skip a session. And that's exactly what you're aiming for. If I'm making it sound like I'm trying to suck the fun out of a writing career... well, good. Because that's the reality - writing isn't always fun. Sometimes it's a slog and a chore. But still worth it - always worth it.

3 - Track your progress.

But yeah, I still just made it sound like a massive, fun-sucking chore, didn't I? So what's needed is a little motivation to keep you running on that hamster-wheel, and showing you just how worth it all that effort truly is. And nothing does that better than numbers, baby.

So set yourself targets and aim to meet them; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. But make them realistic - nothing ridiculous that sounds great but you have no chance in Hell of achieving, because that's worse than having no target at all. Start with time first; resolve to sit down and write for, say one whole hour a day. Then do it and record how many words you wrote in that time. Do it a few more times until you can get a clear average number of words per hour you could consistently produce, and then look at your timetable of hours per week you've set aside for writing (as per Number #2 on this list) to work out how many words you're likely to produce in total. Then commit to achieving it, week in, week out (barring ill-health and domestic emergencies, obviously.)

Review your targets every once in a while, and if you're showing a pattern of beating them/not meeting them, adjust accordingly. You should be always aiming to challenge yourself without over-reaching to heights you can't achieve.

You can record your results in a spreadsheet if you want, viewable only by you. However, if you like the idea of joining a group of like-minded folks, indulging in a little friendly competition and mutual support, there are doggone flippin' fabulous sites like MyWriteClub, where you can set your own writing goals and indulge in online 'writing sprints,' in real-time with other writers. You can see your word count racking up as you write, along with other fellow 'sprinters,' and send and receive congratulatory messages in Chat. Writing can be a lonely old business, and nothing motivates like mutual support.

However you choose to do it, it's seeing those numbers in black and white that will spur you on and keep you writing. The average novel is 100,000 words, which might sound huge and impossible to reach if you've never written anything that large before. But once you start seeing that you're regularly banging out even 5,000 words a month (which is not much more than 1,000 a week - pretty doable with a regular writing schedule)... well, it doesn't look quite so daunting, does it?

4 - Save EVERYTHING you write. Yep, even the terrible stuff.

Here's the painful truth; in the early years of your writing journey, what you produce will not be good. You might not believe it now - you may be able to think of a few pieces you've written only recently that are actually pretty damn good and the best you've ever written, thank you very much - and I will say "Suuuure, forget I said anything then," and pat you on the head.

But then you will dig them up a few years later and read them again, and you'll realise I was right. Without me ever even reading them, I was right. Because even if you're already a bloody marvellous writer right now, you're still not as good as you will be in, say, a years' time, or five years' time - provided you keep practising, and learning, and striving to improve, of course. And part of that process of learning and improving is... writing an awful lot of crap first.

But in order to know what your own, personal interpretation of crap is, you have to give yourself the opportunity to perceive it as crap - and you can only do that if you can actually see it years later, in all its brown-hued glory. For all those future-moments when you doubt yourself as a writer and worry that you'll never make the grade, going all misty-eyed over the turds of your past is a wonderful thing. It gives you hope. There it is, the proof that you really have levelled up from the wooden-penned noob you once were.

Another reason is that it helps you discover who you really are as a writer. You may find that it takes you aaaaages to complete a novel for the first time. As in, years of false starts and aborted attempts that never get beyond Chapter Five (sticking my own hand up right now...) Or you may find every novel you do write gets universally rejected for the first few years. In both cases, this is often because you haven't figured out what 'your stories' are yet - the stories your writer-soul desperately wants to tell as opposed to the stories your wanting-to-be-a-published-writer-brain is saying you 'should' tell. Those clues to your writer-soul will be hidden in all your previous work, like a psychological treasure map; recurring themes, characters that share distinctly similar personality traits, and familiar questions that keep cropping up. It might (no, scratch that - it will) takes years of collecting, but only by trawling through your previous works and gathering up those pearls will you finally discover the parts that make you the writer you are.

5 - There will be times when you absolutely freakin' HATE writing. And that's totally okay.

I absolutely love Redemption, my current w-i-p. Love the story, utterly love the characters - even the bad guys - and love the progress I'm making with it.

Except of course on the days when I hate it so much I want to drop-kick it in the 'nads and punch its stupid drooling-chimp face. On those days, it feels like every word I type is the incoherent ranting of a drunk who's had a DIY lobotomy, and my whole plot is a stinky pile of recycled barf that's already been done a million times before a million times better and why am I even doing this anyway, because no-one's ever gonna want to read this festering heap of garbage...

I've felt the same way about short stories and lyrics I've written too (to this day, there are lyrics I wrote for one particular musical number years ago which I can still flip between loving and hating on a day-to-day basis, depending on my mood, the weather, heck I dunno...)

And you will have days like that too - days where you'll look at whatever you're writing and think "Why am I even bothering? This is truly awful, and titanium-coated proof that I'm never ever going to make the grade as a writer." You'll want to rebel. An urge to throw the work aside and stomp away in a massive huff will overcome you, and you might decide to give up on all of it - screw writing and screw being a writer, it's too damned hard for too little reward!

You'll come back though. Maybe in a day or two, maybe in a few months time. But you will come back, because the real writers always do.

And when you do, don't feel bad about that thing you did when you were angry - you didn't mean all those things you said, we know that. We love our spouses, kids and other family members to death but that doesn't mean they don't occasionally drive us screaming, spitting mad - and it's the same with writing. You're allowed to fall out with it sometimes and lock yourself in your room, refusing to come out until it sorts its stoopid attitude out. It doesn't mean you don't have the stuff in you to become a 'proper writer' (hell, if it did there would be no writers at all in the history of ever, since even the great and the good will have kicked their toys out of the pram at least once in their lives.)

Sometimes taking a step away from writing for a while will even be necessary. Life has a funny way of randomly throwing steaming piles of brown stuff at you, whether in the form of periods of extreme stress, traumatic events or debilitating illness (either physical or mental.) In those circumstances, your health and well being has to come first. If stepping away from writing is what you need to do to get through whatever you're going through, then of course you must do it. No-one will condemn you or 'question your commitment' (and if they do they're not worth listening to.) Writing's not going anywhere. Unlike some kinds of people, it's a faithful love, and will be waiting for you when you're ready to return to it again.

So there you have it - that's the list I would give to Teenage Me. All I have to do now is figure out a way to post it into The Past...

Thing is, would I even have listened anyway? I remember Teenage Me. She got advice on a variety of subjects from lots of older people, and while she was very polite and smiled and nodded in all the right places, I knew deep down she was thinking "This is great, but you don't know me." I wasn't arrogant enough to think I knew it all, I just felt their advice could only work for the smart and confident - for those who had their shit together. And I didn't believe I was any of those things as a teenager.

So if you're a young writer, I wouldn't blame you if you felt the same way about my list. I'll admit there's plenty on here I wouldn't exactly have been thrilled to hear back then either - it sounds like a lot of work and heartache at times. But I'd still hand them to my younger self anyway, because I've had enough years of learning the hard way that they do make sense, and if I could save myself that bother I would. And I'd quite like to save you that bother too, if I can.

Just sayin'.

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