Advice To A Young Writer

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Last month, I heard from a young writer whom I taught a couple of years ago at Winchester University (England). She said she’d realized that the thing she most wanted in life was to be a writer, and she asked if I had any advice for her. Well, I’ve spent two decades or so thinking about this, so she got probably more than she expected! In case it’s useful for anyone else, here’s what I said.

Hi [xxxx],

Welcome to the dark side! Being a writer for life will bring you heartache, frustration, suffering, and probably very little money. But it’s the best job there is and welcome to it! I’m glad you feel able to commit now, after your trip around the world. Sounds like it truly did allow you to find yourself.

When I was about your age, I did roughly what you’re doing now: being at home with my parents, working a not-high-powered job, and trying to be a writer. I found I couldn’t do it. I say that not to discourage you, because it is possible to succeed, but to point out that it’s hard and needs careful planning. From the viewpoint of almost 20 years later, I think I can give you some tips that will help you avoid the slough I got into.

I think it’s good you’re working in retail. It’s good to be working a job that gets you out seeing a lot of people every day (I assume!). Everything you do and see and notice at a job like that can be used later in your writing, but more importantly, it keeps you in contact with a real world outside your head and your writing, which is immensely valuable psychologically. AND, if it’s the kind of retail I’m thinking, it’s great that it’s not the kind of job that offers a prestigious career path or anything. If you want to write, the last thing you need when you’re starting is a job that will compete for your dedication and dreams and passion. As novelist Toby Litt once said at a reading I attended, as a writer you need a dead-end job, so that writing is your way out and you give it everything.

So here are some tips, not especially in order.

  1. Set big goals
  2. Set deadlines
  3. Gather a community
  4. Write every day
  5. Serve an apprenticeship
  6. Make submissions
  7. Read
  8. Go to Things

I’ll take them one by one.

Set Big Goals

I don’t know exactly what kind of writer you want to be, but whatever you think now (and it may change), set tall targets for yourself. If you want to be a fiction writer, write a novel. Write 2 novels, or a series of ten! Having a big goal that lasts for a long time is easier to stay motivated for than writing lots of small things, and not really knowing where you’re headed. It doesn’t much matter at the start what you commit to – novel, collection of linked stories, themed poetry collection, non fiction book: what matters is that you commit to something and then do it. You’ll learn an immense amount, and you will be writing. If you’re meant to write something else, you’ll find your way to it in time. (I thought I was going to be a novelist).

Set deadlines

As you know from university, nothing motivates writing like a deadline. If you don’t have external deadlines, set yourself some. Daily, weekly, monthly, and annual deadlines are all useful. And most useful of all is sharing your deadlines with someone else who can hold you accountable and nag, wheedle, inspire and threaten you into meeting them. Which leads me to…

Gather community

Writing is hard and it helps to have people around. It doesn’t have to be a huge number: just a couple of really good writing supporters could be enough. They also don’t have to be physically near you; internet contact is fine. What matters is that they are people you trust, who will encourage you when you’re down, keep you writing, and be happy about your successes. If they can also give you a clear eye on the quality of your work, that could be helpful too.

Write every day

If you can manage it, 2 hours a day is perfect. If you can’t do 7 days a week, get as close as you can (I manage 5 at best, having small kids). If you can’t manage 2 hours, try to write at least something, like the daily observation journal I got you keeping in your first year at Winchester.

Serve an apprenticeship

You learned something about writing in your degree. However, there is still a lot more you need to learn. (There is always more we can learn). I find it helps to set out thinking about practicing and learning, rather than expecting myself to make great stuff straight away. You can learn a lot from small children in this respect, if you know any: they generally are more concerned about mastering a process than about the quality of the result. If You can be the same way, you’ll benefit in the long run. Novelist Emma Darwin, whose blog is an excellent source of thinking about writing, says she wrote several novels – 4 or 5 I think – before she had any idea what she was doing. They were all unpublished, of course. Give yourself time to learn (the popular figure is 10,000 hours of work, though I don’t know if that’s true) and don’t put pressure on the results.

Send out for publication

Having said that, you should submit your work to agents and editors as soon as you’ve got something. Nothing makes me feel more professional as a writer than making submissions: it makes me feel part of the world of writing, and therefore gives more meaning to what I’m doing.

Focus on making submissions rather than on getting acceptances. Submissions you can control: acceptances you can’t. You’ll get lots of rejections at first, but that’s just a rite of passage as a writer. (Have you read On Writing by Stephen King? It’s very useful. You should read about his nail of rejection slips, that became a gigantic spike…). Even without acceptances, it makes a difference to know that your work is out there, it’s being read, and when it’s good enough it will be published.

Don’t wait till your work feels ready, because it will never feel ready. Just send it out. Set yourself a deadline and send it out, no matter what. A target every month is a good idea if you write short works, like poems or short stories. See this blog post by poet Jo Bell also.

Read

Read everything you can, especially in the field you want to be published in. Read classics, read contemporaries, read important writers, read unknowns that you discover.

Go To Things

Go to readings, book launches, anything you can get to. Hearing writers will help you learn, and you might meet someone who can help you professionally or creatively. And do it as much as you can while you’re young and single—it gets much harder once other commitments come into your life.

And here’s what the student said back:

I think a lot of people need to hear your advice. When you Google advice for creative writing graduates there’s nothing no help at all! Being a student was definitely some of the best years of my life and I’m sure my fond memories will never fail, but it is very important for us writers to keep writing. I always remember the excitement, the thrill of writing at uni and imagining getting published, but after I left uni I didn’t know what to write. I had too high expectations. And then I would do anything but pick up the pen. Young writers need to know this is normal, but they shouldn’t allow the negative voices in their heads to win! We write because we choose to write. That’s what I now believe. If we think that we write because we feel we must if there is any emotional attachment to our needs then for all the days when we don’t feel like writing or don’t feel like we can then we won’t. I guess students need to remember the core thing they learnt at uni is the relationship between creativity and discipline. Without these two things there would be no degree and no continuous flow of the ink right???