Tag Archives: how to be a writer

A Writer’s Carpetbag

Let’s imagine we have Mary Poppins’ carpetbag. It’s essentially endless, yet totally portable (and sports a snazzy, fashionable print). You can put anything you like into it, up to and including livestock – though it might be an idea not to weigh yourself down too much with excess.

We’re going to put into it all the things we need to be a writer.

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: clothalbatross via Compfight cc

First of all, you need a spark of something impossible. You know those perpetual motion machines that aren’t supposed to exist, in reality? Well, sometimes I think a writer’s self-belief is a bit like one of those machines. It feeds on nothing, gets no input from anywhere, is barely maintained, and yet manages to keep running. So – yes. The first thing in our writer’s carpetbag is: something impossible.

Then, you need courage. Not just the type of courage that lets you take risks, but the type that sees the value in daydreaming and the type that knows how important it is to tell stories and the type that’s not afraid to dive down into the darkest bits of life. You need the sort of courage that means when you end up in a locked room with a minotaur, you don’t go down without a fight. Put your courage in beside your impossible thing, and let them nestle together.

After that, you need enthusiasm. You need to be able to keep yourself enthused in the face of boredom, general disinterest, rejection and even downright hatred, and you need to be able to maintain your focus on what makes it all worthwhile – the words that you love. (I find getting the sort of enthusiasm that you can sprinkle is the most useful. So, sprinkle in a big generous handful over your courage and your impossible thing, and watch them sparkle).

Now, this next one is a bit hard to handle, so you’ve got to be careful. You also need sticking power, the sort of thing that keeps you plugging away even when it feels like there’s no point. You need something to stick your impossible thing, your courage and your enthusiasm together (and to keep them stuck, through everything), and which will also help you to stick yourself to your chair, your schedule, your commitment – whatever you need sticking to. You’ve got to take your time with sticking power, though, and make sure you pick it up and treat it properly, and store it correctly. It can get everywhere, sticking you to the wrong things, and it also tends to go off quickly. So, be aware of that.

You need love – of stories, of words, of books and bookselling and publishing and the whole world that revolves around writing. You need to keep this love even when it seems like things aren’t going your way. You need to never reach a point where you couldn’t be bothered to read, or take an interest in others’ success, or in developments in the world of publishing, because if you reach that point it’s hard to claw your way back. If you don’t find yourself thrilled every day by the promise of a new book to read, a new story, a new exciting tale from the world of publishing, a new success for someone, somewhere, who’s walking the same path as you, it’s time to work on building up your love again. (Note: it’s always easier not to lose it in the first place). You should place your love right at the middle of the writerly mixture we’ve been creating so far, because that’s the best place for it.

And you need patience. So much of it. You need patience as you draft, you need patience as you edit, you need patience as you submit and resubmit and resubmit, you need patience as you wait to hear back from agents, you need patience as you systematically cross names off your lists as the rejections pile up, you need patience as you focus on a new project while waiting for your inbox to ‘ping’, and you need patience as you wait for the ‘yes’ that will, with any luck, be yours. But then the need for patience really gets important. You need patience while you’re on submission. You need patience while your book deal is forming. You need patience, endless patience, when dealing with publishing at every level. You need patience, and you need not to confuse hopeful patience with hopeless dejection. Sometimes it can feel like the same thing, but it’s not. So, put your patience on top of everything else, tucking it in well at the edges, and it should serve to keep everything neat and well-contained.

And after all this? Well, you’ve got to pick up that carpetbag and bring it with you all the time. Luckily, it’ll be light and you’ll barely notice you’re carrying it – but it’s important never to forget it, because you never know just when you’re going to need it, and every scrap of what’s inside it. Carrying the bag is not a guarantee of success, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it can’t hurt.

The Art, and the Craft

It’s no secret that writing is hard. It’s lonely, it’s isolating, it’s like trying to swim at night in unfamiliar waters, it’s tough to get a handle on, and there’s no ‘rule book.’ If you want to do it, you’ve just got to go for it and trust that you’ll get to where you’re aiming for, eventually. You’ve got to be able to keep yourself going, and you’ve got to be able to put aside a lot in favour of writing. It takes sacrifice. It takes work. More than anything, it takes practice.

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: aurelio.asiain via Compfight cc

Sometimes it amazes me that the idea of writing as a ‘perfect’ career, or as being somehow ‘easy’, still persists. Perhaps because people are used to reading books which are polished, perfect, and seemingly effortless, they begin to think that the words formed on the page that way without authorial or editorial intervention. They have no idea of the anguish, the endless drafts, the pained emails to editors at all hours of the morning, and the self-doubt which all had to be dealt with, worked through and overcome to make it look the way they expect. None of that effort is in evidence once a book is done and ready, and that’s exactly as it should be.

I dream of writing. I have always dreamed of it. It’s what I want to do with my life, and nothing else I’ve ever done has given me half as much enjoyment. (Nothing else has been even a fraction as challenging, either, but that’s to be expected!) Many hundreds of thousands of others are just the same, and that’s a brilliant thing. I would never discourage anyone from wanting to write, but I would also be the first to say this: it’s not a cop-out, or an easy option. It’s a profession, the same as any other, and it deserves the same passion, commitment, investment and respect. If you want to write for more than the simple pleasure it brings, then pursue that goal by all means, but be prepared to work hard, often for a very long time, and often for little or no feedback or reward. This is the reality.

Recently, in discussion with someone who knows more about books and publishing than I ever will, I learned how so many people are working against themselves from day one by not approaching their writing career the same way they’d approach their non-writing career. They make slapdash, half-thought-out approaches to editors, publishers and agents; they do not work and slave and sweat over their writing until it is the absolute best they can produce; they persist in querying industry professionals with half-finished or incomplete submissions; they consider their first drafts good enough to represent them.

These mistakes are all catastrophic. They are also all completely avoidable.

What makes me sad is this: if a person really, truly wants to write, and it burns within them, and they try to take their first steps into the industry in a misguided way, they will (in all probability) receive a rejection. Perhaps more than one. This may lead the person – who may have a true talent burning within them, a pure passion, an important story – to give up, and that would be a tragedy. It takes a strong person to continue if all you’re receiving is knockback after knockback. I know. But to succeed as a writer you not only need your talent, and your interest, and your passion, and your desire to improve, and your love for words, but you also need a sensible head on your shoulders and a professional approach to life. You need to be respectful of the time, effort and expertise of agents, publishers, editors, and every other publishing industry professional you meet. You need, in short, to be able to listen to good advice when you get it, and to incorporate it into your efforts to find a home for your writing.

During this same discussion, I also learned that the publishing professional in question considers my blog to be a good source of advice and information, and they have recommended that other people read some of my articles if they are looking for help, which was a hugely encouraging and flattering thing to hear. This post in particular might be helpful if you’re new-ish around here, and are on the lookout for writerly advice, but if I could sum up what I have learned about writing over the past two years, it would be this:

TAKE YOUR TIME.

Take the time you need to write your book. Put it aside. Take the time you need to re-read it, and edit it, and perhaps have someone else look over it, and then leave it aside again. Leave it there. No! I said, leave it there. Forget it even exists. Then, pick it up again, and repeat the process. Do this as often as you can bear, but at least three times, before you even consider sending it anywhere or submitting it to anyone. Do your research into agents, publishers and editors. Check that they accept the sort of work you’re writing. When you do approach them, do it respectfully and professionally. Follow their guidelines. Do not be arrogant. Do not assume that you know better than they do. Then, be patient as you wait for their reply.

If you’re self-publishing, a lot of the same rules apply. Take your time over your work, primarily. Write the best book you can, and then do a lot of research into the best platform, the best formatting style, the best pricing structure, the best editorial and design work, before you put your writing anywhere near the eyes of other people. If not, barring a miracle, you’ll wish you had when you see your sales figures.

There is no rush. Writers are not in a race with one another. You owe it to yourself to put your best work forward, and let it speak for you. The craft of writing is one thing – the ability to make sentences which sing, and images which linger in the mind, and characters who leap off the page – and it’s an important first step. But the art of being a writer – including but not limited to the ability to be professional, patient, organised, respectful, willing to learn and utterly committed to producing the best work you’re capable of – is just as important. People tend to forget that, and expect their talent to carry them through. For some lucky individuals, perhaps this works. For the rest of us? My advice is: learn how to work as a writer the same way you’d work at anything else, and you’ll be on the right track.