One of the questions I’m asked most in the interviews surrounding my first novel, HADES, is any advice I might have for aspiring writers. My biggest challenge, when I hear this inevitable query, is which piece of advice I’ll choose, because more often than not I’m sitting there on live radio or in a chat room or at the edge of a table surrounded by hopeful and eager writers, and I’ve got just a minute to answer. The truth is, over the years, I’ve collected a mountain of advice for young, ambitious writers, because I was one for a long time, and I grabbed hold of each and every tidbit and applied it, tried to see if it was the key to that huge, heavy, perpetually closed door. I thought I’d make my blog post this time about this advice; but before I set out, I want to make it clear that these few wisps of knowledge are but some of hundreds, and it may be that none of them work for you. I’m sure you know, if you’re serious about this, that the journey is different for everyone. Your chances are low (so much lower than you could ever imagine), and your hopes are high (so high, no one understands them but you). I know. I remember. I’ve made a promise to myself never to forget. So let’s see if I can’t help you along a little, whether I give you the key or simply make you feel like your dreams are worthwhile.
- Study writing. This probably wasn’t what you were expecting as number one, but let me tell you, it’s critical. I don’t mean that you need to set out now and enrol for a Bachelors or blow your life savings on a specialist course in the rainforest with bran muffins and wisened beards provided. You may want to do either of those things, or you might just take up a TAFE course. Go to free talks. Read books on the subject. Talk to other writers about what they do, and read with one eye on the techniques your favourite authors are using, what they’re actually doing to make you feel so good. You’ll get two benefits out of studying writing. First, you’ll have a teacher, who will have no emotional or financial benefit in telling you your work is great when it sucks. Secondly, if it’s a good course, it’ll make you push the boundaries of your writing – write out of your comfort zone in genres and styles you’re not familiar with. You may just discover that you’re a natural sci fi writer, when you thought crime was your bag. You won’t know until someone makes you.
- Submit. Submit. Submit. I mean multiple times, and multiple works. As soon as you’ve finished a work and it’s doing the submission rounds, forget about it and begin the next (and don’t make it a sequel to the first one. You’ll likely be wasting your time). The amount of times writers who have told me they wrote one book and submitted it to three publishers, got three rejections and contemplated necking themselves before ‘giving the whole thing up’ would make you sick. To me, writing one book and submitting three times is the equivalent of playing one backyard tennis game and crying because no one invited you to Wimbledon. If you really want this, you’ve got years ahead, and multiple books. Yes, some people write one book when they’re eighteen and get signed internationally for what will turn out to be a career-making blockbuster. Some people also win the lottery on the first ticket they ever buy. And we all hate them, so let’s not talk about them anymore.
- Take care of your heart. It’s alright to be sad about rejections. It’s a crushing thing, I don’t care who you think you are. When you write a book, you open yourself up – your fantasies, desires, dreams and fears go on the page. You perform. You sacrifice. And when you get rejected, it can be very easy to think that the rejection is about you as a person. If you follow step two, like I did, and submit to everything you ever write to every goddamn publisher in the country, you can spend weeks receiving rejection after rejection like daily kicks in the teeth. You can take it personally, and it’s a combination of things. The vulnerability of the artistic life. The cold, automated rejection emails that teach you nothing. Years of reading shit and knowing you can do better. Rejection can make you angry. It can drive you mad. It can break your heart. Don’t let it. Don’t spend years, as I did, angry and jealous and miserable. Like most negative emotions, your anguish won’t actually get you what you want.
- Write what’s in you, not what’s out there. The things I think about are pretty sick. I have a dark mind, so I’m a dark writer. I spent a lot of my younger years being told that what I was writing was too dark, too gruesome, too depressing, too violent. I should have written a romance, I told myself. Romance sells. Vampire romances sell. Sexy vampire romances sell. But I hate sexy romantic vampires. So I kept writing dark stuff. I wrote it with joy, with passion, the way all things should be written, and I learned to write what I write so that it sells. Don’t do what everybody else is doing – do what you do until nobody does it as good as you do.
- Foster relationships with people in writing. This means teachers, writers, agents, publishers, authors and people who work on the fringes of the industry. Don’t do this thinking that they’re going to do you a favour if you become their friend. You’ll just end up being some sicophantic whack job pestering people, and they’ll see you coming a mile off. If you talk to people in writing, you’ll realise they’re good people, not a bunch of gatekeepers to a secret club designed just to make you feel like crap, and this might protect your ego. You’ll learn from publishers that they’re excitable, passionate and hard-working people. You’ll learn from agents that they’re hungry, fiesty go-getters. You’ll learn that neither of these groups of people has a personal vendetta against you and your dream. You’ll learn from authors that the club, when you finally enter, is a terrifying and wonderful place, and that they’re just as anxious and hopeful and self-critical as those young’uns who haven’t made it yet. You’ll learn from other wannabe writers that you’re not alone in feeling that your bookish dream is a part of you, of your DNA, a journey you were always on even when you didn’t know it, from the moment your third grade teacher read out your illustrated flip-book story about a catterpillar to the class because it was so weirdly good. Get into the community. The dream will become more vivid.
- Decide that you will write anyway. Forget about ‘wasted words’, ‘fruitless pursuits’ and ‘failed manuscripts’. Stop calculating the hours you spent on stories and characters that didn’t make it. Your good characters will never leave you. No professional ballerina spends her career counting the practice hours she spent before the audition she wasn’t selected in. She doesn’t count the times she fell down, strained something, made a fool of herself. There’s a certain amount of practice and preparation required to make it at anything – being a doctor, learning to sew, playing tennis, ballerina ness… ballerina(ing)? Ballerination. Just because you can count your words, manscripts, years spent and rejections received, doesn’t mean your training was any different, or any less necessary, than that required for all worthy dreams.
Happy writing, everyone.