I read a lot of writing advice because I want to become a better writer. This advice is broad, from ‘killing your darlings,’ to gorging on junk food when hitting writer’s block.
The advice usually comes from the usual spots: blogs, books, articles et al, even a J.K Rowling tweet can help me out, but something still nags. What I find, from all this advice, is that it’s always from successful authors. This, for me, is a disconnect. And it’s not their fault. Advice from those who have made it (and by made it, I mean, published authors who have sold more than a few hundred copies of their book. I think we have a good idea of what success looks like, fellow strugglers) is inspiring. To know that even the most successful authors started out in the same place as the rest of us, battling away at the bottom of the pyramid, is great, but it’s not realistic enough.
I need to know what someone at my level is doing right now, how are they struggling along just like me? How do they find time to write? What pays their bills, and how does this work alongside their prospective writing career? What do their partners/family/friends say about their work, and how does it help? What do they do when they find a proof-reader who charges more than they can afford? What if they don’t have any fellow writer friends to lean on in times of trouble? They’re only human, and every human has self-doubt.
Information like this, I feel, is harder to find. Authors only get interviewed once they have a book published, which makes sense. But what could be more inspiring than a writer working on their first novel, while putting in overtime at Tesco, squeezing in time to write where possible, while trying to maintain a social life, with the added difficulty in shaking off parental criticism, asking when you’ll get a ‘real job’? Perhaps you don’t have this, perhaps you do. Either way, this is the other end of the scale, away from those pieces written by and about superstar writers, and ones I seldom find.
My own meandering dilemma is to flesh out what my biggest issues are as an unpublished writer (and, conversely, by published, I mean a publisher has accepted one of my major pieces of work), desperate to make a career out of it, hoping that one day, remuneration is enough to pay the rent, and fund my beer tokens. So, if you are out there, fellow talented strugglers, let’s discuss one’s hopes and fears, and even, maybe, solutions:
Get professional help
You’ve spent a million hours working on your manuscript, and you’re extremely close to getting it out there. However, every time you take ‘one last peek’ at a chapter, you see a typo, or a grammatical thingy, or a poorly structured sentence, and you wonder how the hell you didn’t see it the last one thousand times you read it. You’re immune to seeing your own mistakes. You have read the book so many times, your mind is already a few words ahead – you’re not reading it, you’re recalling it. You may have written the best story in the world, but if it’s littered with typos and clunky passages, it stands for nothing. We at the bottom don’t have agents, so you need someone to look at it.
You consider a friend who is good at English grammar and punctuation, but can you expect them to proofread and potentially edit your entire novel? It’s a bit harsh. So, you look to the professionals. After a bit of shopping around, you realise it’s hundreds of pounds to get what you want. You don’t have hundreds of pounds, so what can you do?
What I am in the process of doing right now is looking for proofreading/editing companies (there are loads of them) and seeing whether they do competitions. Some of them offer the chance for one lucky writer to have their manuscript proofread for free. It’s a great way for the company to market their services, and a great way for writers like us to get that professional service without having to take out a loan. Keep your ear to the ground, and enter all competitions you see fit, and perhaps you’ll be one of the lucky ones.
Time – and the appreciation of it from other people
You work hard in a job that pays the bills. A must, if you want to independently fund your writing ambitions. So, after a hard day’s work, and all you have been thinking about is how to kill your villain, the last thing you need in the three-hour window you have for writing, is to have a partner, flatmate or family member distracting you. You’re a popular person, nothing will change that – it’s a blessing and a curse.
A lot of the advice I have read around this is by being a bit of a dick, and effectively saying ‘don’t talk to me’. Personally, I don’t like this approach, it’s a bit rude. I also might want to leave my desk/area/corner of writing to take five minutes out and make a cup of tea. It’s pretty awful that your housemate may be in the kitchen too, worried to communicate with you because they think you’re still ‘in the zone’. It’s just a bit awkward.
Again, although not fool-proof, I have two approaches. The first, routine. Make it routine that after work, no matter what, you take time out to write. Or perhaps, from time A to time B, as often as possible, so the people you live with will get used to that time as your writing window, without asking them to leave you alone. This may or may not work for you, particularly if you work in a job with shifts, so I have a second idea (and this also works well if you live somewhere small), headphones. Put the headphones on and it’s clear you are out of bounds for chit-chat. You don’t even necessarily have to play music, but what it does is blocks you from the outside world.
The big question: ‘what do you do?’ and what to do when you tell people you’re not published, and they give you ‘the look.’
I love and hate this question. There’s nothing more satisfying than telling someone you are a writer, and I am guessing it is the same feeling regardless of how well-established you are. But it’s the following questions which, for some, are great, but for others (people like me) suck.
‘What do you write?’ is the natural next question.
‘Anything I want to really. Short stories. Books.’ Their eyes light up. They know books.
‘What kind of books?’
‘A mixture. I’ve written a children’s book, a creative non-fiction novella, and just finished my latest novel, a dystopian thriller.’ A writer of different genres, he must be amazing!
‘Oh wow. So these are published?’
‘No.’ Oh. He’s one of those wannabe writers. He probably works at Starbucks.
Chat over. The person can now only perceive your writing as a hobby. So, from their point of view, you’re not a real writer, because you don’t get paid. They can’t even Google you. Their initial excitement has worn off. You’re not on Amazon, so can’t be taken seriously. Now, I’m not saying that other people’s opinion of your writing career defines your career. Of course it absolutely doesn’t, but it doesn’t make you feel that great when it trails off like that. How to tackle this one? I’m still working this out, but I do know that you love what you do, regardless.
Questioning whether you’re good (measuring success)
This moves me on nicely to this next point. How are you supposed to know what success is? Is it selling your first book, getting an agent, making your first million, your first TV interview, or is it, in fact, being able to show your new friend your book on Amazon when they ask whether you have been published? Unless you have a fellow writing friend who you collaborate with a lot (gold-dust), it’s difficult to share these feelings. And when you spend most of your time taking advice from those at the top, it can skew your image of what success looks like. From what I can see, on the surface, success looks like millions of Twitter followers, guest speaking events, and guaranteed bestsellers. This overwhelming target certainly doesn’t help me, so we need to break it down.
For me, it must start with something not yet achieved. One of the things I haven’t yet achieved is a published novel. That is my first target. And I want to keep it simple. I don’t want to start thinking about how much money I will make, or how successful it will be. The target is to get published. Then, once that has been achieved, set a new target. I don’t know what that target is yet because I haven’t hit my first milestone, when only then will I feel qualified enough to achieve the next step (perhaps writing a blog on getting published for the first time!). We need to be ambitious, but realists too.
A small word, but everything can hinge on it. As I mentioned before, without a support system (fellow writers or an agent), the only person giving you hope is yourself. I’m sure you have people around you who want you to do well; friends, family, lovers, but ultimately, they will never quite understand the slog of it all, as they will never craft 100,000 words onto paper, accepting that it may never see the light of day. It is in these moments you need hope alone.
Perhaps this is the one area where the authors who have ‘made it’ can help, but you need to do some digging. Find those conversations around when these writers were at their most despondent, when they were struggling to believe even in themselves. Other, more out of the box thoughts would be to play inspiring music while you write. Music has an incredible way to trigger something deep within that no other stimulus can provide. Or go to that nan who always tells you you’re the best at what you do. It may be a bit artificial, as your nan may never have read any of your books, but we can all do with a bit of an ego boost now and then, and always from Nan. Get social. Other writers may be going through a similar spot. You may not know them from Adam, but you can share something not many others can, forming an instant bond, and a virtual shoulder to cry on.
When do you turn your writing into a hobby?
You want to be a writer. You want to be like those guys at the top. You want your whole life to be writing, writing, writing, because you’re a writer. If you have focused your entire life investing everything you have into this venture, and are not seeing any return, you may not have a third-party support system to keep you propped up while you edge closer to turning your primary goal of being a professional writer into a secondary goal. However, if you don’t have those resources to lean upon, how do you gauge when to make the transition? Well, I guess it’s a case of simply knowing when. There was a point for me where I simply ‘knew’ that I needed to go and get a real job to help myself out. It still meant I would write, of course I would, but there needs to be some logic with this. One must eat.
As you can see, these meanderings are from the mind of a writer who quite clearly is on a different level to those at the other end of the success story. But, as I opened with, they are thoughts seldom written by others at a similar stage in the writer’s life, so thought I’d have a go myself.
Alas, this is a team effort; that’s the point of it all, right? It would be great to hear your thoughts on this. What troubles you most as a writer who hasn’t quite hit their milestone, going through a similar strife as mine? Let’s write through this together.