I’ve been playing at being a writer for nine years now, almost a decade. It came as something of a shock when I calculated the time since I first put fingers to keyboard, because I often feel like a beginner. To be fair, the first four years were a hit and miss affair while I cobbled together the first draft of a novel manuscript in a vacuum. I had no formal training, no writer friends, and no clue what I was doing. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a writer, and my motivation was merely proving to myself that I could finish a novel. It took four years to produce a lean first draft, but it was done. And I was elated.
At that point, I realised that I definitely wanted to be a writer, and that I had been going about it all wrong. I knew nothing about narrative arcs or character development, had no idea about editing, no clue about the world of publishing and no one to ask for advice. So, I set to developing the skills and knowledge I should have had in the first place. I wish someone had given me the following advice when I first put pen to paper. If they had, I might have reached this point years ago.
- You need to learn how to write: For some reason, I didn’t sign up for a writing workshop until I had already slogged away on my own for four or five years. I read the odd craft book, but was reluctant to take that next step, to announce my intentions to the world. These days I am a workshop tragic, and always learn something from every new opportunity. I only wish I’d started earlier.
- Don’t try to write the Great Australian Novel straight away: In fact, perhaps don’t try to write a novel at all until you’ve had a play with short-form fiction or you may become overwhelmed by the task and give up for months at a time, like I did. Or give up altogether.
- Short stories are more than publishing credits – embrace the form: I began to write short stories after completing my novel manuscript in a frantic attempt to collect publishing credits. I now realise how beneficial it is to write and read this form, regardless of publication successes, which can be few and far between. Short fiction offers the writer an opportunity to hone their prose, because there is no place for weak words or bland characters in a 2000-word story or a piece of micro-fiction. It also allows for experimentation and provides the joy of completing a task, which happens so rarely for novelists.
- Social media is not as terrifying as it seems, and so much more than a ‘platform’: My initial foray into social media was an attempt to develop the platform that publishers seem so interested in. At first I was wary, fearful of outing myself as a writer. I felt like a fraud, but before long I discovered a whole community of likeminded people. These days I enjoy social media too much and have to actively limit my time in order to be at all productive. If you’re genuine on socials, the followers will gradually find you, and you just might meet some wonderful new friends like I did.
- Finding your tribe is easier than it sounds: If you open yourself up to courses and social media, you will eventually find your tribe. One day you’ll be working away alone, imagining there’s some cool writers’ club that everyone else knows about, and the next day you will find your people. I was lucky enough to find my local writers’ group through social media, although these days we meet face to face and go away on retreats together.
- Forgive yourself for mistakes and failures because this is a marathon – strap yourself in: Nine years later, that first manuscript I laboured over is in a drawer, never to see the light of day. I learned so much from the process of writing and editing that work, knowledge that I’ve applied to my second and third manuscripts and numerous short stories. My prose and story structure is stronger than ever, and I am confident that I will be a published novelist one day. I’m content, for now, to trust in the process and enjoy the act of creating, regardless of the outcome.
- Be open to feedback but above all else trust your own judgement: It may seem counterintuitive, but writing is not a solo task. At some point, all writers need to collaborate with others, to seek feedback from beta readers and editors. And to submit their work, heart in mouth, to publishers and journals. Some writers are unable to see the flaws in their work, while others are too quick to change everything at the first hint of criticism. Being able to take feedback and address problems with your work is vital, but so is the ability to know when to trust your own judgement. That happy medium might take a while to develop, but develop it you must.
- Stay grounded, have goals and be patient: I know several writers who, frustrated by rejections or put off by the sluggish pace of traditional publishing, decided to self-publish their novels. One used a ‘vanity’ press, and the others went it alone with varying investments in professional editing and cover design. Sadly, none of them sold many copies or were satisfied with the outcome; their stories are struggling to find readers. Self-publishing can be a fantastic option, and one that I might well consider in the future, but for now my goal is traditional publishing, and I must remind myself to be patient in order to get my stories into the maximum number of readers’ hands.
What do you wish you had known when you first started writing?