This is a talk I gave at the Emerging Writers Festival on the weekend, an event in which myself and the other Ambassadors were asked to give seven pieces of advice we wished we’d had when we were embryonic writerlings. A few people asked, so I’m sharing it here in full. Thanks EWF for inviting me back as an Ambassador!
I’m not going to give you any advice about how to write. To be honest I still have no idea what I’m doing. So this is more of a public service announcement (with guitar):
1. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
The world is full of people who will ask to use your work for free. Some of them will be non-profits, some billion-dollar media corporations. Some will be friends or shoestring creative startups. Most of them will tell you it’s good exposure. We all work for free some of the time, and sharing is awesome, but we also have to fight against the erosion of the value of creative work. That’s why I started @paythewriters. Learn early that your work has value, and it’s your right to ask to be paid. People will respect you for it in the long run.
This means you need to have a sense of your own self-worth, too. The only way you will learn the value of your work is by doing your best work. Focus on making something good and true and beautiful and the rest will fall into place.
2. PACE YOURSELF
One of the first things my publisher told me was persistence is more important than talent. It took me years to realise that persistence also means stamina.
It’s important to take a long view. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint; it will push you to the limits of your emotional endurance. I know I sound like an extreme sports nerd. But seriously, learn to pace yourself. When you are young it’s easy to be swept away by the urgency of your work. I lost sleep writing between night shifts; I became a full time writer by moving into my car.
By all means, go for it. But if you want to be around to keep doing this in ten, twenty, fifty years, you have to learn to find a healthy pace. Some people might be able to write a book a year, and others might write one a decade. There’s no right way to work – find your own way to work sustainably.
3. LOOK AFTER YOUR HEALTH – MENTAL AND PHYSICAL
The end of a novel is always accompanied by some kind of ailment – right now it’s nascent RSI. Watch out for workplace risks like carpal tunnel syndrome and the various mental/emotional disorders that afflict our trade. Be good to your body and your mind and treat your partners, friends, and family with kindness.
Being a writer does not give you permission to be an arsehole. Topping yourself is neither romantic nor interesting.
You are going to need to dig into some dark places to do your true work. It’s your responsibility to do it safely and without hurting people. This might mean exercising and eating well, getting away on your own for a while, or just making time to not be obsessed with your projects. Your novels aren’t going to hold you at three am or take you to the pub when you’ve had a shitty day at work. Look for the networks that support you, the people who make you feel good about what you’re capable of, the people who make you feel capable of more, and hang on to them.
On a similar note, look for the stuff that makes you feel like shit, and get the hell away from it.
4. RUN YOUR OWN RACE
This one’s hard, but find a way to measure your success that is not about any external rewards. So what if writer X tweeted their epic word count, or writer Y won a prize, or writer Z has published three bestsellers by the age of twenty-five? Envy is nothing but poison. Let yourself feel it for five minutes and then let it go. Don’t compare yourself to other people; measure your work against its own challenges. Writing is not a competition. In the end it’s not about you at all, it’s about the story. Ego bullshit is a distraction worse than any youtube panda channel. Watch the pandas if it helps.
5. EMBRACE FAILURE
Everything I’ve written has failed to achieve whatever it was I set out wanting to achieve. It’s always a failure, and the best you can hope for is an interesting failure. This is the nature of the work, it’s the nature of language, and it’s why I keep going back to my desk every morning. Honing your craft means not being defeated by the gap between what you can do and what you know you are capable of. Remember Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ There’s no learning without failure. Embrace it for what it teaches you; you’re going to be seeing a lot of each other.
6. FUCK BRANDING
Writing is not a competition, and you’re not a brand. There is a lot of pressure on writers to repeat ourselves or define ourselves according to the strictures of marketing. Find a better way to understand your work and a better way to derive meaning from it. Challenge yourself creatively and technically. Go after the interesting problems, not the rewards. It’s much better to lose sleep over a difficult issue with your novel than to lose it over feeling like a hack.
It takes strength but it’s possible to resist your work being entirely subsumed into the capitalist mindset. We all know reading is more than just consuming, so let your work be worth something more than the cover price. Telling stories is a big responsibility and it’s not to be taken lightly. Do something good with it. Make something that matters.
7. ASK FOR HELP
For the third time, writing is not a competition. Talent will get you some of the way. The rest of it is hard work and relationships and luck. If you need help, ask for it. Some of the most generous people I have met have been writers who will genuinely go to the ends of the earth to support other writers, to help people hone their craft, find an audience, learn the arcane laws and rituals of publishing. If the work is good, people will support it. You don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. It’s okay to ask for help.
Learn to trust your own judgement, too. Have the courage to ignore their advice, and all of mine, if you think it stinks.
When you do become successful, remember how important other people’s help was to you, and pay it forward. Share skills where you can; answer questions; offer a hand up to others if you like their work. Literature subsists on a culture of generosity and mutual aid, and it’s up to us to sustain that culture.