I was invited to speak in front of a group of aspiring writers a while back. All adults, all invested enough in their ambition to turn up to the basement of a pub somewhere on a Wednesday night. It was summer, a warm evening and they could have been anywhere else – upstairs in the sunlight, playing football, barbequing too much meat. But they were there, sitting on plastic chairs, eager to see if this panel of debut authors could offer some insight, some advice, some short-cut to success.
Thinking back, it occurs to me that we talked less about writing, than about getting published. I remember one conversation about character development, but the rest of the evening was taken up with questions about routine, agents, publishers, book deals, royalties and all that back end stuff. Probably because that’s what everyone in the room was aspiring towards.
Ironically, though, the best way to achieve that goal is to pay attention to the craft. If you write an amazing story, it will – I promise – find a home. If it doesn’t, then maybe the work wasn’t as strong as you’d hoped. I’ve been there – been convinced I’d written something unique and wonderful, only to discover that the industry felt differently. So you keep going. You read great fiction, read about writing, read interviews with authors you admire. You keep writing, keep improving. Of course, work covering a vast range of quality does get published. But bitching about the crap that slips through the net isn’t going to help you. Focus on what you can control – yourself, your writing.
So, back to the basement on a hot summer’s night. Me and two other freshly-minted authors, talking about our paths to publication, answering questions, sharing anecdotes. It was a fun night; the sort of thing I would have enjoyed when I was starting out. And I would have asked all the same questions: How did you find your agent? How often do you write? How many words a day should I aim for? And I found it a great privilege to be sitting on the other side of the desk, answering instead of asking. Or trying to – because the truth is, I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out for myself.
At the time of the panel, I was slap bang in the middle of my second book – The Trouble With Henry & Zoe. I was struggling to find time and find the story. I was working four days a week as a freelance copywriter and fitting my novel writing in on Mondays, weekends, evenings, mornings, whenever I could. To say it was hard would be a gigantic understatement. Maybe that’s why I answered I answered one gentleman’s innocent question with so little grace.
‘How do I know which of my ideas to write next?’ he asked.
So I asked a question back: ‘How often do you write?’
‘It varies,’ they guy said.
I pressed: ‘How many days a week?’
‘Whenever I get the time.’
This poor guy was on the hook, and I should have let it go. But I didn’t.
‘How many hours a week, on average?’
‘I dunno,’ he said, a little defensive now. ‘Maybe two.’
‘There’s your answer,’ I told him. ‘The reason you don’t know what to write next, is you don’t write enough. If you wrote more regularly, you’d work your way though your catalogue of ideas. You’d find what works and what doesn’t. You’d develop a style and discover what fits against it. You don’t know what to write until you’ve tried to write it. In short – you need to write more.’
‘I have a job,’ the guy said.
‘Me too,’ I told him.
An awkward silence. A cleared throat.
The moderator directed a question to one of the other – politer – panellists. I forced a smile, angry and disappointed with myself for being such a grumpy old git. Several people talked to me afterwards. Cautiously telling me their routines, asking – as if I were now the arbiter of these things – if they were doing enough. I told them all that they were.
You have to do what’s right for you. It’s fine to write as a hobby – it’s wonderful, in fact. Dabbling is cool, maybe it develops into something else, maybe not. Whatever works for you. But if you’re serious about getting published, if you’re serious about developing as a writer, then you need to take it … well, seriously.
If you have time to watch TV on a Monday night, you have time to write.
If you have time to go drinking on a Tuesday, you have time to write.
If you have time to attend a talk in a pub basement on a Wednesday evening in the middle of summer, you have time to write.
Oh, and if you have time to read this … you know what to do.