Hello all, I’m Aidan Walsh and Karen has asked me to pop in for a guest post. A quick intro: I’ve been telling people I’m a writer for about twelve years and writing seriously for about six. I mostly write speculative fiction and I prefer novels to short stories. However, I recently had my first little success when my story Reunification won the 2013 Conflux short story competition. I’ve also just finished my first novel Voyage of the Game Bird, which is currently off being read by some agents. Gulp.
Now you know with how many tonnes of salt you should take my advice.
When Karen first approached me, I wasn’t really sure what I’d write about. I like my writing style, but it is simple and fairly direct. I’m not sure I boast any of Karen’s elegance of style or thoughtfulness. I see my approach, both to writing and the craft in total, as workmanlike.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that is my strength. I’m productive and efficient. I get a good volume of words down and am great at keeping focused on working towards what I want to achieve with my writing. So I decided that would be the loose subject for this blog. And here it is; “a writer’s ethos” or eight things you need to do (in my VERY personal opinion) to give yourself a chance of getting published.
1. Pick a target.
There are no bad reasons to write. Writing a cathartic piece you’re going to burn immediately after typing “The End” is just as valid as trying to write a best seller. But I do think you’re absolutely raving mad if you don’t sit down and think really hard about what your reason for writing are.
Because it’ll save you heartache, that’s why.
Be honest with yourself. If you are aiming to write an unedited, rambling, intensely personal account of your family life, do that. But don’t then try and shop it around and get desperately hurt when people don’t get it. On the other side of the coin, if you aim to become a New York Time Bestseller (TM) face the fact that things will be tough at times. Put all the cosiness and gentleness you feel towards your writing aside. You’re going to have sleepless nights. You’re going to get bloodied and bruised. Succeed or fail, strangers are going to tear your work to shreds. Get that mental armour ready.
I’m not saying you need a project plan (nervous chuckle) but if you are just starting out, you really, really should take some time to think honestly about what you want to do with your writing. Believe me, it’s strange how many people haven’t and end up drifting towards wanting to be published as a kind of default objective.
If you are writing for any other reason than ‘to land a publishing deal’, you can bail out now. The rest of this piece is really for poor blighters who pick that sorry path.
2. Work hard.
Before we go any further let’s get one thing straight – if you’re lazy, a publishing deal is never going to happen. Hell, that finished novel probably isn’t either. Even if you aren’t lazy, you need to think about how hard you are writing.
You’re passionate about writing, yeah? Consider this. It isn’t that unusual for a young lawyer to work 15-16 hour days. Doctors, same kind of hours. Indeed, plenty of young professionals regularly crack out 12+ hours. I’m a bolshie fair-day’s-pay-for-a-fair-day’s-work type and I’m not venerating that kind of work life balance, but you are going to be competing for spots (with an agent or publisher) with authors who do work that hard. Tough, I know.
I work full time at a telco and I have an eight month old daughter, so I absolutely appreciate that life gets in the way and we can’t all work that hard on our writing. But it’s this simple – if you aren’t writing hard now (or at least trying to) chances are pretty good you never will. We’d all love to lounge about in the Brittany sun, drinking cheap wine and waiting for inspiration to hit us, but it ain’t going to happen. So try to teach yourself to write on the bus, or at night when the kids are asleep, or for that hour before footy training. Any word you get down on paper is a good word – that’s the mantra. You don’t need to square away 10 hours a day, but if you aren’t finding time to write right now, it just isn’t going to happen for you.
Don’t be that idiot at parties who tells everyone he is a writer* but who hasn’t put pen to paper in years. No one wants to be him.
3. Only writing is writing.
This is a hard one (for me).
There are a million ancillary things that will help your career along; social media, blogging (ha!**), workshops, research, outlines, plans, character sketches, maps to draw, fantasy languages to invent, flow charts, imaginary political system to design, writer’s groups, critique exchanges, slush reading, blah, blah and blah.
All of these are fantastic tools and all of them (well used) will either help you produce a better piece or make you a more confident writer. But they can also be distracting and plenty of aspiring writers seem to end up accidentally ‘stuck’ doing these sort of exercises endlessly. What to do? Just take stock every now and then to make sure you are expending the majority of your labour and time on your core work (preferably the manuscript, short story etc you have on the go).
4. Doubt is your best friend.
Ah doubt, a maker and breaker of writers.
Some doubt is good. No budding writer is worse than the one who thinks their work is perfect. You need to doubt your work. You must be able to look at it critically and objectively. You need to work tirelessly at your craft. You have to try and poke big holes in your manuscript. You need to seek and then process feedback, even when it feels like a kick in the guts. That’s the good doubt.
A little bit of terror is great for a writer. It will keep you sharp.
5. …and your worst enemy.
But not too much doubt. That’s bad, oh so bad.
Too much doubt will leave you with a bottom drawer of beautifully polished manuscripts no one has ever read. Or even worse, without the confidence to finish anything.
I don’t think anyone is ever completely happy with their work, but at some stage you need to put your stuff out there and judge the reactions. If your beta readers laugh and snicker, so be it, back to the drawing board***. If they love it, pour yourself a celebratory drink. But no matter what happens, at least you know where you are at.
You need to walk that line. Or just swing wildly between abject terror and towering confidence, that’d work as well. You need enough self-doubt to hammer your work into shape and enough self-confidence to keep throwing it out there when all the odds are against you.
6. Writing is love.
Like the ability to work hard, I think loving the act of writing is a nonnegotiable.
This is a hard and disappointing and slow and murky and tough path. You need something to keep you going when you’ve had a shit day and a few beers and some shit TV is looking all too good. We all have different parts of the craft we love and hate. As you long as love something about the process of writing – even if it is just having finished a piece – I think that’s enough to keep you soldiering on.
If that passion and love isn’t there, I just don’t believe you can make it. For a start writing doesn’t pay well. If you don’t love it, go mow lawns. You’ll make better coin.
7. Getting published is a job.
I split things up. Like I said above, the act of writing is love and art. I am always amazingly proud of my work and embarrassingly happy with each thing I finish.
But the moment that last edit is done, I try and think about my work in a different way. Now it is just a product I need to try and sell and the people I am dealing with are doing a job, in many cases a job they are very passionate about, but still a job. They aren’t out to get me, but nor do they owe me anything. If you do love your work, it is sooo hard to not take this part personally. But you shouldn’t, it’s business.
So act like it.
Picking an author is a big deal for an agent or publisher. I doubt any of them want to sit in their yearly performance review explaining why that Aidan jerk they picked up and spent all that money and effort on has done nothing, moved no copies and turned out to be a complete and utter bastard. So be professional, be punctual, be nice. Listen. Do what you say you are going to do. Make yourself someone people would want to work with.
8. Be lucky.
Make offerings to Fortuna. Lots of offerings.
* Aidan Walsh, 1998 – 2005.
** See what I did there.
*** Also find new friends.
Read more from Aidan Walsh on his blog One eyed Scribe at http://aidanrwalsh.com