Five things I wish I’d known before I became a writer…

Ahoy, writerly friends! I’ve been a full-time self-employed writer (and editor) for about five years now (and part-time much longer), swabbing the decks of prose and poetry, swigging rum and singing shanties, killing those darlings with a pen-shaped cutlass in one hand and a mango daquiri in the other.

My time on the proverbial seven seas has taught me a few things about being a writer, things which I wish I’d known before I set out on this turbulent adventure.

So hoist the sails and shake the crows from the nests, because I’m going to share a few of those thoughts with you (and also, I promise I’ll stop making piratey references now. Well, maybe just one more. Arrrr.)

Without further ado, here are five things I wish I’d known before becoming a writer…

1. Write whatever the hell YOU want

JK Rowling, Dr Seuss, A.A. Milne… They’re all brilliant, but they’re not YOU!

Sure, we all start out emulating our heroes, but the world already has Harry Potter, The Cat in the Hat and Pooh – oh, how I love him – so we don’t need (let’s face it, probably inferior) replicas.

Why try to write something you don’t REALLY want to write? I’m now a firm believer that you ought to write what excites you, what only you can write, otherwise what’s the point? Chances are, if you try to write something for ‘success’, you won’t be happy with the process or the outcome.

To quote Neil Gaiman in his University of Arts address in 2012, a speech which I highly recommend listening to online:

I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn’t get the money, then you didn’t have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.

2. Editing, despite its sadistic nature, is your friend

… a really annoying, pernickety friend who wakes you up in the middle of the night, elbows you in the ribs and tells you to change an adjective. Then, the next night, coughs in your face and tells you to change the adjective back again.

However much of a huge pain in the derrière editing can be, it is absolutely necessary to making good art.

Yes, the initial spark of the idea is important. Yes, you’ve poured your soul into this book. Yes, it will hurt to change character X or remove chapter Y, but I’m yet to come across a new poem or story which didn’t need (usually hefty) editing.

I like to think of editing as shaping a piece of clay: my first draft is a messy clump pulled from the earth. It needs to be formed and polished, painted and fired, before it’s fit for purpose, ready to be read.

3. Publishing is slow

I won’t say much about this, other than I hadn’t realised how slow publishing could be. Writing a book can take years, and so can the publication process. Writing requires patience, it’s probably not ideal for people who are in a hurry.

You’ll be waiting for your friend’s feedback, waiting for your agent, waiting for your editor, waiting for your publisher, waiting for the launch, waiting for reviews… Get used to waiting. And whilst you’re waiting, start writing the next book.

4. Be kind

I hope I’ve always been kind to other writers, but (and I know I’m not alone here) it’s even harder to be kind to yourself.

Celebrate the small things … you’ve written another chapter?! Well done! You’ve sorted out that annoying plot problem? Congrats! Have a mojito, a slice of pizza, play a video game or do a little jig if you feel like it. ‘Something’ is better than ‘nothing’ (and you can’t edit ‘nothing’).

Writing will be difficult at times, and it’s easy to fall into the pits of “Oh I’m no good” or “I didn’t hit my word target.” But writing is more than just putting as many words on a page as you can. I try to remember that a big part of writing is ‘thinking’.

If I read a book or think about how my character is feeling or what they might do, I’m sharpening my tools. It’s all part of writing, so don’t undermine your achievements.

And yes, Young Me, be kind to others. We are not at battle with other writers, there is room for everyone’s story. It can be tough to be happy for another writer’s success when we’re not where we want to be, but being angry, upset or jealous won’t help. And the less altruistic angel on my shoulder sometimes whispers:

If you help someone take a step up the ladder, they might pull you up with them.

5. Writing is amazing

My last little note to my younger self is this: writing can be hard, but it’s an amazing occupation. You get to create new worlds and tell stories, and make people laugh or cry or be happy again. There are so few ways we can genuinely help people to feel like they’re not alone, to show them another life, or help them to understand how other people think and feel. Yes, writing is an unpredictable and turbulent sea, but there’s plenty of booty along the way. So sing along, me hearties:

Yo ho! Yo ho! A writer’s life for me!

(PS: sorry for breaking my pirate reference promise.)

(PPS: not sorry. Yaarrr…)

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About Russell Jones

Writer and editor Russell Jones is a guest blogger for The Lighthouse. He has published five books, edited three anthologies and edits a sci-fi magazine. He is the UK Pet Poet Laureate.