I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old. Possibly before – but I remember reading Secret Seven aged six and wishing I could make stories like that. The first book I wanted to write (aged seven) had the terrible title ‘But I Only Want a Pony’. I’ve moved on from that, thankfully, and my titles have got a bit better.
At the age of nine in 1981 I was at a Montessori school in Nairobi, Kenya, easily the single best year of my childhood. I don’t remember doing a lot of ‘work’ – or, work as I knew it from my school in Yorkshire – but the ethos of Montessori schools is to facilitate learning, find out what the child wants to learn, rather than TEACH. During my year I learned a lot about life and I wrote a book. It was called ‘Going to China by Boat’. It was a fully illustrated 39 page thing that I loved more than anything. I’ve still got it, and whenever I feel doubts (thankfully not often) I dig it out and remind myself that I’m following a path I started walking many, many years ago. In my story we sailed from Mombasa to China. We had stacks of magazines at our disposal and the pictures I didn’t draw were cut out of old National Geographics. I remember writing it clear as day.
As I grew up I realised that knowing what you want to do with your life is a blessing – many people don’t. It’s also a curse, because until you do it you’re not quite alive.
The dream of being a writer has never ever left me and has meant a constant stream of ideas flowing through my head, all day and night long. If I don’t write for a period of time I get bunged up. I’ve no idea WHY I want to be a writer, I just do. I feel like it’s why I’m here. When I sit writing, I feel absolutely content. Each story is like a puzzle and I have to work it out. I seldom know where a story is going until it ends – or if I do this changes along the way. I don’t feel any great desire to be rich and famous but I would like to earn enough so that I can do it full time.
I was given some great advice by writers I’ve met:
1) Geoffrey Malone, children’s writer: Get a job you enjoy and write as a hobby – if you’re lucky the writing will one day take over. I became a teacher – my second passion – but the trouble with that is it needs a lot of creative and physical energy and there wasn’t much left at the end of the day to actually write. At the moment I’m incredibly lucky – we had the good fortune of working abroad and being able to stash cash before we came home and this we’ve invested in a business, a holiday let, which, though hard work, is perfect for dreaming up stories. At the moment my days are balanced equally between the two and I am so incredibly grateful to be able to do this.
2) Finish stuff before you start editing. No matter how godawful your writing appears to be (and it probably isn’t), Get To The End, and then rewrite it as many times as you like. I’ve been told/read this numerous times and it’s the most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever had. NaNoWriMo is the best way to learn this.
3) Find your original voice. Simon Gandolfi, novelist and ghost/travel writer, once told me (during a drunken night at a bike stopover in Buenos Aires when our paths crossed) that there are no original plots. None. I argued the point, still not sure. However he said the thing is to find your voice, your way of telling the story. Don’t be like ANYONE else!
4) Find your own way of writing. Some people are plotters, some are not. Some are planners, some are not. Some are day writers, some are night owls. Etc.
5) Never, ever give up. Get a thick skin, take criticism, don’t be precious about your work, believe in it but be willing to work with editors, get a good group of supportive readers. Keep on following that dream. I’m probably (if I’m lucky, going on past experience) about halfway through my life. I’ve been published in around 14 anthologies and five large circulation magazines. I’ve been part of a Scottish book trust project that had a circulation of 150,000. All of this, a few years ago, would have seemed impossible. But a few years ago I found the courage and confidence to start sending stuff off. I’ve learned heaps on the way, met some great people, and know that this is still just the beginning.
6) Never stop trying to improve. Editing is it….
Following your dream isn’t easy. But if it’s a true dream it won’t leave you alone, even if you try to run away!
On submitting – this is my very own advice:
1) I’m able to pick my own hours at work – very lucky. However, I’m still the one who does most of the housework, cooking, cleaning, washing etc etc. I’ve had to learn to be able to work surrounded by chaos. If I began tidying, I’d never get a thing written so I do the minimum and simply pretend the rest isn’t there. As long as there’s a bit of time left to cook a meal and shove some washing in the machine, the rest can wait until I’ve no inspiration (fortunately not often). I feel incredibly fortunate that I really don’t give a stuff what state my house is in and if friends come over they know what to expect.
2) I try to have several things out on submission at once. Even if I think there’s only a slim chance of something being accepted, if they’re out there I feel more like a real writer and the hope keeps me going. At the moment there are 13 short stories out there (to as many free subs as poss) and I’m waiting to hear from two publishers about possible short story collection publication plus a novel is out to a different publisher – not massively hopeful about this one however.
3) Mostly, rejection doesn’t bother me (it used to, a little, but my dad used to have this mantra, A Myatt Never Gives Up. It stuck.) If it does, I give it a day, pick myself up and start all over again.
4) I submit each story five times, six if I’m really in love with it. Often things rejected by a few places get picked up on the fourth or fifth outing to the world. If it’s still not accepted or longlisted somewhere at the very least, I do tend to retire it and put it away and chalk it up to learning. Sometimes I rewrite it and try again. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I’m dead lucky and a story finds a home right away.
5) I read lots of books. This year I’m trying for a book a week. I am just about on schedule. The only time I read is on holiday or in bed, or on the sofa with the kids after school. I also follow lots of writers on Twitter – their advice is always helpful. And it helps knowing other writers, people who don’t think you’ve gone seriously hatstand for wanting to sit all alone and make things up and live inside your head!
6) I once read that the first million words are, for a writer, an apprenticeship. I worked out one day I was roughly halfway through this, maybe more. So, keep on writing, just keep writing…
7) Prioritise: I often eat cold onion bhajias or something else bonkers that I’ve grabbed from the fridge for breakfast so my writing time is maxed out. Anything I can skip on during the day means more writing time. I don’t iron. I dust when the dust is 3D. Sinks get cleaned when I notice they’re grotty. I don’t watch much TV and if I do it tends to be a movie.
And on that note, I’ve got a holiday let to go and clean. Hope to be back on my comp writing my latest story in a couple of hours, for a couple of hours before school pick up.
Inspirational quote of the day (I’ve a book of them in my bog):
I do not think there is any quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes everything, even nature.
John D Rockefeller