This weekend I will be launching my debut novel, After Dark Vapours. It’s obviously a very exciting time for me; publishing a book has been a dream for me ever since I was a little kid reading Goosebumps. Likewise, I’ve been lucky to have experienced an outpouring of support and enthusiasm from friends and family. Perhaps the most common refrain I hear, especially from bookish friends, is that they too have always wanted to write a book. If you’re reading this and also feel the same, believe me when I tell you that if I can do it, you can do it. So, with that in mind, I’d like to give you all some advice that I wish someone gave me when I started writing:
Write like no one is reading.
My biggest breakthrough as a writer came when I stopped caring what any prospective reader might think, at least on my first draft. The first draft has to be selfish. You’re writing for you. What do you want to create? What do you think is cool, interesting, or fun? What questions do you want to answer? It’s at that moment you tap into your creative force. There is nothing more radical than the individual. No one on earth has the combinations of your natural inclinations and experiences. And that’s what readers want to see shine through on the page.
I had this breakthrough after years of rejections for short stories. Not only was I not having any success, I wasn’t enjoying the process, either. I mean, what the hell is the point of writing, especially short stories, if you don’t enjoy it? Even if you make a bit of money there’s a lot easier ways to make a helluva a lot more. I realized that I was trying to write what I thought would impress other people, particularly editors. I think James Baldwin said that becoming an artist means removing masks that you didn’t know you were wearing. I never thought of myself as someone who’d cleave to authority like that, but I was wrong. It wasn’t until I started repeating the mantra “What do *I* want to write?” that I finally achieved the voice and style I was after. Writing, though certainly a labour of love, was no longer a chore.
And here’s the thing, the longer you wait to start tapping into your creative impulses, the harder it becomes. As a reader, you become increasingly familiar with tropes and styles, etc. and thus the delta between your taste and your ability widens. Every time you sit down to write you anticipate every move. Each idea feels derivative. You feel like you’ll never have an original, worthwhile idea and you just give up.
I’m here to tell you to not give up.
So what if your idea is derivative? Many of the most successful writers in the world certainly don’t give a shit. And if you stick with it, maybe you’ll eventually find an interesting twist to give the familiar a new flavour. And if you don’t? Then no big deal! Your manuscript that ripped off Blade Runner doesn’t need to see the light of day if you don’t want it to. Ridley Scott isn’t going to knock down your door with the Plagiarism Police and drag you off to writers’ jail. You did something fun for yourself and took steps to develop your craft. Maybe next time you’ll do better. Then, years later, you might come back to your old manuscript and see something you couldn’t back then. A new angle. Then you’ll up-cycle that old junk into something new and exciting. That’s how it works.