A young writer, Jasmin, introduced herself to me at the London Writer’s Café, just before the talk on Monday 18th. I’d arrived just a couple of minutes before the official start and squeezed into the second seat in the third row from the front. It was my first time at the meetup, and her second. The venue was packed – Madeleine Milburn was there to tell us how to get an agent.show
Jasmin said she already had an agent, and had been working with her for a year on rewrites. She was doing a postgraduate course because a) there were no jobs and b) it avoided the inevitable slide into a career. Friends and family were imploring her to set her sights on something solid, whereas her heart told her to stick with the writing. She was admirably sober about her prospects. “Writing friends are really excited for me, but I keep telling them having an agent means I’ve still got ninety percent to go.”
“Avoid a career,” I told her. “Avoid burdening yourself. You quickly find yourself with responsibilities, longer hours, mortgages, things like that.” I told her I’d spent two unhappy decades in the wilderness before going part-time in my job and starting an MA in Creative Writing in 2005. Only a quarter of us on the course are still battling on.
We resumed our talk after the event, and followed up with email later that evening. “You’ve been more helpful than you realise,” she said. I’d apparently given her hope and encouragement to go on – our conversation was just what she’d needed.
In fact, the debt of gratitude was mine. Whereas I was a warning to her from the future, she was a call to action from twenty-five years ago. The similarities between us were startling. She started writing the first book in her trilogy aged fourteen. I wrote my first novel at that age. By her age I’d written a screenplay and another novel, and was working on one which would weigh in at 150,000 words. In my head and heart I was on course for the writing career I wanted. I, too, took a postgrad to stave off the inevitable. And yet there I was on Monday night, twenty-five years on – quarter of a century – having betrayed that twenty-two-year-old self. I do feel compelled to defend that young Mark by explaining that I had no clue at all how to approach an agent, and that my attempts were dreadful. I’d like to think he would have succeeded, if he’d known then what I know now.
So Jasmin and I both got something out of our encounter. I got excited about writing again, and felt again that this is what I was put here to do. It’s always a kick to know you’ve helped someone, and it allows you to see how far you’ve come. Even if you realise you’re off-course, you have at least woken up to that fact, and can take corrective action. The only mistake is not to wake up and do something about it.
My advice to Jasmin was:
- Stay ‘poor’ because once you get used to a certain lifestyle you become a slave to it
- If you do embark on a career, make sure it’s one that serves your writing. I was lucky enough to get a job as a commercial copywriter. If you can, get a job that connects you in the publishing industry.
- Forgive your parents, for they know not what they do. Of course they worry about you – and it’s a wonderful expression of their love that they do – but when you eventually break through as a writer, the pride they’ll feel will far outweigh the worry. (Good luck selling them on that idea, though…)
- Make sure your life-partner is either a writer, or is a raving fan of your work. If your family are unsupportive – or, worse still, dismissive – of your writing, then you need someone close to you on your side. Avoid a non-reading partner – they will kill your career.
- Keep plugging away, and never give up hope. There will be plenty of discouragement, and many dark hours. Let your writing, and that of your writing heroes, be your guiding light out of that darkness.
- Allot a specific time to your writing – a certain period each week which is set in stone. Better still, make it a daily commitment. Even if you don’t feel like writing, sit there and do it. I overcame a thirteen-year hiatus by locking myself in my dining-room for two hours and telling myself that it was time to write again. Two hours later I’d written two thousand words. Admittedly, not great words – but they were compelling enough for me and one raving fan. They were the start off a novella which got me back on track and led me to applying to the MA. It was the single footstep I needed to continue my journey and get back on course.
- Periodically look back and see how far you’ve come as a writer, and pat yourself on the back.