• Chapter One - Age

    24 August 2010

    This first section will focus on the work that needs to be put in early in the career of any writer. It looks at some of the many steps you must take if you are to progress beyond wanting to be a writer to actually committing yourself to a career as a writer. Life is hard for most would-be writers, and these entries reflect that, so they make for grim reading in places—sorry!!!

    Let’s kick off with one of my most-asked questions—how old do you have to be to become a writer? The simple answer is, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough! There’s no legal reason for a publisher not to publish a book by a teenager. In fact, most publishers would probably love to publish a book by a teen, since it’s a good publicity angle for them—the media loves an unusual story!!! The problem isn’t age—it’s one of experience. Most teenagers simply aren’t equipped to write a book up to the standards of publication. What you have to remember is that people have to pay to buy books, and they will expect quality regardless of the background of the person who wrote it. There are exceptions—I did a TV show with another Irish writer called Ruth Gilligan once, and she was 18 when her first novel was published, having written the first draft when she was 15—but they’re VERY rare. Writing is much more difficult than, say, acting or composing or singing songs. It’s possible for talented actors and composers/singers to make an early breakthrough, but hardly any writers ever get a book in print before their early 20s—indeed, most are in their late 20s, early 30s or later before they really get going! Writing is HARD!!!!! It’s more like becoming a doctor—no matter how talented you might be, nobody’s going to want you poking around inside them until you’re properly trained! Similarly, very few people want to spend a lot of time reading a book that’s written by someone who hasn’t yet learnt the rules of how to entertain.

    But, as I said, there ARE exceptions, and there’s no harm in believeing that YOU can be one of them. I was 17 when I finished my first book (having started it when I was 16), and I was convinced while writing it that it would make me famous. When I finished it, I knew it was a LONG way off being a good book, so I went ahead and wrote another. And another. And many more before I finally created a book that I felt was up to scratch, at the age of 21 (that was Ayuamarca, which did indeed become my first published book 5 years and a lot of re-writes later). Each time I hoped that this would be the one to launch my career—but when it turned out not to be, I didn’t lose heart, just accepted it as a valuable learning experience, and moved on.

    I know we live in a world where we’re pressured to want EVERYTHING, IMMEDIATELY!!! Reality TV shows push the concept of overnight stars, child stars, stars who are famous for no reason other than being famous. We’re all tempted to buy into this fairytale nonsense, to want success without having to work and struggle in anonymity for it. But I think that’s false success, that true happiness and success only comes when you’ve had to pour your heart into your work, when you’ve faced the loneliness and hardships that success in any field normally entails, whether it’s long nights studying medical textbooks by yourself, long days swimming or running by yourself, or long days writing in a room by yourself. The struggle is what makes the ahievement worthwhile.

    I think young authors need to be wary of publishers in some ways. As I said above, publishers are always looking for a good media story, and I always fear for teenagers who get published—there’s an element of “freakishness” about their success, and it’s not GOOD freakishness, like in the Cirque Du Freak!! Ideally a book needs to be judged on its own terms. When the author is publicised more than the book—“Read this because it’s written by a 16 year old!” “Read this because it’s written by a woman who was stranded in a jungle for 5 years and survived by feeding on worm larvae!!”—I think it turns the author into a sideshow exhibit. They become a story, and that’s fine while the story’s hot, but when the story stops—when they’re 18, 20, 22, 24 ... what then??? If your only selling point is your youth, what do you do when you’re no longer young??

    You need to experiment a lot if you’re to prove yourself as a long-term writer, if you want to write lots of books that will sell over a long period of time and provide you with a career rather than a flash in the pan. Experimenting normally means failing, and learning, and slowly improving. It’s easier if you can do that out of the public limelight—if nobody knows about you, nobody can make fun of your failures or weaknesses. I think early success can be a double-edged sword, and writers who break through in their teens can end up catching a lot of flak. If you’re prepared for that, then go for it. If you’re aware of the hard work still to come, but you manage to get published young, enjoy the success, ride the wave—just ignore the ciriticism which will probably come your way, and don’t lose track of what’s truly important—the stories you tell, and learning to tell them the best way you can.

    - - - - - - - - - -

    While on the subject of age, a fan called Stephen once wrote to say: I’m nearing my college years, and while I’m more geared towards filmmaking (and screenwriting) than writing novels, I need your advice! I have two ideas in particular that I want to write as screenplays and you know how when the idea clicks, you run it about your head for a few days/weeks and then you just REALLY want to start writing. The problem is, they’re mainly about people who are at some stage of their twenties - a few years (not many though) older than me. They’re finished college, anyway, and I’m only (hopefully) going to be starting college in a few months. My question is, is it a good idea to write about people older than you, who may be in a slightly different stage of life? Would I have to wait until I’m there myself to really know what their life’s like?

    In answer to Stephen’s question about whether or not you can write about people who are older than you, I would say—yes, you certainly can. A lot of writing comes from experience. But a lot also comes from observation and imagination. If you look at what older people are doing, how they act and talk and behave, and if you can imagine yourself in their position, then you have the ability to write about them. I definitely did when I was younger, and indeed I still do. In fact, sometimes I MUST do—as much as I’d like to live 400 or 500 years to be able to describe exactly what it would be like to be an elderly vampire, I doubt I’ll be given that much time, so I have to make as best a guess as I can!!! You might make mistakes and not get everything right when you write about character who are older than you are, but a writer should never let that put them off—we all make plenty of mistakes along the way!!! Never be afraid to try something different, to stretch yourself and go into areas you might have no personal experience of. A good writer needs to be able to identify with all sorts of people—young and old, make and female, good and bad. My writing is always a mix of things I have experience and know, and things I have only thought about and imagined. And I think most fiction writers are exactly the same.

    - - - - - - - - - -

    One last comment on the age issue. A lady called Sabine wrote to me, politely asking me to point out that just as you’re never really too young to be a writer, you’re also definitely never too old. As Sabine eloquently put it:

    “Tell people it’s not the end of hope when they feel like their life is a hellhole without a ladder and they do not have the freedom to pursue their dream. “Keep at it as often as you can manage and let writing itself give you what strength it can. There is still time to be read in ten, thirty, even fifty years. You don’t know how your life will look like by then, even if it seems like you do. Survive. Nourish your talent if you can.”“

    I could hardly put it better myself! Sabine is right—you can be a writer at any stage of your life. Some very famous writers didn’t even publish their first book until their 50s, 60s, even older. Never relinquish the dream. Unlike some of the other creative fields, time is your friend if you want to be an author. The more life experiences you accumulate, the more you can bring to your craft. It’s natural to want to hit your stride swiftly, but don’t worry if you’re a slow burner. You can start at any stage. If life gets in the way—if you have to get a “proper” job to support yourself, or if you start a family, or if you have to cope with a debilitating illness… you can always return to the world of words further down the line. Life’s a journey down an unknowable path. Sometimes it runs straight and smooth, but most of the time it packs in lots of bends and twists. If writing is your dream, never abandon that dream, and at some point your path WILL bring you back to it.

    Unless, y’know, the Grim Reaper catches up with you first… :-)


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