Chapter Four - Risky Business24 August 2010
Writing’s a risky business!! If you harbour dreams of being a writer, you’ve probably already figured out that there are no financial guarantees! No matter how hard you work, there’s no way of telling how long it will take you to get published, or how much money you might make when you do. There are lots of great authors who struggle to make a living—and there are some dreadful authors who make millions!! Life isn’t always fair, especially in the world of the arts, and talent isn’t always recognised or rewarded. You need to write because you love writing, and treat every other aspect of it as a bonus or irritation. Fame and fortune—a nice treat. Lack of respect and poor sales figures—a bit disheartening. But neither factor should detract from what should be the most important issue for you—have you created a story that you can be proud of? Have you seen your skills develop? Are you satisfied that you are making the most of your talents? If that answer to those questions is yes, that needs to be enough for you. That’s all any true writer should ever be concerned about. You can’t ignore the real world—bills need to be paid, children have to be schooled—but you have to try and keep your writing separate from the demands of reality as much as you can. For some thoughts of how I’ve gone about that, and what I recommend to young writers who are unsure whether or not they should follow their dreams or take the safe and secure route, read on!!
“Whisper of the Heart” is an anime film from Japan. It’s a simple story, of a girl falling in love with a boy, but it’s cleverly told, with some nice imaginative touches. It goes on a bit too long, but that’s really my only criticism—it’s very sweet for the most part, and put a big smile on my face. It also echoed with me on another level—the girl in the film wants to become a writer, and there’s a scene where she sits down with her parents to discuss the future. They’re worried about the strange course her life is taking. They want her to play safe, do what everyone else is doing, finish school, get a good, safe career. But they don’t enforce their wishes on her—they tell her she’s free to follow her own path, but warn her that it can be hard if you go a different way to everyone else, and that she needs to accept that fact that she might fail, and that failure will be her own fault.
This is a message I think every would-be writer should heed. Writing IS difficult. Unlike most careers, there are no guarantees that success will come with learning your craft. You can work hard, pour your heart and soul into your stories, improve vastly, write some truly great books—yet you still might make no money!! There are no financial guarantees for writers or singers or actors or artists. Each of us goes out on a limb and takes a huge risk with our life. We ignore the safe, secure routes and instead go the way of folly and madness. If things work out (like they have in my case), it looks like a shrewd move, and you get to bask in the admiration and respect of those who know you. But in most cases it doesn’t work out. Most writers—even very good writers—don’t make much money. Many are forced to write part-time, to do some other job to pay the bills. Lots never get the public recognition that they deserve, never get to go on big, exciting tours, never get inundated with fan mail, never sit down at a signing where hundreds of fans are standing in line.
Is that sad? I suppose, in a way, it is. But that’s the risk we take, so you can’t grumble too much if you find yourself in that boat. I very nearly didn’t get my lucky break in life—“Cirque Du Freak” was almost never published!!!! Fortunately the universe tilted at exactly they right moment for me, and I’ve never looked back, working my socks off to make the most of the opportunity which has fallen into my lap. But if “CDF” hadn’t been published ... if I hadn’t gone on to sell millions of books ... if I was a struggling writer right now, having publlished various bits and pieces here and there, but never having made any real money out of them ... if nobody knew or cared who I was ...
Would I be depressed? Would I consider myself a failure? Would I wish for my youth again, so that I could go back and do something else? No!!! Absolutely not. Because I realised from very early on that I was taking a risk, that things might not go my way, that I couldn’t rely on success. My goal was to write the best books I could—anything after that was a bonus. Finanical success HAD to be a bonus, and should always be seen as JUST a bonus. The great success for me isn’t that my books have sold lots of copies—it’s been that I think they’re good. They give me a sense of achievement. I feel like I’m doing the best I can with what I have at my disposal. That’s what we can ALL do if we pursue our dreams. Our best. That must always be enough. If not—go the safe route. Tramp along with the herd. Play life cautiously. Dreams are dangerous things to follow, and you should only follow them if you know the risks, accept the consequences, and—most importantly of all—recognise what constitutes success. Many dreams try and fail—but it’s the trying that creates the buzz, that feeds your dreams, that drives you on. If you realise that, and accept that, and are willing to pursue your dream no matter what ... then dream on, young dreamer. Dream on.
I received the following email from Jack today: I’m 15, and I love reading. I’ve read The Saga of Darren Shan and they’re my favourite books. However, as I’m getting older, I’m pondering taking my interest further and becoming a writer. I know I’m creative enough, and my teachers tell me I’m bright. English has always been my strong subject. However, I have reservations about the idea. From what I can tell, writing is a very sink or swim business. You can spend months, years even, writing a book and either it does’nt get published or it isnt successful. I’m not going to go into too much detail, as like I said, I doubt this will even get read. If however you do read this message, and if you have the spare time, could you give me your advice? Could you sum up in one message all of your writing experience and knowledge? This is something thats really bothering me, and hearing advice from my favourite author would really put things in perspective for me.
Sum up all of my writing experience and knowledge in one message ... Jack, you’ve made one of the fundamental errors of young writers worldwide—you think there’s a secret formula. As I often state on this blog, there isn’t. It all boils down to hard work and lots of experimentation. My best advice is to stop looking for advice—just crack on and write!! And I say that in a totally friendly, helpful way—I too believed there was a secret to writing when I was your age. But it’s important to be told that there isn’t—the sooner you realise that YOU have the power to decide whether or not you become a writer, by actually writing and not thinking about it and looking for shortcuts, the sooner you can make headway and take real steps towards realising your dream.
Jack’s right about it being a very sink or swim business - and the sad fact is that most writers sink, quickly and messily and horribly! Have no delusions if you want to be a writer—from a financial point of view, life sucks for most of us!!! I read a statistic recently that the average annual income of writers in the UK under the age of 35 is ... £5000. You read right—five thousand pounds. A year. And that’s the average—which means it includes the high-rollers. So some of the those writers are earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year—which means a lot of others are making far LESS than £5000. Can you imagine a teacher in the UK working for £5000 a year? A doctor? A butcher? A sales assistant in a discount store? A server in a fast food restaurant?
Most writers can’t afford to write full-time. They do it as a hobby, at night after work, at the weekends, in their holidays. Only a small percentage can afford to support themselves by writing. And only a tiny percentage make what would be considered a considerable sum—there are VERY few rich writers!! You have to do it because you love it. You might get lucky and sell millions of copies and make bestseller lists all over the world—but the odds against that are similar to having a very good win on the lottery. Some truly excellent writers never make much from their books—quality, alas, doesn’t always guarantee a good income. But if you work hard, apply yourself, stay true to your dream and push yourself all the way, you WILL learn to tell the very best stories you can tell. And THAT is the secret of what being a writer is all about. To write a story and be able to look at it and say, “That’s the very best I can do, and it’s taken a hell of a lot of hard work to do it that good”—that’s where real success lies. Creating something you can be proud of should be the goal of every writer. It’s great if others like it too, and lots of people buy it and you make lots of money. But that’s always a bonus. Write because you love writing. Go work in a bank if you love money.
Although writers should, in my opinion, measure success based on how happy they are with the stories they create, there is of course the possibility that any writer MIGHT hit the big time and make loads of money!!! That’s another thing that keeps us going when times are hard and the whole world seems to be against us. If you work hard, you can catch a lucky break at any point of your career. There are writers like me who got a break fairly early, but there are others like Anthony Horowitz who took more time to really get going. My star started to rise with my third published book (i.e. Cirque Du Freak). Anthony had carved out a very nice career for himself over a period of roughly 20 years, but it wasn’t until Alex Rider came along that he went stratospheric. Eoin Colfer took off early with Artemis Fowl. Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl struggled to establish themselves. There’s no way of telling when fortune will smile on a writer. Sometimes quality shines through quickly and is rewarded—other times it can take years, even decades. But it can happen to ANYONE. Honestly. That might seem like an OTT statement, but it’s not. There are people who’ve written drivel for 20 or 30 years, who suddenly turn around and stumble across a great story that makes them millions. There are books which go ignored when first released (Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho spring to mind immediately), which later are acknowledged as classics and go on to sell phenonemally. Every would-be writer should bear this in mind—even if all looks grim, and it seems like you’re never going to catch that wave of public recognition and financial reward—hang in there. Because your moment CAN come. Don’t bank on it happening—as I said, make quality your aim, and be prepared to settle for that if you have to. But don’t be afraid to dream big either. As crass as it might sound to echo a Lottery slogan, it really and honestly “COULD be YOU”!
On Monday, September 4th, 1995, when I was 23 years old, I wrote the following in my diary entry for that day: “Had an idea for a new book. It’s a mystery novel called Hell’s Horizon. I’m a bit hazy on the finer details at the moment, but I think it could be good ...” Today, almost 13 years later, at the ripe old age of 36, I did my final bit of work on it!!! 13 years ... Bloody hell!!! It doesn’t seem so much when I write it down, but when I think about the actual time, how I was then, all that’s happened since, the days and weeks and months and years which have passed ... Of course, no book could really justify 13 years of a person’s life, but I didn’t work on it exclusively for all that time, so I don’t feel too guilty—indeed, there was a period of about 7 years where I did no work on it at all, after it had been printed for the first time in early 2000. At the same time, there’s something incredibly satisfying about being able to create a story that can stay fresh in your imagination for that long. Very few of my books could hold me the way this one has—the thought of going back to most of my early work to rewrite it gives me the shivers!!! But there was always soemthing special about HH and Ayuamarca and City of the Snakes. Even when I moved away from adult books, into the world of teen fiction, I always had a feeling that I’d return to these stories one day, that I had unfinished business with Capac Raimi, Al Jeery, The Cardinal and co.
And now that day has come—and passed. 13 years later, the story of Hell’s Horizon has finally, properly been completed. I was very happy with the original published version. Unlike Ayuamarca, I hadn’t had to rush this book, and I felt it gave a very good account of where my writing stood at that time of my life. But since I revised book 1, it made sense to revise this one too, and I was amazed by the number of small changes and fixes I was able to make. Even though it’s a fairly large book by my standards (just under 400 pages), it’s a tight, compact work, where everything ties together neatly and no lines are wasted—everything feeds into the story, moves it forward, keeps it ticking over. I know some fans will prefer the more fantastical realms of Procession of the Dead, but to me there’s no doubt that this is a superior work, featuring more fully fleshed out characters, and a plot that functions exactly the way I wanted it to. That’s really the whole aim of writing—advancing to the point where you’re able to tell a story exactly the way you want to tell it. With Procession, I love what my imagination came up with, but there are flaws there, things I just couldn’t fix, no matter how many times I went at it. It’s a damn fine book regardless, I think, but I do look at it and wish I could have done even more with it. That’s not the case with HH. I’ve got this book down to a tee. If people don’t like it, fine, that’s their opinion. But I know I’ve done the best possible job in this case that I could do, and I’m as proud of this as I am of anything I’ve yet to produce. I think City of the Snakes will be even better once I’ve had a couple more passes at it—it combine the tight narrative of HH with the more fantastical elements of Procession—but for the moment I’m going to sit back and give myself a rare pat on the back for a book that I’ve lived with for a long time, and which I’m now ready to send out into the world for the second but final time.
13 years ... Wow. Hard to believe that much time has slipped by, and how my life has changed. Looking through my diary for that entry brought back so many memories. I was still working in a TV cable company in Limerick when I started HH—I would quit later that month to try writing full time. It was an exciting but scary time of my life. I was taking a great leap, with no guarantee that it would lead to anything. I believed I could fashion a career for myself as a writer, but what if I was fooling myself? What if I wasn’t as talented as I thought? What if it all went wrong and my dreams were crushed and the world laughed in my face and I ended up looking like a fool? I’m not a terrible brave person. I always say that my central characters in my books are a lot braver than I am in real life, and for the most part that’s true. But taking that step—leaving a job, risking all, challenging the world from my lonely bedroom in the arse-end of nowhere ... That was the bravest thing I ever did, and I’m proud that I found the strength to do that. It’s a strength every writer must find when they make the decision to chase their dream. It isn’t easy. It isn’t nice. It’s bloody horrible and terrifying actually, and there’s nothing anybody can do to make it any easier for you, to help you find the strength within yourself that you’ll need to make it in this business. But find that strength you must. It’s a huge part of what separates the real writers from those who just play with the idea of doing it. The hardest part is making that initial leap, accepting that you might fail, but pushing ahead regardless. If you can find the strength to do that, everything else will come with time. But this is a tough business, and you have to start out tough if you want to force your way ahead in it.
13 years… It’s a lifetime for most people, but for writers it’s just the blink of an eye, the flashing of your imagination, the turning of a page.
A fan called Kelly wrote to me with the following queries: When I sit down to write it seems that I’m inspired beyond imagination, but after just a few chapters my inspiration drains out completely, and I can’t bring myself to come up with any more ideas for what I should write. Have you ever had problems with losing your inspiration? I can’t seem to finish anything I start writing. I’ve also been having the problem with my parents telling me I’m lazy. They say writing isn’t a good hobby and I should find something else to do. I want to be a writer when I grow up, but they say I should pick something that is more stable and promising… but it seems to have worked alright for you. Did you have a backup plan when you became a writer?
First up, in terms of maintaining your inspiration, it’s probably best to stick to short projects for the time being if you’re having this problem. Writing is all about learning. The more work you put into it, the more you learn and the more you find yourself capable of doing. But just like walking, most writers have to take small steps first. Focus on writing short stories, where you can see an idea through to its end. That way you’ll learn about how to string together the beginning, middle and conclusion of a story. As you keep going, you’ll find yourself able to stretch out ideas and link them with others and create longer, richer stories. There are no short cuts, and each writer develops at different speeds. It might be months, years or even longer before you find yourself able to create the sort of stories that you can feel happy with—but if you keep going, you WILL get to that point.
As for parents, and writing not being a healthy career move… well, they’re absolutely right!! I’ve said it here many times, but I’ll say it again—if you’re looking to get rich quick, don’t become a writer!!! Most of us don’t even make minimum wage. Very few writers can afford to support themselves full-time. Hardly any become millionaires. It DOES happen, and it CAN happen to YOU—but don’t bank on it! The chances are, no matter how good you are at what you do, you won’t get the sort of lucky breaks that a writer needs to become a bestseller and earn a lot of money. You need to judge success in other ways. For me, as it should be for any writer who is serious about their craft, it was all about creating the very best stories that I could, of maximising my gift to its fullest, to see where it could take me. Now, along the way I got lucky, my children’s books took off, and today I’m sitting in a very pretty position, millions of copies sold worldwide, smiling away smugly to myself like the cat who got the cream!!! But I very nearly didn’t catch that lucky break. Cirque Du Freak was turned down by virtually every publisher in the UK, and if HarperCollins hadn’t taken a chance on it, it would never have been published, which would have meant no Saga of Darren Shan and probably no Demonata either. If that had happened… if the sales hadn’t materialised… if I’d had to scrape by on welfare benefits (as I was doing at the time) or taken a crappy job to support myself (as I did before), would I have been a failure? NO!!!! Not in my eyes, or on my terms—not as long as I kept on writing and improving and pumping out books that I was proud of. I think every writer hopes that other people see the value in the work, but ultimately your own opinion is what matters most, and that has to be enough for you, because in this business it’s the only thing you can guarantee.
Like Kelly, I came under a lot of pressure from my parents. They believed in my abaility, but knew how hard it was to succeed as a writer. They urged me to get a “proper job”, one with a guaranteed wage, that would allow me to buy a house, a car, get married, raise kids, etc. Everything they said made sense, just as everything Kelly’s parents are saying is sensible. And I knew that then, just as I know it now. But you know what? I told them to go get stuffed!!!! Well, not in so many words—I love my Mum and Dad and have a very close relationship with them. But in effect that’s what I said and did. As they kept on and on at me to pursue a “proper” career, I ignored everything they said and stayed focused on my writing. Sometimes it led to bitter arguments—I’d be lying if I said otherwise—but I didn’t care. I stuck to my guns. Luckily, they supported me all the way, even while they were trying their hardest to persuade me to change course—they let me stay with them for not very much rent and didn’t try to actively force me to get another job. But if they hadn’t… if they’d pushed me out and told me to stand on my own… then I would have. Nothing was going to stop me from following my dream.
Now, it’s important, if you find yourself in that situation, to face the truth, accept it, and be comfortable with your decision. I knew there was a very good chance that I wouldn’t make much money out of my writing, that I might never enjoy the comforts of life which other people were enjoying, that I might be seen as a crank for all of my life, a failure in other people’s eyes, a disappointment to my parents. I knew all that, and I accepted it—and I didn’t care. I mean, obviously I WANTED the fame and money and recognition, but they were secondary to me. The quality of the writing was what came first. I could see myself improving, I sensed that I could go a lot further, and that was the most important thing in my life. I made a trade-off, a gamble if you will—the ability to be the best writer I could be, set against the possibility that I might never make a living wage out of my stories.
Most writers don’t gamble that recklessly, that early. Most DO get other jobs, support themselves for years, write in their spare time, and only really go for it later in life, when they’re established and well-off. It’s the sensible thing to do. The wise thing to. The safe thing to do. But it’s not what I did, so it would be hypocritical of me to tell others to go down that route. I gambled, and I got lucky, and I’m having a great old time, able to enjoy my success at a far earlier stage of life than I would have if I’d gone into “proper” employment. But even without that luck, the quality of the writing would have been enough for me—in my eyes, I would have been a success, even if nobody else in the world thought so. That was enough for me. As a young author, Kelly—like everyone else in this game—has to decide, is that enough for her?
I can’t tell Kelly that, just as I can’t tell anyone else. Each one of us is different, and we must all follow our own path in life. All I can say is, don’t live in fear, and don’t live a life just to please somebody else. If you have a dream, and you know what the consequences will be if you follow it and fail, and you don’t care… then go ahead and chase it. If you want to tread a more cautious path, that’s fine too—most of us have at least 60 or 70 years to play with in life, so there usually isn’t any great rush. But just be sure, whatever decision you make, that it’s YOUR decision, not someone else’s. If you walk the path in life that you truly want to walk, then you can walk it with pride, no matter what others say or think.
I received the following email from Jenny in America: First of all, I love both your Cirque Du Freak and Demonata series, I own all of both of them and watched the movie last week (John C. Reilly did a good job, I think). I’m emailing you as a fan and because I’m seeking some advice about a writing career. Ideally, I want to be a fiction freelance novelist, but I don’t want to complete the bachelors in English/Creative Writing I’m getting and then not be able to support myself. Honestly, I have no idea where to start after col-lege, and what I should do while I’m in it. What did you do to launch your writing career? I know that I love writing stories, I can do all of the coursework to get my degree, and that it’s what I want to do with my life because I love it. I’m not afraid of losing interest or that I won’t be able to cope with the stress. I just need to get started! Any advice you could give to an aspiring writer would be very welcome. Thank you for your time and for the results of your hard work and brilliant ideas, because I love reading your books!
Ah yes — the age-old problem of money!!! I know many fans get sniffy whenever I talk about the financial side of writing, e.g. happily selling the movie rights to my books to the highest bidder. They think writers should not be touched by the impurities of the “real” world, that we should concentrate only on our writing and telling the best stories we can, not sully ourselves by thinking about such coarse things as money and getting a decent advance and making minimum wage. But of course, as Jenny has noted, we DO live in the real world, and as you grow up, you have to start thinking about money, no matter how much you might not want to. I mean, honestly, you can’t live with your par-ents and sponge off of them forever, can you?!? (Though I managed to get away with it far longer than most — my pair didn’t get rid of me until my mid-twenties!!!)
The answer, Jenny, is that there IS no easy answer. Pardon my french here, folks, but getting started as a writer is usually an absolute bi@ch!!! With very few exceptions, most writers don’t really start to hit their stride until their mid twenties or later — it usually takes a lot of time to develop. The market for beginners has shrunk a lot in recent times — there used to be many more places to publish short stories, magazines and books which paid for new material by young authors, but they have diminished over the years. Publishers are even more wary of taking on new writers than they have traditionally been, given the changing shape of the marketplace and the fact that the big, established writers control more shelf space than ever before, especially in new, non-book stores like ASDA and Tesco. It’s a scary process, starting out, with no real financial guarantees in place, and there’s no point claiming differently — it’s always important to face up to the truth, no matter how scary it might be!!
Having said all that, it’s by no means an impossible task — indeed, it’s far from it. It’s difficult, yes, but it always has been — I struggled financially in my early years, as most writers have. I think the majority of authors seek employment in different fields when starting out, e.g. they become teachers, or work in publishing, or hold down an office job — something which lets them make a decent wage, pay their bills, have a bit of a social life, move out of their parents’ place and set up their own home, etc. That’s why most authors don’t actually get published until their late 20s or 30s — they have to limit the amount of time they spend writing, and slot it in around their regular job.
I didn’t do that — well, not exactly. After university, I ended up in a job that lasted almost 2 years. Then I quit and started writing full time at the age of 23. I was living with my parents and drawing unemployment benefits — and I had to go on doing that for a number of years before I started making any real money. To me, money wasn’t important. I wanted to be a writer more than anything else, and I was prepared to go without any of the regular, normal pleasures of life in order to focus on my dreams of writing the best books that I could. Fortunately I got lucky, my books took off, and I was able to have a “normal” life like other people, except I started doing those normal things — socialising, going on holidays, buying nice things, etc — a bit later than most people, in my mid 20s.
I wouldn’t recommend my way to other young authors, but nor would I actively discourage them from copying it. Ultimately you have to make up your own mind and follow your own path. There are benefits and negatives to every decision that we make in life. Looking back, part of me regrets not socialising more when I was younger, and enjoying life a bit more — but if I had done, I wouldn’t have developed the way I did, and maybe I never would have written Cirque Du Freak or enjoyed the success that I have. The thing is, I thought about the consequences, then made a conscious choice to follow a particular route, accepting that if it didn’t work out, there would be difficulties. I think if you can do that, you can be happy with wherever life leads you. If you acknowledge that you might fail, but make a good attempt regardless, then failure won’t hurt you. Make a plan, stick to it, accept a kick in the teeth if that’s your lot, then dust yourself down and have another crack at it — never say die!!!!
Money IS important, and it DOES have to be considered. As I’ve often said here, money is a form of power — if you can afford to stay true to your vision, you don’t need to compromise when you’re trying to find a publisher for your work. Of course, you can be true to yourself when you’re broke too (I was in the past, as a penniless, unpublished author, when I turned down interest from a publisher who wanted to make changes to a book of mine which I wasn’t happy about), but it’s a lot easier if you have plenty of money set aside in the bank!!!
Jenny will have to do what the rest of us have done before her — find her own path. If you work hard and write as much as you can, that’s an important start — the faster you develop, and the more you write, the sooner you’re going to make a breakthrough. If you have to get a job to support yourself while learning — or if you WANT to get a job, and are happy to take your time developing — then fit your writing in around that, and stick with it, and don’t give up. You don’t have to write full-time to be a good writer — many writers have done their best work while holding down other jobs. If you DO want to write full time, and are determined to do it no matter what, then be prepared to make sacrifices — unless you’re one of the lucky few who make the breakthrough at a very young age — and you MIGHT be — you won’t know until you try!!!! But if you decide to go for broke, don’t pin your hopes on a quick success — be prepared to dig in and fight a long-term battle. When I quit my job at the ripe old age of 23, I had it in my head to give the writing a year or 18 months — if I hadn’t got anywhere by that time, I would have got another job for a year or two, then quit and tried writing full-time again, all the while writing in my spare time while working, in order to keep developing. And if I’d had to do that 5 or 6 times before I was able to make a living from writing — so be it. Writing is normally a marathon — you have to be prepared to hang on in there for the long haul.
One final piece of advice to Jenny and all other young and novice authors — read The Writers And Artists Yearbook (UK) or Writer’s Market (USA) or their equivalent. Those books contain all the practical advice you’ll ever need, and offer lots of great tips which will help you place your work and get paid for it. As I said above, it’s scary and difficult for every writer starting out, but books like these make things a whole lot easier and more straightforward than they would otherwise be!
I received the following email from a fan called Rachael: I was wondering if at some pont in your career, or at the beginning when you first decided that you wanted to be a writer, if anyone ever told you that writing was worthless and it would never get you anywhere? That’s what’s happening to me right now. My stepfather says that writing is worthless and it’s never going to get me anywhere. It hurts when I hear this because writing is my passion and gift. It’s not worthless to me. What should I do to convince him that writing is worthwhile and will someday pay off? I could really use help with this Mr. Shan.
Yes, I had plenty of people tell me that I was wasting my time. Just a few weeks ago one of my cous-ins was telling me how she used to listen to her granny bemoaning my fate and saying that I should get a “proper” job, maybe become a carpenter or something!!! I think it’s hard for people who know someone with a dream to see that person as anything but a dreamer. Most people don’t know any writers or artists or actors or pop stars. They see such figures on TV and in magazines and newspapers, and think that they aren’t really REAL — they’re not like postmen or shopkeepers or traffic wardens. They’re almost like a breed apart, and it’s hard for most people to imagine one of their own joining the ranks of those “others”. I’m sure plenty of Stephen King’s friends and family thought he was wasting his time. I’m sure plenty of people who knew J K Rowling would have snickered if she’d told them she was writing a book about a boy who becomes a wizard.
Writing is hard, just as acting and signing and painting are hard. There are no guarantees, which is why many adults worry when their children chase such dreams. If you want to be a teacher, you study for a set number of years, get a degree, then find a job with a fixed wage and very real avenues of promotion — it’s a safe, sure career. If you want to be a writer, on the other hand, you might spend ten years working as hard as you can without any financial reward. Most writers don’t make minimum wage, just as most actors, singers and painters don’t make minimum wage. It’s a huge risk if you decide to follow one of those dreams, a risk that most people don’t understand and can’t compre-hend. Most parents want their children to do well, to find their feet and be able to afford and home and nice things. It can be hard for them to be supportive when it looks to them like their children might be making a dangerous decision that could lead them into financial difficulties.
When the gamble pays off and you find success, the doubters disappear. I’m sure, if you were to ask my mother, she’d tell you proudly that she always believed in me and was certain I’d hit it big. But I remember the arguments we had, the ways she tried to pressure me to get a “proper job”, to become a teacher and write in my spare time. My mum was the biggest influence on my decision to become a writer, and she WAS hugely supportive of me, but she worried about me too, as most parents worry about their children, and tried to steer me in a safer direction.
You can’t listen to those who would tell you that dreams are a waste of time. You have to tune them out, focus on what matters most to you, and pursue your dream if you have one. As I always say at times like this, be aware of the risks — know that the odds are stacked against you — be prepared to work hard and not gain a quick reward. The worth lies in the work, in what YOU know and judge to be a valid use of your time. Many people lead a safe, secure life, and die full of regrets for the dreams they gave up on. Others might struggle financially all of their life, never make much money, yet let die with a smile, knowing they’ve spent a life chasing the things which mattered most to them. Ultimately each one of us must decide for him or herself. To me, writing good stories was all I cared about — if Cirque Du Freak hadn’t come along, I’d have carried on writing books that didn’t sell, interested only in the quality of the work I was creating, because that was crucial to me. I found true happiness in the work, in the pursuit of the dream, in the struggle. The books I produced in my early years were never published… most of them weren’t even read by anyone else, since I didn’t (and still don’t) like showing unpublished work to my family and friends. But they were worth more to me than any good job with a decent wage. For me there was no comparison. I was perfectly happy to go without the perks of life as long as I was creating stories which fired my imagination and made me feel good about being alive.
If your stepdad doesn’t understand that, Rachael, that’s his loss — don’t let it become yours. Accept his criticism for the misexpressed love and concern that it almost certainly is. Don’t let it sour your feelings for him — if anything, it shows that he is thinking about you, worrying about your future, and that’s always a good thing for a parent or stepparent to do. (Much better that than someone who says “Do whatever you want — I don’t care.”) But don’t let it deter you either. Press on with your dream if that truly matters to you. Life is full of obstacles — were are defined in the end by how we deal with and overcome them.
I received the following email from a fan called Sophie: I’m pretty sure at some point in your life you had to make a choice between following your dreams or not. I’m 16 and I want to be a musician. I love music, it can change my mood com-pletely and I’ve practiced hard. When I told my parents, I wasn’t really sastisfied with my dad’s reaction. My mom just said, “It’ll take a lot of work, but I believe in you.” My dad said, “Sophie, if I let you do that, I’ll be allowing you to make the biggest mistake of your life!” Obviously, that’s not what I wanted to hear. My dad doesn’t believe in me and neither do half the people in my family. The other half know how much work I’ve put into this. When I was 5 I started taking guitar lessons, now I’ve learned how to play 9 instruments-guitar, bass guitar,drums,piano,violin,bass,trumpet,banjo,saxaphone, and I’ve tried my best on vocals-I don’t think my dad understands how much I want this. I know it’s stupid, but I’m kind of afraid of disappointing him, and what if I don’t make it? What if I screw it up? What if all my work was for nothing? What if my dad’s right? There’s not a 100% guarantee people will like me. Heck, I don’t even think there’s a 50% chance people will like me! I’m not even sure I want to try any-more. As someone who knows what it feels like to be this confused, do you think you think you could help me out?
Here’s what I wrote to Sophie in reply: Only YOU can decide how important your dreams are to you. I went for mine from a very early age.. I knew there was a good chance that I wouldn’t succeed financially but that didn’t matter to me — I would rather be doing what I love and scraping by, than earning lots of money doing something I didn’t really want to do. From chatting with other writers, I know I’m something of an exception — most tread a middle ground, learn a trade or go into a profession like teaching when they are young, then focus on their writing when they are a bit older and better experienced at managing their time (e.g. Eoin Colfer). Your Dad is being practical, the way most fathers would be — he’s concerned that you might end up in poor financial position. Ultimately you have to listen to both your head and your heart and choose the path that feels right for you. If you want security and safety, go the route of bal-ancing your musical dreams with the demands of the real world. If you’re a gambler who’s prepared to be a failure in the eyes of most people if that means doing what you love, I’m proof that sometimes that can pay off. But whatever you choose, don’t abandon your dreams — it doesn’t have to be about giving up music completely in order to get a “real” (i.e. boring!!) job — you CAN have both, as long as youre prepared to work hard. For instance, I had a “real” job for 2 years when I finished university. For two years, without fail, I worked every Monday to Friday in my dull, unsatisfying office job — then I spent every Saturday and Sunday writing and developing my talents. It was hard work, obvi-ously, but the weekends were like a treat for me — a way to escape from the real world into my own private universe — so it didn’t like work, but more like pleasure. Best of luck with whatever you decide!!
I received the following email from long-time Shanster Paul, who I know well from years of emails, letters and meeting him at events. He’s a wannabe writer and had been working at one of the H&H stores: Hi Mr Shan, I’m sure you’ve heard the news, that Hughes and Hughes is in receivement. That’s put me out of a job… it’s an alien experience, and I don’t really know what to think. My mum says I could be worse off, but she didn’t realise that that was the job that was supposed to help fund my writing – you know, pens, paper (*lots* of paper), stuff like that. Have you ever been in this situation? It feels selfish to be thinking only of myself and my writing, when there are people out there who have mortgages to attend to and all that, but I can’t help it… Sorry, don’t mean to moan. Bad mood I guess. I found out through the radio that I had no job. AND I had to see the shop empty, with all the lights off, but with the rest of the shopping centre alive and bustling. I’ll have to lose myself in words to get through this… (hopefully I’ll still be able to afford my reading habits… like all of your books, and those of other writers! – speaking of which, you might like Mr Mumbles by Barry Hutchison. Kids’ Horror story!) Anyway, best be off before I get myself down by repeating the jobless scenario over and over again.
This is how I responded to Paul: Hi Paul, I read about that in the papers today — it came as a big shock, since I hadn’t heard any rumours. As for being out of a job — hell yes!!! I drew the dole for about 2 or 3 years when I first quit work to write full time!!! Luckily my parents were very understanding and let me stay with them for not much rent (even rent-free some of the time). Unlike you, though, I wasn’t actually looking for any other job — I made a decision to go for broke, give myself a couple of years to see if I made any progress, and only go back to a 9 to 5 job if forced to. To be honest, that’s not an approach I’d actuvely recommend to young writers — I had several very low-key, thrills-free years, in which I didn’t get to do a lot of socialising. I was very content, because I could see myself progressing rapidly on the writing front, but not terribly happy as I was leading a very isolated life. But I’m not looking for sympathy here — I’ve made up for those lonely, quiet years since!!!!
It’s not nice to be without a job. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, when the country was in an even worse state than it is now, and I hate seeing it slipping back to those grim days when emigration was the only solution for most people who didn’t want to draw the dole long-term. All I can say is, hang in there and keep fighting. Your experience at H&H should stand you in good stead — maybe you can get in with some other store.
As for funding your writing… Thank your stars!! If you were an artist or sculptor, you’d be in much more trouble than you are now!! The great thing about writing is that its cheap!!!!! You can get cheap reams of A4 paper just about anywhere. BIC pens cost next to nothing. You don’t need leather-bound journals and fancy fountain pens — the words you lay down are all that matter. I worked with the cheapest portable typewriter that I could find when I was starting out, and I bashed out many rough-looking but enjoyable stories and books on it. When I first moved up to a computer, again I picked up a very limited model, as cheap as I could find, little more than a glorified word processor — it didn’t have internet access or anything like that, and backing up books was nightmare, but it did the job and got me to where I wanted to be.
Every young writer struggles with the demands of the real world, with paying bills, clothing themselves, having some money to go down the pub or on holiday or whatever. But when it comes to writing, the tools of the trade aren’t computers or paper and pens — your brain and your imagination are all that matter, and as long as you keep on beavering away, it won’t matter a damn what you use to get those ideas down on paper (or even just onto your PC — I never print out any of my books these days, just email them to my agent). So don’t worry about that, and don’t use it as an excuse to stop writing — instead, see this as an opportunity — you’ve been given something far more precious than any writing material known to man, something most young writers rarely get enough of as they struggle to deal with the demands of the outside world…
You’ve been given time. My advice — use it. Nothing will ever drive you forward faster in your chosen career than a bit of free time and a lot of hard work… Best of luck!!!!
And this is how Paul replied to that: Thank you so much! That’s exactly what I needed to hear. I’d been thinking it, but things al-ways sound better when other people say them – I tend to listen… I’ll get to work right away (well, college work first, then editing my novel). Still fascinated that you knew exactly what needed to be said… your reply made my day. All the very best, Much Happier Paul.
Heh heh — Shan sees all, knows all!!! To be honest, it wasn’t the difficult, since I’ve been where he was, as most writers have been — you should never forget that your writing idols all started out the same way YOU have, and had to put in a lot of hard work and time to get to where they are. We know your struggles and heartbreaks because we’ve endured them ourselves.
Even though I’ve never read anything of Paul’s, I think he has a very good chance to making the grade, for two reasons. (1) He’s prepared to work hard to make his dream come true. (2) He’s prepared to listen to the advice of other writers. Many people in his position would have reacted negatively to my email. They would have missed the core of it, that I was telling them that their brain was their most important tool, and would have pouted because I wasn’t more sympathetic to the fact that they could no longer afford to buy nice pens and fancy paper. Advice from writers is like advice from teachers — it isn’t always glowing and nice. If you’re truthful with people, the way all good mentors are, the truth will sometimes hurt. If you’re an A student, and a teacher gives you a B or a C, and explains why, you can either sulk about not getting an A, or learn from their comments and take that experience forward. Paul is a learner, and that makes me think he has what it takes to go far.