Lessons from an emerging writer

When I was in nursery school, my teacher would file us two-by-two through the gates of the Johannesburg Zoo every spring. The elephants and tigers didn't hold my attention. Nor did the petting zoo with its goats and bunnies. Rather I was fascinated by a tiny incubator where I could press my nose against the glass and watch tiny chicks hatch for myself. Some would crack through their shells instantly and waddle around. Others took a little longer. Some, took longer still, inspiring us to bang against the glass in encouragement. When it comes to my career as a writer, I sometimes feel like I'm the chick painfully cracking through my shell bit by bit, rolling around helplessly, while onlookers quietly wonder if I'm going to make it. 

What I'm saying is: this isn't one of those articles by a bestselling author where they dish out the secrets to their success. I am not that author. But I have been an emerging author for many years and know the muck I am attempting to emerge from pretty well. While I'm sounding pretty sarcastic about this, I do believe there is grace in being an emerging writer, in being both terrified by a lack of hope and emancipated by a lack of definition of who you are yet. It is an important stage to go through. So if you're keen to start taking your writing seriously, here are some tips: 

Writing doesn't require a beach house. There is nothing more annoying than the empty fantasy that you will 'get to' writing your novel once you're securely ensconced in your beach cottage by the sea / villa in Bali / ashram in India. Writing doesn't require time, privilege or luxury. It simply requires discipline. Sure some weeks you will write more than others, but don't wait for an idyllic scenario that might not happen. 

Enter short story competitions, but don't take them too seriously. Short story competitions are a great way to hone your craft. You usually get a theme (which helps if inspiration is running dry) and a word count. You'll be amazed how much your creativity thrives with a few boundaries. Short stories give you the perfect opportunity to create a whole world, with fully developed characters in just a few pages. That being said, don't take the outcome of these competitions too seriously. It's as much about about writing about the right issue in the right voice at the right time as it is about skill. Even if your submission didn't make the cut because it was technically poor, riddled with typos or just a bad fit, don't dwell on it. Just keep writing. 

Every piece of writing has a home. Once you have written something and have edited and reedited it to the best of your ability, let it go. It may not win the short story competition it was meant for. The publisher may return it to you with a sweet, empty form rejection note. But one day, it will fit in somewhere. So save everything in a little folder and pick the carcass of your old writings for all it is worth. 

Find a crew of other writers. A few years ago, I met my friends Cath and Blaize in Seattle Coffee Shop in Hyde Park, unsure over whether we'd get along or like each other's writing. Together we have reviewed each other's short stories and manuscripts, given each other honest feedback and supported each other through the highs and lows of being a writer. I am so grateful to have them in my life, because they really get every small victory and irrational low. 

Don't get addicted to submitting things. Nobody warns you how addictive submission is. The rush as you send off the email, the 'will-they-won't-they' as you wait for the response, the giddy high or crushing low when the response arrives. Only a writer will understand the jolt that the email subject 'Re: Submission' can bring to your heart. Like any drug, the high is fleeting and hard to come by. By submitting too soon, without really considering and reviewing your work, you get locked in a bit of a shame cycle that makes it hard for you to progress as a writer. 

What you are doing is valid. Even when you spend three hours flipping between Twitter and a blank screen and only end up with three sentences that sound like the combined voice of every banal airport pulp novel you have ever read. Even when somebody asks you what your novel is about and you start explaining and you can see how hard they're trying to be interested and encouraging but you've already lost them. Even when a blogger who must be about 12 gets a book deal about his 'life story.' While publication and validation is awesome, you don't need someone else to tell you that it's OK to write. It's a creative expression that will not bring quick fix fame or cash, but is beautiful in itself. It's only through keeping this at the heart of our writing that we will keep creating stories that speak to the heart, not to algorithms or a marketing strategy. 

Use shorter sentences. That's all.