Although the title of this post is “letter to an aspiring author”, it’s more like a letter to myself when I was younger, and desperately wanted to be an author and had no idea how to go about it, or whether I would ever fulfill that particular dream.
So here goes:
Dear younger self (and aspiring author),
You probably want some advice on how to cross this bridge, which probably seems more like a chasm to you, from this side of not having written anything worth publishing, or having been published in some form that is deeply meaningful to you, to the other side of being able to call yourself “published author”. You are desperate to put your feet on this side of the meadow, smell the flowers on this side, feel the breeze in your hair.
You probably think that something magical will happen to you when you’re over here. Somehow you will be anointed with some special oil. Music will play, and a banner will unfurl from the sky - you are now an author! You have made it!
Well, I am really sorry to burst your bubble, but its not quite like that actually. And here’s why.
It is both easier and harder than you anticipated - being an author. In some ways, you are probably pursuing the wrong dream. I mean, it might work out for you. This dream, of being anointed and carried through the town on the shoulders of the masses, chanting your name. You might be that one in a million, whose books are read by your aunt’s hairdresser and the husband of your child’s pre-school teacher. You might fulfill that dream of reading your work to a packed auditorium, where there is a hush after you finish reading, and then the audience bursts out clapping at the sheer brilliance of your prose.
But I hope you realize that this doesn’t happen to everyone who publishes a book. That there is a wide range between having written a book that is then bought by readers, to being bought and adored by hundreds of thousands. And that many wonderful writers and books are in this range. And if you are really serious about your love for words, you will not care where you are in the range at all, as long as you are there - that is, that your work is out there for readers to find and fall in love with, in the tens and dozens at least, if not thousands.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hope for the whole thing - the book tours, the adoration, the big cheques. It just means that that isn’t the same thing as being a published author. Its just one end of the spectrum. And here’s the easy part - if you look closer, the dream is much bigger and more nuanced than you at first realized. There is room for you no matter what you want to write, and how wide or narrow the size of your potential readership is. You could write that space-vampire-fashionista novel that you have been imagining, or write yet another cozy mystery solved by a middle-aged spinster and her cat. There is enough room for your unique voice, your unique take, without you having to worry about trends, what’s selling, what’s hot, what is so over or over-saturated. If you love something, chances are someone else will too. If your dream is to write what’s in your heart, and find someone who shares that interest, then being a published author, that’s really not such an impossible dream. In fact, you’re really lucky, because in the future things will change so much that anyone can write a book and become a published author.
And that was the good news. Now here is the bad: it is much harder than you have been led to believe. But not for the reasons you thought. You believed that you needed talent, great ideas, the whisper of the muse. You bought into the myth of writer’s block, and searched for books and advice on combating it. You agonized over the smallest details of your story, before you had even written a single word. You worried about the correct spelling of the name of your main character, but neglected to worry about whether you liked her enough to spend a few months getting to know her on the page.
You talked more about the writing then you spent time on it. And when you did sit down to write, you realized the words didn’t flow onto the page. You were appalled at the clunky and creaky sentences that poured out of you, and ground to a halt. You couldn’t write this badly. Not if you wanted to be a published author. Not if you wanted those awards and accolades and book tours. So you stopped. Stopped writing. Stopped trying. Waited instead for the muse. Scribbled your ideas on scraps of paper. Carried around a notebook. Talked about the magnum opus you were going to write. When the circumstances were ideal. Which unfortunately never happened.
Here’s what I want to tell you: write a shitty first draft. And shitty first book. And second and third. Write a lot of really bad blog posts. Give yourself permission to really suck for a year or two. Its not your fault. You’re not a bad writer. You’re not lacking in talent. You’re simply lacking in skill. No one is born a writer, at least none of us mere mortals. Even that brilliant idea for a story that you have rattling around, needs skill to bring it to life. Skill that you don’t have just yet, skill that you have to work hard to acquire. And there really is only one way to acquire that skill. Write. Whether or not the muse flies by on her chariot. Whether or not the words you write make any sense. Whether or not you are in the mood.
Writer’s block exists. It’s just another name for lack of experience. Of not knowing that through the bad words the good ones flow. Of not believing that you can edit out a lot of the clunkiness. Of not trusting that eventually the years of reading good books and soaking in the words will pay off.
So that’s where I want to leave you, dear aspiring author. The hardest part of crossing that bridge to the meadow of publishing isn’t overcoming the obstacles you thought you would encounter. It is learning the craft, putting in the work, and accepting that you might have to alter your definition of what being published means. But just in case all of this makes you feel just a little dampened and deflated, I want to assure you that the grass is still plenty green over here, the flowers are quite nice and little bunny rabbits occasionally scamper across. The reality of being published may differ from the vision in your head, and it might be more work, less glamorous, less dependent on luck and more on perseverance, but at the end, its worth it.
And it gets a little easier, each time, with each book. And just a little harder too, just to keep you on your toes. After all, that’s the price of admission.