How to be a writer (Edge Hill talk)

• February 9th, 2013 • Posted in All posts, News & events

I went up to Edge Hill University this week to give a talk to creative writing students there.   I’ve never been on a creative writing course personally, but I see myself as a sort of honorary graduate of Edge Hill, because winning the Edge Hill Short Fiction Prize has proved a turning point in my writing career.  It was good to see Ailsa Cox again, a great short story writer herself, who’s done a huge amount of work over the years keeping the Edge Hill prize on the road, and also Carys Bray, whose excellent collection I wrote about here.  Good to meet the students too.

I’d been asked to talk about my career as a writer, and what I could glean from it in terms of advice for would-be writers.   What I think I have learnt boils down to this:

(1) You do actually have to write stuff, and you need to be prepared to write a lot of embarrassing rubbish before you find your own style, voice and subject-matter.   This entails taking a huge gamble, because there’s no guarantee that you will ever find these things, or that they are even there to be found.  (There were times when I wondered whether my ambition to write was simply deluded, a cancer in my life, draining energy from other goals.)

(2) Some of us are drawn to writing in part because it allows us to hide away in our rooms and not deal with the messy and worrying world of OTHER PEOPLE. But it is a big mistake to look at it this way.   Writing is a job in which, as with most jobs, you need a network of colleagues and contacts to get on.

This last point has really only dawned on me in fairly recent years.  A turning point for me was accepting an invitation Roy Gray, of Interzone, to participate in an event at the Eastercon SF convention, only about 8 or 9 years ago.  He introduced me to some other writers, and in due course, at subsequent Eastercons, I met more.  One of them was Neil Williamson.  Neil introduced me to Andrew Hook, who at that time ran Elastic Press, and Andrew was to publish The Turing Test and enter it for the Edge Hill Prize.  When I won the prize, this enabled my agent John Jarrold (who I’d met in a similar way) to interest Corvus in publishing my novels The Holy Machine and Dark Eden.

There’s a lot of luck here of course, a lot of contingency – another set of judges might well have chosen another book – but you have to create opportunities for luck to happen.  (You can’t be sure of winning a lottery if you buy a ticket, but you can be sure you won’t win if you don’t buy one.)  Without those kinds of chains of contacts, I might well not have got much further than publishing the occasional story in magazines.   It’s not just that I wouldn’t have got books published: I might not have written them.

One of the students has since blogged about my talk here.  He says that I gave the same advice as everyone else does. I find this quite reassuring for some reason.

I enjoyed myself: I like having to think about the business of writing.  And I loved the train journey there and back.  Peace, warmth, comfort, a plug for my laptop, the world passing by outside.

And no OTHER PEOPLE at all.

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