Tuesday 15 December 2009

Getting people to do it!

I spent fifteen minutes this morning chatting to a free-lance journalist writing an article called ‘So you want to be a writer?’ for ‘Cerys’, a magazine for 12-16 year old girls. Inevitably, I was asked for my top 3 tips for budding writers. ‘Read lots!’ is always my number one ‘Do it!’ is probably my second – I meet so many people, some of them in the creative writing class I teach who claim to want to write but don’t actually make the time. But my third – well, there are lots of things I could say. Today we were chewing the fat about what got me into writing in the first place and a big catalyst for me was doing very well in one of those ‘prize is getting your book published’ competitions run by Faber. That boosted my confidence and I went on from there. But I was also reminded that a big encouragement as a child was winning the story writing competitions in our local newspaper, ‘The Stockport Advertiser’. I have no idea how many people entered (probably very few – my brother-in-law is currently a dab hand at winning all sorts of goodies in newspaper competitions because he’s realised that so few people enter them) but I was highly delighted by the publication of my stories and the prize of a book that always followed. Once I even had tea with local author, Joyce Stranger, who generously gave me signed copies of two of her hardbacks. That was very thrilling. Her advice to budding writers was to live a broad and rich life – she didn’t seem too impressed with my plan to go to university to study English and maybe I should have taken heed!
I’m curious about the effect the competition winning had. I am not normally a person who enjoys competition (like Katherine, commenting on Sarah Molloy’s blog, I’d prefer to see us all as colleagues rather than rivals although, being realistic, I appreciate that it really is a competitive market out there and we can’t all be winners!) but it certainly gave me a spur as a young writer, partly, I suppose, because books of my own were scarce and I loved the prizes as well as the publication.
And so I have fallen to wondering about whether we could be encouraging young writers in this way? I’ve done some judging of school and bookshop competitions and it can be a deadly task, bringing back shades of the marking that killed a lot of the joy of being a schoolteacher. But I’m still wondering. Should we be setting competitions on our own web-sites? Occasionally from here? In collaboration with local bookshops? Or papers? Should we be nagging our publishers?
I’m pondering. What can we the writers of now, be doing to encourage the writers of the future? Or doesn’t it matter? Are they all so text happy with their Facebooking and mobiles and MSN that they don’t need any encouragement from us to write, even if the writing they do is not quite like ours?
Now I’m going to go away and consider whether I should be offering recreational creative writing to kids as well as to adults...hmm...about time I did some of own writing too, or I’ll be guilty of what I accuse others of and never actually ‘doing it’! (Though I might go and enter a competition in a local newspaper...hmm...a day at a luxury spa might be nice...and I could take a notebook and pretend I was writing.........!)


Nick Green said...

Strange to say, but I don't really feel that encouragement is needed in this area. People who really want to write, will do it, and in fact will do it in the face of monumental DIScouragement (we all know about that). I worry that it might actually be irresponsible to lure people down a route that they don't have 100% natural commitment to. Or, conversely, one might put off a promising talent by pushing it before it's ready to bloom.

I remember my Dad pushing me and pushing me to get better at the piano, and the eventual result of this was that I gave it up. I just couldn't play if he was in earshot, and so could never find my own pace and way of practicing.

By contrast, no-one ever tried to encourage me to be a writer. That slipped by under all their well-meaning radars.

Anonymous said...


madwippitt said...

I think competitions are a fab idea ... I still remember the kick I got out of winning a 'write an ending to this story' competition in a horsy mag - and it was that which spurred me on to submit a short story of my own ... something I'd never have thought (or dared) to do without that initial win. Especially in the face of my English teachers' ctiticism of my usual essays. And a few years later, that submitted (and accepted) story was followed by others which in turn led onto other magazine work, and to writing books as well. But although the thrill has now worn off, I'll never forget that early huge excitement of seeing my name in print above my work and which encouraged me to keep at it!

Katherine Roberts said...

I have to agree with Nick. This is no profession to go into if you need any sort of encouragement to do it. What you really need is gritty determination to keep going against all odds, self-belief and self-reliance in spades.

Competitions don't have much to do with the realities of making a living as an author. I'd even go so far as to say young people should be actively DISCOURAGED from writing for a living. Then if they are still determined to do it they just might - if they are very lucky and possess the required amount of talent, perseverence and dedication - turn their dream into a reality.

There is already far too much fantasy surrounding authors, spread by press stories about the JK Rowlings of this world. I think those of us who have played the game for a few years have a responsibility to point out to young people that there are snakes on this board as well as ladders, and some of them are very long and very slippery. You might be lucky and avoid them. Your career as an author might be all ladders, and I honestly hope it is. But sometimes all the hard work, talent, dedication and perseverence in the world is not enough if your luck turns.

You only have to look at the recent Society of Authors earnings survey to see the truth in this. For every JK Rowling, there are thousands of less well known authors surviving on the breadline... and the sad part is that many of these will once have been bright-eyed competition winners.

Meg Harper said...

Gosh, well kind of polar opposite views there then! And I can definitely see both sides. Hmmm...maybe I should have told the journalist that she shouldn't be writing such a cloud-cuckoo article! Or should have pointed out that it's very nice to be a writer in many ways but it's more realistic to see it as a hobby that you might occasionally get paid for! That's rather how it is for me at present - my real earnings come from elsewhere. Maybe biggest tip of all should be get a day job and don't be tempted to give it up! Hey ho.

And yes, Bookwitch, Stockport was my home town. Love the place despite having left it when I was 18 and have no parents to return to there. If you're local to it, I jolly well hope you've been to the hatting museum!!! : )

Anonymous said...

Have been here 22 years, and yes, did manage hat museum with a visitor once. The weird thing is that I don't really belong here, but my children do.

madwippitt said...

It works both ways! I worked for peanuts as a riding teacher and by the time I'd accidentally acquired a horse, a pony, a dog and a beat up old car, the money didn't go anywhere near covering the weekly bills. So I wrote. It wasn't a fortune either, but what I earned helped support my horsy career, while the horsy stuff subsidised the writing, and consequently none of us actually starved. But I wouldn't have thought of writing if it hadn't been for that competition in the first place giving me the idea that here was something I could do in my spare time. So please don't knock competitions! They gave me my first break!