Last night I had the pleasure of chatting to a young writer and her dad after a Waterstones event, and it got me thinking about what advice I would give a 21 year old writer, who was really serious about seeing her book in print. Coincidentally, today I read a blog post by John Scalzi about why it’s more common to see writers debuting after they hit the age of 30. It’s a great piece and you can read it here:
There was one aspect that I don’t think is touched upon, however, and so I’m going to focus on that here.
It is worth saying from the off:
There is no age at which it’s right to be published. People get books published at all ages, but the more debut authors I bump into at conventions, the more I’ve found that they most often fall into an age bracket somewhere between 28 and 40. All of the reasons that John gives are totally valid, but there is one further thing that probably adds to this: and quite simply, it’s life experience.
If you’re a young writer, then please don’t be patronised when I say this:
Most people look back at their 15-25 year old self and cringe at two things:
- How much they thought that they had everything figured out.
- How little they had actually figured out.
There is an assumption that at the point at which you hit adulthood that you have a good idea of who you are what you’re about. What you want, the direction that you think life should take. You start making choices and plans for the future.
Truthfully though, most people don’t know any of those things and spend their twenties trying to figure it out. The older you get, the more you realise about how much you don’t know. The difficulty is that without experiencing a bunch of different things, it’s very difficult to know how you feel about much anything at all. Your formative years are spent just struggling to get to grips with the basics of life – doing your own laundry, managing your finances, coping with having to pay rent, being bored at work, friends coming and going (and trust me, they’ll go, even some of the ones you think are forever when you’re 21), relationships (again, they’ll come and go), all of it. But there’s a difference between coping with it and understanding it.
As a writer, your principal job is to convey the lives of other, fictional, people. The more people that you’ve spent time around and interacted with, the easier this becomes. When you’re younger, you tend to only spend time around people of your own age. How then to reproduce realistic motivations and characteristics for people of 30+ when you’ve only really engaged with them as teachers, or bosses? This changes as you get older, and the breadth of personal experience changes. Characters aren’t built around the big scenes and the actions that they take; they’re alive on every page, and you need to convey realistic feelings and a unique depth to each character.
As I walked through Brighton yesterday, I was struck by an exchange between two young women who I presumed were students, not older than 20, talking at volume in the street:
Girl A: “You’ve been to Vietnam, haven’t you?”
Girl B: “No, I’ve been around a lot of Asia though.”
Girl A: “Oh, Vietnam is just crazy. There are no street crossings anywhere. You just have to walk across the road with your hands out hoping nobody hits you.”
What would 21 year old me have thought? I’m not sure. But at 35, my brain analyses their behaviour on auto-pilot. Girl A’s opening question isn’t a question; she’s not interested in Girl B’s response, she just wants to bring up that she’s been to Vietnam, but doesn’t want to be seen to just be shouting about her gap year. Girl B’s response shows that she’s feeling criticised for not having been to Vietnam – as though there’s an assumption that a girl her age ought to have been to Vietnam (I, coincidentally, have never been too Asia at all). Girl A’s second statement is not really intended to convey anything about Vietnam: there are, after all, plenty of place’s in the UK where there aren’t any crossings and you just cross them anyway. Her statement is intended instead to show the wildness of her experiences and the depth of her worldliness.
The older you get, the easier people are to read and understand. We wear masks that allow us to pretend that we’re normal, and that needs to be conveyed in order to create an effective character. Nobody ever gets perfect at the mask, but as comedian Greg Davies says: “Look your partner in the eye. Now realise the truth. Every single day, they think at least one thing, that if they were to say it to you, you would leave them on the spot.” Nobody is the face that they present to the world on the outside. That seldom occurred to me when I was young, at least. Life seemed much simpler, the less I knew about it.
All that, just in three sentences, but so obvious when you’re a bit older, and through just that little dialogue, you see the stories that lie beneath. When teenagers shout “You don’t understand me at all!” they’re usually wrong – it’s just that the adult they’re yelling at doesn’t agree. You understand young people better as you age, because you’ve been one, you’ve seen a lot of them, and you’ve had time to reflect. This makes writing younger people much easier.
Your later twenties and early thirties also bring with them a lot of experiences that you’re unlikely to have in your early twenties. Mortgages and responsibility, the loss of the parental safety net, the switch from seeing parents and grandparents as providers to parents and grandparents as dependent on you as you are on them. You’ve had different careers, different experiences from them. You’ve not just been on gap years and trips to get drunk on an island, you’ve travelled for work. You’ve met far, far more people, and they are likely to have been people of differing backgrounds – if you’ve only been in school and then university, you’re likely only to have met people from a fairly shallow range of cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds for socio-economic reasons. When you choose to write something, say, a romance thread, then knowing the difference between various relationships that you’ve had matters, and comes across in your writing. The important thing to realise about this slow filter of life experience is that the important things don’t come in bumps or starts: it’s not getting the mortgage that matters. It’s living with it, day after day. It’s not the first, exciting kiss that makes the relationship, it’s trying to make it work day after day. It’s not getting that dream job, it’s the discovery of how it makes you feel, how you change over a year doing it. It’s choosing to do online shopping or going to the supermarket, week by week. The slow drip-feed of life experience. Your gap year will be less defining in your life than the miserable admin job you have the year after you leave uni, and it will give you more character insight as you see people in real situations.
I have to caveat that with the statement that everyone’s experiences are incredibly different. You may have experienced more than life at 20 than I had by 30. But that won’t hold for the average person.
More than one person has asked me: “Is the relationship thread in Blackwing about someone you knew in the past?” The truth is that no, it’s not, and Ezabeth is not directly based on anyone. But the experiences that Galharrow and Ezabeth have probably are. It’s not a story I could have written at 20. When I was writing relationships at 20, they were far simpler affairs, because my experiences had been less complex.
All of these experiences are important and play into your writing. This doesn’t mean that you can’t write well in your teens or twenties, but it’s worth considering the types of stories that you’re telling, and how able you are to tell them. If you’re 21 and you’re writing about a 35 year old, unless you’re incredibly perceptive, then I find it unlikely that you’ve had the depth of experience necessary to convey what that person’s life is like. By the time you’re 28, life experiences will have made you more robust, more damaged, more understanding of the world around you. In my personal experience – and it’s only that, mine – I found that around the age of 30 was when I really understood why I’d done the things I’d done, felt how I’d felt, and could see the earlier stages of my life with any kind of clarity.
“Write what you know,” is not particularly good advice in many regards, especially for stories about dragons and wizards, but when it comes to characters, I’m not sure that we’re really able to escape it. So with that long ramble through my psychoanalysis of my own experiences, what would I advise myself at 21?
It wouldn’t really matter. I wouldn’t have believed any of it anyway, and I’d have just shrugged and told old me that one day I was going to be a published fantasy author, and honestly, 21 year old me would probably be saying the right thing. Write, write, and then write some more. That’s basically all you can do.