The Best Writing Advice I Have Ever Received

          A Monday morning knock at our door three weeks ago brought the surprising news that our home was in danger of “sudden and catastrophic” collapse and life as I knew it evaporated. We decamped to a nearby hotel and friends, rallying to the bar at cocktail hour, started calling me Mrs Self.

          I’m not a stranger to uncertainty but the general feeling of limbo, of being away but just a short walk from a home that might topple over, takes some getting used to. Life goes on of course and I'm trying to keep my mind on the advantages: a sudden, completely unforeseen withdrawal of housework, supermarket shopping and cleaning for starters. The abundance of folded white towels, bath robes and slippers.  A gym, newspaper delivery, interesting Olympic-related lift encounters etc etc. My old Mac was too huge to unplug and lug all the way here, though I did certainly contemplate doing just that, and I miss it dearly.  I’m still getting to grips with working from a PC laptop using the frustratingly slow hotel WiFi so please excuse lack of proper editing and accompanying images in this post.

          As with many unexpected turns of fate, it’s a situation of highs and lows, which is just how, in a recent interview, I described the writing life.  It seems to me that no matter where you are on the scale of things, it’s a rollercoaster, a zig zag of ups and downs. Both the process of writing itself, and then with the whole business side of it all. Be it dealing with publishers and agents or the technicalities of self-publishing and sheer economic survival.

          If you’re just starting out, writing privately just for yourself, you face the hurdle of showing your work to somebody else for the first time. If you’re an established author you have the job of making your next book as good as your last to keep your readers coming back for more.  That used to include keeping your publisher and agent on side as well, but now we have the means to reach readers directly, at least that one isn’t as precarious and unpredictable as it used to be.

          How your books are received, whether they’re noticed or ignored; if the reviews coming in are ecstatic, good, mixed, or bad, whether your publisher is feting you at fancy restaurants or not taking your calls, you have to learn to deal with it. It was never meant to be easy. The immensity of the challenge, to make a living out of a creative art, means the highs are right up there. Which, of course, then makes the corresponding dips, when they appear, harder to deal with.

          The best advice I ever received was to, first, join a writing group, and then, simply to keep on writing no matter what. Don't look back. It’s the writing process itself, the buzz that kicked-started you into writing in the first place that matters most. On top of that there is a massive bonus: the steady continuum of support from other writers.

          At my first beginner’s class I loved discovering the work of others. Reading out for the first time myself was a major challenge. Hearing feedback from the teacher and classmates was an important moment. Then I started squeaking up in class and giving feedback to others. I know writing groups aren’t for everybody, but I found that learning to be honest and constructive without offending helped me evaluate my own material, pushing it on into greater truths.

          Bonds were formed, friends made, other groups took shape when official classes ended;  small critique groups, pub nights… The support from other writers at the peaks of the highs (party party party) and lows (rejection rejection rejection), and supporting others in turn, has been an important part of it all for me. Then the internet came along and a whole new world of writers chatting to each other exploded. I now work online with a small group of writers who publish through my website Blackbird Digital. I count the ex-Transworld/Blackbird travel author Susie Kelly, who I’ve only met briefly twice, as a good friend. I think everybody who is lucky enough to have her in their life feels like that about her though, she’s hugely kind, talented and a very funny writer.

          Filtering out the good online groups takes a bit of doing, one of those internet things there’s never, ever time for. It’s more the ones that leap out for some particular reason. This AUTHOR'S ELECTRIC group of UK indie authors is such a wonderful discovery because I was finding so much ebook online business/writing chat was US-based. Even more recently, I’ve joined the Alliance of Independent Authors, formed by UK-based indie author Orna Ross. I noticed them after reading The Bookseller’s recent article on their collaboration with A M Heath’s foreign rights agent Jennifer Custer. This sounds like a very good thing. A great sign that links between the traditional world of publishing and the new are developing for mutual benefit.


Xlibris said…
Hi Steph,

Thank you this wonderful information, it enlightens me.

Wish more power.
Bill Kirton said…
Sorry about the domestic upheaval, Steph. Amazing that you made time to write this, so thanks. Although many of my on and offline friends belong to writers' groups, I've never done so myself. I do, though, agree that, as a group, writers are astonishingly generous with their advice and encouragement, and I've learned a lot about my own writing simply from the occasional online comment about it.
madwippitt said…
Goodness - hope the domestic front sorts itself out without too much trauma!
Chris Longmuir said…
I've been a mamber of a writers' group for over 20 years, in fact I was a founder member, and I believe that they are invaluable, mainly for the support and the free crits, although you will always get some who say that was lovely, while there are others who delight in picking everything to bits. But over time you learn what to accept and what to reject.
Stephanie Zia said…
More power to you too Xlibris... The generosity of writers indeed, Bill. The support has been beyond valuable to me, Chris, for many reasons beyond the writing ones. Madwippitt, so far so good, actually finding the practical side of it all is a relief from the prior problems!
julia jones said…
Dear Stephanie - if I was told that my house was in imminent danger of collapse I would be traumatised. I think it's amazing that you're coping and writing and looking for the positives. Very best of luck, Julia
Stephanie Zia said…
Thank you Julia. Thankfully the house is owned by a large property company who are looking after us well. If we were owners it would be 100 times more stressful.

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