Sarah Perry on her struggle to become a writer

SarahPerry-Author

A fantastic and inspiring article for any struggling writer – read this and keep the faith!

Enjoy x


My first book was published when I was 34. I was at that time a copywriter, earning a living by removing errant apostrophes from clothing catalogues, and drafting news reports for legal journals. Before then, I had been a civil servant (a job to which I was ill-suited in every respect), a minimum-wage shop worker, a nanny, an office temp and a legal administrator. Often I am asked what possessed me to join the civil service straight after graduation, and the frank answer is that I had supported myself financially since I was 18, and needed to earn a living: writing, my long-held ambition, would have to wait.

When it became intolerable to me that I was not doing the one thing I had ever felt would give my life purpose, I applied for an MA and then a PhD in creative writing (funded by a tax rebate and a scholarship respectively). I began a novel, and abandoned it, and wrote a series of earnest and trite short stories; I took up the novel again, and wrote a thesis on the gothic, and all the while carried out my full-time work as a secretary to a committee of barristers.

It never occurred to me that I would be able to make a living from writing fiction, and I did not in the least resent my day job, though naturally I occasionally imagined finding a hoard of Saxon gold in the back garden. I knew that Philip Larkin had been a librarian in Hull, that TS Eliot had worked in a bank, that Harper Lee had worked for an airline. I knew that some books achieved vast advances, but that these were both rare and potentially something of a poisoned chalice. In due course my first novel was sold for an advance entirely in keeping with a strange book already turned down by upward of a dozen publishers, which is to say, roughly a month’s wages.

I continued to write copy for lawyers’ websites, pausing sometimes to look out of the window and think about the legend I’d recently heard of an ancient serpent menacing Essex. Debts were large; money was tight; my laptop – which I’d once inadvertently set on fire while cleaning the keyboard with a canister of compressed air – did not work unless plugged in, and was too heavy to carry for long without backache. The prospect of writing a second novel – destined for an indifferent readership, likely to earn little money – while working late into the night transcribing interminable interviews with businessmen was daunting. But my agent and publisher were warmly supportive, and at any rate I had nothing better to do with my life.

Then, in 2014 I won the East Anglian book of the year award [for After Me Comes the Flood]. The effect of the prize was twofold. First, it conferred the sense of legitimacy that I’d never quite been able to summon up: a group of writers had admired my work, and they wanted me to write more. I was by then already at work on my second novel, The Essex Serpent, but always dogged by a curious sense of foolishness. I was poor, and getting poorer: what was I thinking, staring at the wall making things up, when I could do something both more useful and more remunerative? Ought I to have been a barrister? Should I perhaps teach? Writing felt, obscurely, like a moral failing. Then I was handed a glass trophy and a cheque at a ceremony in a Norwich department store, and felt suddenly at ease.

Most practically, the prize enabled me to replace my laptop with a slender one light enough to carry on trains, and able to retain its charge. I did not need it, precisely – one can write novels in mud with a pointed stick – but I felt like an apprentice carpenter given the tools of the trade by a benevolent guild. I bought stickers reading THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS and DON’T PANIC in nods to Woody Guthrie and Douglas Adams, fixed them to the lid, and set about my writing with vigour vastly renewed. On my laptop, I have written two novels, two short stories, and innumerable essays and articles. It now contains a document tentatively labelled book4.doc, and following a period of immense good fortune I am free to choose what I write, when I write it, and for whom.

This year I am chair of judges for the Desmond Elliott prize, an award for the best first novel of the year. It was set up in memory of the late literary agent, who arrived in London from Ireland with two pounds in his pocket, and went on to represent Jilly Cooper and Penny Vincenzi. But it is perhaps more accurately an award in support of the second novel, since its £10,000 prize is explicitly intended to nurture the winner’s next work, and offer stability and support as they continue to develop their practice.

The debut novelist comes equipped with a certain glamour that swiftly fades. Each year the newspapers present, with an enthusiasm that I at any rate find infectious, the “new intake” of writers. There is always the possibility that among those unfamiliar voices will be one still speaking from the shelves in decades to come. Debuts only rarely constitute the best of a writer’s output but it is striking to note how frequently debut novelists are unable to fulfil their early promise, and how easily the roving spotlight of literary attention moves on to fresher faces.

I am particularly invested in the notion of a prize for debuts which frankly acknowledges the need to help authors into the next stage of their career, because I know how a prize can prove transformative both in terms of financial support and in conveying a sense of legitimacy. When I was first published, I confess I felt some anxiety about myself: about the Essex accent that makes itself known unless I concentrate, my lack of connections through family and friends, my polytechnic degree. Would I feel like Pip in Great Expectations, mocked by Estella: “He calls the knaves jacks, this boy”?

As it turned out, I discovered that organisations such as Arts Emergency and the Arts Council were working to correct a historical skew towards a certain kind of publishing culture (and I was delighted to find that my own publisher was the first to offer internships on a London living wage). Where inequalities in publishing persist, money is often at the heart of the matter. If you are able to devote yourself to writing from, say, your late teens – because you need not earn much, if at all; because you do not need to care for children, or family members; because a friend’s friend needs someone to house-sit their Edinburgh flat for six months – you are at liberty to write, and write, and write. And writing, like playing the piano, or lathing a cabinet smooth, requires practice.

Awards such as the Desmond Elliott prize can help to put a spirit level over the playing field. Any entrant can find themselves suddenly in possession of a sum that is not life-changing, but which will buy a degree of freedom to write, or a necessary research trip, or – as in my case – sharper tools. Writers are not owed a living any more than other artists, and financial prizes are not precisely necessary. Put your mind to it, and you can write a slender volume of verse on the back of till receipts with a stolen Argos biro. But writing is difficult for everyone, and more difficult for some than for others. And in a society in which some communities are significantly more likely to lack financial privilege those difficulties can stultify and narrow the culture. There are many voices going unheard, and it’s both a duty and a pleasure to help pass on the amplifier.

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Via: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/27/sarah-perry-novelist-literary-award-prize-winning-debut-writer?CMP=share_btn_tw

Why Comparing Yourself to Other Writers is Killing Your Creativity

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I’m going to be honest with you. I have this problem (which is a fairly common one) where I compare myself to other people. I’ll spare you the mushy, self-esteem-issues stuff because day-to-day it doesn’t bother me that much.

But when it comes to my creativity, comparing myself to other writers is really not okay. I’ve come to realise this in the last few months, and want you to know why (even though we all do it from time to time) we need to stop. It’s a matter of taking pride in yourself and your own writing rather than trying to find ‘the answer’ in other people.

Common complaints of the chronic comparer

Ever finished an incredible book, one that had a profound effect on you, and wanted to know more about the author? Of course you have. Flick to the author bio, do a quick Google search. You find out they started submitting to publishers when they were 15, they had a book deal by 20 and they’re making tonnes of money, or even worse, they never wanted to be a writer, they just sort of ‘fell into it’ and got extremely lucky – suddenly it’s like someone’s let the air out of you. Here you are in your 30s bumming around still trying to write that first novel and wishing your MS was even half as amazing. This is your life. And look at theirs. Tragic.

Stop. Stop right there.

You’re no doubt familiar with the scenario above, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an acceptable way to judge yourself as a writer. The more you compare yourself to others this way, the more you devalue yourself.

Such thoughts might go along these lines:

They’ve written so many amazing things / I haven’t written anything good

They’ve been published so many times / I’m not even good enough to get a response

They write every single day / I can’t even write once a week

These sort of thoughts are neither productive nor helpful to your development as a writer, so banish them from your mind the second they start to creep in.

Making yourself depressed over what other people are doing only wastes time that you could be being productive, that you could be making a change toward the things you’re complaining about. If you’re feeling low because Ray Bradbury wrote an early draft of Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days and you’ve been sitting on your book draft for over a year (yes, this is my life) then stop pouting and get a wriggle on. Instead of getting depressed about it, use it as motivation to get your head down.

Pep talk: you are awesome

Okay. Here’s the sentimental, motivational part: every artist is different, and just because your methods or techniques aren’t the same as everyone elses’ doesn’t mean they’re any less valid. Emily Dickinson shut herself up to write, but that doesn’t mean we all need to become hermits. Hunter S. Thompson was a gonzo journalist who did tonnes of drugs, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to report a story.

Own your habits and your quirky creative identity. Find your own voice. Write by your own rules, and don’t let anyone else dictate how you should do it.”

Yes, there are writers who’ve been published young, or who mingle with big names, or who got a crazy-lucky break into the industry (Evie Wyld, I’m thinking of you). But the thing about those amazing writers is that they didn’t get where they are now by being someone else, they did it by being the writer they were meant to be; by being themselves and putting in a lot of hard work. You might not be where they are, but if you don’t believe in yourself you won’t even get close. As the saying goes:

Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”

How to compare constructively

While comparing yourself to other writers in a negative way can be damaging to your creative self-esteem, you can turn the experience into a positive. Instead of wallowing and feeling crummy, think about your achievements and inspire yourself to keep creating. The worst thing you can do is give up because you don’t believe in what you’re doing. Think about those writers that simultaneously excite and revolt you with how amazing they are. They’re amazing because they tried, because they put in the effort, and in the end they made it.

Find the positives

Maybe your stories and poems have been rejected a lot, and you haven’t won any competitions, but at least you’re submitting them which is a massive dedication in itself.

Maybe you haven’t been writing much lately, but maybe you’ve been pursuing other creative tasks like reading your favourite books. Or researching some important plot points. These are also valuable uses of your time.

Turn your self talk on its head. Find a plus amidst the minuses. Give yourself permission to be awesome, stroke your ego a little. It’s absolutely acceptable, I promise.

Vent to a friend

Sometimes the only thing you can do is text a buddy or meet up for a drink after work and let loose. Chances are, they totally understand where you’re coming from (especially if they’re a writer too) and can balance out your frustration with a fresh perspective.

Talk to writer friends, or find a Twitter or blog post about it. I guarantee you will find others in the same boat. It certainly helps to hear that you’re not alone in the way you feel about your writing idols (and trust me, we’re all right there with you on this one).

Take action

If you’re unhappy with where you are in your creative journey, make a change. Don’t waste another minute. You can twist those negative feelings towards other writers back around and set yourself some achievable goals. Want to write more or even finish that novel? Set deadlines and cover your walls in post-its. In love with the technique or style of a particular author? Give it a go in your own writing and see how it works. Challenge yourself by saying, ‘yes, I can do that too’ or ‘I’m going to do it even better’. You might just surprise yourself!

Happy writing x

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Via: https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/why-comparing-yourself-to-other-writers-is-killing-your-creativity/

The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Celebrates Excellence of Women Writers

Previously known as the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction (2013-2016) and the Orange Prize for Fiction (1996-2012), the Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their 2018 shortlist. The award celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.”

The shortlist, which includes three debut novelists, is as follows (with bonus links when possible):

Chosen by our brilliant 2018 judging panel, this year’s shortlist features one previously shortlisted author and three debut novels.

Sarah Sands, 2018 chair of judges and Editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said: “The shortlist was chosen without fear or favour. We lost some big names, with regret, but narrowed down the list to the books which spoke most directly and truthfully to the judges,” said Sarah Sands, Chair of Judges.  “The themes of the shortlist have both contemporary and lasting resonance encompassing the birth of the internet, race, sexual violence, grief, oh and mermaids. Some of the authors are young, half by Brits and all are blazingly good and brave writers.”

Did your favourite make the cut? Join in the conversation on Twitter @WomensPrize

Find out more by following this link: https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/reading-room/news/revealing-2018-womens-prize-shortlist#

Via: https://themillions.com/2018/04/womens-prize-fiction-shortlist-celebrates-excellence-women-writers.html

The Perfect Girlfriend: Book Review

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So, I was lucky enough to attend the book launch for my fantastically talented friend, Karen Hamilton, and pick up a copy of her debut.

I have to say, I have just finished it and it didn’t disappoint.

Juliette is troubled and twisted but absolutely determined to get her man. And as the pieces fall into place you find yourself rooting for her. The plans that she chooses to employ get more and more obscene, and yet when you see the world through her eyes they make perfect sense.

Juliette is calculating, obsessive and ruthless in her quest. She wants to succeed, no matter what the cost, which makes for a gripping and enthralling ride. This is one of those books that I couldn’t stop reading, even into the early hours in the morning, because I just had to know what she was going to do next!

Incredibly addictive, I highly recommend this book for thriller fans.

Happy reading!


Juliette loves Nate.
She will follow him anywhere. She’s even become a flight attendant for his airline, so she can keep a closer eye on him.

They are meant to be.
The fact that Nate broke up with her six months ago means nothing.
Because Juliette has a plan to win him back.

She is the perfect girlfriend.
And she’ll make sure no one stops her from getting exactly what she wants.

True love hurts, but Juliette knows it’s worth all the pain…

There’s a new spate of psychological thrillers in town – where things are mixed up a bit and the main protagonists are not all sympathetic characters stuck in an untenable situation – sometimes the main protagonists ARE the untenable situation as is true with Juliette, the star of “The Perfect Girlfriend” – and what a star she is.

Obsessive – Yes. Brilliantly engaging – Yes. Really quite scary – Yes, absolutely! Also occasionally witty, always focused, and actually has a real beef, Nate isn’t exactly the most reliable or the nicest of men. Still, you know, she wants him back and boy will she do absolutely anything to get him.

Follow Karen on Twitter

Purchase The Perfect Girlfriend

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Via: http://lizlovesbooks.com/ones-to-watch-in-2018-the-perfect-girlfriend-karen-hamilton/

Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing

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Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. My favourite is Zadie Smith’s list — an exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic, and a fine addition to this ongoing omnibus of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Smith counsels:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

Happy writing!

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Via: https://www.brainpickings.org/zadie-smith-10-rules-of-writing/

 

The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration – so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

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He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

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A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

 

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

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Via: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/05/peter-turchi-a-muse-a-maze-book-flow/