Being a writer is such a weird profession, with a huge chasm between the hopes/expectations/romantic ideals of what being a capital-W Writer involves and the reality of the thing. Which is not at all glamorous. It's mostly hard work and uncertainty and awkwardly fielding questions about how much money you earn at every social event for the rest of your life.
It's hard to tell whether my experiences of being a writer are specific 'young writer' experiences, or things that affect new writers regardless of age. I think anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, at any age, has a concept of what being a writer will be like and finds the reality of it to be something else entirely. I dreamt of being an author from the age of seven. My childhood was consumed by writing. I got a book deal age fifteen, and my debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, was published the next year. It was thrilling and surreal to see my novel on the shelves of a bookshop, but the actual publication day felt totally normal - there was no real transition to feeling like a proper writer.
Something I didn't expect was how much writing would change for me after I was published. It's very difficult to maintain the joy of writing once money and criticism are involved. It's very easy to lose sight of what's important and get caught up with reviews and awards and what other authors are doing. There's a real honesty and rawness to a lot of debut novels that isn't as present in sophomore novels, even if they're more technically well-written, and it's difficult to maintain that honest and rawness once you've been exposed to criticism, and once you're thinking about writing as a professional. I think I'm a much better, more subtle writer now, but there was a certain vulnerability to my first novel that meant a lot of readers identified with it. I don't know whether the loss of that vulnerability is due to getting older or getting published, or a combination of both.
Changing and growing as a writer is inevitable (and good! I hardly want to write the same way when I'm forty-five as I did when I was fifteen) but I didn’t anticipate that writing would become more difficult. I had a certain amount of fearlessness in my writing when I was a teenager, and never really stopped to consider whether I was writing well, or could write about a subject and do it justice. Now, I'm much more considered. In some ways that's good, but I think too much self-awareness can be crippling. It's really important as a writer to accept that you're going to write a lot of rubbish. Failure is part of the process.
To be an author you have to have (at least) two selves, I think. There’s one aspect of self that can spend hours a day creating fictional worlds alone, and has enough sensitivity and empathy to construct characters that people can relate to. Then, once the book's published, the salesperson self must emerge, to speak in public and convince people this made-up story is worth their time and money (and remain unaffected by reviews and criticisms and disappointments). A set of identical twins (one of whom is an introvert, the other an extrovert) could share one name and be the perfect novelist. I'm thinking of manufacturing a clone for this very purpose.
When I was fifteen I was very, very shy but brave enough to send my novel out to agents and editors because I didn't actually have to speak to anyone. When my novel was published the next year I realised how big a role promoting your work plays in being a novelist. I learned an extraordinary amount working with an editor, and being treated professionally and having the opportunity to improve as a writer was amazing (and challenging). It was also challenging for me to engage in the social aspects of being a published writer like festival appearances, school visits and interviews. I'm still a very shy person who would much rather be writing than speaking in public, but I can now stand up in front of a hall full of kids and talk about how wonderful books are for an hour. It's actually a pretty splendid thing once I stop feeling physically ill.
The most significant thing I learned when I was first published was that, when it came to being a writer, publication was not the be-all and end-all. I had imagined that once I had a book published I'd feel like a real writer and be fulfilled with a sense of legitimacy and success. But that's not how it works. As soon as my first novel was published, I had to focus on writing the second. I didn't metamorphose into Glamorous Writer Steph; instead of dancing around with joy every day because I'd achieved my big dream, my life continued being my life. Being an author was now a normal part of it. I was very fortunate that I got a book deal quite quickly, but I realised pretty soon after that it wasn't the end of the journey. There's a great deal of hard work involved in writing and publishing and promoting every book after that. Building a career is a challenging, long-term thing.
I have had so many extraordinary experiences as a result of having my novels published that I would never have otherwise had. Until I was eighteen, I got to take my mum to all my festival appearances (my mum's awesome, so that was wonderful). I get emails from people in Holland and Spain and Mexico and Argentina (and Australia and New Zealand!) who have read and loved my novels. I've met tonnes of writers, readers, librarians and teachers; some of the most amazing people in existence. I get to talk at schools about books and writing, and run workshops with brilliant young writers. I feel very lucky. But the actual writing part is still the most wonderful thing. Being able to make stuff up and write it down and create whole worlds out of nothing is pretty much magic, and I hope to still be enjoying writing and sharing my stories with readers for a long time into the future.
Steph Bowe is the author of Young Adult novels GIRL SAVES BOY and ALL THIS COULD END. She is twenty years old and lives in Queensland. She blogs at stephbowe.com
In the next installment of our celebration of young writers, we'll hear from Kahli Scott on young people's love of travel and how it impacts their writing.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.