Advice for Young Writers


By Rachel Hills

Back in 2009, about a year into my research for my book The Sex Myth, I met a young writer who had just published his own first book. It was the first day of the Emerging Writers Festival, and we were walking up Swanston Street with mutual friends on our way to the morning sessions at Melbourne Town Hall. I congratulated him on his achievement, and asked him the question that burns on the minds of so many aspiring authors: How long did it take him?

Seven years, he replied. I can’t remember exactly how I responded, but I’m pretty sure it was along the lines of “that’s a really long time.” He told me about how he had balanced his writing alongside paid work, about his process and revisions, but I couldn’t shake my gut response. Seven years was a really long time. Longer than I’d ever spent on anything. Sure, my research was taking longer that I had hoped or expected, but I swore to myself that I would never let my book take seven years. In seven years, I would be, like, old.

And well, I don’t need to tell you the punchline here, because the mathematics speaks for itself. If I started researching The Sex Myth in 2008, and it was published in 2015, that means it took… seven years.

More than anything I learned about the publishing industry, my subject matter, or even the process of writing itself, probably the most important lesson I learned from publishing my first book is patience.

And it’s a lesson I’ve had to have drummed into me over and over again: from that conversation in 2009 on Swanston Street, to the warning from my writing coach when I finished the umpteenth draft of my proposal that it could take me months to find an agent to represent it (it didn’t, but waiting was something I was going to have to get used to regardless), to the realisation that when my US publisher told me that if all went well, my book could hit the stands in mid-2013, “if all went well” meant less “something that is likely to happen if you do everything that is asked of you” than it did “an ideal utopia that did once happen to one of our non-fiction writers, but won’t happen to you or anyone you know.”

When you really, really want something the way that writers want to make (what we hope will be) great work and share it with the world, waiting sucks at the best of times. And arguably, it sucks more than ever in the age of the internet.

I came to book-writing through journalism, a medium synonymous with deadlines and short-turnarounds. If I could write a 2000-word feature in a week (okay, maybe more realistically two), I reasoned when I first started, surely I could write a book in a year? Maybe six months, if I concentrated really hard.

Between the time I started working on The Sex Myth and now, that pace has only grown faster. Where five years ago I was given a week or two – sometimes even a month! – to turn around a feature, only that turnaround is reduced to a day. A couple of hours even, if you want to be really on top of it. The voices that have the biggest impact in online media are usually the most ubiquitous, and to be ubiquitous means having to produce more content ever more quickly.

This style of production is almost entirely incompatible with the process of writing a book, which requires reflection and a willingness to revise. Deliberation. Quiet. And for a person accustomed to the regular dopamine pings of being read and responded to on the internet, it can be a difficult pace to adjust to.

I struggled hard with the patience and submersion required to finish my book, not to mention with the regular battles with my own ego. “What if people forget me?” I would whine to myself. I suspected they already had. Without regular, visible accomplishments to hold up to the world, I felt worthless. I believed deep down that what I was working on was valuable. But I struggled with having nothing to show for it. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, did it makes a sound? (I know, you’re pulling out the sad violins right now.)

But I think there is value in learning that patience, and not just because it is unhealthy for anyone to hang their self-worth on their external accomplishments. In fact, I think that learning patience is central to doing good work. For me, at least, my book is worth 1,000 articles: it sits closer to my heart, is a more complete expression of my style and abilities, and has had a bigger impact in the two and a half months since it has been published than anything else I have written. Possibly more than everything else I have written.

There’s a lot of emphasis placed on output these days, for writers and creative types. The internet marketing guru Seth Godin, for example, talks constantly about the importance of “shipping” – of letting go of your work and letting it out into the world. And that’s true: you do need to send your work out into the world eventually if you want it to have an impact.

But there is also something to be said, I think, for giving your work the space it needs to breathe. For sitting with it a little longer, giving your thoughts time to refine themselves, and not setting it loose until you know it is ready – or at least something very close to it. For having to courage to set aside the work that doesn’t matter, and turning your focus to the work that does.

I still hope my next book doesn’t take me seven years. But I hope that if it does, my experience writing the first one will give me the patience to let it take whatever time it needs.

Rachel Hills is the author of The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality.
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