Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for so kindly attending this party to mark my thirtieth anniversary as a professional author [PAUSE, WELCOMING SMILE]. I must apologize for the fact that your invitation arrived rather late – or, rather, not at all [A COUPLE OF BEATS, LAUGHTER] – but the truth is I only realised that I had reached this landmark when I sat down to write this morning.
Please put that down to advancing years [CALL OF 'NONSENSE!' FROM THE BACK].
Some of you might be wondering why I have chosen to have a party on paper rather than in the traditional manner with warm white wine, soggy bits of quiche and people shouting at one another. The reason is simple. As a modern author [COMICAL DOUBLE-TAKE], I am aware that today a virtual word-based presence is somehow more significant - perhaps, even more real - than the old-fashioned personal/physical thing.
I like that, ladies and gentlemen. Having never been particularly popular at school or beyond, I find that I am now quite widely ’liked’ online. I can even be ‘favourited‘, sometimes several times in a week. It is a pleasant new experience.
There is a more embarrassing reason for keeping this anniversary party virtual. The last time I celebrated a career landmark, when I left publishing to become a writer in 1983, I became thoroughly over-excited, drank too much and made rather a spectacle of myself.
The problem was that back then I thought it was going to be easy. For the previous ten years, I had given money to authors who wanted to write books. Now it was my turn.
It occurs to me now as I survey this [PAUSE TO INDICATE AFFECTIONATE IRONY] august gathering that there may be young authors here who are embarking on the same journey and would appreciate some advice. Of course, life is different and tougher for authors today, but some of the lessons I have learned on the hard and rocky road of freelance life may be of some use.
In one sense at least, my younger, more bumptious self was right. I believed then that writing for a living was going to be fun. It might be less collegiate and flirtatious than office life, there would be fewer lunches, no long, restful meetings, and no pay-cheque at the end of the month, but it would be more like play than the relatively grown-up world of paid employment had ever been.
It can be difficult to hold on to that essential lack of seriousness through the knockbacks, the small and large daily humiliations, the blithe inefficiency of publishers, the heartless silence of agents, the niggling nastiness of critics and bloggers. There are times in freelance life when a dull job with a salary will seem like a joyous fantasy.
If those feelings become too strong, you should probably follow them. Even when your life as a writer is tough, the work should at least give you some sort of pleasure. It should be better than the alternative. The words ‘No one forced you to do this‘ should be pinned to the notice-board in front of your desk. If writing becomes a source of grind and angst, and the spirit of fun has gone, then you are probably in the wrong game [PAUSE FOR EFFECT].
Just for a change, let’s not talk too much about money. It is sensible to have a secondary source of income and, if at all possible, it should be connected to writing without polluting the water of your talent. In fact, you should not treat writing as a career in the conventional sense. It tends not to lend itself to the usual hopeful metaphors of progress - paths, ladders, streams and so on. If you are a real writer, you will be led by what you are drawn to write. You are never entirely in control of what you are doing. A grand strategy is for hacks.
Of course [RAISE VOICE OVER MURMURS OF DISSENT ], not everyone will agree. There are authors here who have identified their market and will spend the rest of their days cheerfully writing for it. Publishers like nothing better than an author who produces more or less identical work year after year. But that seems too much like a treadmill to me - too close to the world which I left in 1983. Personally, I would recommend a degree of uncertainty.
What else have I learned? Ah yes, personal popularity. It is sensible to seek a way between being universally disliked on the one hand and liked too much on the other.
If, as a talented novelist of my generation did [GLANCE AROUND THE ROOM KNOWINGLY], you go around hitting people when you are in the Groucho Club or try to kick down your publishers’ door, it will not go well for you. Publishers are only happy with violence when it is on the page.
It is also possible to be over-liked. The beaming, bouncy, flirtatious authors who are forever bringing in chocolates for the receptionist and providing caring writerly advice when their editor’s marriage breaks up will eventually be in trouble. A certain distance should be retained between author and publisher, and possibly between author and agent. It is an odd fact of the writing life that the better you know someone, the less likely you are to receive work from him or her.
I could go on [ALLOW PAUSE FOR A GOOD-HUMOURED HECKLE]. I would advise against huge, destabilising advances, but would also not recommend penury. One should be aware of the work of contemporaries without becoming corrosively jealous of their success. Do not spend your vital writerly essence on publicity, and yet do not avoid it entirely in a spirit of Salingeresque self-importance.
It is true, ladies, and gentlemen. After three decades in the business, I find that I am supporting the middle way. I’m that close to being a literary Liberal Democrat.
Never mind. Thank you all very much for coming to my party. [RAISE GLASS]. Here’s to us all!
This piece was my latest Endpaper column for The Author, house magazine for the Society of Authors. An archive of my Endpaper articles, groaning with solid, if occasionally cynical, advice on surviving as a writer, can be found here.