It’s been a bit of a watershed for me recently, as my youngest son, Joshua, has declared that he wants to perform some of his poems at open mic events. I am a bit of a poet myself and the fact that my son has decided to do something that is close to my heart has been a bit like looking myself in the mirror and giving myself the advice that I wish I’d had when I was 20. It’s weird though, because I’m his mum. And, as many of you will know, when a mother gives her own child advice it is not always taken the right way because, well, you’re his mother. It’s much the same with praise. I mean, did you believe it when your parents praised you, or did you think they were just being nice?
When Josh first came to me and bemoaned the fact that he did not believe he was any good, I told him to go forth and do two things first and foremost:
1 - Practise
2 - Get feedback from your target audience
Well, he did the practise all right. He must have written hundreds of poems in the last year. But the feedback. Like all of us he found that tough, and he didn’t really believe me when I told him his work was good. Like many newbies he was nervous about sharing his work and often I knew I was the only other person to have read some of them.
I am always frustrated by writers who never show their work to another living soul. To my mind, if you don’t share and ask for feedback you are not serious about writing. But then, if you don’t share, you can preserve your dream of being a writer someday. If you share your work and discover you were deluded about its quality, then you run the risk of losing your dream.
If you are a new writer and are at the ‘need to practise and get feedback’ stage, then of course you need to write regularly and often. One of the best ways to achieve both the practise and the feedback in one go is to start a blog that focuses on the topics you want to write about. A poet would start a poetry blog. A memoirist would write a blog or columns or articles and a novelist could enter short story competitions.There is no question that you must have both practise and feedback. You cannot have one without the other. If not, then, as I said, you are not seriously looking for success.
So, I did for him what I wish I had had myself at that age, and here is my third piece of advice:
3 - Get a mentor
I looked to see whom he most admired, who was out there, performing in London, where Josh lives, and discovered that was Anthony Anaxagorou. Along the way, I started to follow Anthony’s work too and learned a hell of a lot myself. I found Anthony on Facebook (of course, anyone who is serious about getting out there must be on Facebook) and sent him an email, asking if he would mentor my son. He agreed. Josh was not at all convinced this was a good idea to start with, but soon realised I had been right. He was receiving feedback from someone he trusted and admired. Importantly, he learned the value of polishing until his piece was in the best shape it could be. Better than anything, Anthony told him about where he could find possible poetry gigs in London.
Being mentored is a wonderful experience, but so is being a mentor. As many f you know I give advice, based on my own experience and of course, mistakes, to other people all the time. Some of them listen. Some don’t believe me, some have better ideas and I learn from them. I love helping others to achieve the things I have achieved and I think anyone else out there who has ever mentored anyone will agree that assisting others to do what you already do pretty well is both rewarding and validating. Advising your own child is probably the hardest type of mentoring you can ever do, because, as a rule, they don’t believe you, don’t listen and think they know better. However, watching someone take those first tentative steps and start climbing the writing ladder provides the greatest of joys.
If you want to find a mentor then I suggest you seek out someone who is already doing what you want to achieve and doing it well. If they are also involved in the market you want to break into then all the better. Most people are flattered to be asked and some are willing to help you pro bono, others will charge a fee. Even if you do have to pay you will find that a mentor will open doors for you, show you shortcuts and share connections.
When my team and I helped Linda Janssen to write and publish her recent book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat, I was utterly delighted to see that she had done every single thing I had ever suggested she do – and I mean everything.She even started off with a blog, Adventures in Expatland. To see her book now receiving the most fabulous of reviews is gratifying in the extreme. I am ‘chuffed to bits’ (non-Brits may need to look that word up, sorry).
So there you have them – my top three pieces of advice for a new writer. If you want to achieve all three in one fell swoop then nothing can beat taking a writing course that includes in class feedback for homework completed between sessions. The teacher becomes a mentor and he or she, together with your fellow students, will give you feedback. Residential classes are great, but I have found classes given once a week or somesuch are equally valuable and more affordable. In the last month two of my own students have taken residential courses with the Arvon Foundation in England and been delighted.
As I head off for a four year posting with my husband in Kuala Lumpur later this month I realise I do sometimes take my own advice too. The first thing I have done before I have even set foot in the country is to find myself some mentors –people who are already living there, people who like the same things as me and people who can connect me to the things that will, I hope, allow me to ‘fly’ there too.
Don’t worry. This does not mean the end of Summertime Publishing. Far from it. With 80 books and 50 authors in ‘the stable’, Summertime Publishing Ltd has now been incorporated in England and will continue to help new writers to write and publish books on living abroad.
All the latest news, views, and writing tips from Jo Parfitt and the team at Summertime Publishing
Sign up to Summertime's monthly newsletter for your free copy of So You Want to Write a Book?