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Bright Young Things

Rob Payne is the author of Live By Request, an acclaimed debut novel, and Working Class Zero.

He is the former editor of Quarry Magazine and has edited two anthologies of Canadian short fiction, Carrying the Fire and Pop Goes the Story.

Early in 2002 one of Payne’s articles in The Globe and Mail caused uproar in the CanLit community when he asserted that Canadian literature is dominated by historical fiction, or what he called "MMD"—books that "Make Me Drowsy."

Bright Young Things

No one quite knows what to expect coming to festival forums - neither the listeners nor often the writers. There's not much to go on beyond the title, in this case, "Bright Young Things." Today, I've decided to focus on what it means to be a "young writer", as focussing on being a "bright writer" strikes me as a bit too narcissistic and egotistical.

For the past few days I've been considering the differences between being a "young writer" and an "older writer" and even an "old writer". My conclusion is that old writers have the greatest advantage in that they can offend people at will without consideration to consequences. After all, it's not like they're in this business for a long career. Case in point, Paul O'Neill, who was hired during the early days of the Bush Administration, went through a natural disenchantment and then was fired (or resigned in that nebulous way of politics). Last month he released a book in which he described the President as "a blind man in a room full of deaf people". An excellent quip, no doubt, but what struck me more greatly was an interview I read in which he explained that he was rich enough and old enough that those people in the administration couldn't touch him. If only we were all old enough and rich enough to have the freedom to speak that kind of truth. 

But I'm not here to talk about American politics, rather to talk about being a young writer - 30 years old and lacking visible wrinkles. Let it be said, though, that I've been in this business for seven years as a short story writer, interviewer, magazine editor, small press book editor, anthologist and author of three novels, the third coming out this September (April 2005 in Canada). I am young in age, but perhaps not insight or experience. 

Still, I'm glad I started in this business young, because if there is one thing publishing takes to be successful it is TIME, usually just a bit more than you're willing to give. I remember walking with my father one spring night after I'd graduated from university. Now that I had my ever-useful English degree, he asked about my career plans. I told him I was going to be a writer. Although he saw this as, shall we say, a touch impractical, I convinced him that I'd give writing five years, after which if I didn't have a book published, I'd forsake the dream and move on to something more tangible, like plumbing. Realistically, I didn't think the task would take me more than six months at most. HarperCollins picked up my first book five and a half years later. 

Everything about publishing takes time: time to learn to write, to read, to hone your skills, make connections to the industry, have an editor or agent read your work, sell it, and get the always-tight publisher to pony up a cheque; after this, you go through the editing process (usually about three times), copy edit, proof the copy, approve the cover, wait for the sales reps to pitch it to stores, and finally six months to a year later (if you're lucky) when you've forgotten half the characters and key parts of the plot, you're marched out to radio and TV stations to do promotion. 

If there is one advantage a "bright young thing" has it is TIME. I know I've taken full advantage of being young, shiftless and transitory. I've lived cheaply, often in attics, basements and even for six months in a friend's dining room on a futon surrounded by one suitcase and a box of CDs. I've done temp jobs, run my bank account dry but I haven't had to worry about kids or a mortgage.

Not that I wasn't in a hurry to be discovered, lauded and given free drinks at cocktail parties. When I was in university I discovered that F. Scott Fitzgerald had published his first book at 24. Naturally, because I saw myself as a creature of supreme destiny, I vowed to publish my first book by 23. This brings me to a second advantage of youth that does actually help in this business: young writers are often blessed with extreme self-confidence bordering on obscene arrogance. Without a doubt this attitude helps counter all the rejection letters, disinterest and scorn they will encounter. 

(Incidentally, I was 28 when my first novel came out. Scott Fitzgerald, you won this time!)

This brings me to other universal truths I've learned over the better part of a decade in the publishing business: 

  1. You probably won't get rich off your first novel. Despite all your work, toil, patience, prodding and angst, you probably won't make very much money at all. Of course, those around you will believe you're loaded, having been slyly seduced by TV and movie scenarios in which a poor novelist finally sells his or her book, gets taken on a national promotion tour and then retreats ensconced in luxury in the Hamptons. When you sell your first manuscript, do not buy your friends or family free drinks! This will only perpetuate the myth. Of course, some people do become suddenly famous - Sadie Frost and Steven King come to mind - but for most people to succeed, they have to continue to sacrifice and build a career over the course of several books. Which brings me to universal truth number two. 
  2. The most basic rule of being a novelist and of life is the same: no one outside your immediate family and small circle of friends cares about you or what you have to say. They probably don't even like you. This is why for all the differences, the essential challenge of being a successful novelist is the same no matter the age: writers must find their readers. 

I recently read a quote in (I believe it was) the New York Times in which an author said "publishing is the business of selling a product that people don't know that they need."

Fact: readers miss thousands of good books every year because of the inverse relationship of free time to the sheer number of publications. Go into any library or bookstore and you will come face to face with thousands of competing titles. As a novelist, to put it lightly, wandering into a superstore is like being drowned by a tsunami of existential, nihilistic despair. No one but a writer knows the heartbreak of seeing his or her novel SPINE out among a row of glossy outward facing covers or the irrational anger of confronting the OPRAH table, sure in the knowledge that among millions of titles, there's no way in hell you'll ever be chosen to play on her team. 

So writers have to do what they can - bother reviewers, suck up to the media, and do these sorts of festivals whenever possible. Let me say it one again: this takes time. 

Of course, I don't think it's fair to leave this discussion without touching on the negative side of being a young writer. One thing I've noticed with my own work and that of my peers is that some older reviewers (more so in Canada than Australia, a little publication known as Books in Canada most notably) approach young novelists with the view that his or her book simply can't have anything substantial to say because he or she simply hasn't lived long enough to glean any real insight into life. The young writer can't possible know (or imagine) the pain of death, age, loneliness, disillusionment, the burden of history or the nagging irritation of osteoporosis. This is of course utter crap and I can only paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald who said:

"An author ought to write for the youth of his generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of the afterward." 

In conclusion, my advice to bright young things is to be patient, take your time, accept the sacrifices, and work hard to hone your skills. And as my good friend Canadian novelist David Eddie is fond of saying, "be prolific and outlive your critics". 


Rob Payne divides his time between Canada and Australia. He is the author of the novels Live By Request, Working Class Zero and the upcoming Sushi Daze. He has spoken about writing at the Humber School of Writing, Queens University, and both the Perth and Brisbane International Writers Festivals. He is available for bar mitzvahs and corporate events. 


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