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On writing in public

We get better at what we practice.

Although I would never claim to be a perfect blogger, this kind of writing comes easily to me: I've been writing blog posts since 1998, and can track almost every career progression to something I wrote online. I love sharing my thoughts in this way, and I wish more people would do it. My feed reader is usually my first digital stop of the day.

My personal project is to get better at writing fiction. Here, I'm far more awkward: I wrote widely when I was much younger, but I haven't been doing it for over a decade. I'm in awe of people like Eliot Peper and Cory Doctorow, who have been able to bridge a career in technology with careers as prolific novelists. And I have examples closer to home: my cousins Sarah Dessen and Jonathan Neale are both prolific authors. Sarah in particular has very kindly egged me on over the years, and I haven't quite followed through.

I think the first step is to get over the fear of starting something new - and move from the sinkhole of talking about writing to just doing it. Which is what I've been doing: over the last six months I've taken a handful of courses, which have forced me to produce work, and got to the final round of a fiction competition. These experiences have been positive: in particular, they've told me that I shouldn't throw in the towel, but also that I need to practice and improve. Being able to string a paragraph together is not the same skill as stringing a plot together.

One of the things I find addictive and compelling about blogging is you: it's a way to connect with people very immediately. These days it's rare for me to post something that doesn't generate a follow-on conversation. In contrast, writing creative work feels very isolated and time-delayed: you write something and iterate on it by yourself, maybe work with an editor, then submit it for publication or evaluation, which might come months later. That's the scary thing about it for me: unlike everything else I've ever done on the internet, the feedback loop is really offset and broken.

At the same time, your perceived worth as an author is still dependent on gatekeepers: while self-publishing has become more common, it remains important to be able to say "I've been published here, and here, and here." This is true throughout the creative world for forms that originated in legacy media: having a web series distributed by Netflix is markedly different to uploading it somewhere yourself, for example. Content forms that didn't originate in legacy media - TikTok clips, for example - have very different rules. But rules that have been established for decades or centuries are very hard to break through. Social norms are hard to change.

Ultimately, a reader doesn't want to have their time wasted, and I think the perception is that well-known publishers (or distributors) will protect their brands by standing for a certain level of quality. While self-published work can certainly be of the same or higher quality, it's a crapshoot. So finding a publisher for your work is important, and not a million miles away from finding a venture capitalist for your startup: you need to be able to find a coherent story for why your product will sell, and why they should bet on you. In the same way that many VCs only take warm introductions, many publishers will only accept work through an agent they already trust. Which, in turn, probably means establishing relationships.

For now, much of this is a problem for future me. Present me's problem is getting over the fear of sharing work, and finding ways to establish a productive feedback loop that will allow me to improve. (If you're a writer, I'd love to understand: how do you achieve this? Is it just that you're much braver than I am?)

I thought about creating a new community of beta readers, or establishing a new mailing list. I actually did create a mailing list some years ago for design fiction, but was never quite able to find a way to get it off the ground, perhaps because I'd defined its goals too formally, but perhaps also because I was scared that the work wasn't good enough to stand on its own in that way.

I think, instead, I'm going to use this space: I don't want to commit to a cadence or a particular style of work. But I want to have a place to put my experiments. It's categorically out of my comfort zone, and there's certainly a part of me that's worried I'll jettison all my subscribers. But this is a place I want to go, and I work better in the open, so that's how it's going to be.

Starting in March, expect regular fiction in this space. I find that idea really, really scary. But please do let me know what you think; you help me with your honesty.