Kelly Link’s Advice to Debut Authors: Writing is Terrible, Complaining About it Is Fine
From Her 2019 Speech at the One Story Debutante Ball
The following is a speech Kelly Link gave at the 2019 One Story Literary Debutante Ball.
Thank you to Maribeth and Hannah and all of the wonderful One Story crew for, first of all, simply existing. I have been, since 2002, your founding year: a fan of the writers that you publish, an admirer of your aesthetic, a witness to & occasional cheerleader of the unflagging commitment you have shown to both the serious and the unserious pleasures of short fiction. Only One Story could throw a debutante ball that I would look forward to attending.
Congratulations to this year’s debutants! To Brad Felver, Lydia Fitzpatrick, Joseph Moldover, Erin Somers, Bryan Washington, and Jake Wolff! I hope that many years from now, you will look back on tonight as one of many surreal and celebratory moments in a long, happy and lucrative career where many many people took unflattering photos of you and put them up online where anyone, including your future nemeses, could find them.
When I realized I would have to say something here other than, “Yes, I’d love another drink, thank you!” I tried to figure out what I could say that would be helpful to debut authors. I came up with a short list.
The first is this. Writing is terrible. Because it is terrible, it is appropriate to complain about it. It is enjoyable to complain about it. Complaining about writing is writing adjacent and therefore entirely professional. It eats up time in which you might otherwise be expected to do more writing.
The second piece of advice is that novels are much harder to write than short stories. Novelists will sometimes tell you the opposite is true, but they are lying. God knows why. To those of you who have already written a novel, I salute you and also I hate you.
The third piece of advice is that it doesn’t matter if someone on Amazon hates your book as long as, when you wrote it, you accomplished something that you wanted to accomplish. You will have to figure out for yourself what your level of comfort is when it comes to reviews, Goodreads, social media, and Thanksgiving meals with relatives who have opinions, but if you can figure out a way to think of bad reviews as pieces of data about how readers engage with narrative, you’re golden. Passionate dislike is a form of active engagement! How nice that someone cares so much! I often think of the Amazon reviewer who said that my collection was the worst book they’d ever read. I sometimes worry that they have since read a book they dislike even more and that I have written the book that is now only their second-most hated book. In any case, be secure in the knowledge that no one will ever loathe your work quite as much as the Game of Thrones fandom loathes the last few episodes of Game of Thrones. And if I’m wrong, and your readers make that title of your new book trend for over 24 hours due to how much they hated it? Congratulations! You have been successful beyond even my wildest predictions, and I am predicting great things for you.
Fourth piece of advice: invest in a piece of jewelry or a piece of art that is just the word NO. Wear it when you’re working—or hang it where you can see it while you sit down to answer email.
Fifth: always pack lots of protein-rich snacks when you are going on tour. Make them healthy if you want to.
Sixth: Perfect one karaoke song. And by perfect, I mean learn to sing without fear or embarrassment. One day you will be glad you did this.
Seven: Take risks. Write about things that matter to you even if you aren’t sure that they matter to anyone else. Don’t be ashamed of the things that you unabashedly love in narrative. Investigate them with a loving heart.
Eight: Sit down and chart out a short and long-term career plan for yourself. Do this with friends if you can. If you want to have kids, plan in advance with your partner how you will divide the—fabulous—labor of childcare. In your plan, write down what kinds of successes as a writer you are hoping for? What kinds of projects you want to tackle? What kind of career do you want to have? (Bestseller, literary star, cult icon, recluse, iconoclast who works in every genre?) Pick a writer model if you want. What did they do that seems replicable? Write down your most unrealistic goals as well as the ones that you know how to achieve, such as, I want to hit the New York Times bestseller list and have my book optioned by Guillermo del Toro/I will write three new stories this year and submit each one at least twice. Then talk about what you need to do to achieve your goals. Careers benefit from planned narrative strategies in the same way that books do. Yes, writing is creative work in which you will have many intuitive and spontaneous insights about your characters and what happens to them, but you will feel much more secure as a writer if you have planned for your successes and setbacks like an unspontaneous motherfucker.
Nine: When an editor says in an email that “everyone here loves the cover,” this is a lie. But you are probably stuck with the cover.
Nine and a half: don’t self-reject. You know what I mean.
Ten: Build a community. Yes, writing is terrible, but writer friends are amazing. They will help you write difficult emails. They will swear a blood oath with you to tell the truth when your book is batshit crazy. They will help you write speeches like this one. Over the course of your career, even though it will be long and happy and without roadblocks of any kind, you will need writer friends.
What I hope for all of the writers in this room is that they will be as lucky as I have been in my writing career. Or luckier! But not too much luckier. I hope that they will be allowed to write, to the best of their ability, the books that are most in their hearts to write and that they will be in good company while they are writing them. I hope that these writers will have the resources and time that they need for their next book and the book after that. I hope the many books written by the writers in this room – those being honored and those whose honors are yet to come—will unfailingly find generous editors and generous readers, and that all of the writers in this room will themselves find ways to be generous with other books and other writers in other rooms. I wish you joy and I wish you resilience. I wish you universal healthcare. I hope that your performances at karaoke are always met with astonished applause, that the photographs posted online are always so flattering to you that your nemeses look and gnash their teeth, and that when you open your laptop or your notebook, you get at least a few good sentences down every time.
Photo by Aslan Chalom.