The letter below is part of an ongoing series featuring letters from authors to their teen selves. If you're a published author who'd like to participate in this series, we'd love to have you. Just click here and let us know you're interested. Today's guest is Darren Shan, author of the new Archibald Lox fantasy series. The first book in the series, titled Archibald Lox and The Bridge Between Worlds is available now for free, making it the perfect lockdown read.
Greetings from thirty years into your future! Hard to believe you’re nearly fifty, I know, but the grey hairs don’t lie. (At least you still have hair. Quite a lot of your friends are bald now.)
So, what have the last three decades been like? Pretty sweet overall. They haven’t been without their challenges, but for a lot of the time you’ve had the rub of the green. Successful career, happy family life, good health. (I know you take the health for granted, but trust me, that becomes more and more important to you the older you get.)
I’ll focus on the career in this letter, as I know that’s what obsesses you most. You’ve wanted to be a writer since you were five or six years old. (I often state that soundbite in interviews, and I’m aware it sounds like something I’ve made up, but you and I know it’s true.) You started working hard on it over the course of your teenage years, and you’ll really get stuck in once you finish university. That love of story-telling won’t fade, and if anything it will grow stronger as you hone your skills and your abilities expand.
You’ve always had good ideas for stories, but haven’t been able to do them justice. You worry sometimes (OK, let’s admit it, nearly all the time) that your faith in yourself in misplaced. What if you put all that work in, and it turns out to have been for nothing? What if you’re destined to be a flop, a failure for people to laugh at? As confident as you are in your career choice – and I’m stunned that you have that much self-belief, given how little confidence you have in so much else of yourself – you can’t stop fearing the pitfalls.
Well, first things first. One thing you’ll come to realise is that no writer who sticks to their guns is ever a real failure. If you put in the effort over time, you get better and better at expressing yourself, and that personal growth is what truly matters. If you look back in your mid-twenties or mid-thirties and compare your work with what you’re producing in your teens, you’ll see how far you’ve come, and pretty much every writer is the same. That journey is never a wasted one. The sales if they come… the recognition and glory if they come… those are lovely bonuses. But loads of great writers never enjoy those benefits, and if you want to be a real writer – one who does it out of love, who is driven to push and push and push – the commercial side of things will always come second. If you can look at your latest story, and know it’s the best thing you could have written at that particular time of your life, then you’ve succeeded.
You were quite young when you worked this out. After university, when you properly threw yourself into the life of a full-time writer, forcing yourself to write five days a week, hitting the same target on each of those five days, you developed a respect for the craft that you don’t have as a bit of a lazy teenager who still secretly hopes that your muse will strike and allow you to churn out books swiftly and without any real effort or pain.
Muses are a myth, young man. You are the captain of your ship, and you alone will decide whether it sails or stays anchored in the harbour.
By your early twenties, you were very realistic about the path ahead of you. Not being someone who jumped on a band wagon, you knew the odds of commercial success were stacked against you. You’ll continue to read and enjoy all different types of books, including many that are popular best-sellers, but never feel aligned to one particular kind of story.
You’ll write horror, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers and more, and mix them all up, and try to reinvent the wheel. Each book you write will be different. You’ll have respect for those who stick to one particular, clearcut field – in many ways you’ll envy them – and you’ll read and enjoy their books, but it’s not a path that you can tread. The appeal of the new and the untried will always be there. Foreign stories will tempt you at every step, and lead you astray.
You could tell that was the case by the time you were twenty-four or -five, so you buckled down for choppy seas ahead. Your hope was that you’d be able to write full time and make minimum wage most years, so that you could move out of your parents’ home, get a small place of your own, and manage to be self-sufficient. You didn’t have high financial hopes.
Money never interested you that much. Sure, it would be nice to have more of it than less, but you were determined never to write something just to make money. You’d rather get a normal sort of job to support yourself, write what you wanted during the weekend, and struggle by, than be hugely successful writing stories to order. You were never snooty about it, and never criticised other writers for folllwing trends or accepting commissions, but for you, writing was something magical, an act of creation that took you off into parts of your mind that you never even knew existed, and you never wanted to tarnish that magic. If money had to be made to pay bills, you’d make it elsewhere, doing something you didn’t care about. Writing time was precious.
So you prepared yourself for a life of limited finances, and hoped you wouldn’t lose too much heart when you saw others buying bigger homes than yours, nicer cars, going on fancy holidays, and so on. (In truth, you weren’t too bothered about getting a car or going on holiday. You just wanted a really big TV screen. Movies would continue to be an abiding love of yours, and you yearned to be able to watch them on a 32 inch widescreen TV. That was the dream.)
But then… something strange happened. You’d written lots of books by your mid-twenties, all aimed at adults. In the back of your mind you wanted to write a children’s book one day. Not for profit – everyone in that pre-Harry Potter world (I know you don’t know who Harry Potter is, but you’ll find out) knew there was no money in children’s books – but because you enjoyed reading books that were written for children or teenagers. In 1997, not far off your twenty-fifth birthday (how long ago twenty-five seems to me now!), you had an idea for a book about a child who becomes a vampire’s assistant.
And your life changed forever.
Nobody wanted to touch that book with a barge pole when your agent first took it to them. Every publisher in the UK turned it down. It was one of the darkest and most downbeat times of your professional life, because you genuinely believed in the story, and thought that if you were so wrong about this one, maybe you were wrong about everything. But then one kindly editor changed her mind and decided to give you a chance, and in January 2000 it was published, and…
I’m not going to go on at length about it. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. Let’s just say you enjoyed successes that you’d dreamt about in your early teens but had already dismissed as flights of fancy by the time you got this letter from your future. Everything you wanted became yours, along with a whole lot more that you’d never even anticipated.
So, enjoyable times ahead? Yeah, for the most part, and the career will lead you to hook up with a young woman who will become your wife and mother of your children. You’ll have your setbacks too, and there will be times when you feel the publishing world just doesn’t truly get you, regardless of the millions of books of yours that they’ve sold. But, all things considered, it’s gonna be a blast, and as you’re heading swiftly towards the big 5-0, you won’t have any regrets, or feel that you should have done things differently. You beat your own path through the bushes, you saw wonders along the way, and… yeah… at the risk of turning into a repetetive parrot, I have to say, it’s been pretty sweet overall.
I’ll leave you with that. I was going to say that hopefully this will give you comfort and strength to press on when things get tough over the next decade, but then I realised that the battle is what ultimately defined you. If you’d thought you were going to breeze through life, you wouldn’t have fought when the wind was blowing you backwards – for instance, when that kids’ book was turned down, you’d have probably just shrugged and let it go – and that would have been your undoing.
So, as harsh as it might seem to you, this letter is going to self-destruct inside your memory banks as soon as you’ve finished reading it, and you won’t remember anything about it until you sit down to write it thirty years from now. It will be better for you this way. You’re aware of that old saying about it always being darkest about the dawn, but what you don’t get yet – what you can’t get until you’ve lived it – is that you can only ever truly appreciate that dawn when you’ve slogged through that darkness.
Anyway, enjoy your day back there in the 1980s. (As uncool as the period seems to you, it’ll be all the rage by the time you compose this letter — for some bizarre reason, everyone born later on wishes they’d lived through it!) Keep doing what you’re doing, keep believing, and I’ll see you here in 2020 for a reunion which is a long thirty years down the road, or the brief tap of a return key in the making, depending on which way you’re looking at it.
About The Author: Darren Shan's real name is Darren O’Shaughnessy. He is Irish and began writing stories for fun as a teenager. He's published dozens of books, including the bestselling Cirque Du Freak series, which were later adapted into a film. His novels are currently available in 31 different languages. His latest series tells the story of a locksmith named Archibald Lox and his exploration of the Merge, a universe beyond our own. It is available for free now on Amazon.