On Writing

Today I received an email from Laura, who asked for some tips about how to become a writer. So here is what I’ve picked up so far. I stress the words ‘so far’ because I don’t think I’ve quite become a writer yet myself. I’ve got into print, but there is a lot which still mystifies me. The whole business side of things, for example.

I recommend Carole Blake’s ‘From Pitch to Publication’ – a step by step guide which tells you all you need to know if you would like to be businesslike about getting published and give yourself and best chance.

What people tend to say is:  1) Never go straight to publishing houses, approach agents first, agents are the new publishers;  2) Find the right agent who is interested in the genre of fiction you are writing – you would not send a science fiction book to an agent who handles comic children’s fiction, would you???; and 3) Be professional, research the market and write something that you could imagine on a certain shelf in a bookshop – if you can’t identify which shelf it would be on in a bookshop, there is no market for the book, so publishers would be making a bad business decision publishing something which is not going to sell.

If you want to be a writer, aim to be a POWERFUL writer. The only way to achieve this, is to practise. Write, write and write some more. Keep a diary. Keep a notebook. Use the voice recorder on your phone to record impressions or ideas, then work them up when you get home. Give yourself writing exercises, or follow ones that you find online. Get better every day. Revisit your writing and see how you can improve it. Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’ gives advice about the power of cutting 10% of your words, and how this gives strength to your work.

When you have your idea, then plan, plan and plan some more. A book of twenty chapters could start with twenty sentences – which plot out the story. These sentences can then be transferred to 250 word summaries of each chapter. If you have done this amount of planning, think how much easier writing the book will be – you already have your scaffolding and the wonderful thing is, plans can be changed, you can still have fun along the way. My tip for writing a book is to plan as much as possible and then, while writing it, don’t look back! Get that first draft out… it’s very easy to rework and rework that first chapter and never get much further. Get out that first draft, then don’t look at it for a week or so. Once you’ve had a well deserved rest, go back to your draft and look at it with fresh eyes, you will soon see how to make improvements. Don’t be afraid to cut passages which are not moving the story forward. Do ‘find’ and ‘exchange’ to search for repetitions (we all have our favourite and overused words), use the grammar check in Word. Read the story out loud, you’ll be surprised how much that helps.

A writer’s group or writing friends can give useful feedback, or one trusted teacher or mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask for honest, constructive criticism. However, be selective and wise about who you show your work to. We creative types have to be careful about who we surround ourselves with, we are sensitive souls! For years I used to run creative ideas past a friend who used to say: ‘Nah! That’s probably been done before.’ I listened to this person as they were bright and I valued their opinion. I shelved many ideas. Then one day me and this person happened to meet a famous comedian who, over a drink, told us about their latest project. ‘That’s interesting’ said my friend, ‘But hasn’t it been done before?’ That for me was a turning point. Some people say that if you tell too many people your ideas/plot/storyline, you will never write that book, as you’ve said it all, at length. I don’t know if this is true, but it is worth thinking about.

Here is what I have learned so far, for Laura and for other young writers out there who are at the start of their journeys.

1) There are no short cuts, it is those who persevere and hone their craft who are the ones who have the greatest chance of eventually being published, but only if they have the ability and if they keep on trying.

2) Do not aim to be a full time writer if it’s the slightly romantic ‘idea’ of being a writer which appeals, not the sitting down for hours on your own getting on with it. I would only start the long and difficult journey towards full time writing if you truly love words, if you love writing and creating worlds you can step into… and if you can stand the solitude.

3) It could take years to make it to the point of being a full time writer. I am certainly not there yet. I still work part time to pay the bills and the mortgage. So make sure you have not burned your bridges about how exactly you are going to earn money to live.  I know the dream is to write that best seller at age 22, and never have to have a regular job again… but be realistic. Just because writing is what you really want, don’t disregard the day job,  try to find something that pays regular money that you will also love – otherwise you could end up frustrated or even bitter. Alexander McCall Smith, who wrote ‘The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ is a qualified doctor. Successful writers have almost all had careers first – that’s the reality, so no matter how attractive the idea of starving in a garrett in Paris might be, don’t give up on exams. At least make sure that you have the choice of an interesting and fulfilling day job/career.

4) Finally, and most importantly, write what you know, what you understand, what you feel. Write from the heart. Find your voice. Follow your passion. And good luck.

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