So you want to be a writer? (Thoughts from a new author)


So you want to be a writer? Well I have some news for you, it’s not as easy as it looks. The reality is much more demanding than the idealistic dream.

Forget sitting in coffee houses, sipping on your favourite latte, musing as the world rushes around you. This will not be your real working environment. 99.9% of the time you will be working at home, perhaps in a study at a desk, or in your bedroom. You will be cramming in hours around your everyday life, and your working hours will not be strictly 9 to 5. Your desk/bedroom/study will be overflowing with notebooks, scraps of paper, books and articles. Your ideas will be hastily written on everything and anything, even on the back of receipts. Your sleeping hours will become messed up as ideas start to infiltrate your dreams or hit you in the early hours of the morning. You will spend a lot of time consuming caffeine, with glazed, tired eyes, sitting in your pajamas and dressing gown, as you tap away at a computer/laptop in your free time.

On top of that the first thing you write will be the hardest, and your work will have more rejections than anything you have ever done before in your life. Sometimes you may have to give up entirely on a piece of work and start again. You will need to learn new skills which are not taught in schools. You will need to study, and write, and read, and repeat these three things over and over and over for the rest of your writing days. You will find yourself becoming more reclusive as your hours appear to dissolve away, and sometimes your friends and family will not always understand…

You will need to sort out your own tax, and your earnings are not going to be one, set, stable, figure. You’re unlikely to make it big with your first published piece of work, unless you’re extremely lucky of course. You will also need to create a strong online presence, which means learning how to use social media to your best advantage. Finally, you will also need to look after yourself, mentally, physically and emotionally, which means having a good schedule. The life of a writer is not a glamorous one, in fact, it is very, very, hard.

So do you still want to be a writer? If so, you’re made up of some tough stuff. You really need to have your heart and soul in writing, it has to be something that burns deeply in your mind. There can be no maybes, no what ifs and buts, so if you’re umming and ahhing, I would suggest that writing is probably not for you.

I’m currently 23, and to be totally honest, I didn’t realize that writing was my thing until I was at university, studying for a science degree (ironic I know). The thing about writing for me, was that it was always there, I just hadn’t noticed it before. As a young child I loved to read, I read Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and many more. When I went to bed every night or had any free time I had my nose stuck in a book. When I reached my teens I started to write my own ideas down for stories.

My imagination was and still is, wild. I was creative all the time, and I loved art. However growing up, my family subconsciously and consciously discounted everything creative, they called them hobbies, and put writing, reading, art, music, into a box called ‘nice things to do in your spare time but not a realistic career.’ I grew up with the impression that creative pursuits were worthless, I would never earn enough from a creative career. My father who I love to bits, used to tell me ‘you need a good job so you can put food on the table and have a roof over your head’, and he is right, to a certain extent. However, he also told me that ‘money is time’, again it’s true, but when you spend all of your time chasing money, both become redundant.

It took me a long time, and a number of upsets to shock me in to finding out what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to write because I wanted to write entertaining, emotional stories, with strong metaphors about real life. I wanted people to read my work and to be moved by my stories, in a positive way, and hopefully in such a way, that they would then make good decisions with their own lives. It sounds a little pretentious, but that is my dream, I want my words to mean something to other people.

If you’re still reading, fantastic! I haven’t scared you off, and now I’m going to give you some hopefully, friendly advice, from a new author, (ok so I’m not strictly an author yet but my first novel is going to be published on the 28th January 2016). I am one of the lucky ones, I’ve still had to work hard, but I was lucky enough to win a grant and find a publishing agent crazy enough to accept my work. I am very aware that most people are not that lucky, so I want to try and help. I’m going to tell you everything I know in order to help you to become a writer and hopefully with a bit of luck and hard work, a published author.

Step #1 – Finding the time and funding.

As my dear old dad said, ‘money is time’, and he is right unfortunately. In modern society we are very much restricted by money. Homes cost money, food costs money, water, electricity, heating, etc, etc. Then if you want to be in touch with the outside world, laptop, phones, broadband, all cost money too. The air we breathe is the only free thing in the world we live in, and I’m not entirely sure it will remain free forever. Therefore, if you haven’t got savings set aside to allow you the time to write, you will most likely need some sort of way to earn money.

Notice I said ‘way to earn money’, not a ‘job’. You could get a job, doing pretty much anything, and most writers do. A lot of writers have part-time jobs in order to fund their writing time. You could work at a cafe, bar, restaurant, supermarket, library, shop, museum, office, anything, so long as you have some time left over to write. You could also look at the publishing industry itself and see what jobs they have to offer, getting work in a publishing house, even if it is just to make the tea and deliver letters, is a great way of getting a foot in the door. If you fancy that idea, apply to as many job opportunities as you can, and attend literary festivals, publishing houses and organizations usually attend the major literary festivals (like Edinburgh literary festival).

However, having a job isn’t the only way to earn money. If you’re creative, you could sell stuff on etsy. Or if you have extra things lying around your house, clothes, dvds, books, jewellery, antiques, you could sell these on ebay. If you have extra skills to offer, from photoshopping, coding, research, copy-editing, proof-reading, marketing, you could put yourself up on people per hour. A site designed to let people work from the comfort of their own home.

Blogging and vlogging can also earn you money if you have enough followers. (I don’t earn yet from either of these avenues but I know it is possible). However, you have to dedicate the time to building up your online presence, and it is hard work.

Writing and Poetry competitions are also a great way to get some funds, and some competitions even offer time out at writing retreats as part of their prizes. Google ‘writing competitions’ and see what is available. A lot of competitions are free to enter but some of them have a fee. Also, read the terms and conditions very carefully before sending in any work to a competition! I’ll list a few websites here to get you started…

It’s not easy, but once you have some money coming in, or at least enough to set aside as savings. Then you can start to dedicate your time to writing, and it isn’t just writing you will need to dedicate time and money to, building your online presence, promoting, and marketing, will also demand your time, (but I’ll cover that in a later step).

Step #2 – Getting some new skills.

Yup I said it, new skills. If you’re like me, you may not have realized until after most of your education that you wanted to be a writer. Well I have some good news and some bad news.

Good news is, you don’t need to have an English degree, or a Creative Writing degree to be a writer (though of course these are helpful). You don’t even need to have English a-levels, but you do need to be able to write sentences and spell.

The bad news is, writing is only a small part of the ‘getting a book published’ process. You will either have to learn copy-editing and proof-reading skills or you will have to pay someone else to do that for you. Also, your work is likely to go backwards and forwards a number of times, between you and your editor. I know you can publish eBooks on amazon without needing an editor, but I strongly recommend against this. A lot of books that never see an editor and therefore are not copy-edited or proof-read, end up with a lot of mistakes, which as a reader, is infuriating, and as a writer, it can be detrimental to your future work.

There are a lot of writing courses out there that you can take online, and not all of them are costly. Google ‘writing courses’ and see what is available. The benefits of learning skills like copy-editing and proof-reading, mean that your work is likely to spend less time in the publication process, and you will also have skills that you can offer at a reasonable fee to others too. I have taken courses with sfep who are very good, but you will need some savings here.

The best news is, there is a lot of free advice online already. I highly recommend that you follow writing blogs, as they usually post helpful tips and advice. It also helps you to become part of a wider community. The Write Practice, The Indie View, Alliance of Independent Authors, and also facebook groups like Nerdwriters are all very good places to start.

The next thing is reading, yes if you want to be a writer you need to read a hell of a lot of books. You should be reading at least one book a week if you can, if not more. Good news here is that a lot of kindle edition books are free on Amazon, so if you have a kindle device or app, these books are not going to cost you a thing. However, be warned, a lot of free books haven’t been through an editor, so may not be the best books to learn from. If you can’t afford to buy new books from established authors, then get down to the library or your local charity shop. You need to read books from established and popular authors so you can see what works and what sells. You may think reading won’t be helpful, but trust me it is. Your brain will subconsciously pick up on writing styles, layouts, tips, and even new words, which will all help to improve your own work. So read, read, read and read away.

Step #3 – Deciding what to write.

It can be tricky sometimes, deciding what to write, and more often than not, ideas will hit you when you’re really busy or trying to sleep. Start carrying a little notebook around with you, everywhere, or your phone, if you prefer the idea of typing your ideas on notes. The crucial thing is to write an idea down as soon as it hits, or as soon as possible, because if you don’t, you will forget, i know, I have been there. It will be annoying at that early hour when you’re trying to sleep but trust me, do not wait til morning, you will have forgotten your idea by then.

Inspiration can hit you from everywhere, and I recommend going outside to people watch. Yes it sounds totally creepy and it probably is, but go outside and take note of the people around you. What is it about a person that grabs your attention? Is it the clothes they are wearing? The way they walk? Their accent? Their hair? If you find yourself being drawn to certain people, ask yourself what it is about them that is so interesting, and once you have discovered the reason, write it down. This is important for character building, and can help you to create memorable characters for your stories.

The next thing to record is scenarios, if you personally experience or witness a scenario, particularly an extreme scenario where emotions are all over the place, write it down. Good and bad scenarios in real life will help influence the scenarios in your stories, and it will also help you to recognize emotions. If your readers can’t feel the emotion in your words, then they’re unlikely to connect and may lose interest in your story. Analyze the emotions in every scenario and ask yourself what each person thinks and feels, then write it down for later.

Ok, so you have written down ideas, things about people, and scenarios, now what? Well, now you need to look at all your notes and see if you can gel any together. You might be able to do this right away, or it might take you some time, but try and imagine which characters and ideas work well together. Which characters would work the best in certain scenarios? Of course you may have to change certain aspects of your ideas in order to make them fit in a story, but this will help to give you a rough idea or outline.

You may have already decided what sort of genre your work is likely to be, but if you haven’t decided, then this is the point where you will decide. Based on your characters, ideas, and scenarios that work well together, try and imagine which genre your idea slots in to. Does your story have romance? Does your story have fantasy elements, like magic? Does your story have paranormal elements, like ghosts? Does your story have a thrilling scene? or mystery? Try and identify what your story is likely to include, it will probably have a mixture of many genres, but try and identify the main ones.

Don’t worry if you start writing and you notice that your ideas change, or that your genre changes. This is all perfectly natural, you don’t have to be rigid with your fictional writing. Sometimes things will just flow and other times they wont, it isn’t a crime to have to go backwards and rethink your ideas.

Step #4 – Social Media is Key.

You should really do this with Step 3, but yes social media is so, so, so important these days, particularly for aspiring new authors. You really need to have twitter, Facebook, a website, and if you have a blog, tumblr, pinterest, wattpad, or/and a YouTube channel, then that’s even better.

You need to engage with the outer world, and with potential new readers. The only way you can do this is by having a strong online presence. You will have to do your research here, learn what works best for you, and how to behave/interact online. Yes it sounds like I’m telling a child here, but it’s true. As a new writer, to be a professional author, you cannot lose your temper online and lets face it, we’ve all done this at least once before in our lives. Once you have posted something online, it is there forever, even if you delete it afterwards, so please, please, please, be very careful about what you put online. Again, there are some great websites that can help you, and even some great books out there which will guide you in what to do and say online.

Step #5 – Approaching Publishers.

REJECTION, REJECTION, REJECTION. See now you’re used to the word it’s not so scary.

Yes, you will probably receive a lot of rejections, the competition out there is fierce. To approach a publisher you will first need to do your research, once you know the likely genre for your book, find out which publishers lean towards that genre and target them. You will need a cover letter, a synopsis and usually the first 2-4 chapters of your work.

In your cover letter, this is where you prove you have done your research and tailor it specifically for a certain publisher. There are three things to remember here, be nice, be honest, be different. There are some useful websites and blogs out there that can help you to write a cover letter, so read through as many of these as possible before you attempt to write your own cover letter.

Next is the synopsis, what is a synopsis?

A synopsis is simply a clear, factual summary of your novel’s storyline. A synopsis is typically 500-800 words. Unless an agent specifically requires a much longer synopsis, your summary should not run to more than 1000 words.

In my opinion the synopsis is the hardest part. How can a 80,000 word novel been condensed into just 800? It seems like an impossible task, it’s not though, it just takes a little practice and getting used to. There are lots of websites and blogs out there to help you, and you can start by looking at these two…

Once you have written your book, cover letter and synopsis, you can send these off via email or post to the publishers. Find out what the publishing house prefers. Send your manuscript to as many publishers as possible, and then you have to wait. Whilst you are waiting, write down ideas or start writing your next piece of work.

As a last resort, if you get rejection after rejection, and there is no sign of any publisher accepting your work, then you can take matters into your own hands. Find yourself a freelance copy-editor and proof-reader, or do this yourself if you have the skills and then self publish through Amazon. It is not the end of the road if a publisher will not accept your work, you can make it on your own.

Step #6 – Look after yourself.

Writing and all the steps above can be very stressful and can eat away your hours. So much so, that you forget to eat properly, forget to rest your eyes, forget to go outside, forget to exercise and more. Make a good schedule that allows you to have frequent, short, breaks. You need to keep your physical fitness up, so that your mental and emotional fitness is up too.

Never, ever, write if you’re in a bad mood or feeling down, because I can promise you it will be reflected in your work. If you’re having a bad day, by all means jot down ideas, but focus on other things outside of your writing until you’re feeling good again. Sometimes you might just need a break, a chat with a friend, a long walk, or maybe some strenuous exercise, anything that helps boost your health, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Dividing up your time can be difficult but it will be worth it, and above all else, have fun. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing then it will always feel like hard work. To be a writer you need to love your job for the most part. Enjoy what you do, and you will see that it is reflected positively in your work.

This blog is a lot longer than I thought it would be but I hope i have imparted some wisdom and useful advice here. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I may not know all the answers, and I’m still fairly new to all of this myself, but I will try my best to find the answers for you. Good luck to all of you, have fun, and don’t give up!

– Caitlin x

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