Making up stories for a living is one of the best jobs in the world. But, like any job, it can also be difficult and frustrating at times. So you need to be passionate about what you’re doing, and committed to telling your story. Like most things in life, you also need a little bit of luck.
I don’t believe in “writing about what you know” – fiction is created through the power of imagination, after all. I do believe, however, that you should write about what you love, and want to know more about.
Beware of trends. Just because vampire stories are really popular today, doesn’t mean they’ll be popular tomorrow. There’s no point trying to tell a story that doesn’t come naturally to you, or you don’t personally believe in.
Meanwhile, aim to read as much and as widely as possible. Try every genre: crime, romance, horror, historical, sci-fi, fantasy… Mix high-brow literature with some good honest trash! You’ll learn lots, and have fun along the way. Reading is good for you. Fact.
Decide the basics of what you’re going to write about: the main characters, the kind of story it’s going to be, and the general direction of the plot. How much more preparation you need is up to you. Some writers like to plan everything in advance. Others prefer to work the story out as they go along. But there is one rule: be disciplined.
Aim to write something every day, even if it’s just brain-storming. Writing needs to be as natural a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. If you’re not sure what you want to write about, or don’t feel quite ready for it, start by keeping a journal. This will get you into the writing habit and is great training for putting thoughts into words, or capturing a special moment or feeling.
That is, spelling, punctuation and grammar! Good “SPAG” makes reading easier and more pleasurable. Busy editors/agents with stacks of manuscripts to get through won’t want to struggle with badly-formed sentences and odd spelling, however impressive the writing might be in other ways.
Go for a walk. It’s the original and best solution to getting stuck. Or do anything practical that doesn’t involve the “literary” part of your brain – I find doing housework helps (sad but true), or cooking. Take a day off, and make sure you get a good night’s sleep.
If you’re used to composing straight onto a computer, try brainstorming your problem with a pencil and paper. If you usually work in a quiet bedroom, see how you get on in a busy café. A small change, or break, can make a big difference.
Once you’ve finished your story, put it away and ignore it for at least a week. Then take it out and read it again: carefully and critically, as if it was written by a stranger. If you’re finding it hard to get a fresh perspective, show it to a friend. Don’t just ask them if they liked it – even if they didn’t, they’ll say it’s great (because that’s what friends and family do). Instead, ask them constructive questions. Get them to tell you the bits they enjoyed, and the bits they didn’t, if there was anything they didn’t understand, who their favourite and least-favourite characters were, whether they thought the end of the story was as good as the start. Then get to work on the re-writes!
And once your book’s finished…
Find out how the publishing industry works. I’ve explained a bit about it here. Very few publishers have the time or resources to look at an unknown writer’s work, so it’s essential to find a good literary agent to represent you. The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook lists all the agents’ contact details and tells you the kind of books they specialise in, as well as giving lots of advice about how to approach them.
Remember, you shouldn’t ever pay an agent to read your work – they will take between 10-15% of the money a publisher gives you, so they only make money if they sell your book.
There are some great websites that provide online writers’ workshops. Here you can post your stories, ask for help and both give and receive feedback. I would recommend Litopia Writer’s Colony (free) and Writewords.org (subscription). You’ll find more advice on these websites than I could ever give you.
More people are writing books than ever before, but publishers have less money to pay authors, and fewer retailers to sell books through. So the book trade has never been so tough and competitive – or more like the X-Factor auditions. Most agents, for example, will receive about 5,000 submissions a year. Out of all these hopeful authors, an agent might chose to represent ten, but there’s no guarantee that all ten will end up with a publishing deal. This is where luck and timing can make all the difference.
Lots of best-selling, prize-winning, immensely successful authors have a stack of rejection letters in the attic. It hurt at the time, but they kept going, improving and hoping for the best. And it paid off. The fact remains there is nothing an agent or publisher likes better than finding a brand new author who makes their heart leap and their fingers twitch with excitement. If you have talent, and you work really hard, it could be you!