Of the numerous emails that land in my inbox, a good number involve the issue of advice.
Occasionally, these mails are of the kind which suggest various things to do to myself that are anatomically impossible (which merely proves that women do indeed have a quite nasty side to them) but in the main, they are asking for advice on writing or making that leap from the laptop to the shelves of Waterstones or the screens of Cineworld.
Given that I never set out to be a writer of any kind -as many people have pointed out!- I have often wondered why that is. After all, I am not and probably never will be either a Booker Prize winning novelist or an Oscar winning screenwriter, and whilst I enjoy what I do and always put in 110%, the truth is that I am definitely not one of those people who are driven to write. Make no mistake, the day that my 6th lottery number pops out of that machine is the day I’ll have typed my last letter and from that point on, life will revolve around doing as little as possible!
I suspect the answer lies in the fact that unlike many other authors I am reasonably easy to contact but there have also been occasions when there has definitely been an element of ‘if he can do it, so can I so I might as well ask him how he did it’. To be honest, I have no problem with that largely because there is indeed a degree of truth in it. I’ve always been happy to admit that I did indeed ‘luck’ into writing and I although I have done better than many so-called ‘established’ writers in terms of both output and sales (you’d be surprised how few books some of these apparently successful authors actually sell) I most definitely have no delusions about my position on the Great British literary ladder. As someone once suggested, it is firmly in the ‘bungs on the feet at the bottom’ category.
However, to return to the point, as long as someone has taken the trouble to write to me, I have always responded. Not simply because I think I should but because I hope that one day someone I set on the rocky road of penmanship will strike it big and I’ll get to appear on some kind of TV show celebrating their literary achievements. Let’s face it, chances are that’ll be the only way I manage it!
But recently, a few things have happened which have started to make me wonder about the wisdom of such a policy. Not because I have suddenly started to think that being helpful is a bad idea, but because increasingly, I am being contacted by people who have asked me very specific questions. Usually involving the names and contact details of agents, publishers and even TV producers.
To be fair, many of these requests have come from American authors looking to break into the UK market rather than from ‘newbies’ looking to get a foot in the door but having worked in the ‘creative’ world for some time now, I have learnt two very important lessons.
First, contacts are everything and second, the most valuable currency of all are ideas. Which is why both are much sought after and even occasionally stolen. Indeed, I could tell you some stories about certain people, but I best not.
However, the fact remains that whilst I have become (almost) used to the gut-wrenching feeling of being shafted by people who work in the TV and film industry, I am now starting to feel the same way about writing and that has to stop. If only because it eats into my time and therefore costs me money.
So whilst I will happily continue to help anyone who is trying to break into publishing or anything else for that matter, I am no longer so receptive to requests from anyone who has ever earned a penny (or a cent) from their writing. Unless of course any kind of reciprocal arrangement or better still, a fee is involved!
Pondering this last night, the thought struck me that rather than upset 50% of the population with another diatribe about women and/or football, it might be a good idea to use this blog to offer up a bit of advice to those looking to set out on the rocky road of penmanship for the first time. It is the same advice I use as the basis of every talk I ever give on writing and is based on six very basic rules which come in a very strict order.
1. If you cannot take criticism, do NOT write for public consumption. No matter how good a writer you think you are, at some point, you will have to show your work to someone else be it a partner, friend, agent or publisher.
Trust me, no matter how good a writer you are, sooner or later someone is going to come back with a negative response and it hurts. Some can take it, others can’t. The key is to take all criticism as constructive and learn from it.
But if you think it’s bad when you first start out, wait until the presses have rolled and the reviews begin. Any author who says they never read their reviews is a bloody liar and whilst I’ve been lucky enough to have some awesome ones in my time (‘The best book ever written on football hooliganism’ Daily Mail) I’ve also had some horrors. The worst being simply ‘Yeah right. Now fuck off.’ courtesy of Time Out.
The fact that both of these were for the very same book proves many things and whilst the initial inclination following a bad review is to either hang yourself or track down the offending individual (I took the latter course of action with Time Out but that’s another story) the simple truth of the matter is that they are just one persons opinion. But as any publisher will tell you, any review is better than no review and that is very true.
2. Write what you know. It is an old adage and the source of much discussion in writers circles but to me, it is absolutely spot on. Not only does it save on research time, but if you know the subject well, it will come across on the page. Conversely if you don’t, you will spend all of your time having to deal with people who will take great delight in pointing out your mistakes (see above!)
3. Join a local writing group. You might think they are full of geeky nerds or middle aged women seeking to fill their time (and to be fair, some are) but a good one can provide huge amounts of advice and encouragement. A great one can make you a great writer.
Never forget, getting into print is incredibly difficult and so the more advice you can obtain from people who are at the coal face or who have been through it, the better.
4. Never write to get rich. Very few (and I mean, VERY few) published authors earn a living wage from their work. The days of huge advances for first time authors are long gone folks. And don’t think screenwriting is well paid either.
OK, if you’ve got a decent track record and a good agent you should do pretty well but I still receive emails every week offering me opportunities to write spec scripts (that’s for free) and once had a very well known film producer offer me £500 to write a script from scratch. Obviously I told him to f**k off but someone else took the job within days and no, it didn’t ever get made.
There is only really one reason to write and that’s because you want to do it. If it’s good enough, everything else will follow. How you can make that happen however, is an entirely different blog!
5. Write, write, and write. It’s a fairly obvious thing to say but the more you write, the easier it becomes. It’s a skill and it needs constant honing.
And finish everything you start. You might know it’s rubbish from the end of the first chapter but trying to turn it into something half decent is a great exercise and fabulous experience. There is also the very real chance that as you are working, something will click into the creative box in your brain which you will be able to use on something else.
One other point I will make here, in my opinion there is no such thing as writers block. As far as I am concerned it’s a myth that was invented by writers to cover up laziness or lack of creativity. If you get stuck, it’s simply because your idea doesn’t work and you should have worked that out at the planning stage anyway.
6. Most importantly of all, enjoy it! It’s supposed to be fun you know and if it isn’t, why bloody do it?
So what are you waiting for?
I desperately need to do some work on my Amazon author page this page, primarily by adding some new titles to it! So I’m happy to pass on news that there will be at least one new book coming in 2018! That’s assuming I can finish this bloody script I’m currently working on.
In the meantime, you can buy all my existing books, including the football comedy Wings of a Sparrow and the #1 thrillers,The Crew and Top Dog from either Amazon or iTunes.
Please click on the relevant link for more information.
5 thoughts on “How to get ahead in writing. The business of self.”
I started reading this post thinking that it didn’t apply to me but would read it anyway to keep up to speed with the blog. Now i’ve got to the end, I feel somewhat inspired to maybe try something I hadn’t considered. 15yrs on and you can still make me want to work, how do you do it? Seriously though, good advice. Thanks!
I don’t ever remember you wanting to work back then so I must be improving! :-
Go for it!
Good one, Dougie!
You forgot one other very important tip–Read, Read, Read. The more one reads and thinks analytically about what it is that they like or don’t like about things they read, the better writers they themselves will be (hopefully).
Criticism is a double edged sword. No matter which side strikes you it cuts deeply and it hurts. One side is honed by such things as ignorance, jealousy, self-interest, the almighty dollar and the satisfaction derived from putting someone down. The other side is honed by such things as knowledge, experience, respect and a desire to help someone reach their potential. I am approaching octogenarian status and through the years I have frequently been the object of criticism, some good, some bad. I have learned to listen to constructive, well intentioned criticism coming from people I respect and have developed the skin of an armadillo when it comes from those I do not. I am a published author of nine e-books and I am working on my tenth. I would not have been able to accomplish this and continue to maintain my insatiable desire to write without learning how to differentiate the types of criticism and heed that which was well thought out and meant to help me not hurt me. Criticism can be the fertilizer for the growth of a writer if he/she is willing to look at it without prejudice.