From time to time someone will get in touch asking me what they have to do to become a professional writer. I received just such an enquiry this morning. In case any of you have also been wondering the same thing, I thought I’d post my answer here.
How nice to hear from you. Yes, thank you for asking, I am well. And yes, I can certainly give some pointers about writing.
It is important to be clear about why you want to write, as this will help to decide what you write, which avenues you take.
If you want to be famous and make a lot of money through writing you will have to ask someone else, because I don't have that skill!
If you like writing itself, as a craft, and do it well, and are choosing it for that reason, then there are lots of options for a jobbing writer. You might be taken on to write regularly for a magazine or newspaper, or do editing for famous people who are going to have a book out but, as writing isn't their primary vocation, a jobbing writer is needed behind the scenes to turn their book into the best possible version of the story they have to tell. I do this to augment my income. I am paid about £400-£500 to turn around a book needing more than a publishing house editor has time for, and I have to be fast and accurate. I have just been working on an 85,000-word book that is of itself brilliant but needed substantial help with the prose, and this had to be done in a fortnight. It's hard work and, if you want to be someone a publisher comes back to again and again, it helps to be able to drop everything at a moment's notice and get them out of a hole so they can keep to their often near-impossible schedules.
I find writing articles easy and enjoyable. In my case the publications for which I write approached me, because they knew of my books - but you can also submit articles in your interest area to any papers/magazines of your choice in the hope of being taken on, whether on a regular or occasional basis.
The reason I write is neither to be rich and famous (fortunately) nor just as an occupation because I enjoy the craft (though I do), but because I have something to say. If you are thinking of writing books rather than just patching up other people's output or working as a jobbing writer, I personally believe it helps a lot if you have something to say. The day I have nothing more to say is the day I will lay down my pen. Many people who have nothing to say do write books, some of them very successfully. They meet with their editor who feeds them ideas, and they use their professional expertise and experience to research it and write it up. They analyse the market and find a niche, identify a target audience and a trending idea, and create a product that will sell, to the word length that is popular and expressing the views that fit their publishing house. This is an intelligent approach for a professional writer; competent, effective and sustainable. Personally I would die of boredom if I did that, though.
My own way of doing things is to live as simply and quietly as possible, thinking and dreaming, watching and listening, wondering and being. As I do this, stories and thoughts about life and humanity and God stir and shape within me. Ideas that captivate and intrigue me fill my mind. Human experience that I have observed or shared fills me with compassion or anger or delight or admiration or a sense of injustice. I overhear people talking to each other and am enthralled. I glimpse and eavesdrop on things that make me laugh - or sometimes cry. And I write it all down and offer it to a publisher. So far I have never been unable to publish anything I have written.
If you have something to say, but you have trouble getting it published, there are several routes to self-publishing nowadays and many people are choosing that option. It's quicker and the writer earns a higher percentage of the income. The pitfalls are created by people not knowing what they do not know. They don't know what makes a good cover and think theirs is brilliant but it's bad. They can't spell and their grammar is poor so their final draft appears to them perfect when in fact it's full of laughable errors. They don't know enough about copyright law and permissions and are horrified when someone sues them for £20,000 because they quoted ONE LINE from a pop song. They don't know how to format text for publication. So, if you decide to write and self-publish, get help. We can advise you.
If you work as a writer, you need publicity. If you want to be a jobbing writer people have to hear about you to offer you work. If you write books you won't sell any unless people hear about them. One of the easiest and best ways to start is to write a blog. I started mine several years ago, and at the time I was just talking to myself. Now, depending on how frequently I've posted, my blog gets between 10,000 and 14,000 hits a month and has considerably boosted my book sales. As with my books, so with my blog, however - I started it because I have something to say, and unless I have something to say I don't post. I do know writers who offer only blatant self-promotion, and I think people do not await their posts with bated breath.
Another advantage of blogging is that it assists you in creating and maintaining a discipline of writing. Because in the end, there is only one thing you need to do if you want to be a writer: write.
Write every day. Create a target - one sentence if you like; my target is 1,000 words. Write that every day. In writing you are coaxing your subconscious mind - your dreaming, quirky, wild, vivid, childlike mind - to give up its wonders that lie below your boring, prosaic, every-day, pass-the-butter mind. Your subconscious mind will do this if it knows it has an appointment. If you are erratic it is less likely to deliver the goods. It is (I'm sorry to lower the tone) not dissimilar to opening one's bowels: a regular domestic routine is your friend.
Writing is usually a solitary occupation. Not in every case. Some comedy writers and TV script-writers work in pairs or groups, but most writers work alone. Setting and maintaining boundaries is essential to working as a writer. If you cannot do this you will fail. The writer is, actually, you. You will be writing every day. Writing is a solitary occupation. Ergo, you will become a solitary person. If you cannot endure solitude, you are not cut out to be a writer. You will be selfish, lonely and socially difficult. If you are already these three things, you are well on your way to being a writer!
Then there is the question of money. Very, very few writers, even professionals who find it easy to get their work published, make enough to live on. My income from writing is tiny. I rarely pay tax. I live in shared accommodation with equally poor artists and thus we reduce our domestic overheads to the bare minimum - by which I mean, for example, £18 per head per week to spend on food and all household commodities, and woollies and hot water bottles when the weather is cold. I joint-own a cottage let to tenants, and my share of the rent from this covers my basic outgoings. I create and officiate at funerals - oh, when I say I create them I don't mean I kill people, I mean I write them specially for people who have died with no intervention from me. I have solar panels on the roof which generate electricity I can sell to the National Grid, earning about £1,000 tax-free per year. I depend on these extra sources of income: without them I could not survive on the kind of writing I do, and I would wither and perish if I had to make a living by writing what I cruelly and scornfully describe as ‘product’.
When I publish a book, I am paid about £1,800 in royalty advances. Very rarely do I go on to earn any further royalties from it. A magazine article earns me between £25 and £55. When I edit a book I earn £400 or £500. The most books I have ever written in any one year is four. I usually edit about four books a year. I write one magazine article a month for money. At the moment I am also writing for a church paper which pays me nothing - but that's not to be sniffed at, it's all good publicity and helps my profile as a writer. Because I have an actual aim and ambition to live in the greatest simplicity possible as I believe simplicity is the best tool in any life-kit, this arrestingly diminutive income does not trouble me; I have all I want and quite a lot to give away. I am not thin. But it wouldn't suit everyone.
I have one final piece of advice.
I am often asked what is the knack of getting published - what's the trick - what do you have to do? Hearing that my husband is a publisher causes a particular crafty look (not unlike a sneer) to slant sideways into the eyes of enquirers. "Aha!" they cry with the air of one who has rumbled a great secret; "so that's how you get published!" Not so. My husband had been my editor for twenty years before I married him. The only difference marrying my publisher has made is that it is now a darn sight more difficult to get a manuscript through, because he can no longer sign off on my work - it has to go through extra committee surveillance in case he's smuggling in some duff crap because he loves me.
No. The only way I know of getting published, getting your manuscripts accepted every time even if you are not a celebrity and have no platform to speak of at all, is to write well. In spite of all their hard-boiled cynicism and product mentality and understandable obsession with marketing, publishers do love a good book. Write one and you're in. Probably.
That's all I know. I hope it helps.
You may be interested in coming to this event for writers of Christian fiction, which I and my husband and a fellow writer are offering this November. Even if you are not writing Christian fiction, but general fiction or any other work for publication, you might find it helpful. We are keeping the costs low by charging no fees for ourselves. And the food is good and the house cheerful and cosy.