Posts Tagged beginners

Which courses should I take to become a writer?

4063109507_ab9b84c033_zI’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com

I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?

You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.

A degree?

I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.

Writing courses

None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).

Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.

Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.

Last word on courses

Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.

What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.

Again – which course?

Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.

It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.

whatremains44This doesn’t demote your writing to ‘just a hobby’. If you are arranging your life around your writing, it is not a hobby.

Should you try to work in book publishing?

Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).

Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.

Experience

We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.

Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.

Thanks for the writer pic Alan Weir

What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!

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How many words do you write a day? And do you have to force yourself? How successful authors do it

Dave writingThis question appeared in my inbox from Adam Nicholls after I reported on Facebook that I’d managed 4,000 words of The Mountains Novel in one day. Adam DMd me, in not a little anguish:

How many words do you write per day? And do you have to force yourself to do it? I love writing, but it’s work.

There are two significant points in this question:

  • output; books growing steadily at a satisfactory rate
  • difficulty.

How many words per day?

I asked this question of a group I’m a member of, The League of Extraordinary Authors. Romance author Melissa Foster says she has no difficulty getting 7,000 to 10,000 words written in a day and that she adores the blank page. No issues with output there. (But there’s more to writing a good novel than stacking up the wordcount, as she points out in the comments below.)

Romance author Colleen Thompson says ‘When on a publisher’s deadline, I write 1,000-2,000 words a day 6-7 days a week. Otherwise, I try to produce 20-25 new pages per week. Right now, I’m editing, so all bets are off!’

And contemporary fiction author Linda Gillard says ‘I don’t have a regular wordcount but I doubt if I do more than 2,000 new words a day. I think of it as a chapter a week. It’s more important to me that I should work every day on the book – research or editing. For every day spent drafting, I spend 3-4 days re-writing/editing. Drafting I find quick, editing slow. Once a book is under way, I expect to work most days.’

Ultra noir detective author Eric Coyote says he ignores wordcounts – ‘because so much of my writing is re-writing. I clock time: 2-6 hours a day. Usually I work a couple of hours in the middle of the day, then a blast at night until 2 or 3am.’

Graham Greene, who was hardly a publishing slouch, would set himself a modest target – 500 words a day he was satisfied with, and he stopped even if he was in the middle of a sentence so he  could pick up the following day.

parisreviewStephen King talks in this interview for The Paris Review about how he aims for 1,000 words a day.

And since you asked (or Adam did), I track wordcounts if I have a deadline, as when I’m ghostwriting. The plot is agreed beforehand and by the time I write it’s simply a matter of enacting what’s in the outline. I’d usually get 2,500 words done in a day, 5 days a week.

My own fiction is trickier because there’s much more discovery and exploration, even though I plan, so wordcounts grow erratically. They might shrink, too, as I realise I can’t leave the passage I wrote the day before. The day of 4,000 words isn’t a consistent norm although I didn’t stop there. By the time I closed the file that day I’d added another 2,000. Only time will tell how much of that I’ll keep as I’m sure I was cross-eyed by the end.

Indeed, like Eric, I find it more useful to record the hours spent. With novels like mine, part of the work is understanding how to handle the idea. So a session on the book may produce no new footage in the manuscript, but several hours writing notes or reading.

Get on with it

Of course, we could research and tinker endlessly. It’s easy to slip into procrastination instead of getting the writing done.

There are two main reasons why we might dither for ever:

  • we can’t immerse
  • we’re worried about getting it wrong – the inner critic

book at the end of the tunnel Nail Your NovelFind a place to immerse

Where do you write? Stephen King in The Paris Review says he creates a ‘refuge’ where he can shut away. He also remarks that being close to a window is fatal because it’s easier to look outside instead of inwards to the imagination.

I posted last week about getting into the zone, using music. Writing tutor and suspense author James Scott Bell explains in this post how he subscribes to the oft-repeated philosophy of writing when he feels inspired, and making sure this happens at the same time every morning. Yes, be brutal with your muse.

Don’t lose contact with the book

A surprising number of writers feel a stab of stage fright before they sit down with their novel. I do myself, but only if I’ve had to leave the manuscript for more than a few days. The more I keep my contact with the book warm, the more I feel comfortable to venture back inside it. It helps that I’m drawing on the experience that the other novels worked in the end. What if you don’t yet have that or for some reason that isn’t enough?

Warm up the writing engine

Some writers favour freewriting exercises. Freewriting is basically splurging onto the page or screen, regardless of grammar, spelling, quality or any other critical issue. The point is to remove inhibitions and let the ideas flow, to connect with your creativity. Famous exponents include Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, and another of my cohorts in The League of Extraordinary Authors, Orna Ross.

Get out more

In my conversation with the League of Extraordinary Authors, Linda Gillard had this terrific advice. ‘I find the best way to stimulate the flow of ideas and the desire to write is to put myself in a situation where it’s impossible, eg Christmas.’ Indeed, this is one of the tactics I recommend in Nail Your Novel - if you’re stuck, go and do something messy that will make holding a pen impossible. Make meatballs or go to the gym. Inspiration is no respecter of convenience.

Do you have wordcount goals? Do you find writing a struggle? What would you tell Adam? Share in the comments!

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Publish or selfpublish? Advice for the 2014 writer

7345133320_0dd41c6fc1_cThis post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.

1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing

- then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.

As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.

Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.

But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.

guar teaching w joanna

Teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass: pic courtesy of Joanna Penn

2 It isn’t either-or.

Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.

Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.

There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)

Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.

LAF workshop

Workshop at the London Author Fair: that’s Dave looking thoughtful on my left!

3 Selfpublishing your first book

Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.

Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.

What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:

1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book

2 They might be fibbing (surely not)

3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.

I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.

And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.

Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair

What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments

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Finished my novel… where do I find the next idea?

9202009679_f5e20fe7a4_z‘I like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’

I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?

I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.

Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.

This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.

notebookGet going early

I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.

So far, so good.

No plan?

But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?

Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.

First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).

If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.

nyn1 reboot ebook darkersmlAnd next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)

 Thanks for the pic operation_Janet 

Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!

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Reincarnation, future lives and ghostwriting – a couple of guest apparitions

pastlifeI’ve got a couple of slightly apparitional guest spots around the web today. I’m at Candace Austin’s Tumblr blog, Past Life Ponderings. Her novel is about past lives and she collects other authors who play with those ideas. She’s also keen to know about our own claims to former lives … come this way

Still with the theme of shadows, I’m also at The Write Life Magazine. This time I’m talking about ghostwriting – how I started, what it takes to do the job and how you might break in. The Write Life is an online magazine, downloadable as an app or on PDF. There is a sign-up form but don’t be put off – it’s free and you also get essays about writers’ life-changing experiences, an interview with New York Times Bestseller Ingrid Ricks and a Q&A with memoirist Susan Shapiro. And it’s very pretty

writelife

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4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor

jurvetson

I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith

Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.

But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?

Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.

I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.

It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.

1 Find a good evening class

For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.

Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.

Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term

2 Find a critique group

Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.

Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion :) ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.

How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.

A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone witcakeh nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.

If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.

Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes

3 Read craft books

For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compAnd of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.

Cost: the price of a book (or several)

4 Read like a writer

This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.

Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?

The long and the short

It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.

Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent :)

Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?

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How to gather ideas and turn them into a novel – post at Writers & Artists

wa3You know a project is going to be long, serious and brow-furrowing if the illustration is a scribbled-on notebook and coffee. My third piece for the Writers & Artists website is up today. The web editor saw Nail Your Novel and asked me to write a run-down of points to help first-time writers get started on a magnum opus.

Readers of Nail Your Novel will be familiar with it all – notes, plans, splurging first drafts, confidence-building (and coffee), but if you haven’t been here long you might find it useful. Follow your nose…

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Are you ready to use self-publishing services? Post at Writers & Artists

wa2Yes, I would usually have put up an original writing post this weekend, but I seem to have had a lot of posts on other blogs in the last few days. So rather than appearing in your inbox way too many times in one week, I thought I’d take a bit of a rest.

Today I’m back at Writers & Artists. They told me a lot of writers approach them for advice on self-publishing and self-publishing services, but it’s clear they’re not ready and would be better doing more work themselves. They asked me for a piece to help writers hone their novel before they pay for editorial services.

The number one problem I notice is that new writers try to publish a first draft – so this post is a newbie’s guide to revision and an insight into the secret graft behind a good novel. Many of you guys are more advanced than that, but if so, I hope you’ll know someone you can pass it on to. Even if it’s only your long-suffering family and bloomfriends, who are wondering why you haven’t ‘finished’ and published! Here it is…

Meanwhile, if you’d like to share how you revise a novel, or add your tips for getting it in perfect shape for publication, share them here!

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Social media helps self-publishers seize the day – post at Alliance of Independent Authors

alliI’m at the Alliance of Independent Authors blog today, with the story of a mini campaign I whipped up on Twitter and Facebook this week.

I’ll leave the story to that post, but briefly, I saw an interview on the Writers & Artists Yearbook website, responded to it, and seem to have woken them up to the fact that indie authors are rather more advanced than they hitherto thought.

Even better (and this isn’t in the post) Bloomsbury then asked me to call them. They’d had a rummage through my blogs and wanted me to write for their website and newsletter. (Wow. Big smiles at NYN HQ.)

So W&A – the bible for creatives in the UK – is expanding its coverage of self-publishing as a serious and respectable option. But I detected they’re a tad nervous about it. The editor I spoke to asked if I ‘minded’ writing about self-publishing. That suggests he’s encountering more negative attitudes than positive. No matter. They’re responding to what’s happening in the creative world.

waI also have to relish a sense of a circle closing. Years ago, when I was a beginner querying agents and publishers, W&A was my route map for what seemed an audacious and mostly impossible dream. When I wrote the querying section of Nail Your Novel, I recommended using them. Now, thanks to a tweet that alerted me to their post, and a tweet I sent to them, I’ve flipped to the other side and they’re introducing me to their audience. In our online, endlessly connected world, new opportunities might be only a tweet away.

In other news, tomorrow I’m skyping into the Grub Street arts centre in Boston as a guest expert in a seminar on creative book marketing so you’ll get a proper post from me about our discussions. And next Saturday, I’m on a panel at Stoke Newington Literary Festival in north London, talking about multimedia self-publishing. Both those opportunities sprang from relationships made completely on social media. In fact, everything has. Before that, I was an invisible editor and a concealed ghost.

So tell me – what opportunities have come to you from social media? And what tips would you give to help people make the best of it? (Oh, and here’s the Independent Authors Alliance post, in case you’re curious about the W&A Incident… )

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