I’m often asked about how I became an author. I thought I’d write this post in the help that it might be of interest to other aspiring writers!
I’ve wanted to be an author for as long as I can remember. When I first worked out that someone had written the books I so enjoyed reading as a child and that this could be a job, I knew it’s what I wanted to do. Since then it’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do with my life.
I spent my childhood reading voraciously (JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl) and writing poems and short stories. I entered endless competitions, subscribed to Young Writer magazine and queued up to get my books signed whenever an author visited my school or a local town. Some of my happiest childhood memories are from the residential writing courses I occasionally went on – where I and a bunch of other bookish children would spend a weekend or part of the school holiday at a house in the Somerset countryside, being set writing assignments and gaining tips from writing tutors. Funnily, I’ve never been on a residential writing course as an adult, but these courses I did as a child were wonderful for encouraging my love of writing.
On the advice of many writers I admired, I kept a diary too, something I’ve done on and off throughout most of my life. As I write this in my home office, if I glance to my left I can see a pink box that is filled with dozens of diaries, the pages filled with words that no doubt would make me cringe to read now, but which I still count as an important part of my writing journey. Writing a diary regularly helped to cultivate a habit of writing; now I feel just strange if I’m not writing in some form or another every day.
Although my dream of being an author never changed, as I got a bit older I started to understand that it might not be as straight forward as I’d imagined. I read the statistics about how few books that are written get published, and how few published authors actually make a living from their writing. I became discouraged. I decided to study journalism at university and chose to specialise in fashion journalism. I thought it would bring together my passion for writing and my general creativity and love of clothes and fashion history, and yet be more of a steady job and ‘proper’ career path. (Although, knowing now how few fashion journalists manage to make it their career I wonder what I was really thinking, and whether perhaps I am just a dreamer through and through.)
I think of my university years as a dry spell in my writing life as I did very little creative writing during this time. But when I look back I realise I was still writing all the time, just in different ways – I kept a blog and of course wrote assignments for my course. There were many parts of the degree that were interesting and great fun, but by the time I graduated I realised that fashion journalism ultimately wasn’t for me. My first job was in the student section of a national newspaper, a job I got after doing some writing for the editor while I was still studying, and then completing a grammar and editing test and week-long trial once I’d graduated.
Like my experience in fashion journalism, there were many things about working at a newspaper that I loved. It was a dynamic, buzzy environment and I loved interviewing people and researching and writing articles. But I also found it incredibly stressful, and over time found that after writing all day at work my desire to write creatively when I got home had totally disappeared. After a year I realised something had to change – I was stressed and unhappy and felt that I was never going become an author if I stayed there. I switched to a career in marketing, something that wasn’t my passion but which gave me more headspace to get back to what I loved to do in my spare time: writing. It was while working in one of these marketing roles that I first had the idea for The Lido and began to write, squeezing in time before work, in my lunchbreak and in evenings and at weekends.
It took me about six months of planning and thinking and then another year of writing to finish my first draft of what would become The Lido. Once I’d finished it I sent it to my mum and sister for initial feedback and then started the long and gruelling process of submitting to agents. Despite wanting to be an author, I actually knew very little about the publishing industry itself and didn’t know anyone who worked in it. My mum bought me a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; I read all the advice and started contacting agents from the list printed in the back.
Then came what felt like the longest wait of my life. Over the course of twelve months I submitted the manuscript to probably around twenty or so agents. I kept a spreadsheet of who I’d submitted to and whether I’d received any feedback. Some people replied with nice comments, saying they liked my writing but didn’t feel strongly enough to represent me. Some sent me standard rejections. Others never replied. Although I tried my best to stay positive, it was hard. You can’t help but feel as though you are being personally judged when you’ve shared something that you’ve worked so hard on, that you care about so much and that contains so much of yourself within its pages. And the endless waiting can send you slightly mad. I remember refreshing my emails about every thirty seconds (not an exaggeration), in the hope I might have received a response from an agent.
By the end of that year I was feeling pretty despondent. But I wasn’t about to give up on writing all together. Although I did want desperately to be a published author, the most important thing always was (and still is) the actual writing. I knew I was a writer, even if the publishing world hadn’t opened its doors to me. I am a writer because I write. Because it’s the thing I love most in the world, the way I communicate and express myself, and because of something I can’t totally understand but has been there inside me ever since I was a child and would shut myself away in my room, scribbling stories and poems onto whatever paper I could find.
I decided that perhaps this book simply wasn’t meant to be. I would shelve it and start a new story, and perhaps have better luck with that. My plan was to write something new and then submit it to the agents who’d said positive things about The Lido, but who ultimately hadn’t chosen to represent me. And then I saw via The Bookseller that a new agency was being set up and that they were actively looking for new clients. I read the article and discovered that one of the agents represented one of my favourite authors, an author who’d been a huge inspiration to my own work. It felt like it was a sign to send out one final submission – to give it one last shot.
And it’s at this point that everything changed for me. After a year of waiting, things suddenly moved very quickly. Within a week or so of sending my submission I was signed up with my agent and working on editing my first draft with him. Not long after that he shared my book with editors. And one Friday night while I was at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I got the call from my agent with details of the deal I was being offered by my now publisher. As he told me what was happening I sat on the stairs and cried. The next Monday I handed in my notice at my office job.
I now feel so lucky to be able to call myself a full-time author. My second novel has just been published and I am currently editing my third. I know it’s a cliché to say it’s been a dream come true, but it really has.
My writing journey has taught me the importance of perseverance. It’s also made me realise just how subjective publishing is – in the same way that I love books that my friends aren’t keen on and vice versa, the same applies to agents and editors. At the time, I felt so disappointed when I was rejected by agents who said nice things but just didn’t feel strongly enough to make the leap and sign me up. But in the end, I am so pleased I waited because it meant I found the right person, an agent who truly loved my work and who then sold it with real passion.
I hope my journey might encourage others that despite the statistics you might read, it is possible. When I started submitting to agents my manuscript landed on the ‘slush pile’ and I was rejected by lots of people. But ultimately my story made it through and found its place. If you are an aspiring author, I hope that the same is possible for you too.
My top tips:
- Do your research about the agents you choose to submit your work to. Is your story really suited to them or would another agent be better? Really read their requirements too as some agents want different things from a submission – three chapters vs the first 50 pages for example.
- Perhaps you’re someone who can talk about your own work with ease, but personally I found writing a synopsis really hard. I found it impossible to distance myself enough from my work to describe it in a page. In the end, I got my mum and sister to help out. They’d both read it and were that bit more removed from it to be able to describe the themes. If you have someone you trust, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As long as the actual writing is all yours, I personally think there’s no shame in using an outside perspective to help sell yourself in a synopsis – something that doesn’t always come naturally!
- Don’t lose sight of why you are doing this. If you are a writer you are a writer. You don’t need anyone’s permission in order to write. Yes, being published is a wonderful dream (and it was mine too!) but I think you still have to write ultimately for yourself, because you want to, not with the goal of publication as your sole motivator. I feel so lucky to call writing my job now, but even if I’d never been paid a single penny for it I would still be doing it (shh don’t tell my publisher!).
- Stick at it! Trying to write a book and then trying to get in published can be a long process and it can feel quite demoralising at times. There were so many times I considered giving up on my novel because I felt it just wasn’t working, or nearly gave up on my dream of getting it published because of rejections. But I’m so glad I didn’t.
- The Writers’ and Artist’ Yearbook is a wonderful resource for any aspiring author, with details of agents and publishers as well as useful articles about how to submit. They also have a great list of other useful resources here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/108/a-writers-toolkit/essential-information/websites-for-writers
- The Riff-Raff is a great community for new writers. They host talks by debut authors who talk about their writing journey (I gave a talk with them when The Lido first came out!) and also have a mentoring scheme and manuscript-feedback service.