Lessons From a Year as a Debut Writer
It’s been quite a year. I sold my second book, wrote my third book, and finally became a full-time writer.
My wee Rental Heart has done surprisingly well. It’s sold over 1,000 copies in print, won or been shortlisted for four prizes, and had some incredibly generous reviews. I’ve read from it at two launch events (both sold out and standing room only!) at Waterstones Argyle Street and Looking Glass Books, and at festivals all over Scotland from Aberdeen to Wigtown to Kingussie to Dundee. I’ve been invited to panels discussing feminism in Alien, queer literature, and setting up a literary magazine. I’ve been interviewed for radio and podcasts broadcast all over the world. It’s been amazing, and I’m so grateful for all of it.
Most of all, I’m grateful to every single person who bought this book, read this book, talked or wrote about this book. I wish I could bake each of you a cake, but I can’t because my oven is broken. So instead, I will share the biggest lessons I learned from my year as a debut writer.
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I really can’t state this enough: if you want to get into arts journalism, you MUST apply to be the IdeasTap columnist. You MUST. I won’t take no for an answer. And you’d better get a wiggle on, because you’ve only got until Thursday 31 July.
I can say this with confidence because I spent seven months as the IdeasTap columnist (that’s 28 columns – bloody hell! What did I manage to write about for 28 columns? Find out here…) After that I was as a literary editor at The List for two years, as well as freelancing for newspapers and magazines across the world. I still consider the columnist job one of the best I’ve ever done. So believe me when I say that you must apply.
To help you along, here are some top tips from previous IdeasTap columnists:
“Have an absolutely killer opening and closing line. Of course, to do that, you need to know exactly what you’re going to argue from the very first word and be able to sum it up brilliantly at the end.”
– Nell Frizzell was the Columnist for August-December 2010. She is now the IdeasMag Commissioning Editor and has written for The Guardian, Vice, Elle, Grazia and many others.
“Be real. Write about what really matters to you, and do it in your own voice. The most honest and meaningful articles I wrote for Ideastap, were about issues that genuinely affected me. And guess what, it’s a lot easier too.
And PS. No one likes a lazy edit. Check and double-check your pieces so your lovely editor doesn’t end up cleaning up your grammar, spelling and half-researched facts.”
“Don’t be a dick. A lot of columnists think they have to have incredibly strong opinions to stand out – being funny, interesting, and likeable is far more important.”
– Jamie Ross was the Columnist in 2010, and is now a trainee broadcast journalist at BBC Scotland.
“Don’t write what you think people want to read, write what you want to say. If you have something that you’re passionate about, which infuriates you, or just plain amuses you, chances are it will chime with someone else. Keep it current and keep it concise.”
“Try to find your own voice. For every Charlie Brooker, there’s a legion of impersonators raging tediously away. One of the great things about writing is that it allows you to be more angry, neurotic or assertive than you might be in real life – but aim to exaggerate your own personality, rather than somebody else’s.”
– Orlando Bird was the Columnist in 2013 and is now sub-editing at The Telegraph.
The publishing experts offered valuable advice on writing cover letters, elevator pitches, and how to properly begin and build your writing career. I live-tweeted with #pitchlive – but don’t worry if you missed it, because here are the highlights.
Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate Books:
(Follow Francis @kinhead)
- Follow your curiosity. If you’re bored writing it, readers won’t even get past the first chapter.
- Researching historical detail isn’t as important as exploring your heart and mind – the human story grips the reader.
- Find someone who will give you honest advice.
- As the saying goes: the hair shines with brushing. Edit, edit, edit. If it’s not vital to the story, cut it.
- Remember that publishers aren’t charities. They have to be sustainable businesses. No one is entitled to be published.
- In a cover letter, don’t be apologetic about yourself. Present yourself as a writer. Have confidence.
- A pitch letter is not a place for rhetoric. Always start with the story.
- Don’t say ‘I’ve written the next Harry Potter‘, but do present some titles similar to your book for comparison.
- Presenting a question or a moral quandary can work well in a pitch.
- Remember to include your email and phone number, not just an address – if the agent or editor loves your book they’ll want to get in touch immediately.
- In your pitch, your personal circumstances don’t matter – just mention any writing experience such as prizes or publications.
- Social networking can be counterproductive if it’s forced. Do what you’re comfortable with.
- Writing is a solitary pursuit. Find your community for feedback, and to commiserate and celebrate with.
- Don’t expect success instantly. And if it doesn’t happen instantly, don’t write off your book. Timing is vital.
- Give out but don’t give up. Maybe you just haven’t found the right editor for your book yet.
- The book trade favours easy pitches, but the books I’ll remember on my deathbed are the unusual, unprecedented ones.
Oliver Munson, Literary Agent at A.M. Heath:
(Follow Oliver @OliAgent)
- When pitching face-to-face, be concise, confident and quick. Don’t back an agent into a corner and bore them for 20 minutes!
- Most books can be pitched in several different ways. Choose the angle best suited to the person you’re approaching.
- The problem with self-publishing is our desire for instant gratification. There’s benefit in getting feedback and steady editing.
- Describing your book as ‘literary’ doesn’t tell us much about the book – only how good you think it is. You don’t walk into a bookshop and go to the Literary section, so it’s not particularly useful to state it as the genre.
- The X meets X formula is fine, but you must express what your book is about on its own terms, free of comparison.
- Agents sit at the crossroads of creativity and commercialisation. I need a great book that I can talk about easily.
Jenny Brown, Literary Agent at Jenny Brown Associates
(Follow Jenny @AgentJenny)
- My advice to people who want to self-publish is to get a freelance editor.
- About a third of the books I’ve taken on have changed title during the publication process.
- If you try to follow a trend, it will be over by the time your book is finished.
Adrian Searle, Publisher at Freight Books:
- The book is what matters, but the pitch is what makes you pick it out of the pile of manuscripts.
Clare Hey, Senior Commissioning Editor at Simon & Schuster:
(Follow Clare @Clareaux)
- I want stories that transcend genre – a book I can recommend to anyone. Those books are few and far between.
- Great storytelling is at the heart of everything I edit, irrespective of genre.
- Be polite, be patient – and don’t ever add an editor’s email address to your own promotional mailing list!
- If an agent can’t be bothered to phone me, they’re not that excited about the book. If they phone, I pay attention.
- Your pitch has to bear repeating. Editors will have to say it over and over at sales and publicity meetings – and then to sell it to readers.
- If you’ve written in multiple genres, think about where you want your career to go and focus on that first.
- It’s ideal if each of your books can be entirely original, but will appeal to the same readership.
- Launching a debut novel takes a lot of time and effort. Editors want it to be the start of a long career.
- Don’t be downhearted if your book is not immediately picked up. If it’s a good book, you’ll find the right editor eventually.
• What is the working title of your next book?
It’s a short story collection called The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales.
• Where did the idea come from for the book?
• What genre does your book fall under?
• What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Julianne Moore would be the seductive, sensual, and ultimately doomed lady of the house in ‘Underskirts’ (which you can read at PANK); Thomas Dekker would be the pretty automaton Luc-Pierre and Ben Whishaw would be the scheming, lovelorn brother Claude in ‘Coin-Operated Boys’ (which you can read at Fantasy Book Review); and Clea DuVall and Brit Marling would be the expectant couple Lauren and Grace in ‘Underlying’ (which you can read at Algebra).
• What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
These stories feature clockwork hearts, lascivious queens, paper men, circuses, and a gracekeeper; some are queer retellings of classic stories, some are modern-day fables, but all explore substitutions for love.
• Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m currently seeking agent representation.
• How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years altogether. The first story was written way back in 2009, and I just finished the newest one this month.
• What other books would you compare this to within your genre?
Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles, Jess Richards’ Snake Ropes – and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, of course.
• Who or what inspired you to write this book?
All the odd, brave, surreal fairy tales I read as a child.
• What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I think it can be summed up in three words: dark sex magic.
Thinking of applying for the 2012 New Writers Awards from the Scottish Book Trust? BLOODY GREAT.
Not only will you get a grant of £2,000, training in press, PR and performance, and a mentorship with an experienced person in the literary world, you will also get a week-long writing retreat at Cove Park. The only way it could be better is if the award could make you coffee every morning too.
I honestly can’t recommend this award enough: I won in 2009 and I continue to be amazed by the support and enthusiasm of everyone at the Scottish Book Trust. They’re a fabulous lot of folk and, as a new writer, you definitely want them in your corner.
Don’t: Tell us this is the best book that has ever been written and nobody has ever written anything like it. It isn’t (at least not yet) and they have.
Don’t: Include the line ‘I was born to write’. This is a cliché, and I was born to dislike clichés. Getting the tone of a letter right is tough, but a simple rule of thumb is to aim for enthusiastic rather than arrogant.
Don’t: Try to sneak in more. It is late at night, I have been reading applications every spare minute of the day, and I need to read just one more to stay on track. I pick up your application: it exceeds the word-limit, it is single spaced and in a tiny font which means it will take me twice as long to read it. The fact that the extra material rounds up the story nicely does not add to your chances of success.
Don’t: Include links to your blog, ebook etc. I will not read these. Ever.
Do: Read and follow the guidelines and meet the deadline. It may not be very exciting, but it is important.
Do: Be clear and concise in your statement and writing achievements. There should never be any danger of a panel member missing vital information about you. Short sentences are your friends.
Do: Give it a shot! Most participants are genuinely surprised that they have been selected, and several have tried quite a few times before making it on to the awards. We change our panel members every year so there’s always a chance that someone will appreciate your work. And the odds are much, much better than the Lottery.
Reckon you’re ready to apply? Go for it! And if you need to ask anything about the awards, get in touch with the Scottish Book Trust or leave your question here as a comment.