Writing and the path to publishing

When I first started writing I had a painfully romantic idea about the writing process. I fully expected that a bolt of creativity would strike me at around 2am. Always 2am. The early morning atmosphere has a certain romance that a bright sunny afternoon simply can’t match. It would compel me to leap out of bed and I’d sit at the kitchen table swilling whiskey, sucking cigarettes and furiously typing 10 000 words of pure genius before the suits had even dragged themselves out of bed to their cubicle hell.

But the bolt of creative lightning never came. Smoking gives me hives and I don’t like whisky very much.

Before long I realised that if I didn’t change my approach to writing I would become yet another person who is ‘going to write a book someday’. I decided that I needed to treat writing a book like a job. As a management consultant I often had to write reports or presentations. I didn’t wait round for the optimum writing conditions, it didn’t matter whether or not I felt inspired and drinking whiskey at your desk was against company policy. It was my job to write the report so I sat down at my desk and wrote it.

I now block out times in my diary for my ‘writing work’ and make sure that my friends and family know that it is indeed work. It isn’t free time or play time that can easily be cancelled so I can catch up for a coffee or pick up the dry-cleaning instead.

During these work times I force myself to sit down and write. I don’t find this easy. Even though I love writing, I always find it hard to start. I have to force myself to sit down and start writing every single time.

How do I motivate myself to start writing each day?

I give myself an easily achievable goal. I tell myself that all I need to do today is write 300 words and then, if I feel like it, I can stop. In most cases I get into the writing zone and I don’t want to stop and I usually write between 1000 and 2000 words each writing session.

Often these 300, 1000 or 2000 words are far from perfect. Many times I’ll write over them, re-write them, or delete them.

How do I manage writer’s block?

Lower my expectations. My writer’s block is caused by my internal editor deleting the words before they make it to the page. I turn off my internal editor and allow myself to write anything without judgement. You can’t edit a blank page so some words are always better than no words, regardless of the quality.

How long does it take to write a book?

30-Something and Over It took six months to write. I was fortunate to find a part-time job that paid enough to allow me to consult part-time and write part-time. I wrote two days during the week and half a day on the weekend. 30-Something and the Clock is Ticking took almost a year to write because I had much less time. I had three two-hour blocks of writing time each week and I also squeezed in time at night to write.

The path to publishing

It took six months for me to write 30-Something and Over It but it took over a year to get a publishing deal. I worked just has hard, if not harder, on getting published than I did on writing the book. I received over 200 rejections before somebody said yes, and some of the rejections were not very nice. It was certainly a character-building experience.

Why did I get an agent?

Getting an agent is a good idea because it’s often hard to get the attention of publishers, particularly if you are an unrepresented first-time author. If you send an unsolicited proposal or manuscript to a publisher it will go onto their ‘slush pile’ along with all the thousands of others waiting to be read. If an agent presents your proposal to a publisher the publisher is more likely to take notice of it. Agents also look after the business side of publishing such as negotiating the contract and making sure your royalties are paid.

How did I find an agent?

Finding an agent was hard. I nearly gave up many times. I sent out hundreds of query emails and proposals to agents in the US, UK, Australia and Canada. I kept trying until I found an agent who said yes (Thank you Graham Maw Christie!). Below are the websites I used to find literary agents. Many of the agents listed have their own websites that specify how they would like to receive your proposal and what they do and don’t want to see.




Why didn’t I self-publish?

The reason I didn’t self publish is that, like any product, there is so much that needs to be done aside from writing a manuscript. I didn’t have the contacts, skills or the desire to do everything that was necessary. For example, there are a whole team of people at Random House and Mainstream Publishing who worked hard to edit, proofread, design, market and promote my books and convince the bookstores to stock them. Stores don’t automatically stock every book so it needs to be sold to them. Publishers pay an advance when they buy your book so essentially they put some skin in the game and need to sell a certain number of copies to make their money back. The rights to my books have been sold into other countries. I could never have done this on my own.

But the biggest reason of all is that I want my books to be read.  On average, self-published books only sell a couple of hundred copies.

How much do authors earn?

Royalties varies enormously, depending on where and how the rights were sold, and how many copies you sell. Earnings are roughly between six and ten per cent of the jacket price.

Tips on getting published

1. Don’t think of your book as just a creative endeavour; it is also a product, just like any other. Think about why people would buy this product. How is your book different from any other in the bookstore?

2. Make sure you have something to say. The difference between my 30-Something books and all the other books I’ve tried to write is that I think I had something worth saying and the book was just the medium in which to say it. With my other books I tried to write (but failed miserably) I wanted to write a book more that I wanted to communicate something.

3. Keep going. Many people are writing books but a lot fewer actually finish them. Along the way I lost my confidence many times and was convinced I was writing utter rubbish but I just lowered my expectations and kept going and then fixed it up later.

4. When it comes time to find an agent or publisher, prepare yourself for rejection and just keep trying. You only need one person to say yes.  When I was dispirited and thinking about giving up my partner Chris said to me, ‘There are thousands of agents and publishers in the English speaking world, until you’ve tried every single one of them you haven’t finished.’

If you have any other questions about writing or publishing feel free to post them in the comments section below and I will answer them.

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