Recently I took part in an event at the University of Derby called ‘Foot in the Door’, a panel-based workshop aimed at aspiring writers, with a view to providing practical information on making writing a career.

It was a really cool event, and I think a lot of the students (not just from the university) got something very worthwhile out of it.

Some of the questions put to the panel crop up regularly in any writer’s life, and I think it’s worth sharing some of the discussion here. Note that these aren’t just my responses, but a general consensus between myself and fellow panellists Anne Zouroudi and Jane Linfoot.

How did you first come to be published?

There are quite a few variations on this theme, and we all agreed that you can ditch the usual protocols if you plan on exploring digital routes to market, or even if you’d rather work on licenced fiction (like novelizations of movies, or Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint, for instance). But the usual way to get published is this:

  1. Write a full manuscript. Finished, edited, polished as best as you can make it, and make sure other people have read it and that you’ve listened to their feedback.
  2. Only when that’s done can you start to look for an agent. Buy the latest copy of the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. Identify a handful of agents (maybe half a dozen to start with) who are specialists in your chosen genre. Follow their submission guidelines VERY carefully to avoid ending up in the trash. If they want a covering letter/email, spellcheck it to death. If they want 3 chapters, don’t send them the whole book, and so on.
  3. Give the first batch of agents a reasonable length of time (up to 3 months) before submitting to further agents.
  4. Do not take rejection personally – fiction is subjective, and it’s all part of the learning curve. I had one well-known agent tell me the Lazarus Gate was ‘boring’. The very next week I had two other agents say they loved it and were interested in seeing more.
  5. If you have more than one offer, pick the agent you like the best, but also bear in mind their stable of authors. Check the contract. Sign on the line. And wait… The agent will go away and sell your book. It might take a week. It might take a year. You might get offered a six-figure sum. Most likely it’ll be four. Patience, padawan. Your time will come.

Was there a change in attitude – necessary or voluntary – that you had to take once your first book was out?

God, yes. Once book one is edited and prepping for publication, there’s a very good chance you’ll already be writing book two. Now it all gets very real: whether you’re a full-time writer, or propping up the writing with a full-time job, you need to hit your deadlines. Worst-case scenario, there are financial penalties for being late (although they are rarely enforced, best not push it by being unreliable).

Most people write their first book in their spare time. It takes ages (Lazarus took me 2 years). But when you sign a multi-book deal, publishers want one book a year, same time every year. No excuses. Get cracking. NOW!

I worked in magazines for nearly 15 years before becoming a full-time writer. That means I feed off the energy of deadline week. But if you’re the kind of person who hates pressure, then the best favour you can do yourself is to get organised, and write steadily rather than do it all in a frenzy at the end.

How did you find that marketing side of things once the book was released? Is there any advice you would give to aspiring authors in that respect?

Be prepared to spend a *lot* of time promoting the book. Publicists might support and facilitate, but they won’t do it for you. In this day and age writers need a social media presence. You’ll probably be invited to panels, and readings, and book launches. As most writers are introverts at heart, this bit can be terrifying. Thankfully, event organisers and more experienced writers will almost always take you under their wing, and honestly, you might never grow to love it, but you’ll learn how to do it, and that’s nine tenths of the battle.

One note that came up: Also be prepared for sales department pressure on your book content, sometimes more so than editorial. Comments like ‘readers really liked that character, can you bring him back from the dead in the next book please?’ are sadly all-too common. And not always negotiable…

Is there anything about being a professional, published author that has come as a real surprise?

Multiple contracts are no guarantee of further contracts – it’s absolutely true that you’re only as good as your last book. Think several books ahead – where is your next sale going to come from?

What words of advice you would give to authors looking to get published and established?

My word of advice was this: It’s very hard to get rich in the writing game these days. The days of the ‘mid-list-author’ are pretty much finished, and it’s quite telling that many of the superstar novelists we know today have been superstar novelists for decades – they made it big when it was still fairly commonplace to do so, and the marketplace wasn’t so packed. This isn’t meant to be negative: there’s still room to carve your niche. But don’t write just to make money. You’ll only end up following trends and writing stuff you think will sell, rather than make good art. Write what you’d like to read, and what you’re inspired by, and you’ll find an agent and editor who love it and are also inspired by it.

There you have it – a whistle-stop round-up of the discussion, and only my personal recollections. Similar events take place up and down the country on a fairly regular basis. If you’ve been thinking seriously about turning writing into a career, I’d highly recommend checking them out.