One of my Wattpad fans asked if they could interview me for a school project on writers. I was delighted to oblige of course. Her questions were so good I decided to post the whole interview on my website:
When did you begin writing? Did you ever doubt yourself and stop writing? What made you continue?
As a youngster, I always wanted to be an author, mainly because I was in love with reading. However, I was discouraged by practically everyone: my parents because they wanted me to have a solid career that earned a steady income (their dream for me), my teachers because my spelling was atrocious – it later turned out that I was a bit dyslexic; my friends because they didn’t love reading like I did and couldn’t understand.
Later, while I was working as a project manager for a major bank, I found myself doing a lot of commuting by train. Having discovered that computers could level the playing field in terms of spelling, I bought myself a second-hand laptop and decided to challenge myself to use the spare time to write a novel. Up until then I had never written anything since leaving school.
Were you supported in pursuing writing as a career?
No. As I said my parents had other plans and the technology did not exist for me to overcome my spelling issues.
My wife kind of tolerates my obsession with writing rather than actively supporting it – she really doesn’t get fiction at all (very sad), so doesn’t see the point. My children, on the other hand, think it is brilliant to have a dad who is an author.
How many years did it take to write and publish your first novel?
Six. But you will see as I answer the rest of your questions that it is not a straight forward answer.
How many years of schooling/study prepared you for being an author? Are there any areas of the job that you feel you were not prepared for?
I knew absolutely nothing about the craft of writing, editing, publishing, marketing, or storytelling. I started from scratch with no idea of what I was doing and learned mainly by trial and error. It took me nine years before I felt confident enough to call myself a writer/novelist and believe I could do this thing commercially.
Creative Writing degrees are becoming popular in the UK. If I was a youngster starting out to be a writer now, this is definitely something I consider. Just having a few years in which to experiment and find my voice would be such a luxury.
Where do you draw inspiration for your writing?
My mind just produces all sorts of stories and characters, my difficulty is just concentrating on the one I’m working on. Reading and TV, obviously, are fertile areas for story generation. But my favourite place is Wattpad. Young writers have such lively, creative, imaginative ideas before we educate it out of them. Wattpad is chock full of brilliant story concepts and characters. Some are incredibly badly written, but the ideas themselves are fascinating and trigger all sorts of story ideas in my mind, others are mind-bogglingly well written.
Is there a specific way you overcome writer’s block?
Yes, do something else. If I tell you not to think about the black cat, I bet you start thinking about a black cat. It is amazing how creative your mind can be when you give it permission to focus on another issue. Go for a walk, see a friend, write about something else, come back to the story when you are ready.
For a long time I struggled with creating concept stories, I kept getting too close to the characters to get a handle on the whole story. Then someone suggested that at the concept stage you should only think about the characters in stereotypical terms: the king, the prince, the knight, the villain etc. Taking this step away from my actual characters helped me unblock the concept and get an overview of the story.
What was the most difficult obstacle to overcome in being published?
This is not an easy question to answer as the field of publishing has changed so much over the period I have been writing.
Getting a literary agent to take me on was the biggest obstacle initially. But also being a rubbish writer with unrealistic dreams didn’t help. The stuff I sent off to literary agents was not only unpublishable, but had no mass-market appeal. However, I did not realise this at the time.
During the time I was learning the craft of writing the internet and social media was developing rapidly. Over a ten year period, self-publishing moved from a vanity project for failed writers to a legitimate career choice, maybe even a preferred publishing route, for novelists and writers.
The internet also caused traditional publishers to contract, consolidate, and cut marketing budgets, making it even harder to get published unless you already had a platform (fame/celebrity/notoriety) or your story had mass market and international appeal. Many traditional publishers won’t even consider a book unless the agent has already secured an option for film rights.
The big hurdles of finding a literary agent to take you on, the agent being able to sell your story to a publisher, the story having a large enough mass-market appeal for the publisher to invest money in marketing, do not apply to self-publishing on the internet. Instead, the author can publish for a niche market of readers, build their own platform (following/fan base) through social media, and make a decent income from just writing more books for that niche market – it is estimate that just 1000 – 4000 real fans are enough to make a liveable income.
These days agents are just as likely to trawl through internet sites like Wattpad looking for talent as they are to take submissions.
Also, most publishers will now only offer six months of marketing support for a book. After that writers are generally expected to do their own publicity and marketing via social media. In that regard there is very little difference between published and self-published authors when it comes to publicity.
Did you ever find the odds of being published discouraging? If so, what/who convinced you to continue?
The odds of being published are not only slim, but are decreasing everyday, as publishers continue to cut margins and increasing numbers of people try their hand at writing – writing is the new gold rush.
Every time I walked into a book shop I would come out depressed, ‘How could I possibly compete with all these brilliant authors?’ In the end I tried to avoid bookshops and stopped writing.
A book called ‘Write. Publish. Repeat.’ By Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant, convinced me I didn’t have to compete, and crystalized everything I was already learning about self-publishing on the internet.
Who encouraged me to continue writing? All my fans who enjoyed reading about my characters online: initillaly an online writing group, which I outgrew, and then my fans on Wattpad, who provided lots of encouragement just when I needed it most.
After publishing a novel, how do you make the next work different knowing it might not be received as well as the one before?
Unless you are writing literary fiction and competing for international prizes, I don’t think this is much of an issue. Basically, you just write more of the same: keep the same characters, but give them new situations and challenges to deal with. I think that concentrating on the characters, their challenges and developments removes the fear of a second book failure.
The main challenge of a second book is finding the time to write while marketing your previous book.
In self-publishing, there is also the challenge to produce a better product than your last book. A portion of my profits always needs to be reinvested to produce a better product for next time. I have taught myself how to create covers, format, and produce book-trailer videos, but also, just like a commercial publisher, I find myself having to employ other people to edit, proofread, advise, and do some of the jobs at which I am not good.
Would you say there are disruptions to everyday life caused by your job? If so, what are the most troublesome?
This question should be the other way around for me. I am a part-time writer, because I do not yet make enough money from writing to pay all the bills. I therefore have to prioritise making money in other ways in order to support myself and my family.
The biggest problem for me in pursuing a writing career, is finding enough time to actually write, because it has to be squeezed in between the other part-time jobs I need to do to survive. In addition to all the other jobs, and my family, I am also on the leadership team of my church, and a part-time preacher, all of which takes precious time.
If I was not passionate about writing I would never find the time to do any more books.
What are some of the major benefits to being a writer? Do these benefits outweigh the negatives that accompany the job?
Benefits: You can live in a fantasy world with imaginary friends and get paid for doing it. Also, earning money by pursuing a passionate hobby is just great.
And the freedom: having been a wage slave in commercial companies, it is nice to be your own boss and not have others trying to steer your career, constantly assess you by their standards, and make decisions that dictate what you do.
Also, since suffering a mental breakdown, writing helps me to manage the symptoms I have to live with on a daily basis. These days I tell people that I write to remain sane.
Negatives: Writing can be a very lonely existence, so make sure you have real friends, plan to get out every day, keep fit, and plan a social life.
Very little money, the average successful writer makes about the same as a small business owner. Most writers make a lot less, so part-time jobs are necessary (but they do help with the social life).
Writing a novel means a lot of hard work without any return until it is completed and with no guarantee of success at the end. And there is no prospect of any real income until you have a series of three novels under your belt.
I’m passionate about writing, so yes, the benefits do outweigh the negatives.
What advice would you give to young writers looking to be published? Or to writers simply trying to improve their writing?
The most important thing, if you aspire to be a writer, is BOS (bum on seat). Sit down (or stand) and write regularly – every day if possible. What you write is not really important. Fan fiction is as good a place as any.
Find your voice. This is a matter of finding a writing style that flows naturally for you and develops from regular writing. It involves your use of vocabulary, use of grammar, and the way you construct sentences and dialog. Learn the rules, then break them creatively until it all ‘clicks’. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different styles, points of view, types of story, genre, writing tenses, characters etc. In fact, the more you experiment the better. Realising you have a voice to your writing is a real confidence booster – it is a style unique to you.
Critique other people’s writing. This is the most important thing for any writer looking to improve. Amazingly, you will learn far more about your own writing by feeding back on other people’s. All those mistakes you dislike in someone else’s writing you find you are already making in your own. But be positive, always: advising someone how to improve their writing helps you see your own writing style more clearly.
Remember, the craft is not in the writing, but in the re-writing and editing.
If you are serious about being published, I would recommend ignoring all the conventional wisdom and just go ahead and do it. Other than a brilliant writer or a brilliantly unique story concept, publishers are only really seeking someone safe in which to invest their money. For this they need three things:
- Someone who can build a platform (fan-base/presence).
- Someone who can market themselves.
- Someone who can produce regular, reliable, consistent writing.
The tools to prove you have these attributes are already available to you on the internet, at no cost:
- Start posting stories on Wattpad, Jukepop, another app, or your own free website and show you can attract a fan base.
- Pick a social network and create a ‘Myname-author’ or ‘Mypenname-author’ account, concentrate on one or maybe two social media only. Write a blog/articles that relate to your writing, writing subject or story world, to show you can create an internet presence: so articles on your characters/writing world/favourite band/sport/how to be a good friend/survive at school/anything that interests you etc.
- Show you can market yourself by regularly publicising your writing/new chapters/blog entries/articles, and farming your chosen social media to grow your followers. The aim is to attract people to your social media account and then interest them in your writing.
- Fan fiction is great as a beginning, but at some point you need to show you can create your own characters, your own story world, and your own story. If you struggle with this, don’t be afraid to adapt what someone else has done – remember the old adage: ‘Good writers borrow; great writers steal’. Your adaption will soon take on a life of its own once you get to know your characters. Then start writing, and writing, and writing – regularly, reliably, consistently.
- If you are applying the above four steps, then you are doing it—you are acting like a published author, and proving to a potential publisher that they can safely invest their money in you.
The only thing you are not doing is selling your books, but you can create ebooks and do that too if you like. I would suggest aiming to complete three full novels in a series before approaching agents/publishers (have you noticed how close together serials are published these days). If they take you on, brilliant; if not, keep writing, keep working the social media, keep growing your presence, keep expanding your following, and sell ebooks.
Do you have any regrets about becoming a writer?
Apart from the late nights? The early mornings? Waking up in the middle of the night needing to scribble down an idea? Constantly checking twitter to see how many followers I have? Suddenly realising I should have walked away from the keyboard and collected the kids? Or cooked the evening meal? No. I love every aspect of it, otherwise I would not keep going.
Nick Travers dystopian steampunk adventure, Gaia’s Brood is available from Amazon.