3 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started Writing
Hello. My name is Jono and I’m a writer.
Once you’ve gone down that slippery slope, you can never, fully, go back. You will always be a writer. Published or not.
I once explained to a friend that writing my first show felt like having my own child and wanting the best life for it.
I had created it. I wanted the world to see it. I wanted it to see the world.
That doesn’t change. I have folders of songs heard only by me; notebooks of ideas left unexplored; scripts written, developed, but never performed. My first book is on the seventh draft and I'm already editing the sequel, even though only two people have ever read book 1.
I turn down paid work when I’d rather be writing. Then, I can’t write because I worry that I should be out working. Like thousands before me and thousands still to follow, I chase the elusive dream of writing success – in whatever form that may be.
In the ten years since I began writing, here are three things I wish I’d known before starting out:
1. Never submit a first draft. To anyone.
Write with the sure knowledge that you will not get it right first time. The challenge is to finish the idea – get your first draft down as quickly as you can and then prepare for two of the biggest hurdles known to any writer – the edits and the re-writes.
When I finished my first book, having stalled many times on the way, I sat back, did a quick proof-read and then started sending my manuscript to all the big literary agents I could find via Google. As my inbox began to ping with the gentle sound of rejection, I tinkered and submitted some more.
Seven years later, the same manuscript has benefited from countless changes and the insightful criticism of a freelance editor. My bank balance is lighter, but my text is irrefutably stronger. The book has a new name. The holes have been plugged. There’s a prologue and the third chapter has all but disappeared completely.
And I have begun resubmitting to agents.
But here’s the rub – no agent wants to receive a manuscript that they’ve already rejected, regardless of how much better you feel it is now. You had your one shot with them, and you blew it. Your first-choice agents saw your work at its worst and are off your list.
2. The Elevator Pitch
There will come a time when someone you meet will ask you what your book is about. You have approximately twenty seconds to hook them.
They call it the Elevator Pitch – the time you’d have travelling between floors to sell your idea to your dream person, should you ever be lucky enough to find yourself in a lift with them.
“Oh, you’re a writer? What’s your story about?”
You think – who is this person – what do they want me to say – will they like that type of book – will they think it’s a stupid idea – will they understand why you’ve written it – will they…
…oh, they’ve got out of the lift.
Know what your story is and be ready to tell anyone at any opportunity. Be confident and remember - if they don’t like it, think it’s stupid or don’t understand it, well… they’re getting out of the elevator and you probably never have to see them again.
You leave the elevator no poorer than when you entered.
3. The Great Wall of Silence
You’ve finished a draft. The next thing you have to do is to show it to someone. You need another opinion – whether you’re sending it to a family member, friend, or submitting to literary agents.
It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done as a writer; spending hours creating something I care deeply about and then giving it to someone else. It’s also the only way the work will ever be read by anyone other than yourself.
Firstly, family don’t count. In the same way that gathering relatives at the Stage Door will always tell their loved ones how wonderful their performance was, those closest to you are more likely to be supportive than objective. Fans of the early X Factor shows will remember the auditions where tone-deaf sons and daughters’ parents were convinced Simon and Louis didn’t know what they were talking about as they rejected their little darlings.
So, let’s ignore them – sure, let family read it if you want them to, but don’t get carried away by anything they say.
Friends are busy people. They may have great intentions of reading your book but then they go quiet. You’re now in that awkward place. Did they forget? Did they get bored? Did they think it was the worst story they’d ever had to stagger through? You hope it was the first, but you daren’t ask in case it was the last. So, you go quiet. You never mention it again and neither do they. You remain friends. And you never know.
And then, the Literary Agent. The Holy Grail of writing – hooking someone with the connections in the publishing world to champion your book and get it on the shelf. I have every respect for these people – every day their inbox must fill with more hopeful submissions. They have a tiny window of opportunity to sift through every plea for recognition – they can’t save us all, nor will we all deserve saving.
The killer with all of this, for the writer is the great wall of silence. For each of us, we are ready for a response the minute we press send. The reality is that we have to wait, quite often for up to three months – knowing that some agents will have time to reply, even with a rejection, while others will not.
Multiply that by the number of submissions you make, and you could be waiting longer than it took you to write the book in the first place. Many published authors will tell you they submitted to over one hundred agents before one finally liked what they read enough to take them on.
That’s a lot of waiting and a lot of silence.
4. Beware of the Vanity-Publishing Vultures
Okay, I know the list said ‘three things’ but this final note’s important, so you can have it for free. You're welcome.
In all your desperation and addiction to writing, beware. There are some companies, often in the guise of Independent Publishers, who will respond enthusiastically within days of your submission gushing about your talent and how they can offer you the publishing deal you so dearly seek.
I got two such responses, both offering contracts on the basis of three chapters (the first clue!) – one even came by post with a big glossy brochure and made me feel very important.
Both wanted a fee to publish – they pointed out how I was a risk as a debut author and therefore needed to share some of the costs. Approximately £3,500 of the costs. In return all the contract promised was they would do their best to promote the book, provide me with a few personal copies, and yet own the rights for any future publishing.
The reality was that they could choose to publish just ten copies, take my money and then do absolutely nothing to get my book out there, while preventing me from ever marketing it myself.
A Google check on each company, with the words ‘vanity publisher’ soon revealed how many people these two companies (both listed as Independent Publishers) had fleeced in the past.
That’s not to say they are doing anything illegal – they will do exactly what they say in the contract – but they are unlikely to do any more than their legal obligations.