How to become a successful writer

One of the things people most often say when I tell them I’m a writer, is “Oh I’ve always dreamt of writing a book, but I don’t know where to start.” Or, “How did you do it, can I pick your brain?”. Or, “Can you actually make a living writing books nowadays?” Or, “My husband/wife/daughter/niece wants to become a writer, can you give them some tips?”. So instead of addressing all these things individually I thought, why not write a blog post! Here are my answers to these FAQs:

1. How can I get started as a writer?

Usually followed by, “I don’t have a writing degree/similar”. Well, neither do I. Yes, you can learn how to write a book in terms of structure and plot devision, but you can’t learn how to be a writer (in my opinion). All you can do is hone the skills you already have. So no, you absolutely don’t need a degree to become a writer, but what you DO need to do, is write. The only difference between an aspiring writer and an actual writer, is that the latter puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). It doesn’t have to be perfect – that’s what editing is for, but just write words on the page and keep on doing it. If you want to write, start writing!

2. What’s the best writing process?

This is going to be different from person to person and, for me, book to book. I’ve written a book with no structure at all and others with half a structure. My new book as the full structure and outline from start to finish. I started my new one by fleshing out characters and mood using Pinterest for visualisation boards and Spotify playlists to get into their minds and hearts. The writing came afterwards. If you’re someone who wants to feel secure in knowing where to go, having a chapter-by-chapter breakdown will maybe work better than free-flowing but bear in mind that inspiration can strike at any moment. Having flexibility to add unplanned plot twists or even new characters can be a good thing, too.

3. How can I keep myself on track? I’ve never finished a book.

Personally, I like to use word count goals. For each writing day, I total my word count so I can see the progress day by day and it gives me the motivation to continue (believe me, it really works). Also, the Pinterest and Spotify things I just mentioned aren’t just there as part of the writing process. They also make the whole thing more fun. Look, you probably won’t sit down and write every single day, and that’s ok! Inspiration comes and goes and real life gets in the way (plus, if you’re a person with a menstrual cycle you might find you have ALL of the writing vibes one week and then zero the next). Having music to listen to or a Pinterest board to refer to on those off-days will keep your book-world in your mind, so you won’t fall into the trap of leaving it to one side and never getting back into it. Another alternative might be to find a writing buddy. This can be a real, 3D connection or someone via social media who you can share progress with. They don’t have to be writing a book, maybe it’s a dissertation or something else, but having support can go a long way.

4. Should I self-publish or try and get a contract?

This question always throws me because it’s such an individual choice. First off, let me say, it’s not so easy to get a contract with a publisher (JK Rowling will attest to that) so I’d reframe the question as should you self-publish or submit to an agent. I’m going to write the process for each separately but for the purposes of answering this specific question: it depends. If you self-publish, you have all the freedom in the world. Your content, cover, book title, pricing – all of it is decided by you and you alone. The marketing will also fall to you alone, which can be a tough one to crack. When you go the ‘traditional’ route, you have the power of a (hopefully good) agent who can get your manuscript under the noses of publishers. And if you get a contract, you’ll get an advance which is always helpful, and deadlines to meet. Ideally your books will be in all the bookshops and so on. You’ll get the editor, the book designer and the marketing, but you’ll likely not have final say on things like cover, title etc. So, as I said, its personal preference. So, with that in mind, I’ll break down the publishing process next…

5. How can I self-publish my book?

Self-publishing is surprisingly easy but if you want to do it properly with any hope of making money, you’ll need to do it well. So firstly, you’ve written THE END. Well done. Now the work begins. I would highly recommend finding a good editor to (at the very least) proof for grammatical/spelling errors. In the best case, someone who can do a structural edit too. You’ll also need someone to design your cover (I always used the amazing Naj Qamber) because even though you can do them yourself pretty easily these days, a crap cover won’t get you any sales. When Kindle first launched, self-publishing had a bad rep because of the huge number of poorly edited books with clip art covers. Nowadays, that won’t work. Invest a little money in getting your manuscript in top shape. For the tech aspect of formatting your e-book or paperback, as well as info on how to set up newsletters, social media etc, I can massively recommend Catherine Ryan Howard’s Self-Printed. It’s an amazing, easy to use guide that covers everything. You could pay someone to do all of it for you but, personally, it was empowering to do it myself. Marketing-wise, you could contact bloggers for blog tours, local newspapers or anything else that springs to mind to get your book out there. There really aren’t any limits to what you can do, so if you’re someone who’s great with marketing or social media – go at it! People usually feel short-changed when I tell them all this, like they expected it to be super-duper hard to self-publish. It’s not. Challenging, maybe. Frustrating, certainly (especially with formatting) but impossible? No.

6. How can I get a contract with an agent and publisher?

Ok, so you still want to see your books in Waterstones and WH Smith’s. You’re going to need an agent. A lot of agents actually scour the online charts to find self-published books that are already doing well and offer contracts that way. There are a whole lot of agencies out there, some great and some not-so-great. It can feel like needle in a haystack syndrome, so my advice? Who are your favourite authors (within the same genre you’re writing in)? Their agents (if they’re agented) are a good place to start. Most agencies have a number of agents who then specialise in different things. There’s no point submitting your steamy romance novel to someone who deals exclusively with detective thrillers. Check websites and the agents to see if they’re a match, and if they’re open to submissions (many have full lists already). If you find your perfect agent and they’re open to submissions – GREAT. Now you can begin. They’ll likely have submission guidelines online but the general rule is to send a letter/email introducing yourself, the first three chapters of your novel/book and a synopsis (this is an outline of your book detailing plot and characters). These three things will help them to find out who you are, what you write and most importantly, how you write. It goes without saying, what you submit must be flawless – proof thoroughly for mistakes because that just isn’t a good look. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t submit to all of the world’s agents at once. It’s not only impolite but you might find yourself in a jam if you get multiple call-backs. Bear in mind though, it can take weeks to get a response – they’ll usually say how long it’ll take on their website. Oh, and super important, you will never ever ever have to pay anything to an agent. If you get an offer for representation and you’re being asked to pay something in return, give them a very wide berth. Your agent will make their money by landing you a contract and taking commission on the contract total and royalties (around 15%).

7. My book keeps getting rejected. What should I do?

Well, the practical thing to do is to look at your feedback (if you’re lucky enough to get it). Is there a fundamental flaw in your structure? Or is it a super typical storyline that’s been done to death? Maybe it’s too ahead of its time or fits into a very small niche. These are things that can be worked on or, if you don’t want to work on them, you can simply self-publish instead and continue to submit as you go. But the absolute best thing you can do with each rejection, is to throw the letter away (or keep it if you’re into that kind of thing) and not take it personally. Publishing is super competitive and unless you’ve got something that’s brand new and never been seen before or an exceptionally strong story, it’s going to take a lot of dedication, perseverance and thick skin. And those aren’t bad qualities to develop, really.

Is there anything else you’d like to know about writing? Drop me a comment and let me know!

Natalie Martin is a bestselling Women’s Fiction author with a passion for empowering women through story, embodied yoga and self-development and mindset coaching.

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