This week, I was interviewed by the beautiful Emma Barfield on her podcast, Alchemise This, and we spoke about how to claim space. The author world is notoriously difficult to break into, and I’ve been very open about my own struggles on this journey. It’s hard for me to imagine that just a few months ago I pushed my author life into a metaphorical black hole, and claiming that back has been the on of the most gorgeous thing to happen this year.
You can listen here (or via any other podcast provider).
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!
August, 2016. I’m in Bielefeld, central Germany, having found the perfect writing place – a gorgeous little cafe with amazing food, creamy coffee and plenty of sunshine streaming through the window. My mood is good, and I’ve got the entire day in front of me to do nothing but write. The words should be flowing through my fingers with ease but instead, I spend an entire day staring at a blank screen. I write an email to my agent, telling him I need to take a break. Get some distance from the storyline, potentially change it even.
They say you should write what you know. But I knew nothing about mental illness. I’d never experienced it, nor lived with anyone with any kind of mental illness to speak of and yet, I’d chosen to write a book about Bipolar disorder. At that time in my life, everything was golden. How could I possibly put myself in the shoes of someone dealing with a shift in their mental health? Call it life imitating art, or maybe art imitating life, but two months later, the languid ease of carefree nomadic life came to a screeching halt when my partner burnt out. Suddenly, days were no longer about exploring the world and cramming as much fun in as possible. They were about survival. Navigating panic attacks, depression and isolation. Feeling utterly helpless while still trying to hold a life together. Even in the midst of all he was going through, Simon had gifted me membership at our local yoga studio with the words, “you can’t break too”. Yoga became my lifeline, giving me time to reflect and process everything that was happening. I read all the books I could about burnout and the associated extras like depression and anxiety, and somewhere along the line came the thought:
‘Holy shit. Wasn’t this exactly what you’d been struggling to articulate in words just a few months ago?’
Three months later, the book was finished and sent off to my agent. At the same time, I’d decided to go back to India for another yoga teacher training. Something had shifted after realising just how important my practice was for me, and Simon was on the road to recovery. My book wasn’t contracted, so I decided to self-publish What Goes Down and after uploading it to Kindle, I felt nothing short of relief. It had been an incredibly tough book to write with all that was going on. To celebrate, Simon bought me a bottle of champagne and we gladly toasted the end of the chapter.
I flew to India that very same week. It was time for the next phase of life…
Being back in India with 6 weeks stretched out ahead of me was pure tonic. Waking at 5:30am every day, practicing yoga, breath-work and meditation for 4 hours a day, immersing myself in philosophy and being in bed by 9pm replenished my soul. I was in daily contact with Simon, who’d just started a carpentry apprenticeship and while I wished he could’ve been there with me, I knew it was something I had to do by myself. I needed to be broken apart so I could put myself back together again. For the first time, I opened myself up to Kundalini and energy work, and something shifted. Being in a group of inspiring women every single day made me realise that I’d been craving female sisterhood. And, was capable of so much more than I gave myself credit for. In one class, I managed a drop-back (this is when you arch backwards from standing until your hands touch the floor behind you). I was utterly terrified, but I did it. And I realised that I was strong, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. I went back to Germany feeling grounded and stable and ready to teach.
I’d already experienced during my first teacher training that doing so much inner and spiritual work had somehow heightened my senses when I’d had a vision of Simon who was in Nepal at the time. I’d had the feeling he was in trouble and it turned out he’d almost died while wandering around the in the mountainous forest (oh, how exciting we were back then). So when I came back from India this time, I felt open, like a walking antennae. It was a crisp November day and as I was walking home from work, I had the vision of Christmas being a few weeks away and how someone always died at Christmas time. My grandad came clearly into my mind and I pushed the thought away because he was the healthiest man I knew. A couple of weeks later, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and my heart broke.
For the next two years, life was all about yoga and rooting myself in spirituality. There was just so much to learn and experience, that there was little time for anything else. I didn’t look at What Goes Down at all. No checking for stats on Amazon, or checking for reviews. It was as if the act of publishing it had pushed it from my being in a way that was so total, it barely existed for me. I read no fiction and had zero desire to write. Honestly, it all seemed a bit trivial to write about love. Summer 2019 saw me backwards and forwards to England. My grandad was getting worse and I knew I only had one more chance to see him. He was in so much pain, barely able to speak. I laid on the bed with him, hugging him and letting him know he could go if he needed to. He died less than a week later and the next day, I was at a pre-planned yoga festival being surrounded by so much love. It didn’t feel so trivial then. It felt like the most important thing in the world. Within 6 weeks, I lost my other Grandad to prostate cancer and had to wonder if the universe was playing some kind of cosmic joke. What kept me stable, apart from Simon, was my practice of yoga and self-development. It helped so much to understand that it was okay to feel everything I was feeling, to use it to make my life really and truly count.
I’d gotten a job in the cafe where I used to sit and write, and lived the stereotypical life of yoga teacher and barista. And it was perfect. I love nothing more than providing space for my students to just let their shit go, to step out of their lives and whatever is going on, and give themselves uninterrupted time to be with themselves. To find their inner power. I started running workshops and retreats and when anyone asked what I did, I’d tell them I teach yoga. I might have sometimes mentioned that I used to write, but was on hiatus. For how long? Who knew. What I did know, was that yoga and self-development were enriching my life in ways I really never thought possible. I was meeting the most amazing people and doing something that helped others while helping me at the same time. I had no time to write.
And yet, my mind kept on returning to the story of two women, torn apart by a man, who never see each other again. In rare moments, I’d sit and think about them, creating Pinterest boards and playlists. My heart was starting to yearn for that creation of another world, to birth new people into being. But I couldn’t see how to marry my love of writing with my love of yoga and besides, What Goes Down hadn’t been picked up. It was a book that had taken so much for me to write but compared to my other two bestsellers, it was nowhere near as successful. I’d been scarred. And I was scared. 2020 was supposed to be a year full of yoga retreats and workshops, and then came Covid.
No more workshops and retreats. No more cafe. And a whole lot of time.
The one copy of What Goes Down that I had in paperback stared at me from my bookshelf. I slid it out, ran my fingers across the cover, and opened the book. Was it any good? Could I really go back to writing? To pour my heart and soul into another project? I delved into Seph’s world again and realised, without any ego, that I am a good writer. Really good, in fact. And maybe What Goes Down was my equivalent of a dodgy third album as far as big publishers were concerned, but for me, it’s my best book. It’s the rawest, the deepest, the most real. I was bolstered by reading my writing. I could do it again and if my yoga and self-development journey had taught me anything – if losing my granddads had taught me anything – it was that love is as important a topic as any. Love is the thing – it’s what we’re here for. When asked for my opinion on the meaning of life, my response was and always will be, love. And so I sat down and tentatively started the story of Ivy and Jess, the two women torn apart by love.
We’re always taught to keep things separate. To fit in specified boxes according to gender, sexuality, career. But we’re multi-dimensional beings and constraining ourselves in this way leads to so much suffering. Being able to step back into my other life of writing makes my other life of empowering women through yoga and self-development feel so much more rooted. It’s empowering to finally be able to be, me. To embrace every faucet and passion and skill.
It’s been a long, long time coming, but I am super stoked to share the cover for What Goes Down AND even more so to announce that it’ll be out on 28th September! 🎉 You can PRE-ORDER your copy here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0755ZZQTY…
I’m also sending out Advance Review Copies (ARC’s) in the next few days. If you’re a blogger and can leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads, get in touch!
Seph Powell has all she ever wanted: a close family, loving boyfriend and her dream career. A gifted artist with a highly anticipated exhibition just weeks away, her life seems to be perfect. Until a man she’s never met claims to be her real father.
Laurel and Tony Powell are devoted parents. Having worked hard to provide everything for their daughter, they’ve created an enviable, picture-perfect family. Until Laurel’s ex-boyfriend, Nico, comes back into their lives.
In the summer of 1987, Nico stole Laurel’s heart with promises of adventure and excitement. But when he disappeared without trace, he left her as a single, teenaged parent. Now, twenty-five years later, he’s back and keen to meet the daughter he left behind.
But Nico’s sudden reappearance shows that nothing is quite as it first seems. And as long hidden truths are exposed, everything Seph thought she knew about her life begins to unravel.
COMING 28TH SEPTEMBER 2017. Pre-order your copy now!
There are certain milestones in publishing, and this is one of them! I’m super stoked to share the blurb for Book Three: What Goes Down. I’m soon excited about this one and would love to hear what y’all think!
Still no info as to a release date just yet, but you’ll be the first to know when I do!