If you could choose anything at all, what job would you most love to do? When that question is asked in polls, the suggestion that comes top of the list tends to be that of Writer.
Of course, a lot of people may have a slightly romantic picture of what writers actually do. Few of us these days live in garrets. We don’t mostly dress in black, smoke unfiltered French cigarettes and have gloomily unrequited love affairs and/or an addiction to strong alcohol. On the other hand, my day job does indeed involve sitting at a computer and just making stuff up. When everything comes together perfectly – when story, character and writing are in perfect alignment – I feel genuinely honored to be the vessel for the novel. And when I feel that way, readers normally like the novels I write.
But writing is also a tough game. Agents reject 999 in every 1,000 manuscripts that come their way. Even when agents agree to take on a particular manuscript, their chances of achieving a good book deal might be as low as 1 in 2, or 1 in 3. Publishers these days offer low advances – or rather, they were always low, but they’ve been getting lower. And so on.
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Those facts would scare you off if you thought about writing the way you might think about an accountancy qualification, for example, but of course no writer is like that. Writers write from passion. They write because they can’t bear to do anything else. And if that describes you, the burning question is, How do you start? How do you equip yourself with the skills needed to survive in this exceptionally difficult industry?
The first piece of the answer is that you need to realize from the very start that the books industry is an industry. It sells products to customers. You need to think the same way. You need to become a different sort of reader. You need to start understanding why certain novels sell, and why others don’t. It’s not that you want to copy what others do, it’s that you need to enhance your reading skills. Make them more professional, more attuned to the market.
Secondly, you need a killer idea. You need a concept that can be explained in twenty seconds. A concept that almost puts your novel into a reader’s hand. A school for wizards. A search for the Holy Grail. A crime story featuring a computer genius with Asperger’s Syndrome. If your concept is just too samey, it will never lure a publisher – or at least you’ve doubled the heights of the barrier you’ll have to overcome.
Third, you need the right skills. You need to know how to write clean, strong, evocative prose. How to put your characters together, do they seem active and lifelike. How to tell a story that keeps moving, that maintains the reader’s interest at every point.
Some writers seem to know these things by instinct, but mostly they grope to a kind of expertise through a vast amount of trial and error. I know one – bestselling, award-winning author – who has got more unpublished novels in his bottom drawer than published novels on the shelf above. His learning process reached the desired result, but it could certainly have got there more quickly.
The very best way to learn the necessary skills is to take a creative writing course. A good course will walk you through all the skills you need to know and get you to start practicing good habits early. You should look for a tutor who is a published professional author with a credible track record. You should look for a course that doesn’t just push course materials at you – you need one that will set demanding exercises and give you real, personalized feedback.
If you live in a major city, you may find good quality writing courses near you, but your best bet is probably to explore online writing courses, which – these days – are far more flexible and can be structured around your life and your writing.
Finally, if your ambition is to write a novel, then I’d strongly recommend a course that actually sets out to teach how to write a novel. That sounds amazingly obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many creative writing courses teach you how to be creative but don’t teach the art of writing a novel. They’re two different things, and the second one is tougher.
Writing is a hard game, but it’s also wonderful. I personally wouldn’t want any job other than the one I have.
Harry Bingham is a bestselling author who also runs the Writers’ Workshop, an editorial consultancy for new writers.
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