Sunday, May 1, 2011

So you want to write? 7 tips for the aspiring writer

I got in touch with an old friend on email a few days ago, and it was wonderful catching up after more than ten years. One thing we chatted about a lot was writing. He has just started writing the first draft of his first novel and wanted some tips on how to take it forward. In particular, he had no idea of how to get it published and also how to actually see it through and finish it, given the demands of his day job. Should he take time off? Did I know any publishers who could help him? As if on cue, the same day, I received an email from a reader who has also finished his novel and is now `in the market', asking for advice on how to find a publisher.

I am hardly an expert on the subject, but as they say, have been there and done that, so thought I'd share some thoughts for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the sometimes little understood world of professional writing. Note the emphasis on professional- if writing is a hobby you want to pursue, scribbling poems or stories for your own satisfaction, go ahead- but if you want to actually be published, and pursue it as a professional ie. where someone pays you to do it, it's a whole different ball game. Here are five tips for my friends and anyone else who wants to write for a living. Even if you don't have any intention of writing, I hope it helps to demystify the world of writing.

1. Don't give up your day job…yet.

Sometimes people believe that being a published author must mean you earn millions. If only. The reality is that of course some authors do get huge advances and sell millions, but for the vast majority of writers, writing is something they have to do on top of their day jobs. So, if you're starting out on writing, don't go and piss off your Boss at your day job- you may need to keep that job after all. Also, if you know a writer, cut him/her some slack and buy the drinks once in a while- they aren't as rich as you may think. I said `yet' because, while certainly your first novel won't earn you a huge bundle (unless you are exceptionally lucky and exceptionally good), it all adds up. You keep earning royalties years later, you sell subsidiary rights, you sell movie rights, you sell language rights, you put your ebooks up on Amazon, and yes, you write more books- and soon, you discover that you've entered a virtuous cycle where your earnings go up exponentially every year. You may not be able to leave your day job anytime soon, but there is light at the end of the tunnel- just have realistic expectations as you start off, and hang in there for the long run.

2. Don't pay a cent to get published- that's not how it works

A very common pitfall for the young writer desperate to get their work in print is that they get taken for a ride. By unscrupulous agents who charge `reading' fees, and by publishers who ask the authors to pay for the `privilege' of being published. Sure there will be those wolves out there- but that's not how the real world of publishing works. Have pride in your work, and have pride in wanting to be a professional writer. If all you want is to somehow see your book in print, go ahead, but if you want to create a writing career, stay away from these offers. You hire an agent by paying a % of sales to sell your work- no self-respecting agent will charge you to just take you on- but take a % once you've sold your work. No self-respecting publisher will charge you to publish your work- that's called vanity publishing, your book will likely never be seen in a store (what's their incentive? They've already made their profit) and they will never market it. If you do find that getting a traditional publisher is tough- don't fall for this- self-publish or go digital - just put it up on the Kindle store. The latter costs next to nothing, and the former, even if there are some start up costs, the profit is all yours. Nowadays, with the digital book market exploding, it's fast becoming a great option for new authors to go digital first and then get spotted by traditional publishers- and for many, to create a lucrative career self-publishing digitally. Just go to and see how you could self-publish the old fashioned way or straight to Kindle.

3. You have to create time to write

A common question is how I `find time' to write. Look, I have the same 24 hour day as everyone else, and I have a day job and a family. So, nobody gives me extra time to write. Like any other writer, I have to create that time, and if you want to write professionally, you need to decide where your writing can fit into your schedule. I do thirty minutes of writing every night, and get a lot of writing done in planes and hotels when I'm traveling on work. Other writers will have their own code. But just remember, if you want to write for a living, you need to make conscious trade-offs. In my case, missing airline food may not be much of a trade-off, but given that we all have finite time every day, realize that there will be things you will not be able to do because you are writing.

4. Be persistent

Writing a novel can be a daunting task. Even if you are disciplined enough to write every day for an hour, it will probably take you three months of writing every day to finish a full length novel. Throw in the reality that you probably won't write every single day, the editing, the proof-reading, and from the time you have that brilliant idea, it's probably six to nine months later that you even have something that can be called a manuscript, forget getting it published. That takes a long term commitment to it- and the only way to do it is to get disciplined. When I start any project, I create a spreadsheet, where I track progress I make every day in terms of storyline and words written- doesn't sound exceptionally creative or sexy, does it? But having it down on paper in front of me every day keeps me disciplined. At any point in time, I have a three year pipeline of projects with a CPS on when I start on the next book, when I edit the one I am on etc… changes, but it keeps me grounded. Again, makes it hardly seem like a creative pursuit, but if you want to write professionally, at some level, you need to start thinking of it as a business and drive it with the same discipline. Otherwise, you'll never last.

5. Read

It's a truism that to write well, it helps if you read, since that helps open your mind to new ideas and inspiration. But if you want to write professionally, reading takes on a new dimension. It's a part of understanding the landscape and the competition. So you must read, but if you want to write professionally, read in a deliberate way. As you get started on a project, ask yourself, who are the bestselling authors in the genre? Study their craft, understand what works in the genre, and importantly, what doesn't. The point is to get a better understanding of what ideas have already been used, what unwritten conventions of the genre are, and also to think through what will set you apart. Also, read up on writing. Seriously. If you want to be a professional writer, it's not enough to pretend raw talent will get you by. Imagine you're pretty strong and fit, but would you step in the ring with a professional boxer. No, right? Same thing here. Writing, especially fiction, is in equal parts talent and imagination, and also crafting and technique. Some books I've found useful:

6. Be professional

If you want to be a professional writer, act like one. Just as you know what professionalism is at your workplace, you need to behave like one when it comes to writing. Even if you've not sold your first novel, act like a professional writer. If you act like someone for whom writing is a hobby to indulge in your spare time, you won't last. The reason is that you are dealing with people- agents, publishers- for whom this is their day job. A few thought:
- Get an agent: Especially if you're writing fiction, it can be daunting to wade through how to even get into the consideration set of big publishers. When I started out, I didn't know any better and would send out submissions to publisher after publisher, many of whom probably never even read them. Most big publishers won't even look at unsolicited submissions, simply because they get thousands and prefer to work with established authors on their list or through agents. It makes good business sense for them- established agents help do quality control. Read Writer's Market to see agents for different markets and genres, and if you're interested, I work with an amazing duo called Jay and Priya at Jacaranda.
- Deliver your commitments and understand the production process: When you're asked to submit drafts by a date, beat it; when you have to show up for an interview, make the time. Most of us are not JK Rowling or Stephen King, so being easy to work with and dependable are things that will make publishers want to keep working with you. Also producing a book is like producing any other product- it involves numerous steps (design, proofing, printing, distribution)- take the time to work with your publisher to understand it and where you fit in and what you need to deliver in. A lesson in humility- yes, you write the book, but once it enters production, you're not at the centre of the world any more- dozens of people and suppliers have to work to a tight CPS to ensure the book hits stores on time- understand and respect the timelines v/s playing prima donna (no, you're probably not big enough to claim you have `Writer's Block' so cannot deliver on time), and the publishers will respect you and be more open to working with you in future.
- Have a financial game plan: Man, I am making this sound boring, right? But if you want to write professionally, this is important. Don't hope to make big money early on- for a new writer, the unwritten rule is that the first advance gets invested in publicity, but over time, map out how much you make and when you really start making money. If you have a day job like me, a good rule of thumb may be that what you earn from writing can be reinvested for the first couple of years- to get publicity, to buy books, to travel- but at least for me, ensure that it doesn't bite into what I get from my day job- then, it's all purely incremental. And over time, as you start getting into a virtuous cycle that I mentioned earlier, you'll see more and more profit. Get your own gameplan that works for your circumstances and track it.

7. Pay it forward

The great thing about writing is that you aren't competing with anyone except perhaps yourself. Readers buy dozens of books every year, and every bookstore has dozens of authors in every genre- so it is never a zero sum game. For you to win as a professional writer, nobody has to lose. So, as you progress in your journey and learn more about what works- pass it on- the best thing you can do as a writer is to help another one succeed. I firmly believe what goes around comes around and if you selflessly help others, then opportunities will open up for you where none existed. That's the nature of the world.

Also, even as you succeed, don't forget those who helped you when you were not as successful- I still am thankful to Renu at Vitasta Publishing for giving me a big break with Line of Control and even though now I have books with Random House out and Penguin in the works, she is on my list of publishers for my books in the pipeline. As with most things, being a decent human being is perhaps more important than being successful for it's own sake and don't forget that as your writing career progresses.

Phew, that was a bit- but haven't written on the blog for some time- being busy with a new novel, and with a vacation coming up, won't be writing for a week or more. Hope this demystifies the writer's life a bit- may not be as glamourous as many imagine, but then, I hope it gives some concrete tips and ideas for any of you starting out on writing. If you're thinking of dipping your toes into the world of writing, don't hesitate, dive right in- it may seem like hard work, but like anything else, all you need is your passion and knowing a bit of the rules of the game.

Keep reading and I'll keep writing.