Tuesday, 4 October 2016

First Steps As a Writer, Panel Notes

Obviously I meant to post this last week and forgot!  Ah well, better late than never.  

So, my Fantasycon 2016 panel was All About You, First Steps as a Writer - How Do You Go About Launching Your Career?, and it seemed to go pretty well all told.  At any rate, it was fun to be part of a bunch of bitter, hard-living, battle-scarred professional writers for an hour!  It's always impossible to judge how the audience are receiving things, but I hope that we managed to generate some good advice amid the horror stories and the baring of old wounds.

Anyway, Iain Grant was so thoroughly on the ball that he got three of us discussing the panel topic before it had even happened, with a few pertinent questions that get straight to the heart of this whole professional writer lark.  Here, then, for your potential delectation, are mine, Iain and moderator Sue Moorcroft's answers:

Do you have a writing career?

David:  I write for a living, but I know plenty of writers more successful than me who don't, so it's hard to say precisely what constitutes a career.  I'd say that if a meaningful portion of your income is consistently coming from writing then you're probably safe in thinking that you have a career.

Iain: I’m not sure I have a career as a writer. I make money as a writer and if I quit the day job I would still be earning more than what the government terms a ‘living wage’. But a career is different to a job, isn’t it? A career, for me, implies a path, a vocation, a calling. And, in that sense, I definitely currently consider myself to have a writing career because I can actually see where my writing’s taking me. It wasn’t always like that; I’m not sure when I moved from being a dabbler to a ‘career’ writer.

Sue: I suppose the meaning of the term ‘writing career’ varies according to its context. When I first began getting published in weekly magazines I felt I had a career but I had three part-time jobs, too. I may now be more what people mean when they speak of ‘a career writer’ because I work 50 or 60 hours a week and get all my income is writing related.

Do you write for money or for the love of writing?

David: I write because I'm passionate about it, but it also needs to pay the bills, since otherwise the bills don't get paid.  For me, being a writer who can make a living from writing has always been the end goal, with the proviso that I'd like to do so by producing work that I feel genuinely enthused about.  If that went away then I'd like to hope I'd stop; after all, there are plenty of easier ways to make money.

Sue: I’m compelled to write. I was writing for a long time before I began to make money at it and it was even longer before I made enough to live on (it’s just over 20 years since I sold my first short story). I consider myself lucky to be able to do the job I love but the harder I work, the luckier I get. Until the last couple of years I took writing-related work that wasn’t exactly what I wanted but the earnings from it meant I didn’t have to go out and get a ‘proper job’. I wrote courses, judged writing competitions, wrote writing ‘how to’, appraised manuscripts and spent too much of my week with my writing tutor’s hat on rather than my writer’s hat. Then I narrowed my focus to what I really want to do - write novels - got a fab agent and moved to a big publisher and feel more fulfilled and less stressed.

Iain: I think the vast majority of writers do so because they have an unholy fixation on writing. I can’t remember who originally said it but I write because it’s the only way to get these damned ideas out of my head. However, in the past year or so, I’ve realised that money is now a consideration in what I write. Not a huge one, but it’s there. For example, if I came to the sudden epiphany that I didn’t want to write another comic fantasy book and instead wanted to write a children’s book about mischievous kittens, part of my brain would now definitely wave a little flag and point out that the mischievous kitten story will sell fewer copies than the next book in the series I’m currently working on. Writing remains a joy in and of itself but it serves a more mercenary purpose as well.

What mistakes have you made in your career?

Sue: Although I’ve only learned this retrospectively, I was ignoring opportunities! I assumed that ‘You should meet …’ conversations were friendly but not meant to be taken literally. Turns out that some were actually opportunities! But mostly I have been more guilty of seeing opportunities where there were none than missing them. Nowadays, I’m better at dodging the snakes and getting up the ladders. 

David: I suspect that one's unanswerable!  Things I considered mistakes at the time have paid off in the long run and things that seemed just great have turned round and bitten me in the ass.  I regret letting some work out in the early days that might have been better buried, and the time spent in editing those stories to a point where I could sell them for a few dollars could probably have been better used elsewhere.  I certainly should have started attending conferences and developing contacts sooner than I did.

Iain: I wasted too much time in my twenties trying to get a literary agent and a traditional publishing deal. Literary agents are great things to have and a trad publishing contract has obvious perks. However, the publishing industry isn’t just changing – it has changed and is continuing to change. If I had mentally adapted to new markets, particularly electronic markets, even twelve months earlier than I did, I think my total readership would be much greater than it currently is. I now listen to the mad little voice that suggests a new format or new publishing opportunity (she’s called Heide, by the way).

Given your experience, are there any tips you can offer?

Sue: My top tip is to educate yourself - and that means about publishing and the market as well as writing. Probably the best piece of advice ever given to me was ‘Don’t make enemies’. Though I don’t pretend to have been able to observe it as immaculately as I would have liked, it has stood me in good stead and I try to be professional. Even when others act unprofessionally towards me, I manage to keep my thoughts to myself.

Iain: Two distinct and separate things that I’ve always believed in and haven’t had to learn the hard way. First up, writers write. They don’t just talk about writing or think about writing. Writers write all the time. Secondly, be nice. Be nice. That’s it. It pays back in spades.

David: My golden rule changes daily, but for the moment let's say: write regularly, accept that it might take you years to be as good as you want to be, but always aim for that goal of being the best writer you can be.

Which is better, traditional publishing, self-publishing or being an in-house writer?

David: I've leaned towards traditional publishing, but I wouldn't rule anything out.  Different problems require different solutions, and what works for one book isn't necessarily right for another.  Increasingly I think that most successful writers are making all three approaches work for them, and other avenues as well.

Sue: I like to be published traditionally but some of my out of print stuff is self-published, which makes me a ‘hybrid writer’. Being with HarperCollins, a publishing giant, is suiting me very well so far. I love their support and professionalism. I’ve never been an in-house salaried writer - I tend to think that applies to writers of non-fiction rather than fiction - but I’m conscious that copyright belongs to the employer rather than the employee in that situation. I almost never sell my copyright.

Iain: I am self-published and currently very happy with that. In terms of personal control and percentage royalties, it appears to trump all other models. Having said that, if the right trad deal comes along, I would be very tempted. Not having to employ my own artists, designers, editors, proofers, printers, not having to seek my own marketing opportunities or distribution deals… There are some limitations to being self-published. One day, it might be nice to spend all my writing time actually writing.

What other professionals do you work with in your career?

Sue: I love working with publishing professionals. Currently, I work most with Helen, my editor (Avon Books UK, the imprint of HarperCollins publishing my next two books), and my agent (Juliet Pickering, Blake Friedmann), and with their teams: copyeditors, digital marketing manager, rights manager and various others. Then there’s the PR company Avon employs, which is working on a national PR campaign around the publication of The Christmas Promise and do their job admirably. Although I support my publisher and the PR company in all their endeavours to sell my book and get it noticed, I recognise that they’re the ones with the talent, knowledge, experience and contacts and rely on them to do their job. If I were self-publishing I would employ a professional editor and cover designer, without question.

Iain: As a self-published author, the initial temptation is to assume you can do everything yourself. In my experience (and it had to be learned), this assumption is deeply wrong. We work with two great editors – Keith Lindsay has decades of experience as a script writer and writes more of our jokes for us than I’d care to admit; Mike Chinn has done excellent work on editing both novels and short story collections for us. We’ve used multiple artists/designers but work most closely with Mike Watts (www.bigbeano.co.uk) who has done nearly every one of our covers over the last four years. We’ve worked with three or four proofers over the years and they are, of course, invaluable – you can’t proof your own work. And, over the past year, it’s been a pleasure to work with Cal at Wonderland Management who has been busy striking deals for us in Hollywood.

David: If you find a good copy editor, treasure them.  Since I work partly in comics, I try and cultivate good artists, especially ones who can be relied on to meet a deadline.  There are no aspects of the writing process that I don't involve myself with, and I'd feel a little negligent if I did.  On the publishing side, I tend to get involved as much as a particular publisher wants me to be; at the least, I try and make sure to understand what's going on.

What are your current goals as a writer?

David: My next goal at any given point tends to be to sell the next book.  On a wider front, I'd like to think that I'm always getting a little better at what I do, and seeking out fresh challenges.  I like to try out subgenres I haven't dabbled in before, and there are a couple I want to try out for size next year.

Sue: My current goal is to make the biggest success I can of the two novels in my contract, The Christmas Promise and Just for the Holidays (the latter’s title subject to change), to be central to Avon’s list and expand my sales in other territories.

Iain: I’m currently working on writing more books in the two series we have going. We’re also working on two more original titles. But what’s the next step in the career plan? I think a screen adaptation of one of our books would be the next thing to tick off the list. I don’t think that would change the fact that I’m happiest when writing novels. I just want to keep doing that as long as possible.

The contributors

Award-winning author Sue Moorcroft writes contemporary women’s fiction with occasionally unexpected themes. A past vice chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and editor of its two anthologies, Sue also writes short stories, serials, articles, writing ‘how to’ and is a creative writing tutor. She’s won a Readers’ Best Romantic Read Award and the Katie Fforde Bursary.
Sue’s latest book: The Christmas Promise (Avon) 

Iain Grant is a self-published writer of fantasy and horror novels. With Heide Goody, he is the author of the 'Clovenhoof' comedy fantasy series (in which Satan loses his job and has to move to suburban Birmingham). Iain and Heide's most recent book is Oddjobs, a comedy about the end of the world and the paperwork it creates.

David Tallerman is the author of the comic fantasy novel series The Tales of Easie Damasco, which began with Giant Thief and ended with Prince Thief, graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, the Tor.com novella Patchwerk and the recently released The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, a collection of pulp-styled horror and dark fantasy fiction.

David's short fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime stories have appeared or are due in around eighty markets, including Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk, and blogs regularly, though far too often about nineties anime movies rather than anything writing-related.

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