An excerpt from So, You Want to be a Writer by Ian Carroll (author of The Quantity Surveyor’s Bible, Israel and Palestine: The Complete History, Champions Again: The Story of Liverpool’s 30-Year Wait for the Title, and So, You Want to be a Writer? (as well as many plays!))
So you want to be a writer? I’m guessing you do because either you, or someone close to you who supports your ambition, has purchased this book. So I guess that you want to be a writer.
Within these pages, you will find advice and encouragement, helpful tips and commentary, about what it is to be – and to want to be – a writer.
We’ll cover a range of topics, from writing fiction and non-fiction, theatrical plays (both original and adaptations), as well as screenplays, and many of the other forms that writing can take. We’ll discuss different genres, formats for writing, obstacles to overcome, and also explore the many avenues that will hopefully lead you to success.
Most of all, you will get my unbridled passion for the subject – for our subject – that can inspire you to go on and achieve your dream.
And it is a dream, because writing is a calling. It’s not just a job. To be a writer is to be an artist, a creative, a painter in words not pictures. It is both demanding and rewarding. It is a craft that has to be learned, and only then can any talent that you possess come to the fore.
So let’s go and have some fun, learn a few things, and help you on your way to becoming a writer. That’s what you want. I want it for you too. So let’s do it!
Across this book, I’ll be your guide, your tutor, if you like. As such, I think it’s only right that I should explain my credentials for the role.
At the time of writing, I am 53 years of age, and I’ve shared the same goal as you for the last 30 years of my life. Prior to that, I always felt that I had a calling. The only problem was, I had no idea what that calling was.
Eventually, I had my ‘light bulb’ moment. I was writing poetry. Couldn’t help myself, it just came pouring out of me, and I realised that what I really wanted to do, more than anything else in the world, was to be a storyteller.
The easiest way for me to do that, as I sure as heck couldn’t draw or paint, was to be a writer. As soon as I said those magical words, ‘I want to be a writer’, everything fell into place for me. I knew that I had found my calling.
That’s not to say that I became a writer overnight, or that all I have done ever since is tell stories for the past three decades. No, I have a job. I write in my spare time. But along the way, I have earned a Master’s degree in writing, and I have self-published two works of fiction and four of non-fiction.
I have also recently acquired three book publishing deals with professional publishing houses and, in 2019, one of them, ‘Cooperman! The life of Tommy Cooper’, was a Daily Mail book of the week.
I have also written, directed, and produced three original plays for the stage, and adapted three others based on literary classics. I’ve even written and produced a Christmas Panto. These plays have been performed the length and breadth of the country to critical and audience acclaim.
My first screenplay was twice optioned in 2001, and I have since written over a dozen more, with one currently in development as a major television series.
In all, I have written, and written, and then written some more, in a variety of genres and for a variety of different media.
Now, I’d like to share my experience and knowledge with you.
As I wrote in the introduction to my first published work, A 4000 year history of Israel and Palestine, ‘It promises to be some journey. I hope you’ll come with me.’
I hope that all of you budding writers will do the same.
THE WRITING GAME
When we say the words ‘I want to be a writer’, we are saying that we want to spend our days employed in the craft of communication via the written word. I’m sure that most of us, and most lay-people, imagine that this means staring out of the window (with that window preferably overlooking a fabulous bay on some beautiful or rugged coastline). Then, when inspiration strikes, we act as conduits as the words pour out of us until – some time later – a work of genius emerges that will be adored by the masses and will make us the envy of our peers.
Fame may follow, though not everyone who writes wants that particular millstone. Fortune may follow, and I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t say no to that. However, what you will probably end up with is an interesting hobby, a second-income if you’re lucky, and also a real enhancement of your spiritual and mental well-being. To do something that you love brings a whole host of benefits that you won’t have considered when all you knew was that you wanted to be a writer.
The truth is, very few of us writers hit the jackpot. Many make a career out of it in journalism or in some other avenue of the arts, but picking up a pen or sitting down at a computer to write, is about as likely to earn you financial reward as is buying a metal detector and heading out to your nearest beach or field on a weekend.
We write because we want to, or feel that we have to, and not because we expect to get rich beyond our wildest dreams.
So what is the writing game? It is to sit your bum down on a chair and pour words out onto a journal or computer. It is to give up countless hours – precious time that you could have spent watching TV or socialising, or learning French, or canoodling on the sofa with your partner, or playing with your kids, or visiting with your family, or watching your favourite football team (or whatever sport you follow), or pursuing whichever hobby you enjoy.
It is to be dedicated beyond all reason in your passion to share stories with others, in whichever medium (books, screenplays, etc.) you choose. The idea that comes to you, or that you work hard to generate, will usually lend itself more to one medium than another. You will make that choice either on your own preferences or skillset, or as determined by the facets of that particular idea.
Does your idea work better as a film script, as a play, or as a book? Maybe musicality is in the air, in which case you could have a musical or even an opera on your hands. The idea may simply make a good joke or comedy sketch, and that might be the extent of that particular invention.
Whatever it is, it’s your job to decide, and your job to sit down and write it. Because, if you don’t commit it to paper or craft a document out of it, how is it ever going to exist? You’re a creator. Create. You’re a writer. Write.
I once spent three months in the South of France. I’d taken a little time off work (because I could just about afford to), and I went with no other idea than to learn a bit of the language and to do a bit of writing. Whenever I wondered what exactly I was doing there, and how I would be viewed by the locals, the writing always gave me most pride in who I was, and what I was doing.
In every guide book and in every gallery that I visited, they eulogised about the famous artists and writers who had spent time in their home town. These were their most esteemed sons and daughters, and I was merely the latest incarnation of a creative in their midst. The place also inspired my two works of fiction, something that I hadn’t expected when I went there. Inspiration, for a writer, can come from anywhere and at any time.
So, to be a writer is to dip your toe into a creative pool and to offer up something a little bit special to the world. It is to be prepared to be the one who holds court, to tell the story, and the cardinal rule is that you need to hold your audience’s attention. Storytelling is one of the things that holds humanity together, and its tradition goes back to the very beginning of mankind.
Can anyone be a writer? Well, anyone can write, but that doesn’t mean that you have the storytelling gift. I recently read an interview with a screenwriter who said that in order to be a writer, you should be able to tell a good anecdote. Is that you?
If you can tell a good joke or a good anecdote, I think you therefore possess the required rhythm, timing, and eye for detail that a good writer should have. So, if that sounds like you, I’d say you have the core ingredients.
To that, I would add that you must also be a self-starter, able to work alone, to be disciplined, and have the persistence to pursue your goal to the sweet or bitter end. Have you got that innate ability and the willpower to see it through?
If so, then great!
Welcome to the writing game!
MONEY VERSUS ART
Do we write for money or for the sake of art? I would suggest that anyone who sets out to write purely for money is the most misguided of our tribe. There are no guarantees, and I would say that you are going to put yourself under enormous pressure to write something commercial and, in doing so, that you will miss out on the apprenticeship that you must endure and also enjoy.
There is a quote from a famous author that goes ‘Anyone who writes for anything other than money is an ass’, or words to that effect. For 29 out of the 30 years that I’ve been writing, I would have disagreed. I wrote sometimes for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, unprompted and unpaid. And I never batted an eye-lid. If I was ever going to make it as a writer, I just saw it as serving my time.
I wrote stories that I was dying to tell, and gained huge satisfaction from seeing plays performed in public, hearing audiences laughing at jokes that never existed until I put them on a page and into the mouths of actors. I wrote because I wanted to, because I loved it, and because I had to. I was a writer. It was what I was born to do.
But, in the past two years, I’ve earned three book publishing deals. It’s like the door to success has finally opened. And I honestly wouldn’t mind a bit of financial reward for all of that time and effort. It would be nice, that’s all.
Am I still an artist? As much as ever, I’d say. Do I think I should be paid for my work? Well, if there’s any going, I’ll have some of it, thank you very much.
But these are arguments for a later day. First of all, writing, and being a writer, is very much its own reward. If you set out to write for money, I think that way misery lies. If you write simply to tell stories, then I think that way happiness lies.
You want your stories to be heard, and you want to tell them in the most interesting and exciting way that you can. That should be your goal and your focus.
First of all, you are going to have a very long apprenticeship ahead of you. Think ten years minimum. Personally, I got myself a good day job because I thought it might be 20 years before I got my break. If I had known that it would take me close to 30 before I even got a sniff, well, I may have been a little downhearted. But, keep learning, keep knocking at the door. When you’re ready, it will open.
Do you want to spend the interim period writing stuff you can sell, or stories that you love? I would argue the latter. You need that passion to sustain you in the endeavour. You have a lot to learn. We’ll discuss the ways you can go about that within the pages of this book.
So, money versus art. A fork in the road. And which to choose? Choose art. The money will follow eventually if you keep going for long enough and write stuff of sufficient quality. And, if it doesn’t? Well, you knew it was going to take time, so you got on with your life anyway, didn’t you? You valued your friends and your family. You found a companion, maybe raised a family. Went to work, were nice to your colleagues, helped old ladies across the street, and cheered on your local football team.
Your life was enhanced by the fact that you had an outlet, a conduit to the world, in which you told stories. Maybe it will eventually pay off for you. You might get an annual holiday out of the proceeds, which isn’t a bad bonus. Or maybe you’ll earn enough to give up the day job and live the life that you really want to lead. You may even earn more money than you need. Wouldn’t that be something? But if you don’t write for art, and write from the heart, I think that most people setting out on our journey will have a more difficult and less rewarding time along the way.
Roger Corman – king of the low-budget movie – and a particular hero of mine, once said, ‘What have you got to show for shuffling papers in an office for 40 years aside from a huge stack of invoices? When you make a movie (or in our case, write a play, screenplay, or novel), at least there is tangible proof of your existence. You create something. At the beginning, there is nothing. Then you get an idea. And at the end is a story with a beginning, middle, and end.’
I think that sums it up pretty neatly. Write because you have to. Create. Be an artist. If the money comes, great. If not, you will still have something to show for all of your effort. You told stories.
So, if you want to be a writer, your audience is waiting to hear the story that you, the writer, desperately want to share with the world.
At this stage of your career, choose art over money. When you’ve earned your stripes, you’ll know where the money is, but you’ll never get there unless you begin by creating art. That’s your first duty, to yourself and the waiting world.
You’re an artist first and foremost. Whether you end up a rich one or not remains to be seen.
TO BE A WRITER
To be a writer is to set yourself apart. You are going to find a unique viewpoint and record your experiences or ideas. You are going to look for new and exciting ways to engage an audience. And, you are going to do it of your own volition, as a self-starter.
When I first embarked on this path of being a writer, I wondered what kind of reception I might get when I announced my calling to the world. I have to say, I have been pleasantly surprised.
Writers seem to arouse people’s curiosity and, overwhelmingly, the reaction I have received has been positive. The most common response you will hear is, ‘You should write my book’. Everyone seems to think that their own lives are unbelievable. And quite often, they are right!
‘You couldn’t write it’ is another expression that we all use. Well, in our case, we have to!
My response, whenever people ask me to write their book, is this.
‘I’m busy. Write your own book!’
I say this as nicely as possible, of course, but there is a great deal of truth in the statement.
Because here’s the thing. It’s not easy to give up your free time to write about anything, least of all someone else’s story that you have no affinity with, and probably no passion for. It’s hard enough to write the story that you are passionate about. Anything else is a non-starter. Again, art should take precedence over money (although there are exceptions to every rule).
Another Roger, this time Moore, not Corman, once explained away some of the poor movie-choices he’d made as an actor throughout his career. Well, he’d occasionally experienced a bit of ‘resting’ between acting gigs, therefore he’d been given the advice to take pretty much everything that was offered to him because, if he wasn’t acting, then he wasn’t really an actor.
I’d say the same is true for us. If we want to call ourselves writers, then we must write. Never mind if it never sees the light of day, or it never gets published or produced. It’s either part of your development or it’s your breakthrough script.
To be a writer, you have to write. Otherwise, what are you? A shopkeeper, a school teacher, a surveyor? Nothing wrong with any of that. My wife is a shopkeeper. My sister is a school teacher. I am a surveyor. But I’m only a writer when I write.
You can afford yourself a little time off between writing gigs. Write one script or one novel a year, take a couple of months off, and then write another. Do so consistently, over a ten year period (or whatever), and you could still call yourself a writer, but if you wrote only one thing a few years ago, and you’ve written nothing since, can you still call yourself a writer? I don’t think so. So get writing.
Besides, like with anything, the more you write, the better you’ll get at it, and the greater will be your chances of ultimate success.
There is an old adage that, to be considered a master of anything, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. If you write one hour a day after work, from Monday to Friday, that’s only 250 hours a year. By that definition, it would take you 40 years to master your craft. I don’t think any of us really want or expect to have to wait that long to achieve a modicum of success, therefore I suggest that you try to increase your output. Maybe write for two hours a day. Maybe put in a bit of a shift over a weekend. Basically, write whenever and wherever possible. That way, you’ll reach that 10,000 hour mark a whole lot quicker.
Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, says that to be a writer, you must also be a reader. Who am I to argue? I’d also go as far as to say that whatever it is that you like to read, or whichever type of plays or films you like to watch, then that particular field is probably where your own writing belongs. Because you’ll understand the medium.
If all you read and enjoy are crime thrillers, you should attempt one of those.
The Scottish actor Brian Cox was the first person to portray Hannibal Lecter on screen. When the franchise was picked up by the Hollywood big-wigs, they ditched Brian – as excellent as he was and is – and opted for Anthony Hopkins instead.
Mr. Cox lamented his fortunes to a friend.
‘I get parts, but never the big parts, or the best parts. There’s always someone more famous that they want for the role, building on all the good work that I’ve put in beforehand.’
You can understand his frustration.
The response he received was a good one. His friend advised that he shouldn’t be bothered about any of that. He shouldn’t try to join the A-list, or even the A-plus-list. All he should be interested in was doing good work. Consistent good work. He might also have added, ‘and keep working’.
I think that’s good advice. You can’t chase fame or fortune. It’s in the lap of the Gods as to who gets what and when. We’re all meant to get our 15 minutes anyway.
Better to just get your head down and concentrate on producing good work. That way, you’ll be serving your apprenticeship, accruing your ten thousand hours. And you’ll be writing, which is what makes you, yes you, a writer.
What sort of a writer do you want to be? In which field do you want to work? We’re going to concentrate on the areas of novel writing, playwriting, and screenwriting. These are the areas where I have gained my experience, and are therefore the ones that I feel most qualified to discuss. We’ll also touch on fields such as journalism and writing for radio, but an oft-quoted adage for writers is to write what you know.
You’re going to be pigeon-holed by audiences and critics at some point in your career. Step out of the box you’ve been placed in, and you may well find yourself being called a hybrid-author. That’s why, even when someone as esteemed as JK Rowling decides to try her hand at something different, she’ll write under another name. And that’s just for a book in a different genre. What happens if you’re a novelist who wants to write a play, or a screenwriter who wants to write a novel?
The answer is to serve your apprenticeship and write the story that you want to in the medium that best serves that particular story. Obviously, if you’ve served your 10,000-hour apprenticeship as a playwright, it is quite disheartening to think you’d have to do it all again just because you want to write a book.
The good news is, you will have gathered a great deal of transferable writing skills, and you will probably have dabbled in several of these areas anyway as you went about the business of learning your craft.
We’re going to cover many of your options within the pages of this book, and this will hopefully help you decide which area suits you best, and how to move between the particular fields.
As with Stephen King’s advice to be a reader if you want to be a writer, I would say the same thing is true if you want to be a screenwriter, to write for television, or to be a playwright. The good news is that all that time spent watching your favourite television soap counts towards your 10,000 hours. You may have to concentrate a little harder, and you may lose a little of the satisfaction you get by just ‘switching off’ and relaxing and enjoying your favourite show, but it’s not the worst bit of work you’ll ever do either, reclining on the sofa and letting it all soak in.
Assuming you’re just embarking on your goal of being a writer, or you’re at an early-ish stage of your journey, then what exactly are your options?
Well, the first thing to decide is how you are going to live. Are you going to get a day job to pay the rent (or mortgage) and the bills, to put food in the cupboards, clothes on your back, and whatever little treats in life you allow yourself? If so, what sort of job are you going to try and get? It must be one that allows you the time and energy to write around the demands of the day job. I would suggest, therefore, that you shouldn’t go into something too exacting, like being a junior doctor, working 12-hour shifts at the local hospital, leaving you physically and mentally drained at the end of each day. When on earth would you write?
Should you just jump straight in and find a role within the arts, even if it’s just something administrative and pitched at a fairly low level? That’s not actually a bad shout. You will probably get to see the creative process in action, and you’ll pick up some valuable tips along the way.
Personally, I decided to go down the route of being a quantity surveyor. It’s largely maths-based. The way I saw it, if I was working with numbers all day, I wouldn’t have used up that creative part of the brain I would need when I sat down to write every night.
So, assuming that you’ve decided how you’re going to balance the act of living while pursuing your dream of being a writer, what choices are available to you now?
If you want to be a journalist, you could do a degree in the subject and try to get taken on by one of the small regional papers. That way, you’ll be learning and earning at the same time.
If you want to be a playwright, you could see if there are any courses or workshops run by your local theatre. You could volunteer to help them out, maybe as an usher, and pick the brains of any playwrights that you come across. Personally, I was Script Editor for a play that won my local paper’s Best Writing award. For 12 months, I attended every rehearsal and every performance.
I worked on someone else’s script, making small changes and carrying out additional research, then worked closely with the actors to help them learn their lines and adapt to any changes. It was an intimate, behind-the-scenes exposure to seeing a script come to life. So much so that – three years later – I felt suitably qualified to write, direct, and produce my own work for the stage.
If you want to write for television, you need to study the craft and write a sample script, all of which will be talked about within the pages of this book. You can submit your sample script to writing competitions or to places such as the BBC’s Writers Room, which regularly accepts unsolicited scripts. Their website will also alert you to other writing opportunities, and you can submit everything from full-length feature films to short comedy sketches.
You’re going to need that sample script to be stand-out smart, otherwise it’s going to be swiftly rejected. It’s unlikely that the first thing you write (or even the tenth!) is going to be great. What you need at this stage is feedback. Don’t give it to your mum. Have a think. Do you know any actors, or anyone remotely involved in film, television, or theatre, who may have some knowledge of how a script works?
If so, ask whether they would mind taking a look at your script and giving you some honest feedback. And that’s the thing. It must be honest. And you must take on the chin any criticism that they give you. Don’t try and defend it. It’s not their fault that they didn’t like it or that they didn’t understand it. You just haven’t written a good enough script yet. You’re still learning. And the learning and development that you need will not take place if you don’t find people to read your work or if you don’t embrace any remarks that they give you. Trust me, when you eventually get a script returned with a note saying that they quite enjoyed it, you’ll feel like a million dollars. And you will be well on your way to being the writer that you want to be.
The same is true for screenplays. Try to get them into the hands of literary agents and film producers, but also into the hands of actors. That’s a good place to start. Again, don’t fire until you’re ready. Get a good sample script written before you make your approach. How will you know when it’s good? Well, your first readers will tell you, and you should be improving with every script that you write, so keep writing.
Maybe you see your future as a novelist or non-fiction writer. You’re probably going to study a degree in English (or in whichever area, such as History, you see yourself writing about). Many people harbour dreams of being a successful author. Very few can actually claim to be such a thing. There’s a lot of competition. Study, learn, write. And persevere. It’s a popular dream, and the prize is not given away lightly.
The good news is, with the internet and the eBook revolution, it’s never been easier to see your name in print. But, while it’s never been easier to get your work out there, it’s as hard as it ever was to make a success of it.
Marketing can help, once you have a saleable product, but ultimately your audience will decide how much time they want to spend with you and how much of their money they want to give you.
There are many choices for the type of writer that you can be, and there is no bar to moving between the different writing forms. The duty you have, and the responsibility that you have to yourself is to give of your best in order to achieve your goal. Write often. Write well. And keep believing.
I started out writing poetry. I even did a bit of stand-up comedy. I did lots of gigs as a performance poet, and I was a truly awful stand-up. Then I got an idea that I thought would make for a good short film. I searched for a book on scriptwriting in my local library (this was all before the internet sprung to life), and I learned how to set out a script.
I started to write my first script, having no idea what I was really doing. I gave names to the characters, and then I got them to perform whatever actions they needed to do as they set about achieving their goals.
Before too long, I had a finished script. At the time, I was working on the restoration of the Albert Memorial in London, my first job since graduating as a surveyor. One day, Lord Snowdon arrived at the monument to do a photoshoot with Alan Rickman, the distinguished British actor.
I chose a moment and approached the two men, introduced myself, and asked Mr. Rickman if he’d be kind enough to read my short film script. He laughed knowingly. Was there no place he could go without someone shoving a script in his hand?
Graciously, he said yes and, a couple of days later, I received a handwritten letter from him critiquing my script. He began by saying that it had a lot of energy and atmosphere. The rest of the letter was a very long ‘but’ where he pointed out my maiden script’s many faults. He then wished me luck with my writing, and with the Albert Memorial. In other words, don’t give up the day job!
I then decided to write a novel. Autobiographical, of course. The sort of very early introspective coming-of-age story that I think most of us – maybe you included – will probably write on your own writer’s journey.
Before we completed the restoration of the Albert Memorial, we decided to place a time capsule two-thirds of the way up the monument behind one of the ornate panels. I placed a copy of my autobiographical manuscript inside the time capsule for future generations to one-day find and revere my undoubted and, at the time, undiscovered genius.
When I told a mate (one of the few to have read it) that I had sealed my novel inside a box, hidden behind a panel, 100 feet up in the air, thereby secreting it from public view for the next 100 years, he said ‘Best place for it!’
I guess I still had a lot to learn.
I had an idea for another book. I planned to take three months off work to write it. The Albert Memorial now complete, I moved back home and stayed with my parents while I wrote book number two.
Then, an actor friend of mine got a part in a play. They needed a script editor. The subject was very close to my heart. I got the job. I spent a year attending rehearsals and working on the script and the play, working with actors, watching them rehearse and perform. It was a valuable lesson in an area of the arts in which I had zero experience up to that point.
I then began writing screenplays. My second novel, a childhood memoir, I thought had the potential to be a film. Now that I knew a few actors, I thought I could write a feature-length script. Again, I started to study the format.
When I was in London, I had been a member of the London Screenwriter’s Workshop. I attended many different seminars and undertook several courses. I also went regularly to the cinema.
It was the age of Oasis, of Tarantino, of Trainspotting, and Irvine Welsh. Culture got a little closer to home for a working-class Northern lad like myself.
And I kept writing. I wrote maybe five feature-length screenplays. I got a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. You should do the same. Put it on your Christmas list if budgets are tight.
I sent those early film scripts to agents and film producers. I gave them to my actor friends to read. One day, I got a letter back from an agent. He said he thought that the script based on my childhood was both amusing and poignant, but he didn’t think he could do much with it. But – and here was the compliment – he said I could send him other scripts in the future.
Here’s the thing. You should always keep writing. That, in itself, is a sign that you are serious about the whole thing. It can take months and months for these people to reply. Don’t wait by the phone. Keep writing.
When the bloke said ‘Send me your next one’, little did he know that he would receive it in the next post!
I then had a screenplay twice optioned by a film producer of some renown. I earned my first money from writing when he gave me £100 for the option on my script, and another £100 when he took up the option again six months later.
I signed a contract with him that would have seen me jet around the world at his company’s expense should they ever find the money to actually make the film. The project ultimately went nowhere (which happens maybe 99 times out of a 100 with this sort of thing), but it was a validation of sorts. I was on my way.
Then came my first theatrical play, which was written, directed, and produced by myself. I’d read a book many years before that I thought would make a great play. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to write a play. But, emboldened by my work as a script editor, and with my previous screenwriting experience, I sat down and wrote my first piece for the stage.
I sent it to a small but prestigious local theatre, asking if they’d like to put it on. They said that it was good, but that they weren’t in the habit of putting other people’s plays on. They were a venue for hire, basically. So, I asked the obvious question, ‘How much is it to hire the place?’
Nine months after I first sat down and stared at the blank piece of paper that would become page one of the script, I stood on stage amongst my actors enjoying a standing ovation from a sell-out audience. One of the best feelings ever. And I could still remember staring at that initial blank page.
You’ll have your own journey too, and your own magical days, I hope.
Then I did a Master’s degree in Writing. It gave me a writing focus one day a week. It meant that I was keeping my hand in. And I learned a lot. I always thought that I would make it as a writer, somehow, someway. Doing the writing course made me believe in myself even more. I always thought that I would get there in the end but, I wondered, would I still have that belief without the qualification? It didn’t do me any harm, that’s for sure, and it may have done me a world of good. I think it also made me a bit more professional, polished even. I can’t say that it’s a must, but it can certainly help. Gets you out in the company of others as well, which is never a bad thing in a lonely writer’s life.
I also decided to turn my dissertation for my Master’s degree into a book. It is probably my Magnum Opus, a 4000 year history of Israel and Palestine. I self-published 1000 copies and I managed to sell almost all of them.
Then, I re-staged my original play after a seven-year hiatus. It was good to be back. I subsequently wrote and produced, and sometimes directed, half-a-dozen plays in the next five years, some of them original, and some of them adaptations.
At the same time, I wrote two novels set in the South of France and three works of non-fiction. Two of them went to the top of the Amazon charts in their particular genres.
It was time to make a fuss.
I received the latest edition of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as a gift from the agent of one of my actors. I contacted every single publisher of non-fiction in the country and told them of my achievement. I got two book publishing deals as a result.
Along the way, I’ve lived, learned, and laughed, but the one thing that I have also done is write. Always.
So, you want to be a writer? Then you know what you’ve got to do. Write!
Where to begin? Well, at the start, obviously. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Start at the beginning.
Let’s assume that you have an idea. You’ve already decided that you want to be a writer. Say your idea is for a book. It may well be that coming-of-age, angst-ridden novel that we all have to get out of our systems. You’ve read plenty of books, so it’s not exactly alien territory. You’ve just never written one before.
Basically, you’re not going to be a writer unless you actually write something down. Let’s be honest here. It’s unlikely to be a work of genius. It may even be closer to awful. It doesn’t matter. You’re starting out on your journey to be a writer, and every journey begins with a single step. It doesn’t matter how small or tentative that step is, it’s still a step in the right direction.
Winners have a focus. They set their minds on the goal. In our case, it’s to be a writer. So we must begin to write.
You might start with something less ambitious, like a poem or a short story. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is you’ve decided to write, get it down on paper (or on your computer). Leave it a couple of days, then read it back to yourself. Make any changes that you feel it needs. Now you’re editing. The result is your second draft. This is all writing. You’re several steps into your journey. Feels good, doesn’t it?
Now I’m sure, having decided that you want to be a writer, you’ve probably already imagined the riches and the amazing life that you’re going to lead. It’s only natural. There may be a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow. It’s fine to think like that. Just don’t think that the journey’s end is in two steps, or two months, or even in two years’ time. It will take as long as it takes.
Similarly, don’t be disheartened by the fact that it might take a decade or two (or in my case, three!) before you get your break. You’re going to be living your life anyway. This is just something that is going to make you happier along the way.
Make a start. You’ve found your calling. You have a dream. You’re already one of life’s lucky people. Better to have a dream than none at all, I think.
Starting out, you’re probably going to feel a little all at sea. You won’t quite know where you are. You’re a stranger in a strange land. You’ll need a guide. Well, you have one in your hand right now. You may have a mentor you can call upon, whether that’s a teacher or a tutor who believes in you, or your companions at an informal writing group, or even a favourite author who was written a book on writing that has inspired you. It may well be your bible.
Seek support wherever you can find it – as little or as often as you need it – but the reality is that it all comes down to you. To be a writer, you need to write.
When you get to the end of that first completed writing week on your latest project, allow yourself a smile of satisfaction, take a break, and enjoy a weekend off or a night on the town, and then carry on. Get trucking, keep rolling. Output is experience.
Practise, practise, and practise some more. Turn ideas into tangible products such as poems, plays, scripts, and novels.
Michael Owen was a teenage football sensation. He came blessed with God-given talents. Guess what? He still went into training and practiced incredibly hard every day. And by doing so, he improved.
Can writing be taught? Of course it can, but it can only make an average writer out of a mediocre talent. It can also turn a talented writer into a successful one.
But it requires practice. When starting out, you have many, many years of practice ahead of you.
Mark Twain once said, ‘Write without pay until someone offers to pay you.’ That, effectively, is what is going to happen. He then went on to put a three-year time-line on his advice. I’d definitely discount that last part. If you want to be a writer, you should be in it for the long-haul. For us mere mortals, I think his advice should read, ‘Write until someone pays you, however long that takes’.
You can get started by writing for magazines. You can write a review of a gig you’ve been to, or a play that you’ve seen, and submit it to your local paper. Don’t charge for it. They need content. They might just use it.
Write another good piece, get the name of the arts editor and strike up a rapport, even if it’s only via email. Pretty soon, they’ll come to expect and to value your input.
They might ask you to review an act that’s coming to town. They like your insightful observations and the wit and colour that you put into your reviews. What are you going to say when they ask you? Well, you’ll probably reply that you’d love to contribute a piece, however the gig is sold out, or the tickets are £50 each. Can they get you on the guestlist or get you a ticket? Now you’re writing reviews. You’re writing.
When I was working on the Albert Memorial, we used to venture out as a group about once a month to attend seminars, or visit some interesting city, or a project that had an association with restoration or conservation. One time, we went to explore the various bridges in and around Bristol.
There was a specialist magazine called Conservation News who asked my employers if anyone in our group would write an article about our latest trip. My bosses said that they had just the person, and my first-ever published work was an article about the bridges of Bristol for that niche publication.
I then took a girlfriend to a gig one night. She was a fan of Cajun music. There was a guy over from America playing at a venue not too far away. She mentioned that her dad did gig reviews for a Country and Western magazine. She asked me to write a review of the show we’d just seen. She gave it to her father. The result was my second published piece.
A young actor who appeared in a couple of my plays told me how he’d started out in the acting profession. He’d studied drama at university and, upon graduation, applied for every audition that he could find. Some of these were unpaid gigs: students making short films, and the like who needed volunteers and extras.
Several of his peers refused to work for free and dismissed these unpaid gigs out of hand while he volunteered for everything. As well as gaining experience on set, he also earned a lot of goodwill with people who went on to bigger and better things. Low and behold, the paid gigs started to roll in. Meanwhile, many of his fellow acting graduates, who had not been so obliging, were deserting the industry in droves, unable to secure paid work, having neither the experience nor the goodwill in the bank that this other young actor had. I think it’s a good example of how to get your break in a creative industry. Art first. Money second. Keep practising.
Remember this: failures are the milestones of success. Your journey must have many milestones; otherwise it’s not a journey – it’s a stroll. And achieving success in any endeavour is unlikely to resemble a gentle preamble. More than likely, it’s going to be an epic journey filled with blood, sweat, and tears. What if a million of us want to be writers, but only 10,000 of us can succeed? It’s going to be the ones who put in the effort, the ones who lap up the experience, and the ones who absorb from their peers and their mentors who ultimately win the prize.
The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll finish. There are 10,000 hours to go, remember. But keep living. Respect your life and the people in it. And start writing. Put something tangible down on paper. You’re a dreamer, not a daydreamer. Get writing.
So, it doesn’t matter where you start. It’s only important that you do.
Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned through feedback. I guess that makes this quite an important chapter. It’s a bold statement, but one that I believe. Of course, in order to receive feedback, you first have to write something. That goes without saying.
You write a script, or the first few chapters of a book. You’ve got something to show someone. The more qualified that person is to judge what you have written, the better the quality of feedback you’re going to receive. They don’t have to be a professional person, though the more experienced they are, the better it is for you.
If you know someone who likes to read, they’ll do perfectly well. If you know someone who likes the movies, they would be a sound reader for your screenplay. Similarly, someone who likes going to the theatre might give you a decent critique of your play.
But, if you are lucky enough to find someone in the actual business – like an actor, an agent, a director, producer, or publisher – then more power to your elbow.
You might say, ‘I don’t know anyone in the business’. That may be true, but you’ve heard of the six degrees of separation. You can get to anyone on the planet in six steps, and that includes Steven Spielberg or Stephen King. So, by that rationale, in two or three steps, you should be able to reach someone who has a job in the arts.
I once went out on a Sunday afternoon to watch a game of football at a local pub. I was taking a well-earned break, having been ensconced in my solitary cave, writing a screenplay.
Finishing my drink at the end of the match, I overheard a lively group of people talking at the next table. They were talking about a play they were rehearsing. They were – gasp – a troupe of actors!
I introduced myself as a writer. I asked if anyone would like to read my latest screenplay. I explained that I’d like nothing more than feedback. One of them said they’d be happy to. My first reader found, and feedback soon forthcoming.
We all know people. Do you know someone whose brother or sister or father or mother or cousin or uncle works at a local theatre or in some other corner of the arts? Wrack your brains. I’m sure you do. See? You made the leap in two steps.
Now, you just have to ask them. Fortune favours the brave. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And, more importantly, that feedback is crucial to your career. You absolutely need it. So don’t be shy. You can’t afford to be.
I’ll qualify my initial statement above. I’ve also learned from books, from my Master’s degree in Writing, and from the many courses, workshops, and seminars that I’ve attended. The courses usually involve feedback from your peers anyway, while the books teach you how to create; but it’s the feedback to what you create that really shapes you as a writer. Your readers will tell you if you’re on the right track, and will hopefully point out the areas where you’re going wrong. And there’ll be plenty of those to begin with.
It’s important to acknowledge that feedback can be good or bad. Your readers will hopefully tell you what bits they liked and what bits they didn’t. Hopefully, they’ll give you reasons why they did or did not like whatever it was that they read.
Remember, if they’ve been kind enough to take the time to read your work, and the additional time to feedback to you, be gracious when you receive their response. They’re doing you the favour, not the other way around, so don’t get uppity if they fail to engage with the material or they don’t think your hero or your story is the best thing since sliced bread. Try to identify where they disengage with your work. You can correct that flaw next time out. You’re improving, thanks to their feedback.
Of course, you don’t have to respond to every comment. That way madness lies. If one person loves your main character and your next reader doesn’t, how do you accommodate that? The truth is, you can’t. Weigh up both opinions and then justify to yourself why your hero acts in a certain way. Ultimately, it’s your story. If you can take their opinions on board, maybe hone your character or story accordingly, and still be happy with where you go with it next, then you’re a better writer than you were on the previous draft. You’re improving, through feedback.
Not everyone responds positively to every story or character. When the movie Forrest Gump came out, it seemed that half of the people who saw it loved it, and the other half hated it. A complete division of opinion. And guess what? It didn’t matter, because those who loved it and those who hated it still paid the same ten bucks to see it. The producers certainly didn’t mind. And it was a water-cooler talking point, which made even more people go and see it – some of whom loved it, and some of whom hated it. But it didn’t matter, because those people too paid the same ten bucks.
Don’t try to please everyone. It’s impossible. Just write the story that you want to tell, and hope that at least somebody likes it!
I was lucky that I got someone of the calibre of Alan Rickman to read my first ever script. I still have his handwritten letter. I’ve also had friends who bumped into actors and pushed my scripts onto them. One friend was a hairdresser. She would always ask her customers, in the way that hairdressers do, ‘What do you do?’ as she went about the business of cutting their hair. If they responded with anything remotely resembling the arts, she would push me onto them. In this way, she managed to befriend a bloke who was mates with the lead singer of Iron Maiden. Now, my poetry at that time was a world away from anything that one of the world’s top heavy-metal bands might have been remotely interested in. It didn’t matter. A meeting was set up.
We went to meet Bruce Dickinson in a pub in Chiswick, West London, one evening. There was my friend, Amanda, and myself, plus her customer from the salon and, soon, the long-haired lead singer of Iron Maiden. Bruce explained that he had only popped out for a short while to pick up a takeaway for himself and his wife. He could spare us only five or ten minutes.
He parked his expensive mountain-bike outside as he read through my earnest poems, wondering what on earth he was doing there and what he could possibly do for my fledgling career. Forty-five minutes later, he said his goodbyes, wished me good luck, and went outside, where he discovered his favourite bike had been nicked!
I can’t say that the meeting benefited my writing career in any way, but at least we explored the option, and I can now say that I’ve met the singer of Iron Maiden. Unfortunately for Bruce Dickinson, it’s not a night he’s likely to forget either!
I’d send scripts and sample chapters of novels out to agents and publishers. Then I’d wait for their responses. You’ll know you’re making progress when they take the time to offer more than ‘Thanks but no thanks’, if you’re lucky to get even that.
I once wrote a play and, two weeks before the opening night, one of the actors said he needed an opening monologue. It was a Christmas production of The Tommy Cooper Show at a small theatre in Liverpool. It was obvious to my very experienced actor that the show should open with a speech. So I sat down and wrote one.
It had to be light-hearted (it was a comedy after all), something Christmassy (if that’s even a word!), and it should set the mood for all that was to follow.
So I sat down and wrote a page or two for the actor in question. He would walk out, front and centre, and address the audience before the play properly began.
Two weeks later, on opening night, I sat amongst a packed audience as the actor appeared and delivered his speech. And people laughed. They loved it. It did everything it was supposed to. It relaxed the crowd and put everyone in the mood for the show that they were about to see. And I wrote that! Just two weeks earlier.
It was so fresh that I could still vividly remember sitting down to write it, staring at the blank page, or rather computer screen, letting my thoughts gather, and then starting to type.
Now, here I was, just a fortnight later, hearing the sound of audience-laughter. That’s feedback. It told me that I could do this.
That’s what feedback does.
Go find it. Got get it. It’s important, and you need it.
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