They say there's a book in everyone, and there's certainly no end to courses and guides that claim they can help us unleash our inner epic. But what if we ever actually did manage to sit down and write the great British novel we've always dreamed of? What next?
After landing her first book deal in 2004, Sally O'Reilly thought 'someone had scattered fairy dust' on her life. Instead, soon after seeing her first novel in print she lost her editor and found herself not knowing where to turn. As a 'mid-list' selling author, she realised that being a writer didn't end with the last page of her book - in many ways, the job was just beginning.
Released last month, 'How To Be A Writer' is Sally's attempt to guide people through the nuts and bolts of taking a book to market and navigating the world of publishing like a professional. Rather than tell you how to structure a thriller or stop using clunky adverbs, the book explains how to find an agent, manage your own PR and juggle writing alongside your day job.
We spoke to her about the background to the book, and the main lessons she hopes people take from it.
What inspired 'How To Be A Writer'?
I spent my 30s being a freelance journalist, then in my early 40s, I was published for the first time and got a two book deal. Like a lot of writers, I'd longer to be published so much that when it finally happened I thought 'this is it, I've arrived'. But what I soon learned was that people don't look after things for you - you still have to keep your wits about you, be proactive and think about the next stage.
What happened to me happens to a lot of people. I became a 'mid-list' writer. My relationship with my first publisher unravelled and I didn't know where to turn, or who to ask for advice. When I emerged from that period I realised that I could write about exactly what I did, and try to offer people advice about the realities of having a writing career. I talked to a lot of other writers about their experiences and Fay Weldon very kindly wrote the foreword to the book.
What were you hoping to achieve by writing it?
I intended the book to be like a friend, if that doesn't sound too cheesy. I tried to make it a conversation. So far people have found it accessible and useful. It's about doing all the things besides the writing bit. Writing is tremendously rewarding, but that's the bit we can control. If you can think about your career a bit more strategically, you can clear your mind so when you come to sit down and write your novel you can enjoy it again.
Do you think writers are too romantic about what they do?
You can't generalise too much, but I do think there is a typical writer's personality and I don't think we are the most realistic people in the world. It's terribly exciting to think you're going to lead some sort of bohemian life like Hemingway and Scot Fitzgerald in Paris. I did my equivalent of that - I moved to Barcelona for a year with my family after my first book deal - and actually suffered horrendously from writer's block. It was a very neurotic year. I don't regret it, but it didn't go how I imagined with me sitting there penning the next masterwork.
Can you teach people how to write?
I don't think you can teach the 'X factor' in writing, that extra spark that some people have. But we don't question people who go to music school to learn to play the violin better and study with a maestro, and we don't question people going to art school to throw paint around and improve their art. It's about offering people a space to practise.
One of my great beliefs is that great writers are all great readers. I see too many creative writing students, particularly young ones, who don’t read enough and think you can just blitz it right away. Without exception the people who have that kind of rhythm to their writing are those who have absorbed it from reading broadly. The book goes into the pros and cons of creative writing classes, but I certainly wouldn’t advise everybody to throw loads of money at a formal course. If they can join the workshop round the corner in their pub, they might get just as much out of it.
I've just finished writing my first novel. What should I do next?
I think the most important step is still to get an agent. They are the filter if you want to get a deal with a major publisher. I only know of two smaller publishers who will read work that people send in direct. The big global players will only look at stuff that agents submit. I'd also recommend people using the internet to post their work up on sites that are relevant to what they're doing, and entering competitions. I got my first agent through entering a competition. Getting your work in the literary press also helps. There is more than one way to get an agent.
What are the dangers of self-publishing online?
The problem is that so many people are doing the same thing. It's fine if you're a well-known writer, but the issue for people who decide to go it alone and self-publish is how do they find their readers? I think that's about finding a community both locally, through doing readings, and on the internet. That can be a bit easier if you’re a genre fiction writer.
Are there any embarrassing moments you can recall from earlier on in your career?
Absolutely. One was early in my career when I was in my 20s and quite immature. I was named 'Cosmopolitan New Journalist of the Year'. I was terribly shy in those days and got a little over exited, had too much to drink and made a complete fool of myself to the editor at this lunch, who clearly thought I was an idiot.
The second one was when I had lunch with my new publisher. I was much older, but again it was just nerves. I behaved in a really arrogant way and blithered on about myself in a tedious manner. I think I can across as a fairly appalling character. I didn't listen. One of the things I say in the book is that if you meet your publisher, listen to what they have to say, be 'on receive'. I cringe when I think about those lunches. When you have a break through it's easy to get a bit silly but you have to go into it like a professional and treat it like a business situation.
What are the main pieces of advice you'd give an aspiring writer?
If the question is 'how do I become a published writer', I'd say: write the best possible book that you can. Don't take no for an answer, but do listen to positive criticism. And keep writing. Write more books. The more you’ve got to offer, the more chance you've got.
Sally O'Reilly is the author of two published novels and has had short stories published in the UK, Australia and South Africa. She is a winner of the Cosmopolitan prize for new journalists and a runner-up for both the Cosmopolitan short story award and the Ian St James prize. You can purchase a copy of 'How To Be A Writer' on Amazon.