THE BLOG

So You Want to be a Novelist?

24/02/2015 15:33 GMT | Updated 20/04/2015 10:59 BST

The other day my Twitter feed was crackling with the news that 60% of British folk would love to be an author. In an age of unparalleled access to so many forms of arguably easier entertainment, it's pretty cheering to see how many still value novels.

I'm still giddy at being able to call myself an author but to be clear, I'm writing this from the lofty position of someone yet to read their own Amazon reviews. I'm yet to give a single promotional interview, yet to nervously await sales figures. I'm a noob. I don't know the lingo and I have a head full of dreams. I guess I'm like one of those plucky naive kids in the 30s arriving in Hollywood and thinking I've made it because I'm here. But until recently I wasn't here, I was sitting with the 60%, so I'm going to say some stuff.

I wanted to be an author my whole life. As soon as I could write, I wrote. I produced little books, distributing them among my family. At nine, I wrote my first 'novel'. Except I didn't, because it was about 20 pages long but that didn't stop my supportive mum photocopying it on the down-low at work so I could - again - distribute it among family. Hey, at least I knew it was about readership, right?

I wrote and wrote and wrote. I read and read and read. I was like the The Very Hungry Caterpillar, eating my way through all the genres. Everything I read influenced everything I wrote and these early forgeries - or pastiches, if you want to be kind - helped me to learn structure and tone and all that good stuff. But they were awful.

At 17, I wrote - hahahahaHA! - an 'avant garde novella' and I thank my lucky stars that it has long been destroyed. I even designed some front covers to helpfully send to the publishers that would surely be clamouring to snap me up. Oh GOD. We're talking about a story where the three characters were genuinely called Narrator, Protagonist and Author. Yeah, exactly. Don't worry, I distributed that among my poor friends too, I really had that whole distribution thing nailed by then.

So I wanted to be an author. Perhaps like others in the 60%, I had the romantic idea of a desk, an old typewriter (in reality, I had a Windows 486 PC...), pots of coffee and French cigarettes. I wanted to be an author SO BADLY that when I left college, I became... a call centre operative. Also, a sales administrator, marketing 'executive', IT trainer (doomed, that was bloody doomed, no-one needs the kind of person that writes terrible avant garde novellas teaching them to use manufacturing software) and so on.

Now don't get me wrong, I kept up the writing. On the side. I wrote for the local paper, I wrote travel guides occasionally and I wrote about music. I wrote short stories and I eventually - at 23 - got a job that actually involved writing and editing.

I eventually finished a novel I was actually proud of in my thirties. I was 34 when it was sold to publishers. I'd been taken on by a brilliant agent days before my 33rd birthday and she put tonnes of work into helping me to get that manuscript into the best shape it could be. Doing that in my thirties, I could do that without any arrogance. I totally bowed to her expertise. She was right on every single point. At 17, or even at 21 and graduate age - I might not have recognised how little I knew. I'm ashamed to say I might even have argued with requested changes, had any agent been bonkers enough to take on any of my dodgy output back then.

I'm a rookie sample of one. I know that plenty of writers produce bestsellers, beloved page turners and incredible, genre-defining classics in their early twenties. I mean, Helena Coggan is 15 and I've checked, her novel The Catalyst definitely doesn't have three characters called Narrator, Protagonist and Author. But my point is that it's rare. There are plenty of debuts printed in later years that are all the better for the years of life pickled into them. Post Office was published when Charles Bukowski was 51. The Big Sleep when Raymond Chandler was 44 and - because no blog post about becoming a novelist is complete without her - JK Rowling was nearly 32 when the first Harry Potter was published.

If you're one of the 60% that wants to be an author, but it hasn't happened yet, there are tonnes of helpful guides to plotting, writing, editing and pitching out there. But my unsolicited but well-meaning advice is just keep living your life, keep reading and never stop writing.