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So YOU want to be an author...

By Simon Scarrow

I often get asked for advice by writers who have not yet been published. Most want to know what is the best way of getting into print. Before I go any further it's important that you know that the odds of a writer getting published are quite daunting. Something like less than one half of one percent of people submitting material to agents and publishers ultimately make it into print. Bear in mind that most writers never even get as far as completing a manuscript to submit in the first place. As you can see, it's not a very encouraging situation.

However, let's assume that, like me, you have had a burning desire to be an author for as long as you can remember. What can you do to improve your chances?

Step 1: Read a lot

And I mean a lot. And read widely. It is vital that you get a sense of the variety of writing styles there is out there. As you read, ask yourself how you are responding to what's on the page in front of you. Are you compelled to read on, past the point which you had anticipated? If so, try to understand what aspects of plot and style have forced you to read on. Are there certain sentences or phrases that strike you in any way, or ring true about life? Equally useful, is there anything that irritates you as you read? Try and identify what irks you so. For example, I almost didn't get beyond the first page of a recent best seller when the author started describing in great detail the features on the face of the albino killer, who was first described as being in silhouette...

Step 2: Write a lot

And I mean a lot. I once read that being a writer was not a hobby, it was an affliction. That rings true for me. I'm forever thinking about new stories, trying out opening chapters etc. Only a small proportion of these ideas ends up on the to do files of my word processor. It is hugely helpful to surround yourself with other writers. Join a writers' group. But be careful. Many are run as therapy groups where someone reads out their material and then there is a polite silence before they wait for their terribly significant and personal experience to be validated by the other members. Avoid these people (unless of course you just want to swap meaningful experiences - there's nothing wrong with that). Instead find a group where the focus is wholly on the writing and the group members offer detailed critiques of your writing and leave the autobiographical stuff at the door. And write regularly. Set yourself targets as in I will not stop until I have completed 1,000 words. Occasionally I hire a cottage for a week to concentrate on launching myself into a new book. The pattern is to write 2,000 words in the morning. Then have lunch and go for a long walk on the beach. Then write 2,000 words in the afternoon, have dinner, a bath and then write 2,000 words in the evening. By the end of the week I usually have a fifth to a quarter of the book in the bag.

Carry a notebook at all times. My best ideas come late at night, on the train, whilst walking the dog etc. Believe me, that finely turned phrase, killer idea, will be lost unless it is immediately set down on paper.

Some writers ask me if it is worth applying to do a Creative Writing course. I have mixed feelings about creative writing courses. It strikes me as Oxymoronic that a person can be taught to be creative. Encouraged yes, but taught? Once I applied to the UEA for a place on the MA. I was sent a brochure that advised me to read the published work of previous students and see if my work was like theirs in which case I would stand a good chance of being seriously considered. I was rather disenchanted to discover that the course was simply designed to encourage yet another literary canon and decided not to bother taking the application any further.

One final thing. Forget writing about what you know about. Writing is creative. It is liberating and one of its real rewards is the point at which you become transported into the world you describe and it becomes almost alive to your senses.

Step 3: Research the market

Analyse the bestseller lists. Go into the book shops and see what is selling well. Soon you'll have a handle on which genres to avoid and which you feel confident you could tackle.

Step 4: Buy yourself a copy of THE WRITER’S HANDBOOK

Draw up a short list (or even a long one) of agencies you will submit your material to. Frankly I would forget a direct approach to publishers since they tend to use agents as a filtering process for submissions and very, very, very rarely even look at unagented submissions. DON'T waste time sending letters to agents. Call them on the phone. Most are happy enough to spare you the time for a brief chat and you can outline your project and get an immediate decision on whether it is worth sending it in. Better still, if you have provoked some interest then the agent will be looking out for your material in the post.

Step 5: Don’t give up!

If you really are one of the afflicted then this piece of advice won't apply since nothing can stop you from continuing. If you aren't afflicted then perhaps you really should consider some better use of your time.

Step 6: Be Lucky

You'll need some luck as well as talent. Getting published is about the right manuscript landing on the right desk at the right moment. If you get turned down it might have something to do with the quality of your material. On the other hand the agent might well be in a grumpy mood the morning he/she opens your envelope. And be optimistic.