Handy quiz: Are you a writer?

Do you ever wonder if you’ll ever make it as a writer? Do you dream of jacking in the day-job and scribbling your opus on a beach somewhere? Or if are you afraid that dream will never come true, and your book will never make it out off the hard drive? Well, take my handy quiz and find out the answer to the question:



Are you a writer?

  1. When you were little did you:

Enjoy team sports and play well with others?  (1)

Force friends and family to appear in plays and sketches of your own devising? (2)

You didn’t play much – just read books in a corner on your own? (3)

  1. How long can you sit in a room on your own?

You struggle to be alone for more than a few hours, and couldn’t imagine working from home. You’d miss the buzz of a workplace. (1)

You’d enjoy working from home so long as you got out regularly. (2)

Now that you think of it, you haven’t opened your front door in four days. (3)

  1. How quickly do you reply to emails?

You have a careful system of triage, answering them in order of importance and filing others. (1)

Usually within the day. (2)

You’re writing the answer practically before you’ve read it. (3)

  1. You tidy your desk:

Once a week, to stop things building up. You have an organised filing system and you keep spreadsheets of accounts. (1)

When you get round to it –  once a month or so. (2)

Never, unless you have a deadline, and then absolutely must arrange your Post-its by colour and size, put your year’s receipts in chronological order, and make the world’s longest paper-clip chain.(3)

  1. What is the highest number of words you can imagine writing in one day?

You used to struggle writing essays of 2,000 words – probably no more than 500. (1)

Maybe about 2,000, on a good day,. (2)

When you’re really going, 10,000. 15,000. Easy. You won’t sleep or eat but WHO CARES! (3)

  1. You are arrested. Is your first thought:

This is terrible. My life is ruined. (1)

This is an outrage. Call my lawyer! (2)

This is brilliant. I wonder if I can interview the guards and take notes on the prison-cell toilet paper. (3)

  1. What is your chosen attire for a day at home?

You like to be smart in case someone calls round – neat clean clothes, maybe a touch of makeup, washed and styled hair (1)

Casual – jeans, clean top, and you’ll always brush your hair (2)

Inkstained pyjamas/tracksuit, pens stuck in your hair, dog hairs, Post-its clinging to your body (3)

  1. You get crushes on:

Real-life, suitable human beings only. (1)

Celebrities, people on Facebook, and the man in the corner shop. (2)

All of the above, plus fictional characters and people you’ve invented in your own head. (3)

  1. You get ideas for stories

Never. You’re not sure how people do this. (1)

You’ve had two or three, but if you’re honest some of them are actually things that happened to you or your family, thinly veiled. (2)

In bed at 4am. In the shower. On the bus. At the gym. While listening to friends tell you tragic things that happened to them. Watching TV. Reading the paper. While tragic things are happening to you yourself. At the garden centre. (3)

10. Your favourite occupation on public transport is:

Put on your iPod and try to shut out all the annoying passengers. (1)

Read your book and immerse yourself in stories (2).

Eavesdrop on what people say and surreptitiously scribble it down on the back of your ticket. Miss your stop because you want to find out whether Brenda did leave Tim for the gardener in the end. (3).



0-15 It’s unlikely you’ll be a writer. In fact, do you really want to be? Do you want to put in the hours of slog and go round muttering to yourself like a mad person? Didn’t think so. If all you want is mild fame/ your name on a book, there are easier ways. Try going on Big Brother or sleeping with a footballer, then someone else will write your book for you and you’ll be quids in. Result! Otherwise, have you considered training as an accountant?

15-25 You could possibly make it as a writer, if you’re prepared to adapt to an existence of long days of toil, sitting on your own in front of a computer, occasionally whimpering and banging your head off the keyboard. Make things easier on yourself and try to lose all social skills/stop combing your hair/become borderline agoraphobic.

25 or more: You are already a writer. Your book will definitely be published soon, because you are mental enough to stop at nothing until it happens. Congratulations! Either that or you’re already published.  Stop wasting time here and get back to your book. I’m watching you.

Down copy-edit crevasse

I like to think I know my way around a sentence. After all, I spend most of my waking hours reading or writing something (yeah, I’m really fun to be around). I have an English degree and am a fully paid-up grammar pedant. Despite this, there are hundreds of rules in English that I’m still not sure of. This ignorance has been thrown into sharp relief by the experience of going through a copy-edit.

A copy-edit, you say? What is this ‘copy-edit’ you speak of? The best way to describe it is probably one step up from a proof-read – consistencies, errors, recurring grammar issues – and one down from a full-on structural edit.

A copy-edit is nowhere near as painful as an actual edit. No need to make heart-swooping culls and patches, no need to perform open-heart surgery on the plot. The most difficult thing I’ve had to sort out is the location of the door in one of my character’s flats. So more like removing an ingrown toenail than having your spleen removed. It’s hard work all the same though; the kind of manual drudgery that goes into writing a book after the creative energy has burned out. The slogging, page-by-page work that everyone has to do. What’s interesting is to discover all the grammar tics I don’t understand. I don’t know the difference between ‘t’ and ‘ed’ past-participle endings, except that I’m getting them wrong. I don’t know when to use a hyphen and when to use a dash, or even what the difference is, or where they are on a keyboard. Is it makeup or ‘make-up’? Does the Tube have a capital ‘t’ or not? Is golden syrup a brand-name? It’s a morass (morasse?) of mistakes.  

On the whole I’ve found being copy-edited a humbling experience. When you spend however-many years writing the book and showing it to no one (no-one?), the idea of a team’s worth of expertise being focused (focussed?) on your wayward prose is astonishing. Someone has cared enough to work through my beast of a book and remember that on page 4 I said there was a buzzer, while on page 107 I said someone knocked on the heroine’s door. They know the threads running through the book better than I do, almost.

During the week I was also invited to the party of my brilliant publishers, Headline (I know, I know – feel free to hate me now). It was indeed a swanky do, with cocktails, dancing, and herds of glamorous people (those skulking wide-eyed in the corner were the writers). It made me realise what a huge team is behind every professionally published (professionally-published?) book that appears on the shelves. Editors, assistants, copy-editors, proof-readers, publicists, designers. Although my book is still under wraps, a whole array of people already read it months ago. And it’s being worked on behind the scenes every day – cover, flap copy, proofing, copy-edits, and so on.

That’s why, despite rumblings about self-publishing, everyone really wants to be picked up by a commercial house. So, if you think your book is finished, ask yourself – is it really ready to be passed round on submission, read by this expert team? Does it speak for itself or do you have to explain it? (Because you can’t) For every book with a consistent spelling of focused/focussed, someone did that. You don’t corral a vast scrappy MS into a published book by yourself. Rather you get a makeover for your prose, a scrub-up, a Challenge Anneka-style renovation of its rickety struts, dry rot, and dodgy wiring. And hopefully if people read my book and are not confused by the location of the door in Charlotte’s flat, the team’s work is done.

Published in a year

Is it possible? Yes, it’s totally possible to write and sell a book in a year. To prove this, let me tell you a self-indulgent and possibly boring story. But go on, listen anyway.

Today was the Writers’ and Artists Getting Published conference. A year ago, I was there myself. I’d booked it full of tentative trepidation. I’d finally decided I was going to commit to my writing and go to an event. I’m not quite sure why, but this was my first, because despite my life-long dream of being a writer, I’d never invested any time or money in it at all. With hindsight, I think I was afraid to try.

So, it was June 2010. I’d finished my first book several months before and begun to submit. The third agent asked for more, liked it but not enough, suggested another to send it to. The fourth agent asked for more within two weeks. I was massively excited and settled in to wait. As it happens I didn’t hear back from them for six months, but by June 2010 it had only been six weeks. I was still full of foolish optimism.

Then I sat in the conference and listened to talk after talk about how difficult it is to get published, how some agents only take on a client every four years, how dire things are in the industry, how there are something like 100,000 new books published every year in the UK. My optimism started to shrivel. I was just one of hundreds of writers there, desperately hoping, watching the published authors on stage with a jealousy that was almost palpable (out of interest, why don’t more aspiring writers get arrested?)

I didn’t stop. I had the start of another book, and over the rest of the summer, I finished it – 100,000 words in three months. At the end of the summer I found out the agent who had my first book was turning it down. I carried on with the second one. Then, mostly unedited and on a whim, I submitted it to a competition for new writers. By November, I’d found out I was shortlisted, and I started getting emails from agents and even publishers. By December I’d signed with an agent, and by Christmas she had it out on submission and an early offer. By February it was sold in a two-book deal, the book I’d barely started nine months before.

Now it’s June again. Book two has been edited twice and is now being copy-edited. There’s jacket copy. It’s available to pre-order on Amazon. Soon there’ll be a cover and hopefully it might appear overseas too. I’ve been able to quit my job, and I’ve been to lots of writing events as a member of that privileged circle. Although the book isn’t out yet, I feel like one of the people on the stage, not in the audience.

So, sorry if you’ve heard that story before, but I feel it bears repeating, and I know that last year sitting in that audience, I’d have liked to hear it myself. I’d be the first to say I was lucky. First, that the competition ran, and I heard about it in time to enter. Second, that I signed with a publisher who were willing to bring the book out quickly (a year being quick in publishing). But I’d say the single most key decision was that I accepted the first book maybe wasn’t going to be published, and wrote something else. And that I learned as much as I could in the meantime about the business of writing. Oh, and having an online profile, so prospective agents could track me down.

If you’re in the situation I was last year, and perhaps you’ve been sitting disheartened in an audience, it is totally possible to change this around in a year or less. A writing friend of mine and myself have coined a phrase for this – ‘Wrote it, sold it.’ (Following on from another conversation, this has been extended to: ‘Wrote it, sold it, got invited to the Oscars’. Maybe one day….) If your current book isn’t working, write something else. Learn from what’s gone before. Go to events. The next one could do it. Then you can walk round saying ‘Wrote it, sold it, job done’. And everyone can hate you too with a jealousy that is almost palpable. That’s the dream, no?

The care and feeding of a writer

This week I acquired a puppy. He’s cute and cuddly. He has droopy ears that drag in his water bowl, a waggly tail, and a sweet face. He also has a wide range of needs and if they don’t get met you’re in for a whole world of whining, barking, and accidental emissions of bodily fluids. The dog has capricious moods and humours. One minute he wants to lie on your lap and have his tummy tickled, the next he wants to chew up your feet.  He digs entire tunnels in the garden (how?). He eats stones, laptop cables, shoes, and rubbish. He barks if you ignore him for two minutes. He jumps on the keyboard and deletes precious words. In short, if you don’t take care of the dog, he’ll let you know about it.

So here’s today’s spurious link to the writing process. Having now adjusted to my third month working from home – has it really been that long! Time flies etc. – I’ve realised there are certain things writers need. Scribes, you may want to send this to your family, your housemates, and your second-cousins-twice-removed.  That way they’ll know how to look after you and you won’t be forced to utilise their shoes as a lavatory. Because unless you are a cute puppy with dark sorrowful eyes, this isn’t the way to win friends and influence people.

The care and feeding of a writer:

Nourishment – writers need to feed themselves. Not just with chocolate cake and biscuits, although those are welcome. We also need stories, books, films, hell, even episodes of Friends on a loop, sometimes. Ideas are like plants blooming in waste ground – the seeds have to come from somewhere. If we’re slumped on the sofa watching How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, while shovelling Kettle Chips into our mouths, it’s probably highly essential thinking time, so go away and stop asking if you can watch Match of the Day. You’re derailing the creative process, probably.

Massage – not just a bit of shiatsu action, to soothe the aching shoulders of hours hunched over a laptop, but also some light ego-massage. It’s not easy spending hours pounding out words, then putting them out for people to see and judge. Having your work pulled apart and prodded, snipped and tucked. Sometimes we want and need robust feedback, but don’t forget to pay us lovely compliments, and if we’re feeling low, just tell us everything we’ve written is entirely amazing and we don’t need to move so much as a comma on page 24.

Distractions – Jingly toys, chew sticks, and squeakers – dogs have all the fun. Writers have Twitter. And Facebook. And blogs. And seventeen different email accounts. Anything to avoid typing the next line in our opus.  The trick is to distract the conscious part of the mind with fluff, while some deeper part churns out the deep ideas. And of course the most important thing is….ooh, look, a jingly thing!

Exercise – Writers get fat. You sit on your arse all day frowning at a small screen (writers also probably get wrinkles early). So we need actual exercise, if we are to preserve any semblance of our former beauty. But we also need to exercise our writing muscles. This might mean trying things that don’t work, pushing ourselves in new ways, and possibly some light sweating/panting/groaning. If we end up throwing out much of what we do, that’s us flexing our muscles, to hopefully get better. And like exercise, you can’t let up with writing. A day without writing means that tomorrow, it will be harder. Even a weekend can mean the muscles ache again on Monday and it takes that bit longer to find our stride. So if we can’t do any housework or gardening or go to the shops at the weekend, this is why. Honest guv.

Rest – When the book’s really going well it’s hard to switch off. We might find ourselves lying awake puzzling out the solution to a plot point, or plagued by ideas, scribbling in the dark on bits of scrap paper. So we need sleep. Equally, we might also need to switch off from writing for a while, or do something easier. Like write shopping lists, or read a book. This may contradict what I just said above, but remember, like dogs, writers are also capricious creatures. Now, where’s my chew toy?



Some feminine tosh

A disclaimer: I write the following as a card-carrying feminist. I’m in the Fawcett Society, I’ve been to Feminism in London three years running, and I even have the T-shirt:

This is what a feminist looks like

So this is no Daily Mail-style shut-up-and-stop-whinging-girls diatribe. But I’ve been wondering of late – do women still need special treatment in writing?

Oops, that sounded a bit like Carrie Bradshaw there. But it’s come up a few times over the past few weeks – do we need women-only writing competitions? I’ll limit my observations to writing only as I don’t know much about anything else. The Orange prize is the most obvious, but there are also several female-only competitions for unpublished writers. In fact, in the writing competition I was in, which catapulted me to stardom (or, you know, whatever it is I’m in) the three shortlisters were me and two men. In other words, I’d have won if it was women-only. Would I have felt good about that, or that I didn’t really ‘win’ in the true sense? (like if Nadal’s out of the tennis with an injury or something). Does winning a women-only competition devalue it is some way, like we aren’t good enough to compete with men on their own turf? On the other hand, in the official bit of the Dylan Thomas Prize (for published authors under 30), there was only one man and five women.  And no, the lone male didn’t win.

Personally, starting out as a female writer, I don’t feel any discrimination. I do think they judge you on the words alone. But if I was writing something more literary, perhaps it would start to bite. The Orange Prize was started for a reason – when, in 1991, not a single female author made the list for the Booker Prize. And even now women have only won 12 times out of 33.  

And when old male authors still feel they can say things like this – http://www.npr.org/2011/06/05/136972490/naipauls-comments-reflective-of-hubris perhaps we do need to keep on promoting women and our ‘feminine tosh’. (I actually feel a bit sorry for VS, who has clearly lost the plot and thinks he’s living in Victorian times where women aren’t ‘heads of households’. *Head-desk*).

Perhaps the prejudice goes hand-in-hand with genre bias. In Northanger Abbey, written in 1798, Jane Austen was pretty scathing about people who say, ‘oh, it is only a novel’. ‘In short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’ Now the novel has been accepted as our main print medium, you could replace that with ‘oh, it’s only crime/romance/sci-fi’. In other words, it’s only what people actually buy, and read, and enjoy.

Do people care if a book’s written by a man or a woman? When I was younger male children’s writers used to sometimes adopt female pseudonyms, and vice-versa – there’s a persistent rumour that JK Rowling chose that name instead of ‘Joanne’ so she wouldn’t put off boy readers. Have we now moved past this? There have also been recent rumblings about the lack of women in sci-fi and other genres, and in terms of reviews, recent research showed that up to 83% of coverage in literary magazines was written by, and about books by, men. The reason for this, according to the TLS, is that women basically read the kind of thing a literary magazine would never deign to review. Books about- shudder- relationships! Love! Family! And with people buying shoes all the time! (I paraphrase). This comment alone makes me want to batter him round the head with my Complete Works of Shakespeare. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/04/research-male-writers-dominate-books-world

So, I started off writing this thinking maybe we don’t need our own competitions any more, and perhaps they’ve done their work. But having read all the above articles I have now convinced myself that sadly it seems we do still need something to even out the score. If not a competition then perhaps the penalty for sexism shall be having to be the PA of a female writer for a month. I wouldn’t mind VS Naipaul making me tea. At least until people like old VS get their heads out of their books and realise sexism has no place in writing, or in the modern world. Rather than special treatment, I think we’d all like it if someone could just read the damn book and not the name on the front.

Desperately Seeking Inkstains

Bit of a weird thing, having a public profile. Yesterday I discovered my book is available for pre-order on Amazon – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Claire-McGowan/dp/0755386345/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1306932185&sr=8-2 despite the fact it doesn’t come out for eight months and I’m still editing. Scary, scary stuff. I’ve written before about the different steps in being a writer. It hasn’t happened yet, but I imagine the moment someone actually buys your book is a special one. Or even the moment someone you don’t know or aren’t related to buys it.

Further to this, I just this week clicked on the ‘search terms’ function for WordPress, which lets you find out what people were looking for when they stumbled on your blog. This makes for amusing reading. Quite a few people were looking for my agent, for example (you’re welcome, Fran….) and a fair few for ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (I didn’t think I talked about it THAT much). Others were searching for ‘life of a writer’ (hopefully they learned it is: non-glamorous, geeky, and involves wearing mittens a lot). Someone searched for ‘checks email obsessively’ – yes, guilty as charged. That is also part of being a writer. Someone for ‘have got RSI at work is it fair’ – I feel that searcher’s pain. I have near-permanent RSI; like eating too many biscuits and being a bit bonkers, it is an occupational hazard. Luckily we don’t have health and safety assessments, or we’d all fail. Someone wanted to know ‘why are writers hermits’, and I like to think this blog answers that question – because we are bonkers/obsessive/anti-social. Another wanted to find ‘best pen consistent non-leaky work’, and if they found it, well, I wish they’d let me know.

Sadly, a few people came across me while looking for ‘torrent’ copies of books I’ve mentioned, like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I presume this means they are looking to download it for free, and I can’t think of a title less appropriate. The book is all about opening up in your writing, generosity, the art of Zen. Nicking her work isn’t the best pay-back, is it?

So it’s odd, being out there in the public domain, while simultaneously sitting at home wrapped in cardigans and hunched over your laptop like a mad crone. I imagine as I move towards publication (eight months still!) this might increase. I’ll keep you posted.