Get started in writing – a six-point plan

At the weekend, I took part in a writing Q&A at Henley Literary Festival. There were many interesting questions – should I have a website? (yes, crucial for interested agents and other parties to find you and is easy and free); do I have to use social media (publishers might ask you to but it’s only worth it if you like it, as it really shows otherwise); do you plot in advance (big no from me, big yes from Tasmina Perry). But the one that stood out for me was from one lady who simply asked: ‘How do you start?’

I wasn’t sure if she meant how do you get started in writing/publishing, or how you start a book. How to start a book is a whole other question so for now I’ll answer the first part. Here’s how I got my ‘break’.

  1. I decided, after years of starting novels I never finished, I had to actually write a whole one, or I’d always be cross with myself. I was 25 at this point (but was somehow convinced I was already too old and had failed….)
  2. I wrote a book (three years on and off, deleting, adding, circling back on myself, agonising). I also took a writing class at City Lit.
  3. I sat on the book for six months as I was too scared to send it out
  4. I bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and I sent the book to an agent. I chose them because they were based in my town, and they took email submissions (this was five years ago when you still had to sneakily use your work printer to make loads of copies of your book, and I imagine they nearly all prefer email now). I also started going to some writing events
  5. The agent said no. My first rejection. Not as awful as I’d imagined – after all there was still a whole book full of agents to try.
  6. I sent it to one other person, who also said no. Then I sent it to a friend’s agent, who liked it and requested the full MS, but felt it wasn’t for them. They suggested another, quite big agent. I sent it to them. They asked for the full manuscript within a week. Brilliant! I thought I had made it.
  7. Six months went by. (I was pretty dumb about my submissions strategy, as in, I didn’t have one, and I didn’t realise it was OK to send out multiple submissions as long as you kept the agent informed). So I got impatient. And discouraged.
  8. Because I am impatient, and a bit dumb, and also quite a fast writer, I wrote another book. It was started in April and finished in August. I was working full-time at the time – yes, this is entirely possible if you have a good idea of your story and like to write quickly.
  9. A friend emailed to let me know about a competition for unpublished novels. This is now sadly defunct but there are some others around, such as Mslexia and the Debut Dagger. I debated which book to send – just-finished three-monther or bled-and-sweated-over three-yearer? I had about five minutes to decide, as the competition closed that day. I could very easily have talked myself out of entering it, with such a short deadline. I sent off the new one.
  10. I got long-listed. Brilliant! Much joy! Then I got short-listed. Even more joy. Our names were printed in the Bookseller. And I started being contacted by agents and editors. Just imagine how exciting that was.
  11. I signed with an agent and she sent the book out (again this was five years ago. I imagine now it would be edited before submission.)
  12. It sold. There was some to-ing and fro-ing but I had a deal within eight months of starting the book. Yes, of starting. Again, this is entirely possible.

I think novel-writers are fortunate in that there is still a very clear path into writing, even if you know no-one and are the world’s most terrified introvert. Most authors will have variations on that story – deals lost and gained, changes of pseudonym, first and second and third books (and more) that didn’t sell, agents left and publishers ditched and ditching, twists and turns in the road. The journey will never be as straightforward as it seems. So how do you get started?

  1. Write book (simples, of course) >>
  2. Start going to writing events, following publishing types on Twitter, and maybe take a submissions class (the W&A yearbook do them). Work out from these methods which agents are actively looking for new writers and like your kind of stuff >>
  3. Really work on your pitch, letter, and synopsis (should be done after all the creative hard work of the book is complete) >>
  4. Send to agents >>
  5. If you get interest, establish if the agent wants to take you on, and if they are planning to send your book out now or after you’ve done some work on it, or whether they’d want to wait longer>>
  6. If this doesn’t work, write another book. Or take an MA or other writing class. Or get a manuscript critique. Or self-publish.

It’s almost like a flowchart – work out where you are and what your n
ext step should be. There will of course be ups and downs – agents who are not clear as to whether they’ve signed you or not is one possible issue I’ve noticed – but I promise you it can be that simple. The key is to keep each stage of the process moving, and not get stuck. Good luck!

(image taken from this useful post –


One Comment Add yours

  1. Imelda says:

    Hi Claire. My name is Imelda and I was the one who asked that question (and many others to the point of almost hogging the entire workshop). Thank you for answering the question. I’m glad you wrote further about it. The workshop has given me a bit of a push to sort out some of my work and get it ready for submission. I’m still working on it and after I’ll just take the plunge :). I’m very nervous about it and afraid of rejection but I’ll never know unless I try. Thank you for supporting wannabe authors like me.

    P.S. if I wanted to use a pseudonym, shall I put it on the manuscript or wait for an agent to reply?

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