Q&A

The most common questions strangers ask after "And what do YOU do...?" Plus advice for young people, and anyone else starting to write...
How did you get into writing?
It came naturally, and little else did. I started from when I could hold a pen, then on manual and electric typewriters at home when I was little (yes, I’m old enough – just), then on a PC, or under the table during Double Science. At 15 I decided I wanted to go into journalism because I thought that was how a writer could earn a living. Teenage innocence is a wonderful thing…

 

How do I get into writing?
It depends what kind of writing you want to do and why, but basically, by doing it, and doing it as much as possible. If you’re in your early twenties and you’ve never lost a job, walked out of one crying, or been asked by a Maths teacher: “Did you forget to write your name on this, or just want to remain anonymous?” there’s probably a better career for you in something else. If nothing else you’ve ever done has made you (or anyone else) happier, it’s probably what you’re best at. Many writers and publishing pros cut their teeth writing fan fiction as teenagers and beyond, which I slightly regret not doing because it’s a great way of finding your tribe when you’re young, as well as learning about writing (and, um, certain other things, so I’m told…). Just as many people start to write later in life as part of a career change, or once their children are older. It also helps if you have an ear for detail, a long-term memory that scares your best friends, and a tendency towards obsessions (ideally ones you can monetise well, but don’t ask me what those are…).
Where do your ideas come from?
Mine usually build from an acute sense of wanting to address something and a vaguer sense of why or how. I’m not especially moved by anything in particular; writing’s just how I process most things.
Do you self-publish / crowdfund your writing? Everyone does now, don’t they?

No,  I don’t and no, they don’t. To crowdfund or self-publish well, you need marketing experience, self-belief and contacts. Self-publishing and crowdfunding are great for types of writing which are easier to sell directly to an audience than through a traditional publisher; like poetry, family history, essay collections, specialist non-fiction, and some genres of fiction which not many agents handle. They appeal to people who want more control over their work, including aspects of marketing which are usually decided by a publisher, like where it’s sold and what goes on the cover. They aren’t so great if you want to write more than one book; or for novels, unless you’ve got a large audience as an expert in something and your novel will appeal to that audience.

I want to self-publish / crowdfund my book, can you help me?
I don’t know anything about self-publishing; The Writers And Artists Yearbook has a guide to the process, and lots of people I know have crowdfunded books through Unbound. When I can, I support crowdfunded work that fits in with my interests; especially involving people who are underrepresented, under-confident or under-connected.
When can I call myself a writer?
I do it because it’s the only thing I do well enough to be paid. When you choose to is up to you.
What kinds of stories do you like reading and watching?
I like stories involving plucky outsiders, difficult conversations, and women doing things in general. I like writers whose experiences don’t easily fit into either every usual old box or every new and rare box. Above all, I like recognising what I know and learning about what I don’t.  Two books I wish I’d written are Allan Hollinghurst’s THE LINE OF BEAUTY and Zoe Heller’s NOTES ON A SCANDAL. As in life, I’m not big into romance or violence.
How do you know when something you’re writing is really finished?
According to someone better-placed to answer this than me (and I can vouch for it), you know whether or not you’ve finished when you know whether the structure is really right for the story you want to tell.
What else are you good at doing?
Not much, although my post-30 revelation that it might be emotionally healthy to try something else led to a love of running and horse riding. Like Vonny in my WIP, I built small websites and kept blogs throughout my late teens and twenties, although, unlike her, mine were generally more devoted to quoting song lyrics than looking for gainful employment. I’m a decent singer but I don’t take drugs and I like getting paid to work, which doesn’t get you far in the music industry. Or in music journalism for that matter, although I got far enough there to make the shortlist for Chief Sub at Record Collector magazine at 24, and to mark the 20th anniversary of Tori Amos’s ‘Little Earthquakes’ for The Quietus.
What jobs have you had outside writing or the media?
They’ve included working as a learning support assistant to children with speech and language needs, cleaning floors and bathrooms on location for a TV production company, stuffing envelopes at a tobacco company, data entry, the usual temping, cat-sitting and babysitting. And notably brief youthful stints in retail, charity shops and call centres…
Did you write the piece about Dyspraxia for the Guardian?
This one, yes. I also wrote this page of common questions about Dyspraxia, which answers pretty much everything I’m asked about it as well as I’m able to. If you’re interested in journalism, Jessica Reed, one of the Guardian’s desk editors at the time who now works for Guardian US, has written a helpful guide to pitching for freelance writers. Many big publications have similar guides, like this one at BuzzFeed; some run graduate schemes. There are also books and short courses on freelance journalism for beginners. For anything to do with the Guardian or the Dyspraxia Foundation, please contact them directly.
Really though, how do I get into writing?
Really though, no one person or place alone can tell you that. Writing is a path laid down by you, not for you. It’s not like going to medical school or law school where you learn this about arteries or that about probates and boom, you’re a doctor or lawyer. It’s not like most of big business, where you should follow the latest market trends or the leader in your field. People write for different reasons. Most people who write full-time do various different kinds of writing, and tutor or mentor other writers. The Literary Consultancy, and Nicola Morgan  (the writer, not the politician…) give great advice. You can learn a lot by taking notice of people, their accomplishments and their mistakes, especially what writers have got right or wrong around story concept and timeliness. But what’s true or right for one person may not be for another. Get to know people, but never expect someone to have all the answers, and leg it if they claim to –  especially anyone guaranteeing you’ll earn a living or get published by doing their thing. Most of all, be sure of why you want to write, be sure it’s for healthy reasons, and ask career questions out of genuine warmth towards whoever you’re asking. As writer Daisy Buchanan brilliantly puts it, people who collect career advice are sometimes more envious of other people’s assumed lives than interested in their work. My best relationships with writers and performers are open, empathetic and mutually-supportive. My worst ones have been where I felt more drawn to someone by their contended public face than because they were doing anything worth me being interested in.
But writing is literally all I can do; how do I survive?

Many writers get questions about writing from people who want to write. Then there are those who have to write, and it’s heartbreaking because I’m one of those people too and I want to offer quick and easy solutions, but I can’t. Without being Royal, taking your clothes off or breaking the law, there are basically four ways to manage while you’re building up experience: 1) Support from the Arts Council, often through regional arts organisations, 2) The support of family (which matters emotionally, not just financially…), 3) Support from private donors who fund work that they enjoy and enjoy yours, and 4) A partner’s salary. I’ve variously had all of these, except the last one, which has never sat right with me but I judge no-one else if it works for them, which it does for plenty…