The most common questions strangers ask after "And what do YOU do...?" or when they're interested in writing. Not because I feel especially qualified to give advice, but because I'm asked for it, and searching for answers is something I can certainly relate to...
How did you start writing?
It came naturally, and little else did. I started when I was tiny, writing stories in notepads or with my dad’s old typewriter; then on a PC, or under the table during Double Science. I had a lot of ambition but none of it very specific beyond knowing I wanted to write, and appearing in youth essay and poetry anthologies with my very nineties teenage thoughts on boys, soap stars and the state of the planet. 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 start 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 your boss has never begged you to resign and go and be the next J.K Rowling; or your Maths teacher never asked you: “Did you forget to write your name on this, or prefer to remain anonymous?” there’s probably a better career for you in something else. But 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 women in publishing cut their teeth writing fan fiction
on the internet as teenagers and beyond, which I slightly regret not doing because it’s a great way of finding your tribe when you’re young, and teaches you a lot about writing (and, um, other activities. Apparently…). Plenty more writers start later in life because the opportunities weren’t there when they were younger. It also helps if you have a good ear for detail, a long-term memory that scares people, 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.
What makes someone a writer?
I call myself one because it’s the only thing I do well enough to be paid. When you choose to is up to you.
Do writers just write about their own lives?
If it’s autobiography or memoir, obviously yes. If it’s fiction, probably yes and no. Most fiction writers draw heavily from the world around them and heavily make things up at the same time, so the two become inseparable and this question is difficult to answer. Writing about something that’s affected you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve written about it directly in the way it happened. Sometimes too, something a writer researches and writes about as an outsider becomes part of their life and so appears to be based on it.
Does a writer need lived experience in order to write about something?
I don’t think you need to have experienced something directly or in the same way. I do think if you’re writing about top-draw feelings (love, loss, fear) you probably need to have experienced some kind of top-draw feeling yourself. Similarly, if you’re writing about someone with a minority identity (race, faith, heritage, sexuality or disability) it helps if you can relate to that as a concept, without necessarily needing to share the same type of identity. It also depends how important the experience or identity is to the story. I’ve heard people advise against writing love or grief in a big way unless you’ve experienced either, which feels sensible. And, if you’re writing a top-draw-feelings story about someone with a very different life to yours, it probably helps to know people like them informally. Emailing strangers with work questions or seeing them on panels only gets you so far.
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, confidence 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.
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 kinds of stories do you enjoy?
I like stories involving plucky outsiders, difficult conversations, and women doing things in general. I like writers to remind me what I know, tell me what I don’t, or both. Two books I wish I’d written are Allan Hollinghurst’s THE LINE OF BEAUTY
and Zoe Heller’s NOTES ON A SCANDAL. Vonny
was named after Veronica Mars
– in my opinion, one of this century’s best female TV characters. The first stories I enjoyed when I was growing up were on television; I will drain my drink and walk away from anyone who thinks popular dramas and soaps are beneath them. I’m not into heavy romance or violence, in fiction or in life.
What's the best / worst thing about writing?
The best thing about writing is the freedom to build a world you’re in control of, and almost everything to do with actually doing it. As in most professions, the worst is the media’s obsession with young big names, when it’s entirely normal not to be a big name before you’re at least 30 and those who are tend to be very vulnerable. Also, when sections of people struggle to cope with the idea that a writer (or anyone)’s background can contain layers or multitudes, and try to make it neatly fit their ideal of typical/unusual, rich/poor or happy/tragic enough.
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 horses. 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 for The Quietus to let me commemorate 20 years since one of my all-time favourite singers released her debut album.
If I wasn’t a writer with opinions and a Twitter account, I’d probably be a police detective or work for MI5.
What kinds of work have you done other than writing and journalism?
“Other work includes”: Being 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 requisites firm. Volunteering in charity shops. Data entry. Babysitting and cat-sitting. Inept youthful stints in retail and call centres. Basically all the usual jobs made up of part-time DJs, bloggers, homesick MA students and people who’ve never been to another town, ranging from grumpy to dysthymic. And my first job out of university, which was awful but inadvertently led me to some of the most interesting and wonderful people I’ve ever known.
Did you write about Dyspraxia for the Guardian?
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 when I wrote that piece, 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.
What's the best way to get in touch with you?
is usually best by far, and if you try and reach me another way I’ll probably tell you to email me anyway. I can’t always promise to reply but I read and appreciate everything. You’re welcome to follow me on Twitter; I’m there a lot, and happy to hear from nice people. Facebook is for friends, in the traditional sense.
If you use the internet for work more than swearing at the news and watching cat videos, you can find me on LinkedIn or The Dots
Will you come to my event / be in my documentary / help with my research?
I’m happy to speak at conferences and panel events related to my work and/or to dyspraxia. My dyspraxia FAQ has some suggestions for running a dyspraxia-friendly (and all-person friendly) event. Where I can, I’m also happy to attend events, help with research, or be in documentaries, but I get more of these invitations than I’m able to fulfil. The more local you are, or the more you can afford towards travel costs, the more likely I’ll be able to attend or take part.
But really though, how do I get into writing?
Really though, no one person or place can tell you that. Writing is a path laid 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 then you’re a doctor or lawyer. It’s not like most businesses, where you should chase the market trends or market leaders. 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. 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. Think about why you want to write, and ask career questions out of genuine warmth towards whoever you’re asking. As writer Daisy Buchanan puts it brilliantly,
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, mutually-appreciative and grew out of shared experiences. My worst have been where I felt more drawn to someone by their confidence than by the value of what they were doing.
No, really though, how do I survive if writing is all I can do?
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, depending on your age and situation: 1) Support from the Arts Council, often through regional arts organisations which run schemes for emerging writers, 2) Support from businesses or private donors who fund the arts, 3) The support of family (emotional, as much if not more than, financial…) 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. As a long shot, many writing contests offer cash or free mentoring as prizes.