The most common questions strangers ask after "And what do YOU do...?" or when they want to write. 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?
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?
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?
Do you self-publish / crowdfund your writing? Everyone does now, don’t they?
I want to self-publish / crowdfund my book, can you help me?
What makes someone a writer?
How do you know when something you’re writing is really finished?
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. I’m not into heavy romance or violence, in fiction or in life. 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.
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 industries, 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 angrily 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?
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?
What's the best way to get in touch with you?
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.