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My young writer’s dream was very traditional: Get an agent, get a publisher and voila, career sorted!
I bought my first copy of Artists’ & Writers’ Yearbook in 2005 and would go through it with a pencil, underlining all my options. Next I’d print out my three chapters and a synopsis, put them in a big brown envelope and head to the post office, my heart brimming with hope. Maybe this time, maybe this time…
I won my first writing competition in primary school for an essay about how much I loved swimming. It was a really big deal to me. I had never felt that clever, but this win made me believe that writing was the thing I was good at. From the age of 11, I filled notebooks with my stories, convinced that to get published all I needed to do was finish a novel and send it off.
So far, so traditional. After all, most writers begin early.
Agents ignored me, pitches to magazines disappeared into the ether. If I hadn’t had a few short stories selected at reading events I wonder if I’d have lost my drive. Probably not. I was obsessed. By the age of 24, I had become the cliché of a frustrated writer. I couldn’t wait any longer for my writing career to begin.
I started my weekly blog about working in my Mum’s chandelier shop because I was hungry to write and be read. I’d always fancied the idea of having a column in a magazine, and this was the closest thing that I could do myself. Meanwhile I tried to write yet another novel, still thinking of the agent and the publisher. I was now on my second copy of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
In the end, I found my publisher through Facebook. I was trying to increase my blog following and spent a week ‘liking’ publishers’ Facebook fan pages and leaving my link. It sounds so spammy now, but back in 2008, the social networks were a little emptier! It worked. Salt Publishing followed my link, and loved my blog enough to commission my debut book, Shop Girl Diaries. I wrote a piece for Litro about Blogging Towards Publication.
I was still living with my parents when the first book was published. I remember my Mum bringing up this box to my bedroom and opening it in my pyjamas, as excited as a kid at Christmas. My dream of having a published book had come true. It bore so much more weight packaged up in a paperback, than as digital content.
I wasn’t paid an advance, I didn’t have an agent or a contract for a second book. After a few months, I felt like I was back at square one. My mindset hadn’t changed very much. I knew a presence on social media could have a lot of influence, but instead of concentrating on how to make the most of that, I was still trying to get my three chapters and synopsis out to an agent.
It seemed impossible. Two years passed by while I failed to get an agent and wrote another book.
My next non-traditional move was born again, out of frustration at how slow everything was moving. Thanks to my brother and his girlfriend, I found out about Wattpad. It’s an online platform where anyone can upload their novel, chapter by chapter. There was no financial incentive, but the popular stories had hundreds of thousands of readers, and Wattpad reportedly had a monthly readership of ten million. A content manager from Wattpad told me if I wrote a novel for them, they’d feature it. I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher, but this seemed like an opportunity to get readers, and surely that’s at the heart of wanting to get published.
I posted my romantic comedy, Spray Painted Bananas, chapter by chapter over three months. The response was overwhelming. I would wake up to comments posted by readers in North America, asking WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Sometimes I wasn’t even sure, but all the votes and comments energised me and spurred me on to keep writing.
When my novel-in-progress had received half a million hits, I contacted an agent. I hadn’t even finished the book, but it didn’t matter. Instead of the usual waiting around for months, I got a reply within a week. I signed with them a couple of weeks later.
Finally, I had an agent. This meant a publishing deal was in the bag, right?
No! It actually took another eight months before my agent called with the news that a digital imprint of Harper Collins, Harper Impulse, were interested in my Wattpad book, and a second book I’d written a synopsis for. Once again there would be no advance, and they couldn’t promise the book would be printed in paperback. I confess to being a little disappointed. No writers dreams of getting a digital publisher, do they? We dream of book launches and our books in shop windows…
I shouldn’t have worried. The advantage of a digital publisher is they get your book out in three months, rather than a year! Best of all Harper Impulse did go on to print both books.
In fact, my new book, #PleaseRetweet, a comedy teasing society’s obsession with social media, is being released any minute now. I’m teasing myself in this book too of course. Social media has had a huge influence on my writing career, but it’s not without its pitfalls!
My dream was traditional, but to get there I had to take non-traditional routes. What was it Einstein said? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Now I think my mindset has finally changed. I’m even questioning how important it is to have a physical book. Of course, it’s a joy to see the physical proof of your writing. But having a paperback doesn’t guarantee readers and you’re bound to reach a lot more people if you post your work online.
Right now, I’m writing a new novel without a contract. I can’t be sure how this one will make it into print. I’ve just had an email about writing interactive stories… I don’t even know what that means yet, but I’ve decided I’m willing to give it a try.