Top Tips: Working as a professional writer by Imogen Robertson

You’ve got the contract in hand- now what? Some helpful insight on to how to manage your time, networks and creativity when starting out in the professional

There is a lot of advice out there about how to write and how to get published, but how should you handle life as a professional writer? Here are a few things to keep in mind when you have the contract in your hand.

1. Get a really good chair

I know it sounds a bit basic, but trust me on this. By the end of novel three I was in near constant pain and had to be marched into a very expensive chair shop on Wigmore Street by a couple of writer friends who knew better. It’s not just the chair. Learn to take care of yourself physically. Eat well, take exercise, get a proper working set up. Just because you wrote your first novel in bed with a hangover doesn’t mean that’s the model you want to stick with.

2. Make friends with other writers

This is not about networking. We all need friends who understand what we are going through. New mothers need other new mothers to talk to, junior doctors need to trade horror stories with other junior doctors and writers need other writers to confide in. Join the Royal Society of Authors and any other organisations you can find. I’ve made great friends through the Crime Writers’ Association and the Historical Writers’ Association for instance. Go for coffee. The rest of the world might expect you to take up permanent residence on cloud nine when you get a publishing deal, but other writers understand this is the start of your career not your coronation. They also might make sure you buy a good chair.

3. Keep reading

Of course, having friends who are writers adds an awful lot of books to the to read pile, but don’t just read what your friends and competitors are writing. Keep reading for your own pleasure, curiosity and craft. Every successful writer got into the business because they loved reading, so don’t loose that passion.

4. Guard your writing time

More and more these days writers are being asked to spend a lot of time marketing their work on and offline. That’s fine and you should do what you can (there are some good guides here on Literature Works site) but remember you are a writer first, not your own marketing assistant, and writing should be what takes up your best brain time.

5. Help other writers

This is a world of pay it forward. You will meet writers who are helpful and kind, so be helpful and kind yourself. Share tips, be sympathetic and supportive whenever you can and when someone complains about lower back pain, make sure they’ve got a really good chair.

6. Understand that nobody knows anything

Every event with three or more writers or publishers in attendance will include conversations where industry experts try to work out why one book was a best-seller and another wasn’t. These conversations consist of some interesting insights and a lot of confused frowning. Do listen to them but also understand there is no guaranteed path to success. Your agent and publisher may be busting a gut for you and your book, but publishing is more like alchemy than engineering. That’s more true than ever in the world of the internet and Amazon. Do not drive yourself insane trying to work it all out when you should be writing.

7. Don’t stop listening to criticism

You have written a book deemed worthy of publication. That’s brilliant. It does not mean, unfortunately, that you are infallible. You don’t have to follow every editorial suggestion to the letter, but you should think carefully about what your editors say and be prepared to have a discussion. This is just good sense. I mean, you want to keep getting better, don’t you? Practice by being a useful contributor in workshops, and learn how not to be prickly when your readers inexplicably miss the point of what you’ve written.

8. Ignore the criticism

Once a book is published you’ll get bad reviews (you’ll get good reviews too, but strangely the bad ones are the ones you’ll remember). You may also encounter people who take the opportunity of meeting you at an event or party to tell you that your books have ‘too many characters’, or are ‘too commercial.’ Smile and walk away. Some people like to tweet that they gave your latest opus one star. Thanks. Just remember there is no point in trying to argue someone into liking your work.

9. Keep your support network

If you’ve made lots of friends who are writers it can be surprisingly easy to forget that anything else other than publishing exists. Hang onto your friends. Some may find the new ‘author’ you a bit of a strange concept to get their heads round, but some will treat you with the same affectionate contempt they always did. Those are the keepers. Remember as well that there are things to talk about other than what you are writing at the moment and how well or badly the last book is doing.

10. Recognise publishing is a business

Publishing is full of friendly and enthusiastic people who are delighted to meet you. Some may become your friends for life. Some might also have to make business decisions that have a very negative effect on you and career. They may not want to, but they may have to anyway. Keep that in mind when you are picking godparents for your children.

11. Choose your battles

You may not like the cover of the Ukrainian large print edition, but is your time better spent writing acid emails to the rights department and your agent, or, you know, writing?

12. Take the work seriously, not yourself

People will bring you drinks. Many of the drinks will be free. Smart, gorgeous people will tell you that you are fantastic. Sometimes you meet quite famous people. This is fun. Unfortunately you still might fall over while running for the bus and your life partner is no more likely to bring you coffee on demand. Keep your feet on the ground.

13. Look for residencies

Residencies can provide a writer with a supportive framework in which to work. You will meet people who care about writing more than publishing – and that can be refreshing. Teaching gives you the opportunity to think about what you have learned, and what you have left to learn. Residencies offer both a challenge and a refuge and as writers we should always be looking for both.

14. Go out into the world

The non-book world, I mean. Writing can be a very isolating business – and between the making friends with other writers, marketing your books and trying to become a better writer you can forget it’s there. Don’t do that. Volunteer, get a day job outside publishing, travel (and not just to writers’ conferences). Remember your family and friends.

15. Enjoy it

Every stage of every life brings its challenges and troubles, but it also brings its own particular joys; the well written scene, the unexpected foreign rights deal, the email from someone you admire telling you how much they enjoyed your book, and most of all sitting back in your ergonomic chair and seeing your book, printed and bound sitting on the shelf. Take the time to enjoy those moments and look back and see how far you’ve come. Congratulations and good luck.

Imogen Robertson grew up in Darlington, studied Russian and German at Cambridge, and now lives in London. She directed for TV, film and radio before becoming a full-time author, and also writes and reviews poetry. Imogen won the Telegraph’s ‘First thousand words of a novel competition’ in 2007 with the opening of Instruments of Darkness, her first novel.

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