In her new book How To Be a Writer: The definitive guide to getting published and making a living from writing Sally O'Reilly provides practical advice on how to transform your talent into a long-term career.
But what kind of writer are you? And do you have what it takes to establish a successful career as an author? Take Sally's quiz to find out!
1. How many books have you read in the last month?
a. Four or more, of various genres and periods. You passionately love reading, books and words.
b. One improving tome. You have a list of ‘100 novels to read before I die’ stuck on your pin board.
c. None. You want to be a writer, so there’s no time to read as well.
d. You never read books.
2. How often do you write fiction/poetry/your journal?
a. Every day. It’s like brushing your teeth.
b. Every week. Sunday morning is sacrosanct.
c. Every month. Well, nearly every month, anyway.
d. When the muse strikes. This is about genius, not jogging.
3. Which of the descriptions below best sums up your attitude to the act of writing itself?
a. An enjoyable challenge: there is no better way to clarify your thoughts and capture your ideas.
b. Hard work, but it’s good to get it out of the way so you can focus on your marketing strategy.
c. Really boring, an exhausting chore.
d. Fantastic – when you have the time, every word you write is pure gold.
4. What is your ambition as a writer?
a. To publish a book that you are really proud of.
b. To be published at any cost.
c. To write a whole book, with chapter headings and everything.
d. To be J. K. Rowling.
5. If you are stuck or ‘blocked’ which of the following do you do?
a. Keep writing notes, but spend more time looking for inspiration at galleries, in the outside world or by listening to music. You have to feed your imagination sometimes.
b. Panic, bang your head on the computer keyboard, but keep going. Writing is not for wimps, and you will beat this.
c. Binge-drink. It worked for Hemingway, didn’t it? Booze and creativity go hand in hand, like, well, booze and a hangover.
d. Curl up on the sofa with the box set of Bridget Jones or The Godfather and daydream. Anyway, you’re not exactly stuck, because you haven’t started yet.
6. Which of these descriptions best fits your attitude to rejection?
a. It always hurts, but you can’t pursue any creative endeavour without hearing the word ‘no’ sometimes. So getting turned down is part of your professional life.
b. You scrutinise every rejection slip to see what the subtext is, and work out how to change your work accordingly.
c. Rejection stinks. They are bastards. There is a conspiracy out there. It’s all about who you know or where you went to school.
d. Rejection? Who said anything about rejection? When you finally send your manuscript out, it will change the face of British publishing.
7. How long do you expect it will take to establish your career as a writer?
a. Years. You try to keep the momentum going, but this is not about overnight success.
b. Eighteen months. You have plotted your trajectory on a wall chart in your office.
c. Who said anything about a career? Isn’t this about Art and stuff?
d. About three weeks. Or less. Starting from next Thursday.
8. What do you see as your greatest challenge?
a. Keeping your writing fresh, exciting and original, and taking the time to edit and polish every draft till it is as good as it can possibly be.
b. Staying abreast of what is going on in the publishing industry. So much going on, it’s hard to make time for any actual writing.
c. Filling up all those blank pages with words. How long do they say a novel is meant to be?
d. Deciding whether to live in Los Angeles or New York when the Hollywood money starts rolling in.
9. What is your attitude to your day job?
a. It’s useful not only for earning a regular income, but also for keeping in touch with the real world, and getting ideas.
b. You have worked out exactly how many hours you spend at work, and how many hours you spend asleep, factored in an equation covering mealtimes, commuting and watching Grand Designs and you still have 12.5 hours a week to write the novel.
c. The people you work with are lovely. Sometimes, you spend the whole day chatting round the biscuit barrel and putting the world to rights.
d. You are handing your notice in on Friday. No, Friday week.
10. What is ‘Plan B’?
a. That, no matter what happens, you will always be a writer. Writers are people who write, and you can never imagine doing anything else.
b. You are working on an alternative publishing model. You have a full-scale model of the alternative publishing model in your garage.
c. Whoa, steady on! You don’t even have a ‘Plan A’ yet.
d. ‘Plan B’ is for losers. And you have a feeling you are going to be a winner.
How did you score?
The Professional. You are idealistic enough to sustain yourself with the belief that writing is a worthwhile goal in itself, and realistic enough to know this is a challenging way to live your life. You approach writing in a balanced, mature way, knowing that you have to maintain your energy and motivation over years, not months.
Above all, you know that this is not a game, and that, if you are going to be taken seriously by professionals in the publishing industry, then you have to behave like a professional yourself. No tantrums. No unrealistic goals. No messing. This attitude will not necessarily lead to fame and fortune, but it will enable you to keep writing – and, one day, who knows? The Booker prize could be yours. In the meantime, you know how to live in the present, and enjoy your writing life as it happens, rather than postponing your enjoyment of your craft till the day that your ambitions are realised.
The Anorak. There is a chance that you are reading too many ‘how-to’ books. If so, make this the last one you buy. Writing well takes skill, application and attention to your craft, but you are overcomplicating everything, and making the whole thing into homework.
Instead of making yourself a world expert on publishing, agents, market trends and who’s who in the literary metropolis, try sitting down with your notebook for thirty minutes a day and letting the ideas flow. Remember that you cannot organise your literary career into existence. Some of it is down to chance. A lot will depend on the quality of what you write. Allow yourself to be open to new ideas, and let your right brain take over once in a while. Do this, and not only will you enjoy your writing life much more, but you might also write something that publishers will take seriously.
The Dilettante. Now, be honest: are you really, really determined to write? More determined than you are to lose that stubborn halfstone?
Or go to the Maldives for your next holiday? Or take part in a triathlon? Because, on current form, writing is just another of your many hobbies. Want to change this? Then write every day, first thing in the morning if you can – and keep at it. Read on the train instead of texting. Apply yourself to this as if your life depended on it – because your life as a writer really does. Either that, or give up now, and get in training for that triathlon. You may be cut out to be in a writing group, or to write a few short stories when you retire, but you don’t have what it takes to be a Writer.
The Fantasist. If you carry on like this, the greatest work of fiction that you ever create will be the fantasy that you carry round in your head. That’s right, the one where you win the Nobel prize and make a mountain of money, produce the greatest body of work since Shakespeare, are lionised, canonised and lauded across the planet – and probably on Mars and Jupiter as well. The brutal fact about being a writer is that it is really quite mundane. You need to take your craft seriously. You need to learn to do all the things that other writers learned to do before you. There are no shortcuts.
There are no secrets. It’s about the work. If you want to make your fantasy come true, then it’s time to step out of your cloud and get on with it.
The good news
If you didn’t score mostly a’s and you find yourself languishing in one of the other categories, then join the club. We can all aim to be Professionals, but, actually, we are all human beings. Every writer has an inner Anorak, or is a part-time Dilettante or a frustrated Fantasist. And if we were all Professional, all the time, what a boring world it would be! Seek balance, and don’t feel guilty if your writing personality, like your writing, is less than perfect.
In How to Be a Writer Sally O' Reilly draws on her own experience as a novelist and creative writing tutor, offering down-to-earth advice about everything from finding a flexible day job to negotiating the changing landscape of the publishing industry. Introduced by Fay Weldon and including comments and case studies from other established authors, agents and industry experts, this is the definitive reference book for any author.
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