Greatest Hits: Becoming a Career Author
Catherine Drayton graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in English Literature and a Bachelor of Laws. After graduating from the University of NSW with a Master of Laws she worked as a litigation lawyer specializing in copyright and libel law at a major international law firm. But novels, not legal precedents, were always top of her reading pile so in 1998, after a brief stint as a literary scout, she joined Arthur Pine Associates which subsequently became InkWell. She represents a wide range of fiction from around the world for both adults and children as well as some non-fiction on subjects that intrigue her. Her bestselling and award-winning clients include Markus Zusak, Beth Hoffman, John Flanagan, Becca Fitzpatrick, Gavriel Savit, Cath Crowley and Karen Foxlee. Many of her clients are published in multiple territories and sold for film. She particularly loves working with debut authors and is looking for writing that is memorable and enduring. Catherine is InkWell’s Sydney affiliate and when she isn’t reading, she can be found swimming, surfing, hiking and cooking for family and friends.
It is every writer’s dream — a steady income, a grateful publisher and an audience impatient for your next book. We all know these are tough times in publishing: Many respected authors are struggling to secure deals for their next books and publishers are looking for authors who have the potential to break-out (by that I mean sell over 100,000 copies). So how does the debut author approach the business of writing and give themselves the best shot at becoming a career author?
You need good people on your team.
Writing is no different from any other profession. A good mentor is essential to success. You need someone on your team who believes in your writing, wants you to succeed and has the experience to offer constructive advice. I don’t mean family and friends — I can’t tell you how many times writers tell me that their ‘students loved the manuscript’ or ‘friends say it’s great’ and have encouraged them to send it to agents and publishers — they will never be able to offer you the honest, professional feedback that you need to improve as a writer. In fact, when I hear these lines, I often only half-jokingly suggest that the writer consider sharing their manuscript with an enemy or two because if they admit they love it, the writer’s probably got something good.
Where do you find that person? Perhaps it is your creative writing teacher, a writing buddy, an online critique group, or a published author who sees potential in your writing. You need someone whose judgement you trust, who you can respond to on an intellectual rather than emotional level, who doesn’t say, ‘It’s great’ just to avoid hurting your feelings. Preferably it is someone who has experience in the craft of storytelling and is well read in your genre. Many authors these days are part of online writing groups and find a great deal of support and constructive criticism from their fellow writers. But don’t make the mistake of listening to everyone and trying to meet their concerns. Settle on a few that you trust.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to add a good agent to your team. Take your time to research the agents before you query them. Look at their track record in selling your genre and write to them personally. Demonstrate that you’ve studied up on them and explain why, based on their current client list, you feel that you’d be a good fit. You’re selling your work and yourself to busy strangers who will appreciate that you’ve reached out in a professional manner. It’s a lot more work that knocking out a one-size-fits-all cover letter, but the chances of your reaping positive results will be much, much higher.
When your book is sold treat your editor well. Their career is tied to your success so remember that they are on your side. If you have a delicate issue, ask your agent to raise it with the editor. Your agent is there to handle the potentially upsetting business issues and to help you preserve your goodwill with your editor. People work harder for people they respect. So, earn your editor’s respect. Always look to make your encounters positive. Meet deadlines, revise diligently, express appreciation.
Once you have chosen your mentors, listen to them. You chose them because you trust their judgement and at times what they have to say may not be easy to accept but remember they want you to succeed!
I want to tell you a funny story I recently heard about a woman who is today an internationally best-selling mystery writer. She began her professional writing life as a political speech writer and freelance journalist for women’s magazines. When her second child began nursery school she had three free hours each morning that she hadn’t had in years. She was an avid mystery reader and thought she could write a good one herself, so she used those three hours to write what became her first manuscript. When she was finished, the first person she asked to read it was her husband — a high-powered lawyer as well as a big mystery reader himself. His response? Not, “Honey, you’re brilliant… this is the best novel I’ve read in years!!” It was, “I’ve read worse.” Better than brutal, but pretty tough. Undaunted, she rewrote the manuscript based on his critique, managed to find an agent, a publisher and a place on the bestseller list.
Know what you’re good at.
When writers start out they often experiment with a number of genres, styles and narrative points of view. Ultimately — make that sooner rather than later — you’ll need to settle on what feels most natural. Don’t chase commercial success by trying to grab onto the latest fad (did anyone mention vampires?!) as what’s ‘hot’ is elusive. Success comes with great writing, strong plots and a vivid imagination. Once you’ve established your audience, keep delivering what they want. It is naive to think that your publisher will want to publish everything that you write, especially if you insist on changing genres. Publishers want to build brand recognition for their authors, so if you write commercial women’s fiction or literary YA keep delivering better books in that genre each time.
Just because you’ve gotten a book published don’t stop learning. Take creative writing courses, read incessantly and practice your craft.
Don’t give up your day job.
Whatever you do don’t give up paid employment until you’re sure that you can have enough income from your writing to support yourself for three years. You have living expenses, health care and taxes to pay and there’s no guarantee that your publisher will keep publishing your books or pay ever- increasing advances. Knowing that you have an outside income allows you to enjoy your writing. I’m also a firm believer that if you stay involved in the outside world it will benefit your writing. There are new experiences and new people to meet and it’s a lot less stressful if writing is your passion. Even very successful authors involve themselves in the world by teaching, attending festivals and making school visits. Writer’s block is a real danger when all you have to do is stare at the computer and think about the bills you have to pay.
Promote your writing.
Increasingly, authors are expected to become heavily involved in promoting their writing. No longer can you sit in a garret and let your art speak for itself. The first thing an editor will ask when they’re interested in a manuscript is, “Does the author have a website and are they actively involved in social media? The well-prepared author is already part of at least one on-line community. The key is to expand your influence and exposure through expanding your network. Get involved in blogging and Tweeting, contribute to other author’s blogs and join critique groups. Be generous and supportive of your fellow authors and you’ll find that when the time comes that you need support you’ll have a community behind you.
Editor’s note: Much of the old conferences’ material has sadly faded from the internet, so we’re bringing back the greatest hits! This post (originally from AUGUST 10, 2010) is one in a series of best events from previous years. Enjoy!