On Writing…

Julian is often asked how he became author and about the writing process. In this article, first published in “The Seafarer”, he gives budding writers a few handy hints and shortcuts to a publisher’s heart

Replacement writing at desk imageI have loved the sea ever since I can remember. My mother describes a toddler bringing home dead seagulls because they stank of the sea, and as a young schoolboy I used to stare out over the cold waters of Sheerness at the low, grey shapes heading off to who knows where… My father thought he would knock this daydreaming nonsense out of me and sent me to a tough sea training school at age fourteen. This only strengthened my resolve to go to sea, and at fifteen I joined the Navy. I spent time in both the Royal Navy and the Australian Navy, and later also in the Royal Naval Reserve. Although I followed a number of careers after I swallowed the anchor, part of me has always missed a live deck under my feet, but now, through my writing, I can sail the seven seas again.

But how did I become an author? Only a few short years ago I had no intention whatsoever of trying my hand at writing for I was working on a large NATO project. It was a pretty stressful time, and on its completion, my wife Kathy and I took stock of our lives; it was she who suggested I become a writer. To this day I’m not sure what potential she saw in me as I had never put pen to paper before, but she had been a successful magazine editor so I listened to what she had to say. When I decided to give it a go I realised there could only be one subject – the sea – and one period – the Great Age of Sail. I took a part-time job lecturing in computers and devoted the other half of my time to learning the craft of writing. Kathy gave me two years to see if I had the stickability to produce a manuscript!

Looking back I wonder whether I would have taken the enormous gamble had I really known the odds against getting published. But I am very glad I did, my life has changed enormously and I have found I really love writing. Things have worked out so well that both of us have been able to give up the day jobs and we now work together as a creative partnership. Kathy handles the non‑writing side of things and promotion – and is my own live-in “blue pencil”. This leaves me free of distractions to just concentrate on writing.

For the new writer just learning, the nuts and bolts of writing isn’t hard. There are numerous excellent books on the subject, evening classes, reading groups. You just have to find what works for you. As well as the mechanics of character formation, plot, pace etc. it is crucial to brush up on your spelling and grammar. When you finish your manuscript, you’re only halfway there; the competition is high.

The other side of becoming a successful author is being a successful editor. The final product has to be pretty polished and this involves possibly doing several drafts, some rewriting and certainly very careful line by line editing. There are outside agencies that will help with this side of things if you feel you need an objective eye, but do look at several before you commit to spending possibly several hundred pounds. One excellent piece of advice I was given was to put the manuscript aside for at least six weeks before starting on the edit.

From my experience, and talking to people in the publishing world, there are a number of things that all potential authors should bear in mind:

The saying “write about what you know” does have a lot of truth in it.
By writing on a topic that you have knowledge of, you will have a certain confidence in your writing. However not all topics will be of equal interest. If you know dentistry, for example, it is not the sexiest of topics, but if your story involves an interesting central character and a good plot, it could still work.

Write “the book you yourself would want to read” made a lot of sense to me.
I had always loved sea tales but had found these were told from the point of view of the officers shouting orders from behind on the quarterdeck. I looked for something that saw things from the perspective of the common seaman, and put the sea itself in a more forward role. This is what I did with my Thomas Kydd series. My character starts out as a wig maker who is press-ganged into the Navy. At first he’s angry and bitter at his fate, but he comes to love the sea.

Don’t follow the market.
It is a mistake to think you can just see what is selling well and then write something along similar lines. By the time your book is written and then appears in print at least two years will have elapsed; this is how long a manuscript takes to appear on a store bookshelf, and things may well have moved on.

If you are writing in a specific genre, such as mystery or science fiction, there are certain rules. These conventions can be broken, but only if you know what they are first. For example, a mystery starts off with the central character being confronted with a body (or finding out about a mysterious death) then the book progresses to the gathering of clues and false trails, ending in a resolution. Readers in this genre will have certain expectations of the book.

Publishers will want between 90,000 and 110,000 words.
If you write outside this range it will be much harder to find someone to publish your work. It seems a lot, but publishers seldom expect more than one book a year!

Be prepared for the paradox of having to become tough-skinned about hard criticism but also needing to cope with a heightened sensitivity in the way you view the world.

Character, character, character
For the novelist, getting the central character right is absolutely crucial. The reader must really care about him/her. This central character is who the reader identifies with as the book progresses. Plot development comes very much after character, and is really only the stage for your character to show his colours.

Agent or Publisher?
I was lucky. The first agent I approached agreed to represent me. But I did do my homework. I made a list of twenty or so agents from “The Writers Handbook”, those who might be interested in the subject matter of my book and who did consider unsolicited manuscripts. I was quite prepared to work my way down the list if necessary. You can of course try sending your manuscript to publishers instead but many these days do not read unsolicited work at all. Make sure if you do go down this route that you have checked you have a chance.

What you should send to an agent?
Good agents have a fairly full list of clients – but they are always looking for real talent. Their bread and butter depends on bringing along new authors as old authors die or stop writing.

    • A brief summary of your book. This should “sell” what your book is about – genre, period and the world you are creating – and what distinguishes it from others in the field
    • Short bio of the central character
    • A synopsis of the whole book (around 2-4 pages)
    • The first 3 chapters (never the whole book)
    • A biography of yourself – your credentials, any interesting aspects of your life that are relevant to the book etc.
    • A well-written cover letter that shows your professionalism and determination to become a writer

You’ve sent the manuscript off to an agent. What happens now?
Well, first of all you have to be patient. Agents receive many thousands of unsolicited manuscripts each year. Don’t plan on hearing back for at least six weeks – and never expect a critique. There are many examples of wonderful books taking a long time to find a publisher, and their authors building up collections of rejection letters. However if the book is good, it will ultimately find a publisher. Be comforted that an agent will give every manuscript sent to them a fair look – they are not going to turn down the chance to sign the next bestseller!

When you first hear your work is going to be published is a great moment! Kathy and I still have the champagne cork from the bottle we opened on that magic day. Another very special time is when you hold the first copy of the printed book in your hand.

It would be wonderful if all authors could make enough money to write full-time, but sadly this is not always the case. Even if the “advance” is generous, the payments come in stages and you have to do your sums and cash flows. However, there are fairy tales out there in the publishing world – my story is one of them and yours could be, too. Good luck!

Copyright notices
image: Jean Le Tavernier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

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