The hardback edition of James Swallow’s latest novel Nomad was a Sunday Times bestseller last summer. It’s a gripping spy thriller for the post-WikiLeaks world, in which private military contractors, agile terror cells and corporations wield as much power as national intelligence agencies. On the release of the paperback, he shares some words of advice for new writers.
If you only read one thing here, the make it those two words. New writers will often abandon a piece of work halfway when it isn’t coming together and move on to something else – and then leave that unfinished, and so on and so on. But if you can’t land your story, if you can’t end it you are not a writer, you’re just someone with half an idea. So push through. Even if the road is hard, even if what you write leaves you unsatisfied by the time you write “The End”, that’s okay. You become a better writer by writing, and remember that no one will care about an unfinished story.
Know that there is no secret path or short cut to being a successful writer
There’s no special password, no clandestine handshake, no backstage pass, no express elevator, no fast track, no jump start, no success helicopter. Anyone who tells you otherwise will probably be trying to get money from you.
Make peace with the fact that you will (probably) not get rich and famous
Those tales you’ve heard about million-dollar advances for new novelists, and the people that turn up on talk shows and get their books turned into theme parks? That won’t happen to you. Most writers struggle to pay the rent, and a high percentage of them have to keep the day job just to stay in the black. And even if you do well enough to support yourself and build a solid audience, you’re unlikely to be invited to any celebrity parties. If you’re writing because you think it’s a quick route to fame and fortune, you’re going to be disappointed. Write because you want to – and if you can make it a career too, that’s a bonus.
Have more than just a neat idea for a story
You have a brilliant story but you just haven’t written it yet? That’s very nice, but it isn’t enough. There’s a long, long line of people who have great ideas, one that vanishes off into the far distance. But what will get you noticed is if you actually write it. Ideas are only half the job.
No, really! There is no secret path to being a successful writer!
Anyone who thinks there actually is a short cut, and that it is being hidden by those higher up the ladder is just plain wrong. There is no conspiracy to stop you being published; you just have to be good enough.
Validation is good, but publication is better
It doesn’t matter if your family, your friends, your teachers or your writing group think you are good. They may tell you that your story is a work of genius, but their opinions are only those of your smallest possible audience. To know your true worth, you need to be ready to put your work out there and into the hands of people who have nothing invested in your emotional wellbeing. The people who matter most are the ones who respect your work enough to pay you for it.
Never forget, writers don’t get sick leave, or holidays, a pension or a dental plan
Unless you’re a salaried employee working for a studio or a publisher, all those things are up to you to consider. Make time to ensure you stay well and start saving right now for your twilight years. Take plenty of vitamins, brush and floss regularly.
Be clear that writing is more work than just the writing
Writing the book is only Job #1. To make a go of this game, you need to learn editorial skills, how to present and sell yourself, how to deal with social media, how to plan for your future and manage your career and real-world life. The days of writing a book and just getting paid for it are long gone.
OK, fine. I admit it. There is a secret path to being a successful writer
And navigating it involves hard work. And talent. And sacrifice. And luck. And it is different for every single writer and only you will be able to walk down the one before you. Good luck!
James Swallow is an author and scriptwriter with over 15 years of experience in fiction, television, radio, journalism, new media and videogames. A three-time New York Times bestselling author, he was nominated by the BAFTA for his writing on the acclaimed videogame Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Nomad is out now in paperback from Zaffre. Read more.