If I had a euro for every time I’m asked for writing advice, well I could probably buy myself the new iPhone 11 Pro … my precious! Everyone wants to know what the secret formula to writing success is. If I could bottle that and sell it, well I could buy iPhone 11’s for everyone in the audience!
But if you really pushed me to give a short answer to that question, here’s what I think the formula would look like.
Writing Success = Natural talent + Ambition + Strong work ethic + Perseverance + Patience + A dollop of luck
That’s all very well, I hear you say. But how do I start to write a book? And now that I’ve started writing, how do I get published? I had similar questions when I started my writing journey, a little over ten years ago. I didn’t know a single person in the publishing industry. The only person I knew who had ever written anything was my sister who used to submit the Parish news to the local paper when she was a teen. That unfortunately was not much use to me!
The point is, I remember how scary the landscape looks when you make the decision to step into the world of a writer. And because I remember this, I started The Inspiration Project alongside fellow international bestsellers, Catherine Ryan Howard and Hazel Gaynor. We run writing courses a couple of times a year. To keep up to date on future events, subscribe to our newsletter HERE.
That aside, whenever an aspiring writer gets in touch, I always do my best to encourage them to start writing and chase their dreams. Because when I finally decided to do this in 2010, it changed my life. And having a desire to write, to share your story with others, that’s a great first step. But if you want to actually finish your manuscript and get published, then brace yourselves, because you have thousands of steps to take to get there.
For the longest time, all I did was dream about being a writer. Eventually, after decades of dreaming of writing, I started. It’s been hard work, but I am having the time of my life. It’s true that if you do what you love, you love what you do. I can’t help you write your book, nor can I help you get it published. But what I have done is collate some of my top tips that might nudge you in the right direction. So here you go …
1. Write every day
Stop dreaming about writing that novel. Just sit down in front of your computer and write. Don’t think about the words, just open your mind and let them flow. And repeat this process every day. This is important. When I made the decision to make writing my career as opposed to a dream, my writing improved dramatically. Why? Because like any skill, the more I practiced the stronger my writing voice became.There’s another reason why writing every day is important. If you listen to my readers, (I always listen to my readers), it’s my relatable and realistic characters that make them want to buy my books. Again, I’m often asked what’s my secret to creating my characters.
There are lots of tricks that I do to make them feel real to me: character questionnaires, research, method authoring … but the simple answer is that like any relationship, you get what you give.
I invest time with my characters, hanging out with them every day. Because of this, they trust me and start telling me their truths. When I ignore them, if I let life get in the way, then they make me pay for it and I lose days and sometimes weeks, trying to find them again.
If I make this sound like it all comes easy for me, then I need to clarify. Some days I’d rather do anything but write. And on others, I need an alarm to let me know that it’s time to collect the kids because the words have flowed so quickly. But no matter what, I show up to work every single day, even if it is only to write a few hundred words.
2. Don’t edit as you go along
Get your shitty first draft* written in its entirety before you start editing. If you edit as you go along, you may never get beyond the first three chapters. There are times in life when it’s essential to look back, in order to move forward. The first draft is not one of them. Each day, re-read your last sentence and use that as your starting point.
But … there’s always a but, right? If you find yourself stuck, unable to continue writing a new scene, don’t worry. It happens to us all. On these days, do go back to edit an earlier chapter. It’s often then that I learn something new about my characters or discover a new plot point that helps me move forward.
This way, even when I’m stuck, I’m still writing every day.
*that’s what some of my writerly pals and I call our first drafts, crude yep, but pretty effective in summing it up …
3. Edit, edit, then edit some more
Once you have completed your first draft and celebrated the achievement, (please do celebrate, it’s a huge deal!) sit down and read your work. I suggest you take at least two weeks to a month off before you do this. You need to approach your first read through, with readers eyes. Take notes and start your first rewrite.
Top tip, read your work in a different format to how you’ve written it. For me, I save to my kindle for my first read and then highlight notes as I go along.
Repeat this process twice. Trust me, once, twice, three times an edit is a charm.
And then read your work out loud. I guarantee you will catch some further issues when you do this.
Once your manuscript is in it’s best possible version, then you need to share it with an editor, before you submit to an agent or publisher. Spending time and money on polishing your manuscript, will be the best decision you can make in your writing career if you are serious about getting published. I’d wash cars every day to save money for a professional edit if I was looking for a book deal right now. If you can’t put your hand on your heart and say that you’ve given your manuscript the very best chance it deserves when read by an agent or publisher, then you need to stop for a beat and go back over the above steps.
4. You need to be disciplined
Like everything in life, it takes discipline to achieve results. Boo, hiss, I hear you, trust. me. But like any big dream, to lose weight, get fit, learn a new skill, you need to put in consistent effort. Writing is no different.
Set yourself a timeline to complete your project and a word count to achieve each day. For me, the more I write, the more I write…I set myself a target to write 1500 words, Monday to Friday. Somedays I do double or triple that. But no matter what, I try not to stop writing until I bypass that number. I have to be honest here and admit that there are times that life gets in the way and targets are forgotten. But life is messy and complicated, as well as being wonderful, so you have to take these slips in your stride.
I don’t set a target for Saturday and Sunday, but I do still sit at my computer if only to write a short scene, or to read back what I’ve written that week. Again it’s about consistency, keeping myself in my characters lives. And when I’m not at my desk, I write a lot in my head. This might sound crazy, but trust me, I’ve done some of my best writing this way. I mull over scenes for my characters, test out dialogue, ponder new twists. When I’m in the car with Rog and the kids, we usually listen to music. If you looked at me in the car, with my eyes closed, you might think I was napping. In truth, I’m hanging out with characters.
I’ve worked hard over the last ten years to perfect a schedule that works for my family and me. I love to write, but family will always come first for me. I am contracted by my publisher to write a new book every year, alleluiah, but I’ve set my schedule so that the bulk of this writing is done during the academic year so that I can spend time with the kids while they are on holiday.
My writing schedule looks a bit like this …
September – December: I write the first draft of my new manuscript. My target word count of 1500 words per day written 5 days per week, means that I should have 90,000 words written by the end of November. Life always throws curveballs, so I always add in some extra time to cater for this. My deadline always seems to fall mid-December and normally at this time of the year, I work seven days a week, often until Midnight. When I’m deep in the story, it’s hard to step away from it and I have to keep going until I’m done.
January – February: I work on structural edits. I call this time chasing the lovely. Normally this stage involves at least three rewrites. I’m lucky. I have an excellent agent and editor in Harper Collins, who I trust implicitly. Their instincts are always spot on.
March – June: Now it’s time to work on copy edits and proofreading. This is the fun part because the book is pretty much done. Artwork, title, blurb, marketing, and sales plans usually happen at this time too.
July – August: I find it hard to write every day when the kids are on holiday. Even with summer camps, I’m on the road, wearing my chauffeur’s hat. So I use this time to plot ideas for what will be my next manuscript. I also work on my passion project in the summer months. My passion project is a children’s book I’m working on. It might take me five years to write it because it comes second place to my novels, but one day I’ll get to The End. I suspect there will be fireworks when that happens.
5. Don’t compare yourself to others
This is a hard one. It’s only natural to look over your shoulder to others who have achieved more than yourself. And don’t we always find ourselves lacking? Try to stop doing that. Don’t feed the imposter syndrome. The only person you are in competition with is yourself.
However, it’s good to know what other writers are doing for that all-important inspiration! I am forever setting new goals to reach and a lot of them come from watching author pals succeed with theirs.
With this in mind, it’s time to share the The Inspiration Project monthly diaries. Six writers, three published authors – Hazel Gaynor, Catherine Ryan Howard and myself plus three authors who are actively looking for a publisher – Clare Daly, Tric Kearney, and Casey King share a monthly update of our ups and downs! If you want to get an idea of what is involved in the life of a writer, then I highly recommend that you take a look at these diaries. You can find the latest installment and previous entries here. We hope you enjoy following our progress and that our collective writing experiences inspire and motive you, and remind you that you’re not in this alone.
6. Get out of your own way
Stop making excuses about why you can’t write. I spent years doing this and as a result, only started to write when I turned forty. Put yourself and your desire to write first. You can do it!
First of all, reading is good for you. Studies have proven that it relieves stress. But apart from those holistic reasons, you need to read, in order to become a better writer. Every time you read a new book, you are learning. What works, what doesn’t, how sentences are phrased, how dialogue is written, when the pace is slow or spot on. Read, my friends. Only good can come from it.
So many people forget to read when they are in the middle of writing their masterpiece. I often hear aspiring writers say that they don’t want to read in case it influences their writing. This always puzzles me. I want to be influenced and inspired by great writers. Every book I have ever read has taught me something new and helped me develop my own unique writing voice.
You know that line from Jerry Maguire, ‘You make me want to be a better man.’ Well, the books I read make me want to be a better author. I read every day. And if I can’t read, I listen to an audiobook. I don’t have time to read is the worst kind of excuse you can make. Switch off social media, the TV and I guarantee you can find the time. Imagine the worlds you can explore at the turn of a page.
8. Find your tribe
I cannot stress how important this is. To lay your soul bare through words is daunting. But it’s so much easier with the right support network behind you! A huge regret for me is that I never joined a writing group all those years ago when this career was just a dream for me. Maybe if I had done so, I wouldn’t have waited until I was forty to start writing full time. Writers groups come in many formats so you can one that suits you best. There are so many options here. I’d suggest that you contact your local library who always have details of local writing groups. Also, try searching Facebook for an online group, attend Literary Festivals, go to book launches (everyone is welcome) and book a writing course.
9. Be informed
There are so many wonderful resources that provide invaluable information to aspiring writers. One of my favourites is www.writing.ie where you will find interviews and articles by published authors, tips on how to write and details of writing competitions worldwide. You can check out an article I wrote about writing dialogue here! Also worth checking out is Words Ireland. Bookmark both these sites if you’ve not done so already, they have bucket loads of advice from writers and publishing experts.
Social media is a great tool to easily access both writers and publishing experts with relative ease. Follow your favourite authors, agents, and publishers. Be brave and interact with them. Trust me, we love to hear from both readers and other writers and in the main, I have found the network of support amongst the literary community to be invaluable.
You can find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @HappyMrsH
10. Write with passion
The ultimate aim when writing is to make a connection with the reader so that they continue to turn the pages. You want to evoke emotion within them, whether that’s a smile, nostalgia, recognition, anger or even sadness, as long as the reader feels something, well you have done your job. And in my opinion, the best way to write with passion is to feel passionate about the subject you are writing.
So choose your story carefully. I know some writers decide upon a subject matter for their novel because they feel it is popular and sure while this has some merit and makes commercial sense, in my opinion, if you don’t feel strongly about the topic then that will show in your finished book.
11. I’m finished, now what?
Assuming you’ve had your manuscript professionally edited and you can hand on your heart say that it is the best possible version that it can be, then it’s time to submit to an agent or publishing house.
A copy of the Writers and Authors Yearbook was my bible when I was querying agents. You can borrow one from your library, but for me, it was worth spending €20.00 so I could highlight and comment on agents as I ruled them out. Yes, reader, I got rejected by many, before one said yes.
If you want my advice, look for an agent first of all. They will know the best possible editor to send your work too. Find the right agent and they will remain a career-long adviser. My current agent has changed my writing career and it was only when I found her, that it all began to make sense. Rowan believed I could have a career as an internationally published author. She is invested in me for my writing lifetime, not just for one book. My wish for you, is that you find your own Rowan, someone who is passionate about your writing.
Just in case you don’t know this – agents only get paid when they sell your work. They receive a 15 percent commission on everything you get paid – both your advance and royalties. If an agency charges a fee to read your work, then I would suggest you should walk away.
Finding the right agent takes time but doesn’t everything that is worthwhile? You need to research the market. I started with a list of the authors I admired, then searched for their agents.
Top tip: check out the acknowledgments in authors’ books for gushing thanks to agents. You are welcome!
And I’m sure you’ve asked yourself this question too – ‘do I need a literary agent?‘ It depends on what you’re selling I suppose and what your ambition for the future is. If you want to be published by one of the major houses – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan – then you need one. Some of the digital publishers will accept submissions directly from an author. Weigh up the pros and cons. If you want a writing career, as I did and still do, then take my word for it – go find an agent. I’d rather pay 15% of something than retain 100% of nothing.
Every agency gives a clear outline of their submission process on their websites. Before you query your manuscript, read these guidelines. Adhere to them. Don’t defer because you believe you are special and should be the exception to their rules listed in black and white. Be prepared for rejection, but remember what I said earlier – you only need one person to say yes. Believe in yourself and your book. And find patience. Lord knows I’ve never been blessed with this. But I’ve learned that nothing happens with speed in the publishing industry.
I hope that the above tips help, but the very best advice I can give to any aspiring writer is simply this – just write. Stop making excuses, put your creative side first and write. And don’t stop until you type these two words – The End.
Irish Sunday Times Bestseller CARMEL HARRINGTON writes uplifting and inspiring books that have captured the hearts of readers worldwide. They have been translated into eight languages and published in eleven countries to date. My Pear-Shaped Life will be published in April 2020. Carmel was shortlisted for an Irish Book Award in 2016 and 2017, and won theKindle Book of the Year and Romantic eBook of the Year in 2014. Carmel is also a regular on Irish TV as a panellist on Virgin Media’s Elaine. She lives with her family and rescue dog in a small village in Wexford. Carmel is represented by Rowan Lawton of The Soho Agency. You can with her on FB/TW/INST @HappyMrsH or on www.carmelharrington.com