How to become an author

Letters of the alphabet emerging from a book - careers as an author
Want a career as a novelist? We spoke to a published author about what her work involves and her advice on becoming a writer.

TARGETcareers spoke off the record to a novelist who specialises in writing women’s fiction, to bring you an insider’s view of the profession. Her first two novels have both been published and she’s currently writing her third. Here she reveals what writing a novel involves – from initial idea through to publication and publicity – plus how she got her first book deal and her advice for others on how to become an author. She also looks at what it takes to be a good writer, how much writers earn, how she herself makes money and whether being an author is worth it.

How did you become an author?

Like lots of people, I’d always wanted to write a book. Then I got into the habit of writing regularly, and did it. I got an agent (agents are listed in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which also has some useful advice) and, a couple of rewrites later, got a book deal.

Do you have another job as well as writing?

I work part-time as well as writing. Fitting both in can be tricky… You definitely need the support of the people around you. You need to protect your writing time ruthlessly. And you need to really want to do it.

What does your work as a novelist involve?

A novel starts with an idea, which could come from anywhere, at any time – it could be an overheard conversation, something spotted on TV, or a possibility that presents itself when you’re awake in the middle of the night or bored and waiting for the bus. Then there’s research, which will vary depending on the type of novel you’re writing. For example, you might need to find out how police investigate a murder, or visit historical locations.

Planning and writing a novel

You’ll need some kind of plan: depending on the kind of writer you are, this could be a note on the back of an envelope or even just an idea at the back of your mind, or, if you are more systematic, a series of diagrams, Post-its and notes (you might opt to use a wordprocessing programme designed to help you with this, such as Scrivener).

Chances are your research and your plan will evolve as you go along. And going along means writing, which may take anything from months to years – again, depending on the kind of writer you are, and, perhaps, whether you are on contract and have a deadline.

Getting feedback on your novel, finding an agent, finding a publisher…

At some point, you will seek out readers – people you trust to read what you’ve written and, hopefully, to encourage you (and perhaps to suggest ways it could be improved). If you are a debut novelist seeking a traditional publishing deal, once you’ve finished your book and are happy with it, your most likely next step will be to try to get an agent.

A common starting point is the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This lists agents along with the areas they specialise in and a few of the authors they represent, so you can use it to pick agents to approach. It also explains whether agents are open to unsolicited submissions and what they want you to send – usually the first three chapters plus a synopsis.

If you already have an agent and a publisher waiting for your manuscript, your agent will probably read it before sending it on to the publisher (though agents vary in how much editorial advice they give). The commissioning editor who has taken your book on for publication will then work on it with you.

Reworking your novel with your editor’s feedback, proofreading, covers…

The next stage is the to-and-fro of preparing a book for publication. There will be a schedule for this process, which is likely to take around a year in all, though it could be shorter or longer if the publication date of the book shifts. You might receive an editor’s letter, which could include both structural suggestions and line edits (textual editorial suggestions); some or all of this could be marked up as notes on your original manuscript. You then start work on responding to all of these suggestions. A new, even more reader-friendly draft of the book emerges.

Your novel may then be sent off to a proofreader, after which it will come back to you with all your dodgy punctuation and so on marked up for review. Meanwhile, your publisher’s design department will work on the cover; this is a crucial tool in catching the interest of the book-buying public and helping prospective readers to know what kind of book it is. You’ll get the chance to see the cover design, and may have some say over it (though the word your publisher will be most keen to hear is ‘yes’). Once the manuscript and cover have been finalised, your novel will be ready to go off to the printers.

Publicising your novel

Job done? Not quite. The other key ingredient in the life of a book is publicity, and you’ll have a hand in that too. Chances are you’ll use social media to promote your book(s) and network with other writers. You might go along to some author events, whether on your own or as part of a panel, perhaps at literary festivals, to talk about your books or themes they cover. Children’s writers might do school visits. If you end up in the running for an award, you might have a prize ceremony to go to.

This is the public-facing bit of the novelist’s job, which is pretty much the opposite of the solitary inspiration/writing part of it. The bridge between the two is Twitter, which many novelists (though not all) use for water-cooler chat: grumbles, updates on the state of their desks/pets/lives, what happened on the telly last night, reactions to the news, what they’ve been reading… anything really.

Self-publishing a novel

Plenty of writers self-publish, and some make a good income from this. Some authors move from self-publishing to having a traditional book deal. If you decide to self-publish you can make use of a professional freelance editor and designer to polish your work and put together a cover that will help it to sell. There’s plenty of advice online about self-publishing, and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook has a guide to help you get started.

Do writers need particular skills, qualifications or experience?

Two things are essential: a love of reading and the desire to write. Other than that, novelists do, and should, come from anywhere and everywhere.

Sometimes a particular kind of experience can be put to good use by a novelist. For example, a background as a lawyer or with the police might be helpful for writing crime fiction. Journalists sometimes turn to writing novels, too. But really, any experience of work or life could feed into your writing, whether you’re a singing waiter, a supply teacher, a doctor or a painter and decorator – or anything else. In the long term, a profession that offers a degree of flexibility might be useful if you want to be able to devote more time to your writing.

What advice do you have for others on how to become an author?

There are lots of routes to becoming a published novelist: winning a competition, blogging, successfully self-publishing, doing a creative writing course… any of these things can lead to you getting picked up by an agent and/or a publisher. Sometimes publishers invite authors who don’t have agents to submit their manuscripts directly, usually for a limited window of time only.

Competitions open to young writers include the annual BBC Young Writers’ Award in partnership with the charity First Story and the University of Cambridge.

Advice for would-be novelists? Be stubborn, but receptive. Ask questions. Listen. Read, and write. Don’t put it off till you’re older, or wiser, or have more time. If you want to do it, give it a try – why shouldn’t you? And then keep going.

Deciding on a genre

Is there a particular genre than interests you? There is a lot of demand for children’s fiction, young adult fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, romance, psychological suspense, science fiction… all sorts. Or you may have your sights set on becoming a literary novelist. Readers love all these types of fiction, and more.

Get involved in local writing groups and book events

You could look for a local writing group to join, or start your own. If you are lucky enough to have an independent bookshop near you, it’s worth spending some time there and keeping an eye out for any events they run. The same goes for events at local literary festivals.

Know what’s going on in the book world

It’s worth following writers you like on Twitter, and other social media. You can also follow different imprints*, commissioning editors, publicists, book bloggers and reviewers, booksellers, libraries, literary festivals, prizes and other people and organisations associated in one way or another with writing, publishing and reading novels.

* An imprint is a trade name used by a publisher to issue a particular type of book. A large publisher may have numerous imprints. For example, Penguin Classics is an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Creative writing courses and degrees

Should you consider doing a creative writing course? You might find the guidance and dedicated writing time helpful, though you need to weigh this up against the cost. A good first port of call is the Arvon Foundation, which runs a mixture of courses including five-day residential courses, shorter residential courses and non-residential weekend courses, plus some courses aimed at schools and young people. There are also plenty of other providers, offering both online and face-to-face course options.

There are also degree courses that include creative writing modules, often alongside other elements such as English, drama or professional writing. There are numerous postgraduate courses too. One of the best known is at the University of East Anglia, and there are many others, including courses at Manchester, Bath Spa and Oxford.

Useful resources for writers

There is a book for everything, including the would-be novelist. Here are some you could look at:

  • The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, by Margaret Atwood. This includes an unsurpassable list of different reasons writers have given for writing, ranging from revenge to paying for the children’s shoes.

Other useful sources of information and advice include the following:

Is being an author a good career?

If you genuinely want to write, this is a great career. Depending on how things go, though, you might need a supplementary source of income. Novelists’ careers are as varied as the titles on display in your local bookshop, and can be as unpredictable. Writing novels isn’t necessarily a quick route to fame and fortune. But… you never know.

Being published is a genuine thrill. And also, writing novels is addictive in itself – it’s the chance to create, and escape to, another world, and then share it with other people.

What characteristics do you need to be a good writer?

Some characteristics that might help a novelist on his or her way could include the following:

  • curiosity
  • stubbornness
  • imagination
  • a contradictory mixture of sensitivity and a thick skin
  • an eye for the telling detail (detail that helps the reader to conjure up the bigger picture)
  • the willingness to work at making things better
  • the ability to conjure up emotions, characters and settings, and come up with a plot
  • and last but very definitely not least, a desire to tell stories, whether they’re sad, funny, shocking, scary, romantic, suspenseful, thrilling, mysterious, thought-provoking… or a mixture of all of these qualities.

How much do authors earn?

Writers’ incomes vary enormously. A recent survey by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) found that the average income of a professional author in 2017 was £10,500, and that just 13.7% of authors earned their incomes solely from writing (down from 40% in 2005). You can read more about the survey on the Society of Authors’ website.

Selling foreign rights can be lucrative; if a novel is published in translation in numerous different countries, this makes for a healthy boost to the novelist’s income. The same goes for selling adaptation rights for TV or film. A successful adaptation will increase book sales. So will winning a well-regarded prize. Another additional source of income is PLR – Public Lending Right. This is the money paid to authors when their books are borrowed from libraries.

How are authors paid?

Typically, an author with a traditional publishing deal will receive an advance, which might be paid in instalments – when the contract is signed, when the final manuscript is delivered, and on publication. The agent will take a cut of this. The author will then receive royalties on book sales, which need to amount to enough to pay off the author’s advance before they are received as additional income.

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