How to Make A Living as a Writer!

Apologies to all my US, NZ and Aussie writer friends, this post is very UK based so won’t apply to most of you, but feel free pick up ideas. 😀

On Wednesday 24th May 2017, I attended my first Society of Authors (SoA) event in Bristol, at the Arnolfini Gallery, a place I used to visit all the time when I was a struggling art student some twenty years ago! In fact, I first saw a young Damien Hirst exhibit his work there before he made it huge with his pickled sharks, and I marvelled at the huge architectural spiders of artist Louise Bourgeois (a thing of fear for an arachnophobe like me!). The Arnolfini itself is perched on the banks of the River Frome in the heart of Bristol and although it has changed a bit (more sleeker than I remember), thankfully it was still recognisable with it’s impressive exhibition spaces and relaxed bohemian vibe. If you’ve never visited it’s well worth a look. In fact the whole of the Bristol Docks/Quayside area is a lovely place to spend some time especially in the summer, very arty with almost an Amsterdam feel to the place with all the boats, barges and canal ferries going up and down the water, the smell of street food wafting through the air, acoustic guitar strumming in the background, cafes and restaurants spilling onto the cobbled streets, now pedestrianised, and of course the Watershed Arts & Media Centre one side of the river and the Arnolfini Gallery the other, linked by the stunning architectural Pero’s Bridge.

The SoA event was a very topical one – ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’ – something every writer I know would like to do! As most SoA events are centralised in London, a criticism made by one of the members there, I was absolutely determined to attend this rare outside of London event. As usual my body had other ideas…as I had dared to go to a last minute Grimbold Books work/social on the Monday evening which was fab but left me exhausted the following day, I ended up paying for it on the Wednesday. Annoyingly I went to bed on the Tuesday with a migraine, woke up on the Wednesday with a terrible migraine and one that decided to get progressively worse through the day with my usual vertigo and sickness, to the extent that I was then unable to drive and had to ask for a lift in. 😦

The event was upstairs in one of the gallery ‘Reading Rooms’ and one with very little air conditioning on one of the hottest days of the year! I was shocked and delighted that the whole thing kicked off with the chair reading a quote from Gareth L. Powell, a brilliant Bristol based writer who I happen to know and who wanted to be there but the tickets had sold out! How weird and wonderful is that?

“There are two kinds of courage. There’s the kind you get from knowing that what you’re doing is right. And there’s the kind you get from knowing its hopeless and wrong, and just not giving a damn.”  ― Gareth L. Powell, The Last Reef

It began with an interesting Q&A session chaired by Sarah Baxter who advises SoA members on publishing contracts and issues, handles literary estates, including print permissions and amateur stage licences. She also administers grants for writers in need including the Authors Contingency Fund, PD James Memorial Fund and Authors Foundation grants. The SoA’s newest contracts advisor, Theo Jones, who used to work for Oxford University Press, also joined her and I had a rather nice chat to him during the break.
During the Q&A various topics were raised including issues about competing titles, the new Amazon buy button (which is worrying a lot of people), the difficulty of earning a living through writing, the rise of celebrity authors and I mentioned the problem of author signings in chains like Waterstones. To my delight I wasn’t the only person who had found a problem trying to get Waterstones to stock books from smaller authors and small presses, as well as indies and how once James Daunt took over Waterstones, their policy changed towards signing events – where now most shops only hold signing events for big celebrity names. Yet another door/opportunity closed to struggling writers. The discussion around celebrity authors was very pertinent and how even well established authors are finding themselves squeezed off the shelves in both bookshops and libraries and are finding it harder to get publishing contracts because celebrities are swamping the market. I myself mentioned the whole Miranda Hart problem I had encountered where I’ve had to completely re-write my entire picture book along with illustrations because her upcoming first foray into children’s fiction is almost exactly the same as my concept. Years of work wasted. Grrrrr. 😦
I kept taking notes and trying to listen as I battled the migraine which was now pounding away behind my eyes with a regular persistence and tried to ignore the rising temptation to vomit. No-one likes throwing up, but vomiting in public is one of my fears. We had a break for refreshments and after a brief chat to Theo Jones I scuttled off to the toilets in the hope of being sick so I’d feel better after. No go. I came back and found myself cornered by an overly enthusiastic writer putting the world to rights. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, although I’m not naturally very social, I can go into my ‘social façade mode’ and chat with the best of them. The problem here though, was that apart from my sweating profusely through a mixture of meds and unbearable heat, this particular woman was actually shouting. Obviously she had a problem hearing above the general chit chat, but shouting in an animated fashion only inches away from my banging migraine was something akin to torture! 😦

We returned to our seats for the meat of the matter – a one hour panel discussion on ‘How to Make a Living as a Writer’. Sarah Baxter was joined by Helen Chaloner (CEO of Literature Works*). Helen worked in publishing PR for over nine years, at Penguin Books, Macdonald Publishing and, latterly, at Faber & Faber. She was the National Director of the Arvon Foundation and Chief Executive of Farms for City Children. She is a lover of fiction and principal short story reader for the Bridport Prize. The panel was rounded off by writer and fellow SoA member, Patricia Ferguson, who has published seven novels and a volume of short stories so far, teaches Creative Writing for the University of Bristol, and was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Reading University for three years.

*I admit I’d never heard of Literature Works before – a strategic literature development charity for South West England who are a National Portfolio Organisation of the Arts Council England. Literature Works’ role is to fundraise for the Literature Works Annual Fund, a support and grant scheme providing small awards for literature activity across the region, and where possible securing funding for larger regional projects with delivery partners, advice, advocacy and partnership. There mission is to support, understand and advocate regional literature in all its contexts, for everyone, for all ages, etc.

Sarah Baxter mentioned the South West Writers Directory (Literature Works) and that we should all get ourselves listed on there (something I have done this afternoon). Write Now was also mentioned as an initiative being piloted in Birmingham and Bristol – a scheme to find, mentor and publish new writers with different stories to tell and is in correlation with the BBC Writer’s Room. Writers from communities under-represented on the nation’s bookshelves. It is sponsored by Penguin Random House and I must say, anything that promotes greater diversity on our bookshelves is very welcomed by me.

I’d love to say some magic wands were discussed, some instant thing we can all do to suddenly become full time writers who can pay their bills exclusively through just writing, but if it was discussed, then those were the bits I missed…

Annoyingly, during this most crucial part of the event, I was desperately ill, teeth clenched, mouth clamped shut fighting the urge to barf, and so embarrassingly twice I had to leave in front of everyone. The second time I only just made it to the Arnolfini toilets before projectile vomiting everywhere. The only good thing is that it was with such force that I had no disgusting sick on me, it was like some comedy water canon being switched on. Apologies to the cleaners, I tried my best. 😦

Dear dear…you can imagine the state I was in, trying to concentrate and put on a professional front and write down copious notes for myself and friends while struggling with a howling migraine and nausea. Ugh. NOT my finest hour. I later made my apologies to Sarah Baxter and Poppy Rosenberg who were running the event and they were lovely. Then, exiting as quickly as I could, I found a bench overlooking the harbour, under the dappled shade of a sycamore tree and waited for my ride to pick me up as my head pulsated and swirled as if it were trying to copy Michael Ironside’s exploding cranium in horror film, Scanners.

So, what can I tell you about the outcome of all this?

Well, apart from the fact that you are not alone in struggling to make a living solely from writing, there really were no instant answers.

A few helpful hints were given though to raise your profile, perhaps get financial help and get paying writing work, so I’ll pop them here in no particular order (apologies for any obvious ones):

  • Literature Works – have resources, advice and help for writers.
  • South West Writer’s Directory – its free, get yourself on there! (sorry west country only)
  • Bid writing – Using your transferable skills ie. professional writing expertise in writing for companies, charities and organisations needing a more comprehensive and literate approach to their communications, fundraising and marketing.
  • Join a local writer’s group, not only as a means of fine tuning your own writing but as a networking tool.
  • Royal Literary Fund – The Royal Literary Fund is a UK charity that has been helping authors since 1790. It provides grants and pensions to writers in financial difficulty; it also places writers in universities to help students develop their writing.
  • National Writing Day (June 21st) – get involved with libraries and schools to celebrate this day.
  • Arvon – Was discussed a great deal and the grants and support.
  • Caroline Summerfield was mentioned and The Eugenie Summerfield Children’s Book Prize.
  • The Bath Novel Award was mentioned as well.
  • Mailing lists were discussed as a good way of building your fanbase.
  • It was discussed that as authors we needed to find a way of incentivising publishers to sign authors who are not celebrities, of finding a way to break that repeating cycle which is not only detrimental to professional authors whose sole income is writing, but also in some cases, floods the market with yet more substandard writing!
  • The organisers were very keen to start up a Bristol SoA chapter, as currently, despite there being apparently 481 SoA authors in and around Bristol, there is no Bristol group. I’d certainly be up for joining one, especially if there was a speculative fiction based one (Gareth?). Unfortunately a lot of this discussion and networking no doubt happened in the networking/socialising with drinks portion of the event, held afterwards in the Watershed bar and which I had to leave due to illness. 😦
  • Apparently the average earnings of a writer had now dropped from 18K a year to 11K. I must confess, my earnings from writing is nowhere near this. My illustration work with HarperCollins is the money maker for me, not my writing.
  • Promote your local connections through local libraries, bookshops, schools and writing groups – local radio is a resource as well as newspapers, use them.
  • Put yourself forward to teach creative writing courses at festivals etc. huge amounts of experience are not needed, it can be done with just a single published book under your belt.
  • Podcasting – as a visual means of raising your profile and getting more of your content out there on channels such as YouTube.

There, that seemed to be the majority of what was discussed. 😀

For me, a very handy contact gained, was meeting Judith Gunn who runs the Gloucestershire & Neighbouring Counties SoA group. I explained that unfortunately I’ve never been able to attend any of the meetings and events as they are always held during the day usually on Monday or Tuesday when I’m working. Judith said she had been discussing possibly opening up the group to hold an evening session every so often, so keen members like me who work day jobs, can attend. I certainly think that would be hugely beneficial not only to me, but other SoA writers I know, like lovely fellow fantasy writer, Jules Ironside who was working on Wednesday so couldn’t attend. Watch this space!

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YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!!

When it comes to writing or any creative endeavour that you are serious about i.e. not a hobbyist, but that you actually want to make a paying career from (again not fame & fortune, if you crave that you’re in the wrong game – go join a Big Brother house or Britain’s Got (f**k all) Talent), we are so often faced with failure.

So often I feel like the Balrog on the bridge in Khazad-dûm, trying to gain access to a path closed to me, a world full of closing (or slamming) doors.

Just need to add the appropriate sentence ending:

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this slush pile.”

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this competition’s shortlist (or even longlist).”

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this agent’s/publisher’s criteria.”

even “YOU SHALL NOT PASS – this selective writing group.” etc., etc.

Trying to make a living out of any creative field in a marketplace so utterly saturated with other writers and artists, is tantamount to wading through tar to reach that Avalon-like island on the horizon. It takes a hell of a lot of hard work, some random luck, some ‘who you know’ and a decent product that you’re trying to sell.

Unfinished pencil study of James Norton by Sphie E Tallis

Of course writing and art are completely subjective, what one person considers to be masterful, another perceives as being rubbish. But I still think some basic principles apply – the mechanics of writing a good sentence or drawing a good picture, of forming those images whether in the mind or on canvas.

Sadly, the path to success is littered with amazingly talented people who never quite got to grips with marketing, social media, ‘branding’ or simply had the bad luck not to reach that agent or publisher at the right time who might recognise their genius.

Pencil portrait of James Norton.

Pencil portrait of actor, James Norton by Sophie E Tallis

Annoyingly, the path to success is also littered with those who seemingly had only a tenth of the talent needed, but who were either fabulously well-connected (all areas of working life will always have an element of nepotism, the famous name, the ‘who you know’ element etc.), or were either bloody lucky in their timing when approaching said agent/publisher, or were so fantastic at the marketing/branding side that they had tremendous success before people realised the tripe they were actually peddling.

In writing terms, the author E.L. James comes to mind, whose actual writing (aside from the dubious pro-abuser content) is simply dreadful. In terms of the art world, for me, Tracey Emin is also the perfect example of brilliant self publicity/PR with minimal talent required. As a former history of art and fine art student & artist myself, I am not anti-modern art at all, just people like Emin. Damien Hirst may not be to everyone’s taste, but like Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread etc., they had a huge underlying skill level. I actually saw Hirst’s early work before he made it big as part of the 1990’s Brit-Art explosion and the guy is actually very talented. Although I cannot pretend to like a lot of his work, the guy CAN at least draw, his draftsmanship skills are very good, he just chooses to explore abstract and conceptual art. For me, as a drawer and artist, that is my benchmark for art, as it is for writing, that the person needs to have good basic skills in their chosen art-form. Emin cannot and never could draw proficiently, even the most basic forms, her drawing ability is quite frankly poor, and no, the irony that she was employed a few years ago as the Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy of Art is not lost on me. 😦

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve

Pencil portrait of actor, Trevor Eve by Sophie E Tallis

But back to writing. At the heart of the matter, the writer/author needs to have skill at stringing words together, at spinning a yarn, telling a compelling story, writing memorable characters etc., etc.

“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” goes the voice in our heads as we contemplate sending work off to the latest narrowing submission window, chasing any opportunity that passes no matter how fleeting – like too many bees chasing the one elusive queen, or in fantasy speak – butter spread over too much bread. We’re all chasing the same thing, the same elusive target – to be published, to have an agent, to make a living from what we love to create.

For me, so far this year, the successes I have seen have definitely been in my art rather than my writing. As dearly as I would love more people to read my work and review it and yes, love it, I am still yet another small voice amongst the din, I know this (I will be doing a separate post on ‘branding’ with some tips I’ve picked up and stolen!). But, my illustration work has, rather surprisingly, started to take off and accrue a real momentum of its own!

Pencil portrait of Stephen Fry

Rough pencil study of Stephen Fry by Sophie E Tallis

Some of that is due to content, to being prolific. As a writer I have always been glacially slow, I’d like to think it’s quality over quantity, but in truth I wish I found writing as easy as drawing. I struggle with illness, concentration and mental exhaustion to get the words down, it seems to use a part of the brain that simply is not needed when I’m busily drawing. I don’t have to try to thread complicated plotlines together and continue a narrative over a long period of time when I’m drawing. Art allows you to switch off the brain and just use your eyes, instincts and fingers to form the image you want. Because of this, I have been able to create new artwork every day as part of my daily 365 day Artmaniac Challenge, whereas sadly I seldom manage to write every day no matter how hard I try. 😦

So, success definitely is due at least in part, to being prolific, having more content out there for people to look at, assess, discuss etc. Something I fear I may never achieve with my writing. 😦

Another element which I have seen first hand, is the ‘luck & who you know’ factor I was talking about. In my case it was a simple snowball effect. The lovely Juliet E McKenna heard in fantasy circles and shared contacts that I was an illustrator and specialised in fantasy maps. So she contacted me and I ended up doing a fantasy map for her and her wonderful ‘Secret Histories of the River Kingdom’.

watermarked-300dpi-finished-map-amended-bw-version

Then, because of that and again ‘word of mouth’, the equally lovely Anna Smith-Spark asked me to do a fantasy map for her debut novel, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’, to be published in June 2017 by HarperCollins. That in turn led her editors at HarperCollins to look at the map I did and my other illustration work, which then led to the Head of Fiction Art at HarperCollins contacting me directly to say how much everyone at HC loved my work and to offer me a contract to be an official HarperCollins illustrator (supplier)! *SQUEAL* 😀

The contract came through two weeks ago and yes, I signed it straight away! 😀

Since then I have had almost daily requests from various people to do commissioned artwork for them, including from a New York literary group who want me to do the main image for their magazine and website. It’s insane, I don’t even advertise and am now having to say, “No, sorry, I can’t take anymore commissions on at the moment!”

Madness!

HarperCollins were also lovely enough to tell me that I had been MASSIVELY undercharging people and advised for me to raise my rates. I did, a little, but not as much as they were suggesting otherwise that would stop any Indie Authors from being able to afford me and I know how damn hard it is for indie and self-published authors anyway, so I’m certainly not going to price myself out of their reach. 🙂

So, yes, creating more content and having that ‘word of mouth’ and lucky break does play a massive role in creating success. Now, if only I could apply that and get the same reactions to my written work! 😀

If you’re having the same struggles or successes, do let me know! 😉 xxx

Pencil portrait of Rayleigh Ritchie

Pencil portrait of actor Rayleigh Ritchie by Sophie E Tallis

 

Face to face: face those fears and show them the door!

We are all in our own way battling fears and self doubts, about decisions made, life choices, jobs, creative endeavours, pretty much everything. Yes there are those lucky few who sail through life never second guessing anything they say or do, who have unswerving self-confidence regardless of any reasons pro or against – well good for them. But for the rest of us mere mortals, especially those of us who are pursuing a creative career, writers, illustrators, actors, singers etc., crippling self-doubt kind of comes with the territory. 😦

The fact that you have chosen an entirely subjective career path which by the nature of it, is open to a great deal of criticism, speculation and even ridicule, hardly helps. Neither does the fact that most creative people tend to be very sensitive – almost a precursor to being a writer, poet or artist of any kind.

Pencil portrait of Richard E Grant

So, apart from navigating the choppy waters of crippling self-doubt and external criticism, sometimes, just sometimes you have to man (or woman) up and face your fears.

For me, some of that is allowing myself to be bold enough to actually set goals for myself. To say that this year I am going to achieve ___________.

Setting goals is a scary business, it’s laying your cards face up on a table and saying to the world – this is what I’m going to do and risk that ridicule and criticism if you don’t manage it.

But, as a brilliant writer friend of mine has said, someone who has ambitions and rightly so (watch this space people), what’s holding you back? Face those fears, fly your flag, pin your colours to the main brace and declare “I am here, and here is what I am going to do! I WILL achieve this!”

img_0129

So, I am risking the embarrassment of setting out my goals for this year – there is no try, there is only do or do not: 😀

  1. Completely finish writing and edit Darkling Rise (the very long awaited sequel to White Mountain that has taken me FAR too long to write!).
  2. Lose a minimum of two stone (hopefully three) for long-term health benefits and a major life commitment I have made to myself (before I’m too old for it to work) – I’ll be less cryptic when I’m nearer to achieving this goal.
  3. Continue writing short stories and my dark novel, Ravenwing (hopefully to a first draft stage).
  4. Continue building my illustration business. So far I haven’t had to advertise as people have been approaching me, but I need to step up my game and get more commissions going and widen my reputation.*
  5. Build a stronger online presence, as my mate calls it, sort out my ‘brand’, which will help grow followers, fans and help sales as well as getting more reviews and make me more visible to potential opportunities. Yes we’d all love the Game of Thrones success of George R. Martin (though I’ve never fancied the fame bit) but at the end of the day, most of us just want to be able to write and create full-time and make a living from it (enough to pay the bills at least).
  6. Finish my picture book ‘The Little Girl Who Lost Her Smile’ (the story is written but I need to finish drawing and painting all 24 illustrations – I had no idea just how much work is involved in making a picture book!).
  7. Bite the bullet and try subbing to agents, both for my picture book and Ravenwing (once it’s finished) and stop being afraid of success or trying to be successful!!!!
  8. Continue the daily Artmaniac Challenge, creating new art EVERY DAY for a whole year!**
  9. Pay more attention to my lovely little blog (yes, you guys) and blog more often – Sorry!

So there you go, 9 goals for the year. Will I achieve them all? Only time will tell, but I’m going to try my bloody hardest.

Face your fears…

So, what are YOU going to achieve this year?

Pencil sketch of Christopher Walken by Sophie E Tallis

* Yes, I have some exciting news to share to do with HarperCollins. I have signed a contract with them and will fill you all in very soon! 😀

** The reason for my doing portraits at the moment for the Artmaniac Challenge, is due to the wonderful inspiration that is the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year (and yes, I am thinking about doing it next year!) 😀 xxx