On Wednesday 25th November, the University of Birmingham hosted an extremely informative talk about Careers in Writing and Publishing, which saw a range of speakers in different fields talking about their careers and giving top tips to students interested in these areas. The talk was split into three sessions: Fiction, Publishing and Support for Writers, and Poetry and Script Writing.
Authors Ruth Gilligan and Leila Rasheed gave a talk on getting into writing Fiction with some great tips on finding agents and getting published. Leila writes children’s literature and has previously worked at the National Literary Trust. Ruth lectures in creative writing at the University of Birmingham, and has written women’s commercial literature and historical novels, alongside writing reviews for the Guardian.
The main point from the talk was that writing fiction will most likely be a varied and complicated process and will almost certainly be different for different people.
Finding an Agent
Finding and working with an agent is a vital part of the process. Ruth stressed the importance of finding the right agent for you and your book. Different agents specialise in different genres and have the contacts and connections necessary to enhance your chances of getting publicised and published. She initially began writing commercial women’s literature and worked with the same agent for her first few books. However, after deciding she was interested in a change of direction and wanted to work on a historical novel she found a new agent who would be better connected within that genre. Additionally, it can initially be hard to find an agent. Leila recommended always sending finished material off to agents. From personal experience she found sending unfinished work to have been a mistake as there is the possibility that if the agent likes the extract you send, they will want to read more, which can be difficult if you have not finished the rest! Sometimes relationships with agents can be difficult. Leila discussed how she was signed by an agent for two years and spent this time writing and rewriting her book with no success in terms of the agent pursuing it for publishing. She found that she was not ready and had found the agent too soon.
Some agents work for large companies and others work for small companies, additionally some also work independently and it is about picking what works best for you and which you think is the best fit. When submitting applications to agents/agencies it is important to tailor your submission for each agency rather than sending off generic applications. This can enhance your chances of success, which is vital when you may have limited opportunities in terms of number of submissions for each agency
One downside to writing as a career is that it rarely provides writers with a steady income. Lots of the processes can take a very long time; firstly, writing the book takes a significant amount of time and then finding an agent, editor and publisher can also be a lengthy process. This is why book deals seem appealing as they can provide some level of security if you know that the publisher will definitely publish at least a second book. However, it should be considered that this could undervalue the author and it locks you in to a deal regardless of the success of the first book.
Part Time Roles Whilst Writing
It can be a long time before writing begins to generate some sort of income, and once this does happen it may not generate enough funds to live off. Many writers work alongside writing, to supplement their writing careers.
- Bookselling – this role enables you to see what is being published, what is being bought by book stores and potential competition for your writing. This can give an inside insight on what may be popular and what direction your writing could go down. Leila worked as a bookseller for some time whilst writing and found it was not only relevant but did not take over from writing. It was a role that was easy to switch off from so that the main focus could still be her writing.
- Editing – this is another possible role for writers. if you are interested in books and reading this could be an interesting option. However, it can also be a career within itself.
- Reviewing – if you enjoy reading and are opinionated about books you may find writing reviews for newspapers an interesting part time role for alongside your writing career
- Have patience – the different processes can take a long time, possibly longer than you will expect!
- Be polished – it is risky sending off unfinished manuscripts, try and make sure you are ready before sending applications to maximise chances of success.
- Learn the art of the hook – the hook of a book is important. It sets the standard for the rest of the novel, drawing the reader in and intriguing people encouraging the reader to read on. If you have the ability to create a great hook, this can work in your favour in terms of getting an agent!
- Use social media – follow different organisations social media pages, this is a great way to keep up to date with roles that come up within companies. The writing and publishing industry is all about connections, ensure you are in a good position to make connections as this can come in handy in the future
- Internships are useful – if you can gain an internship within an agency/editors/publishers this can be another opportunity to make connections whilst enhancing your knowledge of the industry. Often if companies are looking to fill a full time role they will look to people they have previously hired as interns. In one of the other talks, Becci Sharpe said that sometimes internships in smaller companies can be better in terms of progress; she did a number of internships whilst studying.
Masters can be useful – when deciding on what to do after University you may have considered completing a masters. This can be a great way of enhancing your writing, as well as providing you with a year of fully immersing yourself in your work. Unless you complete further study it can be difficult to dedicate that amount of time purely to writing and this is why a masters can really benefit your work. Additionally, it is always something you can return to, if after a few years working you feel you would benefit from undertaking a masters, this is always an option!
Publishing and Support for Writers
Speakers Becci Sharpe and Jonathan Davidson gave an interesting talk about the world of publishing and how to get started. Becci has around 6 years’ experience in publishing and is now a publicist for Boomerang PR. Jonathan is the Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands and has experience in poetry, theatre and radio.
Top Tips for Aspiring Writers
Becci gave some great tips from her experience in publishing, with some tips from Jonathan too:
- Write lots to get your ideas down – the traditional route is to do this and then try to find an agent. It is best to send lots of work out, and it should always be finished. Take the time to edit, re-edit and check all work before sending it out, because it has to be the best.
- Find an agent – An agent is necessary in order to gain contacts with possible publishers and also to negotiate with them. An agent wants you to do well and can help decide the publisher that would work best and find an editor which would suit you and your work. A good way to have a look for a possible agent is to use the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook, a fantastic resource with a huge amount of info for aspiring writers – Becci’s tip was to start at the back when contacting people listed in the book as most people reading it will begin calling people from the top of the alphabetical list!
- Self-publishing is an option – This could be a good option for getting your work out there without having to find an agent or publisher. This is a good way to get a lot of your work out there faster. When you are self-publishing, you need to be your own team and sales force.
- Or you can find a publisher – This gives the advantage of having someone who works for you who, like an agent, wants you to succeed and will help you do so. With a publisher, you will have an editor and sales teams so it can be easier to do well. Publishers can also give you more credibility.
It is also an idea to consider micropublishers who are just getting started and are learning about the process. They are often very good and will sometimes publish more niche books.
- Get involved – Look out for competitions that could help you gain recognition and experience. Try lots of things out so that you can find what you like to do best. Jonathan added that there are also sometimes residential competitions that can give you opportunities to travel.
- Courses can be useful – Publishing courses can be a good way to stay relevant, learn more about the industry and try new things.
Jonathan gave more insight into writing and publishing, saying that increasingly writers are doing different things such as teaching creative writing or giving talks if they enjoy communicating. This can be useful in creating more opportunities whilst also sustaining yourself in an area linked to what you love to do. He gave the example of Will Self, writer and journalist but also well-known television personality.
Some writers aim to get small amounts of funding before finding and agent or publisher, and there are a number of ways to find this:
- Arts Council England Funding Programme
- Royal Literary Fund
- Royal Society of Literature (another useful site)
Jonathan also pointed out the option of using your qualities or skills in other formats as another way of gaining more experience and earning money from your writing. For example, you can earn money through writing for the radio and exploring other forms of writing.
Jobs and Ways to Get Involved for Aspiring Publishers
There are a number of sites to visit when looking for job opportunities and lots of events to get involved in. These are especially useful for people who want to work in publishing as opposed to being published themselves. Becci mentioned that you should aim to work in publishing because you really enjoy it, not because you think it will make it easier to get published because this is not the case.
- Look out for book festivals and other similar events as they are another great way to meet people and learn about different roles and areas within publishing. Building connections is really important for upcoming publishers as people tend to know a lot of people within the industry.
- Volunteer at events such as the Birmingham Literary Festival to meet people and get involved.
- Look into jobs in arts which can provide many transferable skills. Jonathan recommended stepping out of your comfort zone to gain skills and see what you enjoy.
- Jobs in publishing: The Bookseller
Poetry and Script Writing
Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. She is a critically-acclaimed poet, whose most recent work, Black Country “was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, received a Somerset Maugham Award, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. Black Country was chosen as a book of the year by The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Mail, The Big Issue and The Morning Star”. Her website, from which this bio is taken, can be found at http://lizberrypoetry.co.uk/
Tim Stimpson studied for both a BA English and Drama and MPhil in Playwriting Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is currently the Deputy Chair of the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain and one of the main writers for BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. More about Tim can be found here https://timstimpson.wordpress.com
We have distilled some of the main pieces of advice which Liz and Tim gave to their audiences at our event!
Seize the Initiative & Work Together
According to Liz, poetry can be an often lonely talent and working environment at times. In order to defeat this, she suggested banding together with other poets in the form of poetry workshops, groups and residential retreats. This will help provide a support network, forum of constructive critique and platform to voice your art.
Tim suggested that it’s becoming increasingly harder to gain traction in finding a platform for your play in terms of having put on in theatres. One method to overcoming this is to band together with other writers, both on an intellectual level and as a team in order to put a play or evening on. Having a ‘mercurial and entrepreneurial’ streak may not only help you get noticed and provide a forum for your art; the organisational skills and creative capacity required to stage such an evening will always be also viewed as fantastic transferable skills in any industry you may end up pursuing a career within.
Both mused on the two further important facts. Firstly, your work colleagues will become your friends, and the true can be said of the reverse. Value connections and work hard to maintain them. Secondly, do not work for free and value your ideas as well. If someone wants your talent, then it has a clear value attached to it!
Masters Degrees: Do or Do Not, There is No Try
Both Liz and Tim seemed agree that whilst a Master’s Degree is perhaps professionally inessential to pursuing a career within these fields, it can definitely confer several benefits. Both concluded that an MA is an extremely useful formative process, whereby the process of the degree is more important than its necessary outcomes. Continuing onto a Master’s degree can provide you with continued access to wider links to all industries you may wish to enter, formal networking opportunities and access to a Careers Service to support you alongside your studies and ambitions. It also helps when you need continue with a structured, disciplined writing routine.
However, life experience in writing can be equally invaluable; Liz stressed that she found her work in a primary school alongside her writing gave her a base with which she could be both grounded in and fall back on if poetry didn’t work out. Tim reminded the audience that Ed Burns, one of the writers for The Wire – one of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time – was a former Baltimore police detective for the Homicide and Narcotics divisions there. This certainly helped in contributing to shaping The Wire, and perhaps your own life experiences can be a driving force behind pieces you write later on.
However, conversely he reminded the group that on the other hand the Science Fiction genre is relatively impossible to write from a lived perspective, and that there was ‘nothing extraordinary about the Archers… it’s about the minutiae of Middle Class English life’ Tim recommended finding a core to any piece of work you write – a ‘truth’ – and possibly sticking at trying to deliver that.
Tim and Liz both commented on a fantastic variety of available resources for all prospective writers, the links to which can be found below for you to access.
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (although other good vendors are available!)
There are Poetry Cafes in Shoreditch, Moseley, and Kings Heath to name a few – look into your own local organisations and opportunities!
- Radio scripts are difficult to write; with radio you must show and not tell. Practice makes perfect in this medium, where you cannot have a character state “The gun in my left hand is loaded”
- People are always looking for the next Don Paterson, or Carol Ann Duffy, and have an incentive to find the next big thing. People are not cruel or deliberately dismissive, but they have finite time. Target and know who people are and be persistent. If you love someone’s work then write to them and perhaps link it back to your ambition.
- Set yourself deadlines and start writing. Where this is true of university work, it is true of practicing your creative writing as well.
- When you submit to competitions, remember it must usually be an original piece. If you have published work online to a blog or such, remember that nothing after it’s been submitted to the internet can be truly ‘undone’. Avoid this issue.
- “Connections will help you get in” Foster relationships at both formal and informal networking events where possible, and look to seek out contacts wherever they may arise.
And as Liz said “You can’t call yourself a poet until you can wallpaper your toilet in rejection letters”