I started writing with a serious view to getting published in 2003. I was in Singapore and I had access to only books from US and UK. Indian children’s publishing industry was young, just near it’s pre-teens. Singapore hardly published any picture books then.
But the urge to be validated as a writer was egging me on. I tried to form local SCBWI groups – we were less than 10 of us and we gathered a few times a year.
But that wasn’t sufficient for me. I was in a hurry. I bought many books – but didn’t really take in all the advice. I wrote and sent out manuscripts to magazines, online and print, all the way to the US, and then slightly closer to Australia and NZ.
To make matters worse, yes, I’m saying worse, I got a few accepted. I had my bylines in magazines. I got money – be it $10 that will perhaps buy me a meal. I grew a sense of belonging in the writing world. Although I had more stories to tell, and still do, I wrote anything and everything that could get me published. And my focus shifted from writing to getting published because I got those acceptances.
Then I met a publisher at an event in Singapore, and she invited me to write a book of retellings. I was hungry to write and I did many books with them and wrote for their school magazines – two to three columns a month during term-time.
I also got huge number of rejections. Perhaps one in twenty of my submissions to magazines got published. With a full-time job demanding my attention, I focused on the one that I got in rather than the 19 that were being returned.
I did courses, online (those days, that meant by email), I travelled to the US for courses. I went to the European SCBWI retreat and still reality hadn’t set in. I hadn’t learnt all of the lessons I should have in those early days. My first picture book was published in 2006 and my first chapter book in the UK was published in 2010 – and those intervening and then nothing really happened until 2012 and then again nothing happened for 4 years until 2016.
Between 2003 and 2006, I published over 12 books in Singapore, published more than 20 children’s articles in US magazines. Between 2006 and 2010, I published one picture book and one chapter book. Granted – I moved countries, was working in the financial services industry during the pre-crisis era and during the crisis, I was working flat out 16 hours a day – but still, I don’t think I was focussing on the “aspects” of important things I should be in terms of my writing.
Having published over 50 books now, and writing for both trade and educational market, having done countless school visits with children and seeing them devour the stories I bring to them, and having taught writing and having mentored a few new writers, I thought I should talk about the lessons I learnt over the last 17 years.
I get many emails from new writers especially Asian writers asking for the secret sauce. In a market where brown stories are hard to find, when they stumble on to my website or hear me talk in one of the events, people think – she knows how to break in and I’m going to ask her to share that with me.
The answer to that question always is – I know nothing and I know something. Everyone’s situation is different and unique just like the stories they write. While we all can’t replicate each other’s formula to victory, we can definitely learn from them. As a beginning writer, I perhaps shut out a lot of that good advice – all I wanted to hear was – this is how you can get published.
Why am I sharing this ramble with all of you now? Two things happened.
- I got a couple of new writers ask me for the secret sauce
- I wrote to a writer who’s writing the kind of stuff I want to write and I asked for the secret sauce.
In both cases, I didn’t have a secret sauce to give and so did the writer I spoke to. That’s when I realised – we both gave them tips that could lead them to their own secret sauce but we can’t actually give ours (or I can’t get someone else’s sauce).
So what? 17 years ago or even 10 years ago, I wasn’t ready for anyone to tell me that there is no secret sauce to buy off the shelf. Now I am.
When I spoke to someone whose advice I wanted, this time I listened. I really understood that they can’t wave a wand and make the sauce appear. They can only tell me how they did it and I have to find the courage to walk that path to find that sauce.
Okay, I’ve been wallowing in too much sauce. Let me come to the point. Here are some things I’ve learned from hindsight. I wish I was emotionally and intellectually in a good place to receive this insight 10 years ago. I wasn’t. I didn’t stop to think about what I wanted – I blindly ran down the road, not stopping for direction or course-correction.
Now I feel, while I’ve finally come to the point when people think I’m an established writer (I’ll never think that myself), I realise I could have saved so much heartache and time if I had stopped and listened to the advice I was being given by people who have walked that path before me.
So here goes! My tips / suggestions / advice / cautionary tales – whatever you think this is.
I write 7 days a week. But I’m not asking you to do that. Do what works for you. But write regularly and also consciously. Learn the craft of writing – from tense to viewpoint, voice to plot, understand the lingo of the land. And write, experiment, play. Wanting to be a writer is a desire, getting better at writing makes it a goal that’s achievable.
For years when I was writing alongside a busy career in the corporate sector, I kept time. Every time I grabbed 10 minutes to write between meetings or a coffee-break to write or got up at 4 am to write, I kept track of it. I like tracking, numbers, measurable goals. Nicely bringing you to the second point…
When I worked in the corporate world, we always set SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. This doesn’t mean you should only write about things you know or shouldn’t take on the Great British Novel (although I’m not sure what that means). It means your goal should not be dependent on someone else’s whimsy.
- I will finish a story of xx number of words by yy date.
- I will jot down ideas for 10 picture books by yy date.
- I will try to write a poem by yy date
- I will work on my story 15 minutes a day
The above goals are SMART. They are achievable – because it’s all about you putting in the work. But the ones below are not.
- I will get a book published by a major publisher in the year 2020.
- I will get a 3-book deal with a major publisher.
- I will be published in the year 2021.
- I will write a novel about marriage and politics for 3-year olds
The first two are definitely not in your own control – unless you have the money to buy the major publisher. Those type of goals set us up for failure and disappointment.
Believe me, I’ve dreamt of walking up to the big bosses in my corporate office and wanted to say – please buy publisher x and tell them to publish me. But then I’d always worry if I got published because of that and not because my story was good. You see the conundrum here?
The third one is not SMART either. It’s stating the goal from the external perspective. I will write a brilliant story to the best of my ability is something you can control. Unless you want to self-publish (which is a viable and the right alternative to some people), your goal must not be dependent on the decision of persons unknown.
The last one in the second list – is madness. It means you haven’t understood your audience. Sometimes madness can bring you glory. But on the way, you will find many people who will mock you. So you might be the genius who manages to write a novel for a 3-year old. But remember, not everyone will get it. So decide if your very first goal is too tall a mountain to climb. Baby steps…
It’s not impossible. You’ve heard it on the news! Writing your first story and getting it published was definitely possible for this author who wrote a book to sell for a million dollars to avoid bankruptcy and he succeeded. There might be other examples – they are the outliers. Most of us slog for days, weeks, months to write the best thing we can and hawk it around until someone believes in our story. Of course the inside joke is, if you’re a TV star, especially in reality TV, then you might be able to get a book deal. So if that’s your secret sauce, then go for it.
Seriously though there are steps to go through before you think about sending the story out to a publisher or an agent.
- Write many drafts of the same story. First drafts are usually not ready to be sent out. That means finish the story. Don’t write first three chapters and dash it off to an agent.
- Show it to other writers who are willing to read and give feedback.
- Understand the feedback, process it and see how you can change your story (or how you must not).
- Write many drafts again.
- Put that story away and write another story.
- Come back to the first story and read it. Is it good enough, do you want to change it?
- Rinse, Repeat!
Visualise someone reading your book. Visualise what they might think.
You’re asking a young reader or an adult who just needs an escape from the real world to invest time in your story. Have you put in the work required to ask that of strangers?
Yes BAME writers are not published enough. Yes own voices stories are still not that common in British publishing. But things are changing and we all must help to make the change. Make a positive noise! Raise the voice of writers who have made it. Help them pave the path you can walk on later. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants and there is no benefit to kicking those shoulders when climbing higher.
I was once at a conference where I was being interviewed. Then came audience questions – one of them was – Publishers are all cheats, why do you traditionally publish and why don’t you just self-publish?
To that audience person, this is what I said. First, publishers are not all cheats. If you come to the table with mistrust, surely no one is going to trust anyone. Secondly I went into the differences between the two and why I chose to publishers with traditional publishers and not go solo.
If you follow writers on Twitter, many of us will share each others’ successes often and we also grumble sometimes. Don’t latch on to the grumble. Focus on the positives. There is no point in going into the process with a less than open mind.
Don’t start the conversation with – if I send you the story, will you steal it? There might be 1 in a million cases where that might have happened with a fly-by-night operator. But that doesn’t mean you should approach the industry with that thought.
On the flip side, do your due-diligence. The Internet is full of scams. But the Internet is also full of valuable information about how to protect yourself from scammers.
There are many ways to learn the craft – you could take a course, read a book or visit copious number of websites that talk about writing. Then there is act of reading that will teach you writing. Especially in the field you want to be in. If you want to write picture books, read many many many picture books.
You will definitely learn from reading books that are already out there. Over time, you will learn to discern those that are well-written and those that got published regardless. Over time, you will learn the nuances of when to break the rule and when not.
A course or a book on the craft can get you that information in a bit more structured way. It still doesn’t absolve you of reading the world you’re writing. But it will help you recognise the structure, the craft, the scaffolding. Again validate the courses, know which book to buy, borrow if you can from a library or a friend.
But find a way to learn the basics. It will save you time discovering it by mistake. Like the Americas.
This is true for every industry. Know thy field. Understand who is publishing what. What kind of books are being read? If you write for children, know the standards for different ages. Go to conferences, industry events and listen. Go to youtube – there is a treasure trove of conference speeches, keynotes, advice, lectures by experienced writers. Listen to them.
Subscribe to trade magazines like The Bookseller – they have free newsletters. Find out who are the influencers in your area of writing. Find out who are the new indie publishers and who are the award winners. Do you love an author’s books? Who published them and who might have edited them?
When you network with fellow writers, you can form a support system. I have two workshop groups – and because I reached out to fellow writers at events, or find someone I really enjoyed listening to and getting in touch with them. Go to book launches, meet other writers and illustrators and publishers and agents. (Come to mine… when this virus is vanquished!)
Don’t approach every networking opportunity as a “they will further my career…”. No agendas. Just get to know people and what they do. If you show interest in what they do, they will show interest in what you do. And if you’re writing well and regularly and have stories ready to go, then of course they will want to know more. But don’t force it.
When you meet industry people, refer to point 4. Don’t be confrontational. Don’t start with “You published them, why not me?” or “I don’t like this book you wrote.” What are you trying to get out of that conversation? Be nice, learn from them if they have something to offer. If not, be a nice human, say hello, smile and move on. Never make someone else’s moment uncomfortable and awkward. They will remember how you made them feel.
I have rambled for long about so many different things I wish I could have understood all those years ago. But nothing is lost. I’m applying these to anything new I want to pursue now.
All of the above tips are based on what I have learnt in hindsight. The last one on networking is something I’m good at – both in my corporate job and in my new job as a writer. Only networking and knowing who’s publishing what gave me my successes. But the other points, I learnt the hard way. I made mistakes, I didn’t listen when someone told me this story isn’t ready – I sent it out anyway. And I’m sharing these with you so perhaps it will help you on your journey.
If it’s helpful, share your thoughts on twitter with me. If it’s not helpful, forget your read this and move on. Don’t pick an argument with me. See point 4.