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Skills Needed To Be A Professional Novelist, by Julian Stockwin

For the new writer just learning the craft, you have to find what works for you. Getting a handle on the nuts and bolts of writing isn’t hard. There are numerous excellent books on the subject, evening classes and discussion groups. It’s crucial to brush up on spelling and grammar, as well as the mechanics of character formation, plot, pace, etc. You mustn’t take it for granted that a copy-editor will do this for you.

The crucial thing to becoming a successful author is finding your own “voice”.  I had given to me an incredible piece of advice which actually went to the heart of the creative process: “Write the book you yourself want to read.” It’s so simple, but it threw everything into perspective – if you think about it, it fundamentally defines your voice and it also energises the necessary passion for the subject.

The other side of becoming a successful author is being a successful editor. When you finish your manuscript, you’re only halfway there and the competition is high. The final product has to be very polished and this involves possibly doing several drafts, some rewriting and certainly very careful line by line editing. There are outside agencies that will help with this side of things if you feel you need an objective eye, but look at several before you commit to spending any money. It’s also a good idea to set the manuscript aside for at least six weeks before starting on the edit.

From my experience and from talking to people in the publishing world, there are a number of other things that all potential authors should bear in mind:

The saying “write about what you know” does have a lot of truth in it. By writing on a topic you know about,  you will have a certain confidence in your writing. However, not all topics will be of equal interest. If you know dentistry, for example, it’s not the sexiest of topics, but if your story involves an interesting central character and a good plot, it could still work.

Don’t follow the market. It’s a mistake to think you can just see what is selling well and then write something along similar lines. By the time your book is written and then appears in print at least two years will have elapsed; this is how long a manuscript takes to appear on the shelf of a book store. The bandwagon will be long gone!

Publishers will want between 90,000 and 110,000 words for adult novels. Generally speaking, if you write outside this range for it will be much harder to find someone to publish your work.

Finally, be prepared for the paradox of having to become tough-skinned and also needing to cope with a heightened sensitivity in the way you think about the world.

Georges Simenon, the Belgian novelist, once said, “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness”. I disagree. To be a successful writer it’s true that it’s absolutely necessary to be a consummate professional at each step of the way – but if you’re lucky enough to be able to write for a living it’s a profoundly deep and happy experience. At least that’s what I’ve found.


Julian Stockwin’s author website:

Julian Stockwin’s bio page


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