Three Hard Truths About Promoting Your Writing

I write this blog to tell you about my writing projects, for myself and other people, and also to help you with your writing. And I’m doing it (says she, blushing slightly) to promote myself. As a result, I try to present myself and my work as positively as possible, adding a glossy sheen to my writing. This week, I’m dropping the gloss and I’m going to talk about how hard promotion can be.

People who know me know that I’m honest and frank, possibly a bit too much so for my own good. So I’m not going to hide the fact that like many writerly types, I find it hard to promote myself. It feels like boasting. But there are things I have learned about promoting yourself which are hard, but which give me the motivation I need to start spreading the word.

Here are my hard-won truths about self-promotion. I

You Have to Tell People

First of all, you have to let people know that you exist. Nobody is going to come and pluck your brilliant book out of your bedroom door or your hard-drive. Nobody’s going to ask you to come and speak on a panel. Nobody is going to avail of your business-boosting copywriting service. You need to let people know what you have to offer them. The good news is, that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to trumpet blast them with a showy sales pitch. You’re just telling them the story of what you do. The upside of promotion is that you get a chance to share your passion, and that passion will make people sit up and listen.

You don’t need to trumpet blast about your writing.

Nobody Owes You Their Custom

This was a harsh but useful lesson for me to learn. I used to fret about the fact that people weren’t buying my book, weren’t turning up at my writing workshops, weren’t following through on requests for me to do editing or copywriting work for them. Then I realised that they weren’t under any obligation whatsoever to do any of these things. Instead, it’s up to me to show them how I can be useful to them, and to show an interest in their own projects and personal goals. This is what will get them to pick up the phone, to come through the doors, to open up that book.

Keep Telling Them

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that once you’ve announced your latest book/workshop/event, all you now have to do is sit back and watch the sales roll in. But people are being bombarded with information from every corner. To make sure your information cuts through the babble, you need to tell them over and over again about your offer, using various different mediums.

These truths may be obvious to some of you, but I’ve found that reminding myself of them gives me a sense of perspective, and when I follow through on them and do the promotion, I reap the rewards with plenty of interesting work. What are your tough promotional lessons?

Making a Living As a Writer

As I’m a little short of time, this week’s blog will reproduce an interview with author Donal Ryan that appeared in the latest edition of The Sunday Independent. The article was written by Niamh Horan, and Donal Ryan explains the reason why he returned to his job as a civil servant, despite writing three award-winning, successful books. To me, this article raises this question. Does a writer have a right to expect to make a living from writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here it is.

He is loved by his readers, lauded by critics and is an award-winning author – but Donal Ryan has to return to his day job in the civil service so he can pay the mortgage.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent this weekend, “You need to have something else on the go.”

Ryan, who is returning to his full-time role in the Workplace Relations Commission, says romanticised notions of millionaire best-selling novelists aren’t grounded in reality.

“You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it. I have two kids in school and I have a mortgage to pay,” he said.

“I am lucky though. I loved the civil service. It was a job that I was good at and that I found fulfilling and challenging and I had an opportunity to help people and to make a little difference in the world.”

Outlining the numbers that go into achieving a best-selling status, he explains: “If you look at the charts every week, in the autumn you need to sell around 1,000 books to be No.1. At the moment I suppose about 500 books would do it or 300 even – it depends on the time of year.

“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that.”

But he says he is lucky to have the support of big publishers: “I can’t complain. My publishers are fantastic.

“I have just signed a contract for three more books and my advances are really good but, still, I have to look at the long term and the fact that I have 20 more years of a mortgage, so you would need to sell a lot to earn a living from that alone.”

From Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Donal worked as a civil servant with the Department of Enterprise for years before his debut novel The Spinning Heart was published in 2011. He then became a writer in residence at the University of Limerick. He has just published his third novel All We Shall Know about a married woman who becomes pregnant after an affair with a 17-year-old Traveller.

 The 40-year-old lives in Castletroy with his wife Anne-Marie and their children, Thomas (8) and Lucy (6) and says he is grateful for his gift because it saved his family from tougher times.

“When I got my first publishing deal, I was completely and utterly broke. I literally hadn’t a penny.

“People working in the civil service were told we were on ‘the pig’s back’ and that we supposedly had big salaries and parachute pensions. We were blamed for the crash and told the only way to get out of it was to crucify us.

“But to lose a quarter of your household income at the stroke of a pen was a pretty serious thing. All of a sudden we hadn’t got enough money to pay for the messages. I literally could not pay the mortgage,” he says.

“At the end of every month the outgoings as a family were more than what we were earning – there was no break from it, there was no end in sight. But then that spurred me on.

“I started writing at the time and I said to myself, ‘I have to make this sellable’, I have to create something that will make a bit of money’.

“I wrote The Spinning Heart in that frame of mind. From the point of view of a person who was broke, and I knew if I could get that advance, we would be out of that hole of debt. To be honest – being a writer literally saved me.” Ryan – who received 47 rejections before finding a publisher – gives inspiration to young writers and explains that it was his self-belief that made him persevere.

“I remember getting one rejection from a major publishing house that was on a big A4 sheet of paper and all it said was ‘sorry not for us’ so I knew they hadn’t even read it.

“I got another note from an agent, who told me: ‘I’ll take on three novels next year and they’ll all be of a higher standard than this’. I just thought, ‘he’s wrong, he’s wrong about this. I had a real serious belief in the novel The Thing About December and I still do.

”That novel for me just felt alright. And I knew in my heart that eventually it would work out and if I kept plugging away that eventually somebody would sit down and read it.

“There’s often terrible advice given to young writers, starting off that they have to be selective with who they send their book to, but I think you should try absolutely everybody.”

He also tells aspiring novelists that if they want to start then they need to get over their fear and put pen to paper. “The thing is it [success] came at the end of 10 years of trying to write and failing, but that’s what you have to do. You have to practice writing. People think, ‘I am good at it, I can just sit down and do it’ but you can’t. You have to fail and fail and fail and fail again before it starts to turn around.” He describes writer’s block as “a feeling of sickness” that is so overt “you could puke” but he says once the magic comes together, “it gives you an immense feeling of pleasure. Nothing could ever compare to it”.


Donal will be in conversation on February 26 with Cecelia Ahern at the Limerick Literary Festival and with Anne Enright at the Ennis Book Club Festival on March 3.



Three Questions Your Editor Will Ask You

A lot of people think that when they contact an editor, the editor will just give them a price right away, correct spelling and grammar and hand the manuscript back, and that will be the sum total of the editor’s involvement. But your book is precious, and you need an editor who will also see your book as precious and will do it justice. This is what editors want to achieve for their clients.

To make sure they can achieve that goal, editors will ask you a number of questions to see if their skills and expertise fit well with the book you’re writing. These questions will guide you on how the editing process works, so you’ll get a greater insight into what an editor can do for you.

Editors ask questions to make sure they’re the right fit for you.

Here are three of the questions that an editor will ask you to help you decide if they’re the right fit for you.

What type of editing are you looking for?

Editing is about more than spelling and grammar. It’s about making language and structural changes that will help your book become the best book it can be. Editors will ask you whether you’re simply looking for spelling and grammar changes (proofreading) or whether you’d like more help. Editors can also help you to structure your sentences more effectively and check any facts you mention for accuracy. This is called copy-editing. They can also go even deeper and give you a chapter-by-chapter analysis of your story structure, giving you feedback on your plot, character, setting, point of view and overall language use. This is called developmental editing.

What genre are you writing in?

It could be argued that the principles of all stories and the skills required to edit them are the same, so in theory, an editor could edit any type of book. But to really bring out the best in your story, you’ll need an editor who understands the rules of your genre and adheres to the rules of that genre. For example, if you’re writing historical non-fiction, you would need an editor who is experienced at checking references and checking the formatting of a bibliography.

How far along are you with the book?

This is another way for an editor to determine how much editing will need to be done on your book. If you’re just finished your first draft, you would need fairly extensive editing advice, a developmental edit or an in-depth critique. The editor may even feel that it’s too soon for you to hire an editor, and you need to develop the story more yourself first, so the editor won’t have too much influence on its structure. If you’ve done all the drafts you can, but still need more work, a copy edit might be helpful. And if your book has already been professionally edited and is on its final draft before being published, a proofread may be all that’s needed.

If you’ve hired an editor, what questions have they asked you? And what questions have you asked them?

My Big Fat Sightless Writing Project

Followers of this blog may vaguely remember that in recent years, I’ve given a number of workshops for service users at the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) in Dublin, Ireland, which supports people with sight loss throughout Ireland. Stuart Lawler, who runs its training centre, has been of great help in getting these workshops off the ground, and by and large, the take-up has been enthusiastic.

How visually impaired people write. Photo source: NCBI Website.

But now I feel it’s time to take all this good work and good will and expand it into something bigger. I want the participants to feel that they have something to show for their efforts, and I hope the process will bring them a lot of personal satisfaction.

The idea I had was for a series of recordings of people’s writing, mixed with music. There’s an Irish radio programme called Sunday Miscellany, which features reflective writings based on people’s memories, especially if they tie in with significant historic events. These are interspersed with pieces of music that match the mood of the piece. From working with groups over the past two years, I’ve noticed a great interest in writing about real life and recording experiences. Many of the members also have a great interest in radio. So a Sunday-Miscellany-style radio programme would be a good fit for the group. And as broadcasting is deemed to be publishing, the participants can be proud to call themselves published authors.

Building Confidence

For logistical reasons, it will be some time before the project happens, and Stuart and I will be using the time to build people’s confidence and build up enthusiasm for the project. The thought of producing a piece that’s good enough for publication/recording may be a daunting prospect to someone who hasn’t done much writing, so we’ll run a few writing workshops before the project to help people overcome those hurdles.

The next workshop is on 18 February and I hope I’ll see familiar faces at it. The project will have a greater chance of success if there’s a core group who’ll commit to it. The workshops will help people the skills they need to take part in the project and take them step by step through the process of creating a short memoir piece.

Conceptualising Work

When the project gets underway, the participants will do more workshops, but this time, the emphasis will on getting participants over the line and helping them produce a polished piece of writing. We’ll rope in other writers who have experience of writing for radio. To give people a sense of the sort of language and writing style that comes across well on radio. Many arts facilitators conceptualise the work through group discussion and prompts. This will be more of an individual process, as participants will have strong ideas of their own. But they will give each other feedback, which will help people identify ways of improving their pieces that they mightn’t have spotted on their own.

Recording the Work

After the workshops, it will be time for the participants to record their pieces. This will be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. Most people feel extremely uncomfortable at the sound of their own voice. To get around this, we’ll have a rehearsed reading or two, to get people used to the studio and familiar with the recording process. This will hopefully remove the fear factor in time for the final recording. We haven’t decided yet what will happen to the final recording. It may be broadcast in front of a live audience of family and friends, or be aired on a local radio station as part of its programme schedule.

Funding and Collaboration

Stuart Lawler has been talking to a local community radio station and to a disability arts organisation about what form the project will take. I’ll be updating you on how these discussions evolve, and I’ll be taking part in them at a later stage. But we hope that the radio station will broadcast the programme and provide support in helping people write for radio, and that the arts and disability organisation will fund the project. Whatever happens, NCBI and myself are committed to ensuring that this project will see the light of day.

Have you ever facilitated a project for people with disabilities or other minority groups? How did you secure funding and what did you do to keep the participants motivated right to the end?

Want to Write About Your Life?

When I tell people I give creative writing classes, one of the most frequent comments I get is. “Really? I’ve always wanted to write my life story.” There is a great hunger in people to set their experiences down on paper and record their lives for themselves, for their children and for the wider world. That’s why when I was submitting a proposal for my next creative writing workshop in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, I chose to deliver a memoir-writing workshop Write About Your Life.

The goal of the workshop will be to help people put a shape on the stories they want to tell. Writing about your life can be overwhelming. How do you sift through a lifetime of memories and pick out the most important one? The workshop will help people create a filter for those memories and focus on specific ones. A lot of the techniques of fiction work well in memoir-writing, so people will learn how to use plot, character and setting to bring their memories to life.

Here’s a flavour of the activities the participants will be doing in the workshop.

Writing About Characters

All of our lives are shaped by the people around us, for better or worse. Those people are usually our family, but they can be friends, teachers or local community figures as well. People will write a character sketch about a person who meant a lot to them, and do other activities that will help them get to know their characters better and bring them to life. They’ll also explore the connections between themselves and the people in their lives by drawing up their family tree.

Exploring our connections with the people in our lives

Writing About Place

People have a huge attachment to the places where they grew up, even if their relationship with that place is sometimes troubling. The aim of the activities connected to setting will be to help participants see the places in their lives with new eyes and find the extraordinary within the ordinary. Participants will write about rooms in their homes that they have a deep attachment to, such as the kitchen or bedroom. They’ll also imagine that they’re aliens who have just landed in front of their childhood home. To the alien, this will be a strange sight, and they will write a report about what they see and hear to send to the mothership.

Writing About Events

Our lives may not make the news, but they’re still full of events that provide rich materials for stories. Some are life-changing; others are small yet significant. Participants will write about events in their life as if they were news, which will give them a sense of the power of their own story. They’ll also do activities that will show them how interactions between themselves and the other people in their lives can form the basis for stories.

How have you approached writing about your own life? Have you used time period or theme as a basis for it? If you’re a creative writing tutor, what activities do you do to help people shape their stories?

Three Differences Between US and UK English

Anyone who knows me knows I’m rather fond of Americanisms. But I’m also a fierce advocate for speaking and writing in the brand of English you grew up with. I fight hard to prevent Americanisms from cropping up in my speech and make sure I spell words the UK/Irish way. When I see my fellow Irish citizens, or British people, using American English, a very small part of me dies.

There’s always been a bit of friendly rivalry between speakers of US and UK English. American writers may argue that their spellings are simpler and hark back to an older, purer form of English. Writers in UK English may counter-argue that American spelling is dumbed down, or that their words are more authentic. In reality, neither is right or wrong. They’re just different, and different in many subtle ways that go beyond the question of colour/color.

Here are three of the main differences.

How Words Are Spelt (or spelled in US English!)

This is the most obvious one. In US English, words are often written the way they’re pronounced, whereas UK English may add or change. At night, a British person may wear pyjamas, while an American wears pajamas. A British sceptic becomes a US skeptic. US English tends to swap double letter ms or ls for single ones. Therefore, a British jeweller becomes a US jeweler, and a TV programme on the BBC would be described as a TV program if it is exported to the US.

How Sentences Are Punctuated

The debate continues to rage over the Oxford comma. Despite its name, this comma is favoured by American writers. This is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. So American writers would say, “For Christmas, I got chocolates, flowers, and a brand new TV. British writers would leave out the comma before and. Another significant difference in punctuation styles relates to quotation marks. In American books, double quotation marks (“”) are used to denote dialogue, and single quotation marks (‘’) are used for quotes within a sentence. It’s the exact opposite for UK English.

Vocabulary Quirks

Difference between US and UK English bring richness to language.

Some words in US and UK English are very different from each other. This distinction is most obvious in the names of certain vegetables. In US English, an aubergine becomes an eggplant, a courgette becomes a zucchini and a beetroot becomes a rutabaga. Also, US English often uses older forms of English words such as, “I had gotten” instead of “I had got,” or describing graduates as alumni. Some words appear to be the same, but have very different meanings. A biscuit in UK English is a sweet treat, but to an American, it’s a type of savoury scone, often eaten at breakfast.

So as you can see, the differences between the two are vast, so vast that editors will specify to their clients whether they can offer editing in UK or US English, to ensure that the manuscript remains true to the chosen language. Because in the end, it’s up to you which version of English you choose. Neither are right or wrong; they are just gloriously different. The important thing is to understand the rules of the version you choose, and use it consistently in your writing.

Have you got an opinion on US or UK English? If you are in the UK or Ireland, do you find that there are sound professional reasons for using US English, or vice versa?