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How I Became a Writer – The Slow But Sure Way
Guest Post by Jenny Roche
I never sat down and planned to be a writer. Like perhaps a lot of writers I didn’t always have a lot of faith in my abilities. And when can you actually call yourself a writer? I didn’t call myself a writer after having a poem published in my local newspaper when I was aged 15. Rightly or wrongly, I think we all feel we can’t call ourselves a writer until we begin to earn money from our writing and can do it on a regular basis. Here’s how I did it, slowly, step by step and in the early stages, reactively rather than proactively.
As a child I was an avid reader and I think this helped me develop a love of words and stories. It helped me get good marks in my school English classes, and get that poem published. By the time I was a teenager and had scribbled down miscellaneous thoughts and feelings, I began to wonder about becoming a writer of some kind. Maybe a journalist. That was a proper writing job, wasn’t it? Well, it was but I had no idea how to go about getting that kind of job. Then life then got in the way and I did other things.
Fast forward a good few years and the idea of writing surfaced again. I really wanted to learn how to do it but with no classes available I relied on libraries. I read every book I could find on all kinds of writing – fiction, non fiction, writing for radio, television and theatre. I read the lot and made copious notes.
Then there were courses available. Lots of them! Even better, most of them were free, or fairly cheap, and part time. A bonus as I had two children and not much money. I took every course I could – creative writing, scriptwriting, playwriting, journalism, radio production, video production, cartoon and comic production, you name it, I took it.
These courses were invaluable for the knowledge I gained from the established writers who tutored the courses, for the feedback I received and for giving me an awareness of how the publishing and broadcast industries work and the range of writing opportunities available.
Courses also gave me the opportunity to get things wrong in a supportive and constructive atmosphere. They also enabled me to mix with other writers, which I found inspiring. More importantly, the courses encouraged me to write something that was more than scribbled ideas. A short story I wrote for an early course became my first publication credit. And I was paid for it. I was hooked. For the journalism course I learnt how to submit to newspapers and magazines and I got paid for these too. I was doubley hooked.
The next step in my writing career came about accidentally. I was writing short stories and when reading them out in class or at writing events people were laughing and I couldn’t understand why. I’d thought my stories quite serious.
When a writing tutor said ‘why don’t you have a go at writing straight comedy’ I thought ‘why not’. I had no idea how to do that. Luckily, a fellow student who had had some success with comedy sketches for topical BBC radio shows was setting up a comedy writing group and asked if I wanted to come along. I joined and it was a major turning point.
I’d always thought you had to be a comedian to be a comedy writer and I knew I wasn’t a funny, joke telling person. I read everything I could on comedy writing and then I gained practical experience of writing and recording comedy material with the group. We recorded our own shows and offered them to such as hospital and community radio stations.
With the group I also learnt how to write and submit comedy sketches and jokes to those BBC radio shows. This involved studying the news and mailing off material for set deadlines each week. It was a really good exercise in just sitting down and getting on with it as there was no time to wait for the muse to strike.
It was quite a long time before I finally heard one of my sketches broadcast and gained the ego boosting BBC contract. I now thought I could genuinely call myself a writer. Not the kind of writer I ever envisaged for myself however. A comedy writer? Me? I was only just beginning to learn the difference between a comedian and a comedy writer is pretty much the same as the difference between an actor and a playwright.
I immersed myself in comedy writing, read more books, made transcriptions of radio and TV comedy shows and sitcoms and joined a national comedy writers association. The latter opened up opportunities for sketch and joke markets beyond the BBC and further successes came.
I could have continued like this but it was never going to provide a steady income. The next stage in my career came about by being in the right place at the right time with the right experience. It also helped that I was known by somebody who could make things happen.
When the tutor of a Continuing Education comedy writing course fell ill and couldn’t continue with the course, I was asked to take over. It was a very nice, but scary thought. Luckily there were no qualifications or experience needed and having taken enough courses to know what worked and what didn’t work teaching wise, and having read all the books, I felt I could tutor a course and do it quite well. I said ‘yes’ and went to the library to read more books.
There were a few shaky financial problems. Although there was a good hourly rate for tutoring, the course was only two hours a week for twenty weeks. I was beginning to get a bit more proactive when I suggested other courses to the Head of Department. Luckily the Head was very keen to increase the number of courses and I eventually ended up tutoring courses and day schools in comedy writing, sitcom writing, freelance journalism and general writing. Together with the few bits I was earning from my writing, I now had a small amount of financial stability. I think most writers, particularly in the early stages, have to rely on another form of income but if you can get something that’s parallel to your writing, that’s perfect. Tutoring did cut into my writing time but I did learn a lot from teaching, and from my students too.
Although I continued writing journalistic pieces, drama and fiction it was comedy writing that again came to the fore in the next stage of my career. I’d noticed, from all my readings, there were very few books on comedy writing that were not American and almost no articles on comedy in writing magazines. My journalistic nose was twitching. I turned my comedy writing course session notes into articles for writing magazines. These then became my ‘qualifications’ and experience for writing a how-to book on comedy writing.
For the latter, I had to approach six publishers before I got a hit. The other five were really looking for somebody with a well known name but Hodder & Stoughton had no such qualms. My book ‘Teach Yourself Comedy Writing’ was published in 1999, quite nicely on my daughter’s birthday.
So what have I been doing since? Well, I continued reading the books and subscribed to magazines and e-newsletters with writing market information. I also continued my education with a Post Graduate Script Editing Diploma and a Scriptwriting masters degree in addition to continuing with all my different forms of writing. In other words, I continued spreading myself thin.
I’d done the comedy sketches and jokes for radio, TV and stage with some success, written sitcoms and drama for radio, TV and theatre with some good responses but only a small amount of success. I’d also, more successfully, given talks, organised workshops, helped set up a comedy development organisation and produced comedy shows for performance, to name just a few of the writing and organisational side lines I developed.
Tutoring writing courses remained a valuable source of income and I also had regular financial rewards from writing magazine articles, where I learnt suggesting a series rather than one-off articles works best.
With article writing you only don’t have to write until you’ve got the go ahead to do so. Writing scripts for radio, TV or theatre on the other hand can involve spending weeks, even months on something that might be rejected. This eats into your money earning powers and doesn’t do much for your self confidence. I know that writers need the tenacity to get back on their feet after these kind of falls and my way was to immerse myself in a different kind of writing.
I know that if I’d concentrated on one form of writing I could maybe have been a lot more successful but I’m quite proud of having all round abilities. I’ve a second book, ‘Get Your Act Together: Writing a Stand-up Comedy Routine’ due to be published worldwide in the ‘Compass Books’ imprint of John Hunt Publishing on 28 February 2014.
This imprint, to quote their blurb, ‘focuses on practical and informative how-to books for writers,’ and are ‘written by experienced authors who also have extensive experience of tutoring at the most popular creative writing workshops.’ So while teaching did cut into my writing time, it was more than useful on this occasion.
I’m still learning. Authors now have to be more actively involved in marketing, which is all new to me. There was never any social media when I wrote my first book!
In summary, I think I’ve done some things right and some things wrong. Here’s my tips, which I hope you’ll find useful.
- Always be learning. Read, watch and listen to as much of your kind of writing as you can. Learn how the publishing and/or broadcast industries work.
- Take courses. Try different kinds of writing to find where your talents lie. If you have to pay, choose the courses where you’re going to learn the most.
- Gain feedback on your work. Even if it’s not constructive or genuine, listen to it. There’s no law saying you have to agree.
- If you want a writing income you can live on, stick to the kind of writing you’re best at and aim for regular commissions.
- Be proactive rather than reactive and look for, and capitalise on, any alternative writing opportunities. Beware of spreading yourself too thin however.
- If you can’t make a regular income from writing, aim for an additional parallel income.
- If writing non fiction, learn about markets and how best to approach them.
- Luck can play a part in your career but you need to be ready and able to capitalise on that luck.
- Don’t take rejection to heart. There are many reasons for rejection and the majority of them have nothing to do with the standard of your work.
- Look up to the best but never give up because you think you’ll never reach those heights. Look down to the worst, they do get published/broadcast, and take heart from knowing you can do better.
Based in Rochdale in the UK, Jenny Roche is a freelance writer, workshop organiser and occasional comedy theatre producer. She has written successfully for magazines and newspapers and has over 20 years experience of tutoring University, residential and other writing courses. She has also written drama for radio and theatre, scripted comedy for radio, TV, theatre and stand-up in addition to publishing two books: Teach Yourself Comedy Writing (Hodder & Stoughton, May 1999) and Get Your Act Together: Writing A Stand-up Comedy Routine (John Hunt Publishing, February 2014)
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