Everyone knows that it’s a lonely task being a writer. Locked away in your metaphorical garret, bent over the keyboard, feverishly scribbling...
True, the actual task of getting the words churned out and sifted into some semblance of order is a solitary business, but in the past 18 months or so since I’ve had my first title published, I’ve learned that writing is not something you can accomplish successfully in isolation.
This hasn't exactly been startling news to me. I spent the last ten years or so honing my skills with Paisley Writers Group, whose collective help proved invaluable, particularly when it came to learning to edit, and gaining the confidence needed to read work aloud before an audience. Throughout this period the group wasn’t static. People came and went on a regular basis: they lost interest, moved elsewhere, became successful writers or whatever. Local government cuts gradually led to the group’s decline until eventually, in its latter days, only three of us were in regular attendance. Even then, I valued this select group as a trusted council of advisers, providing me with a network of beta-readers who could always be relied upon to speak candidly.
Things have changed now. What with a full-time job and all the pressures that trying to raise the profile of a book brings with it, I find it virtually impossible to spend one evening a week hanging out with friends at a writers group. If there’s one thing that I really miss about being there, it's the feeling that we were all in it together as we struggled to improve our writing skills. In many cases we shared the elusive goal of achieving publication via the traditional publishing route, an ambition which I was lucky enough to accomplish with the publication of Fire and Sword.
Once the transition to being a published author has been made, you might be forgiven in thinking that the major hurdle has been cleared, that making further progress is easy. Instead, you find yourself confronting new challenges. How do you get people to review your book? How do you promote your book? And – perhaps most difficult of all – how on earth do you get your title stocked by the ever-smaller number of bookshops who are operating in the modern world?
It isn’t that easy, of course. In fact, if I had the answers to those questions I'd be laughing. Thankfully, I’m with a tight-knit community of writers at Hadley Rille Books who are keen to help out in all sorts of aspects of the trade. But I’m a writer of historical fiction, and what works for the science fiction and fantasy writers who make up the majority of HRB’s list isn't necessarily appropriate for my genre.
These days, writers are encouraged to develop a strong presence on social media, and at first I was keen to do this because it supposedly brings a whole lot of exposure and helped new writers get their name known more widely. But while the virtual world is full of readers, it’s also full of writers. “Competition!” some more ruthless authors may scream, as they connive and plot to better themselves at the expense of others. But even though I like to write about characters who scheme and manipulate in a Machiavellian fashion, this isn’t my way of working at all.
In fact, it really isn’t a sensible way of working for anyone. Because things really haven’t changed much from the days of the writers group. The goals may be different, and the means of achieving them, too, but the principle remains the same. There are those out there who have been at this game longer than I have, and they have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t in this world than I do. Why not learn from them, and if you can find a way of helping promote their work in return, so much the better.
Social media is an ideal way of linking up with other writers. It also allows for the creation of networks and alliances, something which is particularly useful for those who work within the same genre. The more familiar I become with the world of writing and publishing and the art of selling books, the more I realise that networks of this kind are crucial to making any kind of progress. Authors with big publishing houses have the advantage of a heavyweight marketing team behind them, independent authors and authors with small traditional publishers do not. Punching above your weight is almost impossible in isolation, but strength, as the old saying goes, lies in numbers and the more individuals you can get fighting in your corner, the more likely it’ll be that someone, somewhere eventually sits up and takes notice
Time alone will tell whether this kind of collaborative effort will bring the kind of reward that I’m looking for, which is an opportunity to get my title stocked in Scottish bookshops and reviewed in the Scottish media. Will this ever happen? I can’t say yet, because it’s early days yet, and I know for a fact that I’m only just embarking on a long hard struggle for recognition.
But one thing is certain, even now. Through my determination to take a collaborative approach to publicity and selling, I’ve already made some good friends who are not only talented authors, but excellent people, too. My life’s certainly become richer for meeting them. It may not be the tight-knit bunch which met together every week to discuss their writing at the local writers’ group, but it provides a similar service. A support network, whose members are all linked by a common purpose. And in a world where it's becoming increasingly difficult for a single author to make their voice heard amongst the din of millions, such a thing is worth its weight in gold.