How does author platform work?

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How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?

The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.

I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.

As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?

In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.

To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.

The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.

Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.

It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps.  What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?

Morges, a festival to remember

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Hurrying in the rain, listening, learning, signing books, cool evenings, coffee vouchers, wet umbrellas, smiling crowds, dogs in arms, queues at the till, drinks at the bar, boats, sunshine, big names, kind words, new ideas and free white wine.

What more could you ask for?

When I knew I would be spending the weekend at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges, I decided I wouldn’t take any notes. I would just enjoy the moment and soak it all in. Now, one week later, I am left with a colourful miscellany of impressions and memories. There was so much going on, my quiet writer brain had to shift into a completely new gear.

I was invited to the festival to promote my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths. I would have been thrilled enough at this honour alone but the festival was also hosting Ireland as guest country of honour, which meant I was sharing space with some of Ireland’s most accomplished contemporary authors.

Morges is known for its authors’ tent, a huge marquee filled with rows of authors sitting behind tables. The English language section was like an island in the middle. I sat there with the Swiss-based authors, the visiting Irish authors and a number of other English-language authors, like Douglas Kennedy, Hisham Matar and Rachel Joyce. They were all gracious and welcoming.

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Most people who approached the table to talk were friendly, pleased to put a face to the name. A few were not so pleased about the book. You can’t win ‘em all.

On the first afternoon, I did a stint in the tent and attended two talks about Irish literature, the first with John Boyne and Donal Ryan, and the second with Donal on duty again along with Anne Enright and Paul McVeigh. The next day presented a different mix, Anne Enright, Donal Ryan and Sara Baume, this time talking about families in Irish fiction. I cannot tell you everything they said, just that I appreciated listening to Irish voices analysing Irish questions, and the feeling it gave me of being closer to home.

I went on a literary cruise (!) on Sunday. Five minutes before the cruise started, I was at the wrong end of the lakefront eating a hot dog. Running under those circumstances is not something I’d advise anyone else to do, especially right before a boat trip. In the queue to board, a man asked me to hold his crepe so he could search for his ticket. I was not the only one squeezing in food around much more exciting things.

The cruise talk featured debut authors Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal, two interesting and talented writers who clearly like each other. If any chat show hosts are looking for the perfect duo, ask these guys. Both of them come from difficult backgrounds and write about those times in their fiction.

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Spending time with the three other authors based in Switzerland – Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes and Jason Donald – was great fun, like having work colleagues again. I also took part in a panel discussion with Padraig and Diccon about Switzerland, Brexit and the European Union. It was a lively debate, the first time I’ve had an event in that particular format. Very enjoyable.

In a weekend of many interesting conversations, one chat about a potential nonfiction project was particularly illuminating. Maybe Morges will be indirectly responsible for my next book. All I know is that I need to send out a proposal before the leaves start to turn. And that means back to quiet time for a while.

Irish literary greats come to Lake Geneva

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Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.

From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.

Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.

I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.

Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!

Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.

Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!

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Friday, 1st September

18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne.   English/French

Saturday, 2nd September

11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe:  Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne.  English/French

16.30-18.00Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne.          English/French

17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave.                                                               English/French

Also a fiction writing workshop:

15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to gwg.workshops@gmail.com

Sunday, 3rd September

11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:  Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume.  Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.

13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours:  Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne.                                                                                                                                       English/French

16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

Cruise:

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing  with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.

GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at gwg.workshops@gmail.com

10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

Writing news and summer days

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Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

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The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

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Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
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Morning in Lausanne

 

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Charmey, Fribourg

 

Swiss-based authors: Alison Anderson

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My interview with American author Alison Anderson is the fourth and final author profile in the swissinfo.ch series on English-language writers living in Switzerland. Of all the authors I interviewed, Alison is the one with the closest ties to Switzerland, having first come to the country as an eight-year-old to attend her sister’s wedding.

She came back to complete her schooling in Switzerland, studied at Lausanne University, and finally settled in the Lake Geneva area in 2008 after a long stay in California, including five years living on a wooden sailboat in San Francisco bay.

Alison’s new novel, The Summer Guest, is a delightful read that dips in and out of 1880s Ukraine and two present day settings the French-Swiss border and London before reintroducing us to present-day Ukraine. Although the storylines are all linked to Chekhov, the three female narrators are in the foreground.

It was a pleasure to share a pot of Irish tea with Alison and find out more about her life and work. Alison is also a leading translator of French literature. Her many translations include Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, and the work of Nobel laureate JMG De Clézio.

Have a look back at the other Swiss-based novelists featured in this series: Jason Donald, author of Dalila, Anne Korkeakivi, author of Shining Sea, and Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction titles.

After the summer, swissinfo.ch will publish a literary podcast featuring audio material from these four interviews. With such different styles and publishing journeys represented, it promises to be very interesting!

In case you missed the link, the full interview with Alison Anderson is here.

My Swiss TV debut on Telezüri

English-speakers are really spoilt in Switzerland, more than any other language group. The locals gladly switch to English at the first opportunity, call centres for banks and insurance companies have English-speaking operators, most websites have an English page, and the state even produces much of its official documentation in English.

Of course that makes it harder to learn the national languages but most of the time it’s an advantage. I’ve written before about the challenges of being a non-native speaker when you live in a foreign country. My language ability varies, mainly depending on levels of confidence and tiredness in a given situation. That’s why is was such a breakthrough for me to accept my first television interview in German and to get through the interview in one piece!

This time last week I was googling tips to prepare for a television interview. Now, the interview is behind me and it’s a huge relief because everything went well. Not that I didn’t make any language mistakes but I managed to make my points clearly and calmly. The 25-minute discussion was broadcast yesterday by Zurich television station Telezüri. The host was Hugo Bigi and I was joined on the Talk Täglich show by fellow Bergli Books writer Wolfgang Koydl, author of Switzerland: A Cartoon Survival Guide. Above is a clip from the interview, and you can view the full programme on this link.

The Telezüri interview was a real case of stepping outside my comfort zone. It was daunting but extremely rewarding. Speaking in public is challenging for many of us, whether it is giving a presentation in work or asking a question in a lecture hall. One of the positive outcomes of writing The Naked Swiss has been that I have been forced to practice public speaking. Now I am at the point that I really enjoy it. It is a privilege to be given a platform to express your ideas, and I am glad to have overcome my fears, as a woman, as a semi-introvert and finally, as a foreigner, so that I can speak up and be heard.

Swiss-based authors: Anne Korkeakivi

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I took a walk on the wild side of Geneva with American author Anne Korkeakivi, the third subject to feature in this swissinfo.ch series of English-language writers based in Switzerland. The author of two novels, Shining Sea and An Unexpected Guest (both published by Little Brown), Anne’s work has been described as “eloquent” and “captivating”.

The New Yorker had a successful career as a journalist before she decided to try out her fiction wings. She stopped producing nonfiction work, taking a job as an editor for a French publishing house, and gave herself twelve months to make a go of fiction. She sold her first story in the eleventh month.

That was the encouragement Anne needed to devote herself to fiction. I spent a morning with Anne, walking through the woods and backroads of Geneva. Having lived abroad for most of her adult life, she is content to live in such an international city. This global spirit is evident in the many different locations Anne features in her work – from Paris to the Philippines to the Hebrides.

Anne’s two novels are very different in scope and tone. The action in the first, An Unexpected Guest, takes place over one day in Paris, as a woman married to a diplomat realises what shaky foundations her well-ordered life is built upon. Shining Sea has a panoramic sweep, following the lives of the large Gannon family over several decades and continents. You’ll find more information about Anne and her work on her website.

Also featured in this series is Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction books, as well as Jason Donald, author of Dalila and Choke Chain. There is one more author to come next week to complete the talented quartet.

Swiss-based authors: Susan Jane Gilman

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The dream gig continues … I’ve been meeting acclaimed English-language authors based in Switzerland for a series of interviews for my former employer, swissinfo.ch.  The profile of Susan Jane Gilman, best-selling author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three other books, was published this week.

Susan Jane is as entertaining in person as she is on the page. This photo was taken in Morges on Lake Geneva where we had to laugh (and buy ice cream) when the first thing we saw on the waterfront was an ice cream stand. It was just the sort of place the heroine in Susan Jane’s novel would have owned once upon a time in New York.

Morges is a lovely spot and location of the annual Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival which is held in September. I’ve heard the festival will feature Irish authors this year and can’t wait to find out who’s in the line-up. Susan Jane is also a fan of Irish literature, first inspired by her English teacher in high school, the legendary Frank Mc Court.

Susan Jane is teaching at the Zurich Writers Workshop (ZWW) next weekend (May 12-14) along with Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Hausfrau, a book set in Switzerland which made a big impression on me. Two very high calibre writers. That event may well be booked out but, if you live within reach of Zurich, ZWW is worth following for its excellent instruction programme.

Here again, in case you missed it in the first paragraph, is the link to my interview with Susan Jane Gilman. And if you are catching up on this series, don’t forget Jason Donald, author of Dalila (2017) and Choke Chain (2009) who was the subject of the first swissinfo profile.  The next interview will be published on Thursday May 11th. Watch this space!

Swiss-based authors: Jason Donald

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There is a small but thriving English-language literary scene in Switzerland – workshops, retreats, writers’ groups and even an international festival. At the heart of that scene is the community of published and aspiring writers who live in Switzerland.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the leading lights of that community, four acclaimed authors with eleven books between them. Over the next few weeks, swissinfo.ch will publish these profiles as a series, beginning today with Scottish-born Jason Donald, author of the “beautifully observed” novel Dalila.

The list of places Jason has lived hints at some intriguing plot twists in the story of his life: Pretoria under apartheid, the deprived Glaswegian district of Govan, and, most recently, the luxury Swiss resort of Gstaad.

I made the trek (three trains and a bus journey) to the Bernese Oberland to meet the self-described nomad and economic migrant. You can read the full story here.

A guide to writing your first nonfiction book

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Since my first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published last October, I’ve met several people who’ve mentioned their wish to write a nonfiction book. These tend to be people who already write as part of their work. They have strong ideas and expertise, but they feel uncertain about making the leap to a book.

Like all challenges, this one can be broken down. The first thing to say is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You could start this weekend. No-one will know, and no-one will stop you.

As an unpublished writer, the first stage of writing is purely between you and the page. It is a process of self-expression. When it comes to the next stage of writing – entering the writing business – things get more complicated. But that should not prevent you from attempting stage one.

Test the idea

It is likely you will have carried the idea for your book around in your head for a while. This is a good thing. It means the idea is incubating, and should hatch at some point. But if you don’t test it, you might never find out if the concept is strong enough to stand up.

In terms of subject matter, the sky is the limit. The important thing is that this is a subject you feel passionate about. You have something to communicate.

The test is to answer this question: What is the book about? Write it down in one line. Here are some examples I made up:

  • A week-by-week guide to cultivating a successful vegetable patch, with blank pages for readers to track their progress.
  • A self-help book for people who want to convert to a vegetarian diet, offering a mix of psychology, politics and recipes.
  • A compilation of ten mini-biographies of leading women scientists – aimed at young girls.
  • This book tells the true story of the Swiss children sent to work as chimney sweeps in Italy in the 20th century.

Get organised

When the concept is clear in your mind, you can expand it to a one-page pitch. If yours is a long-held idea, chances are you will have already done some research, if not in a targeted way. You need to organise that material. How much do you have? Perhaps you already have your own written content that could be fed into the book, such as articles, blogposts, diary entries or essays. What fresh research do you need to do? Come up with a system to collate your material – folders, notebooks, cards, whatever works for you.

This is the point where the structure becomes important. You need to put some thought into how your content can be arranged. In some cases, for example the scientist biographies mentioned above, the chapter divisions will be obvious. In other cases, you will have to carefully work out how to present your ideas or story. Have a look at the content pages of the nonfiction books you like. Reading books similar to one you intend to write is part of the research process, and an indication of your passion.

Every book is written one chapter at a time. When you are ready, sit down and try to write a chapter. It is only by writing a sample chapter that you will bring forth the style of the book. Expect to have to work through many drafts.

If you are planning to self-publish, you carry on from here. If not, this is the moment to pause and research submitting targets.

Submitting

Unlike fiction, where authors approach an agent or publisher with a polished, completed manuscript, nonfiction is usually sold on proposal. Most publishers and agents ask for one sample chapter, and a cover letter explaining the concept, structure and target audience. They want to hear why you are right person to write the book, what platform you have, and they may ask how you would help promote the book. Submission requirements vary, so do make sure to follow them faithfully to show your professionalism. Expect each submission to take as much time as a job application.

As a first-time writer, you can expect go through this process umpteen times without success. You will receive either no response or standard rejections, and be happy if you get a few words of encouragement from one in twenty submissions. Here is a post I wrote about dealing with rejection as an author.

The reality of the market is that the world is not waiting for anyone’s book. There is an oversupply of authors eager to be published. It comes down to finding the right match. If you present the right kind of book to the right person at the right time, you may be lucky.

Make time

If you do get to the point of ploughing ahead with the book, you will need to allocate time to write regularly. Even if you have plenty of free time, it makes sense to set yourself writing hours, as this is a project that requires discipline. If you don’t have much free time, you will need to decide what can be sacrificed from your weekly activities – television, social media, family time, sport. Something has to give.

Ideally, you should have a writing partner or editor to review your work as you go along, as a form of quality control. But whatever happens, no book should be sent out into the world without some form of editing from another party or parties, as well as proofreading.

I hope you found this advice useful. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may make it the first in a series of how-to articles. Don’t forget to share the link with others through the social media buttons below, and feel free to comment if you have any questions.