Writing a book can be a long and challenging process. Particularly when you hit writer’s block, or you don’t agree with your editor’s revisions.
[Editor’s note: reword for clarity!] But, it’s all worth it to see your hard work in hardback, or to hear that it’s helped someone.
No one becomes a published author overnight. In fact, only 50 percent of people who start writing a book actually finish!
Two of my colleagues know just what’s involved. They’re both in-house writers for Mind Tools, and published authors in their own right, too. Melanie Bell has written fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and Jonathan Hancock – winner of the World Memory Championship – has authored various memory-boosting books and, more recently, “The Study Book.” Together they know so much about how to become a published author that they could write the book on it!
I was curious to know about the process, and what life lessons it taught them, so I asked them a series of questions. Spoiler alert: their answers contain some novel ideas for wannabe writers…
Starting a New Chapter
How did you become an author?
JH: I’ve loved writing ever since I learned to do it in elementary school! When I was 10, our teacher showed us how to make mini books about topics we were interested in, and I was instantly hooked on writing non-fiction. I enjoyed everything about it: researching, writing, editing – even putting the marketing messages on the cover! And a decade or so later, when I was asked by a publisher to write a real “how-to” book, I jumped at the chance.
MB: I wrote stories and poems from a young age. My first “professional” endeavor was self-publishing two poetry books as charity fundraisers, with support from a local grant. When I was teaching workshops about personality types, I was approached by a publisher and asked to co-write a book that became “The Modern Enneagram.” I wrote most of the short stories in my collection “Dream Signs” and my forthcoming novel, “Chasing Harmony,” years ago, so publication was a matter of submitting manuscripts repeatedly and waiting until the market was right.
Who or what inspired you to write your own books?
MB: When I was a child, my mother wrote a children’s story that she tried to get published. She was encouraging of my early interest in storytelling and would help me make little books out of scrap paper. The books I read were major influences too. I loved spending time in imaginary worlds, and I wanted to create them the way all those authors did.
JH: In my early 20s, I had some success in memory competitions. Following a TV appearance, I was approached by a literary agent who suggested that I could write a book explaining my techniques. I agreed to let him pursue a publishing deal for me, and he got me a contract to write my first book: “Jonathan Hancock’s Mindpower System.” I’d read plenty of good self-help books about memory and learning, so I suppose they also inspired me to write one of my own.
When and where do you write?
JH: I wrote that first book while I was still at university. And all but one of my other books have been written while I was holding down full-time jobs. So I’ve got used to carving out writing time in the evening and at weekends, and working wherever I happen to be – usually in any quiet space at home, but also on trains, in breaks during TV filming, even while waiting to pick up one of my children from an after-school club!
MB: I try to write something most days, though timing can vary depending on my schedule. I usually work on ongoing projects at home, but I keep notes on an app if I have an idea while out and about.
What do you enjoy about writing?
MB: I enjoy the exhilaration of creating something new and seeing an idea move in unanticipated directions. I also love playing with language.
JH: I love researching and planning a book: clarifying my own thinking and working out how to present my ideas. Then I enjoy working to a writing schedule, solving any problems that arise, and seeing the manuscript grow, bit by bit, until everything’s in place.
How to Write Like a Published Author
What are the biggest challenges of writing a book?
MB: Writing a book is a long process, and each project is different. It can be hard to maintain momentum and get to the finish line, especially if I get stuck in the middle and have to figure out a way forward.
JH: A blank page or screen is always challenging. And it can feel even more daunting when you’ve got an entire book to complete. (Especially if you focus on the word count – 100,000 words, say – when you’re starting at 0!) Ideas that seem fine in your head can reveal problems when you write them down. And I always have to resist the pull of “perfectionism” in order to achieve some momentum. Getting to the end takes patience, stamina, and the willingness to ask for feedback or advice when you need it.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
JH: I usually write out of sequence – starting with a core chapter, for example, or leaving the Introduction until the end. So, if I’m struggling with one part, I can leave it for a while and work on another. And if I’m really stuck, I focus on getting something down on paper, and remind myself that there’ll be plenty of time to improve it later.
MB: I go on walks and mull over ideas. I pay attention to interesting dreams, and I keep my phone close (like most of us do) so I can record any inspiration that strikes. Sometimes I unblock by talking with other people, who offer an outside perspective on the block.
What are your top writing tips?
MB: Sit down and write something! The blank page can be daunting, but if you want to create something, you need to jump in at some point. (Yes, planning can be a form of jumping in.) I also advise knowing yourself and accepting your quirks. We all work in different ways, so everyone’s writing process is going to be a little different. Let yourself write like you.
JH: One tip would definitely be to write about things that you know about, or can easily find out about. If not, you’ll have a lot of work to do before you can start writing, and you’ll likely find it hard to get into your flow.
Another would be to read plenty of successful books from the same genre or on similar topics. That will show you what works, and suggest some of the publishers or platforms you could approach. It should also get you thinking about what you could do differently: what value you could add to this field.
And one more tip: get feedback from people who really know what they’re talking about! Friends and family will be kind and supportive, but you also need professional advice to know whether you’re on the path to being published, and what else you can do to improve your chances.
Getting Your Book Published
What was the publishing process like?
MB: With self-publishing, you have complete control, but you also take on responsibility for all aspects of running that small business. With a traditional publisher, you’re collaborating. You have to work with someone else’s schedule, editorial input, and so on. You also benefit from their ideas and connections. My first traditional publisher had a very fast turnaround time, with weekly deadlines for chapters. In the other cases, I submitted finished manuscripts that were then edited, but the timelines were much longer.
JH: I’ve been lucky to work with literary agents and established publishers. They’ve always guided me through the writing, editing and production processes. It’s important to have a clear plan agreed by everyone involved, with a contract that you understand, deadlines for key stages, and good lines of communication. Publishing has always gone best for me when I’ve had close, ongoing contact with an editor, so that I’ve received feedback during the writing process rather than having to wait until the whole manuscript was done.
How does it feel to have your work published?
JH: I always feel tremendously proud – and more than a little relieved – when a book finally appears in its finished form. It’s so exciting to see your work sitting on a bookstore shelf! I also love hearing from people who’ve read one of my books, especially if it’s helped them in some way.
MB: It’s always exciting to get that box of author copies with your name on it! Seeing a shorter piece published online or in print is great too. It’s surreal to have a book out and hear from people who’ve read it. Your writing is out in the world now. It’s no longer just yours, sitting in a private file.
How do you deal with people critiquing or editing your work?
MB: I’m happy to have an editor because it means my work is getting published! Revisions are a balance between adapting your writing based on feedback when it’s helpful or neutral, and negotiating when you made an authorial decision for a strong reason.
JH: It’s nerve-racking to hand over your writing for someone else to read. In mainstream publishing, a subject specialist will usually critique your proposal – so you receive detailed feedback before you’ve even started page one! And if you do get to write the book, you’ll have to cope with many people offering suggestions and advice, asking for changes, making corrections… until everyone’s happy. You need a thick skin to handle criticism; the confidence to push back if necessary; and the willingness to negotiate and work as a team to bring the project home.
How has the experience of writing and publishing a book helped your career?
MB: I think my writing helped me get my current day job. I studied creative writing in graduate school and held writing-adjacent positions, such as being a writing tutor or editor. Now I have a full-time role where writing is a significant part of what I do.
JH: Writing my first book gained me a strong set of contacts in publishing, which helped me to secure more deals – which built my network even more. Writing has opened up opportunities for me to travel, to talk about my work at events, and to branch out into some new professional areas – through broadcasting and teaching to my current role at Mind Tools. Publishing has also given me insights into the work of editors, designers and marketeers, allowing me to develop my own skills in these areas. And I think that writing hones lots of valuable personal and professional strengths, too, such as organization, collaboration, attention to detail, and resilience!
The Moral of the Story
What life lessons has being published taught you?
JH: Writing books has shown me that you can squeeze a lot out of your time if you really want to. But you have to be disciplined, and you need supportive family and friends. Writing to a deadline can be an intense experience and a satisfying challenge, but it’s important to look after your wellbeing while you’re doing it, and to be honest with yourself and others about what’s possible. And I feel like I’ve done my best work when I’ve enjoyed the process, rather than just the finished product.
MB: Two life lessons I’m still learning from this journey are persistence and humility. Publishing is a long game that can involve dealing with a lot of rejection and failure.
Do you think that anyone can become a published author?
JH: There are so many different ways to get published. Many people self-publish their work with great success, but there’s also a wide range of publishing outlets looking for content. If you struggle with writing but are determined to be a published author, see if a friend or colleague can offer their literary skills. There are also professional “ghost writers” who help people to get their ideas and experiences into print. If you choose your genre or topic sensibly and access any advice and support you need, there’s no reason why anyone can’t achieve publication in one form or another.
MB: With self-publishing, yes. There are all kinds of ways to put your work out there. With traditional publishing, I think a lot depends on luck. But, if you build skill and persist, there’s room for many different voices out there.
What advice would you give to a budding writer or someone who wants to be a published author?
JH: If you want to do it, go for it! Don’t assume that published writers are special or unique, because it’s usually a combination of drive, organization, support, luck, and sheer willpower that gets them into print. Be prepared for hard work and plenty of knock-backs. Enjoy the writing process – even if the only person who ever reads your work is you! And commit yourself to developing your writing skills, discovering how the publishing industry works, and learning how to become a published author.
MB: Practice your craft and build your audience. Learn about the business of writing and make connections. Pay attention to what interests you and write about it. Imitation can be a great way to learn writing, but finding your own voice is invaluable. No one else can write what you can write.
What other questions do you have for Melanie and Jonathan? Ask them in the comments! And feel free to share your tips for aspiring authors, too.