I think these are exciting times to be a writer. Empowering times. The digital age has brought about a new kind of democracy for writers where we can each build a platform for our work, whether publishers want us or not. You don't have to be technical either. As long as you know how to copy and paste, you can have an attractive author website up and running in no time. And if you don't know how to copy and paste, don't worry, just Google it. There's an online tutorial for absolutely everything.
I never set out to be a blogger. Like many of you, my dream was to be a novelist; a novelist who also had a regular column in a glossy magazine. At 24, my rejection slips would have filled a large folder had the editors deemed my pitches worthy of reply. Being an impatient sort of person, I found the process of trying to get published excruciating. I didn't see the point of writing for my bottom drawer, so with the hope of gaining an audience I began a weekly blog about working in my Mum's eccentric chandelier shop.
The blog was in the style of the column I'd dreamed of writing; conversational and good humoured. I took it very seriously, never missing a week, even though I only had a handful of followers who probably would have been fine if I'd wanted to take a holiday. Perhaps because I treated every post as if it were going into print, it eventually did get printed.
Salt Publishing spotted the blog and commissioned my first book Shop Girl Diaries six months after I'd started. It was a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment. Nearly all the speaking events I've been invited to and the articles I've had commissioned since can be linked back to my blog and that transition from blogger to author. Putting my writing online changed everything for me.
My success with the blog didn't make writing the next book easier, however. For two years, I struggled over a novel about illegal immigration and social protest in Barcelona. It didn't come naturally and I was in danger of becoming one of those tortured writers complaining about how hard it all is. I still didn't have an agent and my contract with Salt had only been for that one book.
Once again it was writing online that set me on the right path. The difference was, instead of a weekly post about my shop, I ended up writing an entire novel on Wattpad. If you haven't heard of it, it's an online platform where anyone can sign in and upload their writing. Like all the other social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, you can set up a profile with your picture, biography and a link to your website or blog.
I set up my profile and posted a couple of short stories I'd already written. A few days later I was contacted by a Wattpad publicist who told me if I wrote a novel for them, they'd put it in their Featured section, since I'd been previously published. Being on the Featured section it would be highly visible to their ten million monthly readers and wouldn't get lost among all the other uploaded stories.
Would you write a whole novel for free? It wasn't an appealing idea and yet I felt like there was an opportunity to be had, and saying 'Yes' to every opportunity that came my way had been working pretty well for me up till then...
Once I made the decision to do it, the idea for my book, Spray Painted Bananas came quickly. It's a romantic comedy about a broke temp working in a catering firm, who after one too many evenings scrounging free wine at wacky art gallery openings decides there's no reason she couldn't become a conceptual artist herself.
Writing a serialised novel on Wattpad was like writing with a cheerleading squad behind me. Every time I posted a chapter I'd wake up to loads of positive comments from readers wanting to know what happened next. Thanks to their encouragement, I finished the whole novel in four months. If you decide to use Wattpad, I'd definitely contact them to see how your novel might be featured too.
Spray Painted Bananas got half a million hits in the first few months. Yes, I tweeted and shared updates on Facebook, but the traffic was mainly due to Wattpad's huge readership. Being able to tell an agent your book has half a million hits helps you avoid the slush pile. I signed up with MBA literary agency before I'd even posted the last chapter. Getting a publisher took a little longer, but eventually I signed a two book deal with Harper Collins' digital first imprint Harper Impulse. My Wattpad novel, much edited and improved, will be out next month under the new title of The Temp and I can't wait to share it!
There will always be people complaining about the state of the industry, about the difficulties writers face. As far as I know, writers have never made much money and it's always been a precarious career. If I were you, I'd focus your energy on being proactive and making yourself irresistible to publishers by working on building your own readership and reputation. If you feel overwhelmed, just remember you don't have to do everything at once, but you can do something at once. Don't be a perfectionist either, or you'll never get anything done.
Fired up yet? I hope so. I'll be on Twitter @EmilyBenet if you have any questions!
Emily Benet has written about the benefits of social media for writers for several publications including Mslexia, The New Writer and Publishing Talk. She runs Blogging & Social Networking Workshops and has published a Blogging for Beginners ebook guide. She blogs here and tweets as @EmilyBenet. Her novel The Temp was published in 2014.