Working out how to be a writer – Gilly Macmillan

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By Gilly Macmillan

When I began to write my debut I thought that getting published was a dream: a big, fat, impossible dream that probably wasn’t going to happen to me. It’s not an unreasonable thought, when every bit of advice available seems to warn the budding writer that your odds of getting published are infinitesimal. ♥

But I kept going, tapping out 1000 words a day until I had a draft, and the impossible happened. I found an agent very quickly and, a year of edits later, I experienced the most heady week of my life when my book was auctioned and pre-empted during London Book Fair, leaving me with not just one publisher but a whole handful of them: wonderful, enthusiastic people who actually wanted to turn my manuscript into a real-live book, not just here in the UK but in translation too!

Nobody was more surprised than me, or more thrilled than me! We drank fizz, I sat and stared into the middle distance as I tried to process what it all meant, and I quickly became busier than I’d ever been before.

However, once the excitement had died down, and I contemplated my pile of contracts and all of my new obligations, I found that I was on slightly marshy territory, because while I’d spent hours fantasising about my manuscript becoming an actual book with my actual name on it, I’d given almost no thought to what it might be like to be ‘a writer’.

On paper, it was of course the dream job for me, with all of the predictable benefits like working at home, controlling my own time so I could find time to work and raise my family, and of course making stuff up for a living, but there were also lots of strange, new and often difficult things to get used to:

Having a public face

Who knew that you had to become good at social media to help promote your book? Not me. Shortly after my first marketing and publicity meeting (a very jolly lunch) I found myself sitting at my computer cautiously opening a Twitter account and creating a Facebook author page. Naturally, I’m a shy person, so book-promotion online felt very painful at first. Now, a couple of years in, I’ve got better at it and I’ll occasionally fling a few promotional tweets online before breakfast and not think much of it because it’s part of the job.


Your first novel you write more or less on your own time. If it doesn’t succeed, the only person you’re going to disappoint is yourself. When you write under contract, not only do you have to have the novel completed within a specified (and usually fairly tight) timeframe, but there are some very interested parties waiting to read it. The weight of that sometimes feels terrifying – you need not just your editor’s approval but their enthusiasm if your book is going to have a chance of success. Hand in hand with a tight time frame and an editor who will want to have input comes the need for some very hard work, professionalism and a willingness to collaborate.


As an author you are also a brand. Who knew that either? And because I have a number of publishers worldwide I am more than one brand as each market has different tastes. To make you into a brand your book first has to be made into what publishers refer to as a ‘package’. Your package is primarily your cover and title, but is also the way in which your editor and then your publicity, marketing and sales departments pitch and present you and your work to the world, eg as a crime writer, or a literary writer, etc., and there are more refined definitions within those categories.

Understanding the business

Getting to grips with your ‘brand’ and your ‘package’ is made much easier if you understand how your publishing house operates. I’ve learned how important your editor’s enthusiasm is, how publicity and marketing departments do different things, I’ve learned all the processes my book needs to go through on its way to becoming a finished copy, and I’ve learned that one of the most important teams in the publishing house is the sales team, because they are ultimately responsible for getting your book into the hands of readers. All of these people have input into how you are branded as an author.

Developing your craft

This is the good one. As a professional writer you get to write more than you ever dreamed, and you get to claim that all reading counts as research so you can do that without feeling guilty. I learned so much from working on my first two books: about plot, pacing, about collaboration with my agent and my editor to improve my books, to name just a couple of important things, and I learn more every day that I read and write. Developing as a writer is a joy. It’s a way of measuring your progress on a personal level and not holding yourself up against other writers or your sales figures.

Living with uncertainty

I’m not so good at this. On a good day, I relish the fact that writing, and publishing, are both essentially a bit of a punt. There are so many variables to encounter along the way that, frankly, it astounds me that any book makes it onto the shelves, let alone into the hands of readers. As a result, there are many highs and lows as your career develops. So when you have a good day – a good review, or some good sales news, or a lovely note from a reader, say – you have to learn to cherish that, and store it up against the disappointing days. Because there will be disappointing days, sometimes crushingly so, and when they happen it helps to remember the good stuff, and above all, to be good at holding your nerve.

Gilly Macmillan grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire. She studied History of Art at Bristol University and The Courtauld Institute of Art in London and has worked in the art world and as a photography teacher. Gilly’s first novel, Burnt Paper Sky, is published in over 20 territories worldwide and has been a New York Times and USA Today bestseller and received an Edgar nomination for Best Paperback Original and was a finalist for the International Thriller Writers Best Debut Award. Her second novel, The Perfect Girl, is available now. Gilly lives in Bristol, UK, with her husband and three children.

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