Dreaming of a career as a writer?
An author gets to devise their own stories, build imagined worlds and populate them with characters that people connect with.
For this reason, it’s a career that’s often romanticised. But, as with any creative profession, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Imagination, creativity and a love of storytelling are great starting points. But what about the discipline it takes to get a first draft finished, or the promotion required to get the final book seen?
To find out what it’s really like to be a writer, we got in touch with a seasoned professional.
Lauren James is a twice Carnegie-nominated British author of Young Adult fiction. She has published numerous acclaimed novels, including Green Rising, The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker and The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. She is also a Creative Writing lecturer, freelance editor, screenwriter, and the founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League.
Lauren’s books have sold more than a hundred thousand copies worldwide and been translated into six languages.
Want a sneak peak into the life of a successful author? You’ve come to the right place…
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What does a typical day in your working life look like?
I work from home, and I make my own schedule. As long as I deliver a book on time, I can work on it whenever I want.
My time is spent on a combination of a few things: writing proposals for story ideas to get approval from my publisher for them, writing first drafts of novels, editing drafts using notes from my editor, editing other people’s books, and promoting my books.
That includes social media marketing and public speaking events. I travel to schools and book festivals around the country to give talks about writing and reading. This year, I’ve been giving the talks via Zoom instead, which means I have a lot more time to write!
I tend to have a ridiculous number of projects on the go at any one time, because everything is always at different stages in the writing process. I find it hard to wait for feedback or edits from a whole range of different people, so I start up something new in the meantime.
It works out quite well, because there’s always something different to work on. I’ll send off an edited book and pick up drafting a new book, then go back to editing, etc.
I write best at night, so I stay up outrageously late (sometimes until 5am, if I’m nearing the end of a first draft – something I never did even for my degree!). I also plan a lot while I’m baking. Repetitive movements that keep my hands busy and away from checking social media are always my most productive times of the day.
I write on the sofa on my laptop, with music playing. I try not to make a really particular writing ‘set up’, because then I’ll keep finding excuses not to write until it’s the perfect time for it. I can do it anywhere, really. I write a lot on my phone while I’m trying to get to sleep or walking the dog, and then type it up later.
I also started getting involved in climate activism after writing a book about climate change, and founded the Climate Fiction Writers League, an organisation of over a hundred climate writers. I run a biweekly newsletter of essays about climate writing, in order to encourage readers to take action, which takes up a lot of my time to edit writers’ essays and format the newsletter.
What first inspired you to consider writing as a career?
I always loved the idea of being a writer, but I absolutely didn’t think it was possible.
I thought people who became authors must have spent their whole life writing, and I was too interested in doing other things for that!
I just started writing as a hobby, and when my first novel got published, I decided to give writing a chance as a career.
Otherwise, being an author is quite similar to how I imagined it, though – spending a lot of time alone, staying up late at night to write, summoning the devil in exchange for book ideas..….wait, what?
Find out what makes your writing unique and own it.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I get to follow my creativity and choose what I want to work on based on what I’m most interested in.
I don’t have a boss, and I control the direction of every aspect of my own career. I feel like I’m investing my time into creating something for myself – so actually getting paid for it always feels like a bonus, because it’s so much fun.
I love being able to take a high concept scenario - like being one of the last people to ever exist - and making that relatable for teenagers today. The best science fiction uses imaginary scenarios to highlight the issues we face today. Giving teenagers an escape from real life, while also providing some element of comfort and relatability, is the best part of writing YA.
Also, I’m working on a screenplay at the moment with a friend, which is hugely fun - I write until I get stuck, and then overnight an invisible gnome who lives in the word document magically solves the problem for me and writes the next scene. I love making my co-writer laugh more than anything – it’s the best feeling!
What’s the hardest thing?
I’ve just been sent the copyedits on my next book, which is the stage where we look at grammar and spelling after all the big changes to the plot have been made.
It’s definitely my least favourite part of the editing process, which overall I love. The copyeditor points out all the ways I use semicolons and commas wrong, which is very mortifying!
I always think the last book I wrote was the easiest and best to write, and then start another and remember how hard it is. The one I’m writing always feels like a terrible disaster while I’m in the process of getting it down on paper. When I’ve done all the hard work and can look at a complete, perfect finished book, I like it – but during the writing process it’s torment. That’s true of all my books!
As I write more and more books, I’ve noticed some consistent themes – time travel is definitely one of them. Absent parents and scientific artificial reproduction methods are some others. I try not to look too hard at these, in case it reveals things about my psyche I don’t want to know!
What has been your biggest achievement since starting your career as an author?
One of my books is being adapted for the screen, which is very exciting (and still, unfortunately, top secret – so that’s all I can say!).
I also get to do panels with some of my favourite childhood authors, which I find really exciting and is always a huge honour.
And getting fanart of my characters from readers is the best feeling. There are so many high points, honestly!
Writing advice is always “write every day”. I think that’s wrong. The real trick is to read every day...You need to be constantly filling your brain with sentences and plots, to fill up your mental bank of ideas.
How did you get started in the industry?
I never intended to get the story published – I was writing just for myself, for fun.
I ended up finishing the first draft of the book when I was nineteen. It was very self-indulgent: it included lots of in-jokes and cameos from some of my professors.
There was no pressure to write something good. I was just writing for myself, telling myself a bedtime story after classes. I never saw it as doing something scary or difficult.
When the first draft was finished I left it for a few months while I was on a year abroad in America at university*. When I came back to it, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as terrible as I remembered. It even made me laugh a few times.
I decided to send it off to some literary agents, just to see if they could give me some useful feedback. I had absolutely no idea how the publishing industry worked, and I think I read one How To article on query letters before writing one and blithely sending it off into the aether.
I found an A to Z list of agents and started emailing with the Z’s, because I thought they’d have the least submissions. In the end, I found an agent on W, after I’d emailed only six agencies. It was a very naive way to apply, but I got very lucky – my agent is incredible, and last year she was shortlisted for the Bookseller’s Agent of the Year award.
We then submitted to publishers after a whole year of revisions (I was still at university so could only really work on it during the holidays) and within two weeks, two publishers had offered.
Saying it now, that seems so easy and fast, but at the time it was the most stressful, delirious fortnight of my life. I’ve been through the submission process several times since then, and it does not get any easier.
*Don't miss our guide to choosing a university!
How did you find your first 12 months in the field?
Very quiet – my book didn’t come out for two years after I got a book deal, so I had a lot of time where I was alone at home working on upcoming books.
Once The Next Together was released, I started doing panels and workshops, which I found very stressful at first. I really had to teach myself how to be a public speaker from scratch.
What are the perks/incentives, financial and otherwise, for a graduate looking to become an author?
Everyone in publishing – from reviewers to interns and employees at publishers – gets more books than they could possibly read. As a big reader, it’s the best, especially when I get my favourite author’s book months early. There also tend to be lots of fancy London parties with free food and drinks (woefully, I live outside London).
Publishing is a loving and considerate community that’s creating really innovative work.
It’s very passionate and socially aware, and the YA genre in particular is on the forefront of change in terms of diversity and representation in fiction. Things happen more rapidly and collaboratively here than anywhere else.
Another thing, which I’m starting to appreciate more recently, is that I have a passive income from my previously published books. Even if I quit now and never wrote another word, I’d still receive some royalties on everything I’ve published so far.
It’s nice to have a little buffer in place in a freelance profession where income can be really unreliable (and gives no sick/holiday pay!).
What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
I’ve been teaching myself to make stained glass recently, which has resulted in a lot of cuts and bruises from handling sharp glass. I try to cultivate hobbies and interests that are creative but don’t involve staring at a computer screen or book, because my eyes are exhausted after a day at work.
Do you have any advice for young people thinking about pursuing a career in writing?
Writing advice is always “write every day”. I think that’s wrong.
The real trick is to read every day. Even if it’s only for a few minutes. You need to be constantly filling your brain with sentences and plots, to fill up your mental bank of ideas. Then you’ll have something to write about, by stealing all the best bits of your favourite books. That’s the real secret to writing.
Find out what makes your writing unique and own it.
Be completely shameless about it in your query letter. If you love the zombie cats in your novel, make sure they are front and centre in your query.
You need to find an agent who loves your book as much as you do, and spending months crafting the perfectly-written query letter isn’t going to do that – but maybe persuading them to read the book with the promise of zombie cats might.