Why there's no right way to becoming a writer
Authors Myra Zepf and Claire Savage reflect on their different routes to publication and share tips for aspiring scribes to carve their own path
When it comes to being an author, these days, the process is much more fluid than it once was. Indeed, with the advent of technology, traditional publishing houses no longer offer the only route to publication, and many writers now choose to go down the independent route.
Myra Zepf, author and Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen's University Belfast, is the author of five traditionally published books, with more imminent.
Currently in the middle of her writing fellow role at QUB, she’s kept busy with writing, but also, with running workshops, attending festivals and much more.
'As part of the fellowship role I developed a programme for primary schools called Head Over Heels,' she says. 'This has brought me all over Northern Ireland and we’re working up to a final event with Laureate na nÓg PJ Lynch and four other illustrators at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace centre in Bellaghy in April.
'The role has brought with it a whirlwind of opportunity – working with all sorts of organisations involved in promotion of the arts. I also do translation work – both books and TV - judge competitions, present awards. You name it!'
Despite having always enjoyed English and reading and writing, Zepf never actually aspired to be an author. In fact, she studied history at Oxford University, then worked in an advertising agency in London and in a community language group in Northern Ireland. She later became a full-time mum, which was when she started writing.
'Somebody asked me to write a parenting column for a magazine,' she says. 'My initial thought was one of terror but it was actually like therapy. If I was having a bad day I used it for my column! Then it became addictive. I had my notebook with me everywhere. That’s how it started.
'I suppose when you’re at home with children you’re also reading picture books to them over and over and you get interested in what books you enjoy and why you do or don’t like them. I suppose there was a little voice that whispered in my ear – you could do this.'
Zepf went on to write two children’s books, both with historical themes and written in Irish, which she had grown up speaking and reading. She then approached publishers in the Irish language market with her work.
'My books being written in Irish has a big effect on their publication. Because it’s a smaller literary market, the publishers I submitted to all responded to me and gave feedback which was very helpful. It was just really interesting to me how the language my writing was in changed the publishing experience.'
'At the moment I’m writing a verse novel for teens and that doesn’t exist in Irish language books. There’s a real sense in the Irish language book world of being able to add to the canon that you don’t get in English language books.'
With three picture books and two chapter books for children already published, Zepf is currently working on more picture books, which are part of a series of six.
'In terms of my books, it felt like a real breakthrough time for me when my picture book Ná Gabh ar Scoil! ('Don't Go to School!') was nominated for CBI's Children's Book of the Year in 2016,' she says. 'It has since won an Irish Literacy Association Children's Book Award, been honours-listed by IBBY and has been translated to another three languages.
'It's hard to know when a book is published what it will lead to, but it’s sort of a snowball effect – every good thing that happens feels like it leads to more, especially in terms of contacts and opportunities for work.'
However, I followed my love of language down a different route initially, studying Speech and Language Therapy at university, followed by a career switch later on when I trained to be a journalist. Writing every day as a reporter at the Coleraine Chronicle, however, reminded me of my earlier dreams of becoming an author and, the more I interviewed authors as part of my job, the more I felt that it might still be within my grasp.
And so, I began writing outside of my journalism, scribbling poems and short stories into notebooks in and around the day job. I attended lots of literary workshops and events, including the John Hewitt International Summer School, after being awarded one of their scholarships. I met a whole host of local writers there and soaked up everything I could.
I then wrote a manuscript for an adult novel, but put that aside, realising I felt more compelled to write a children’s story. That grew into a novel and after a year of writing and many months more of editing, I finally submitted it to publishers. I received positive feedback from most, but was ultimately rejected due to commercial reasons.
I set the novel aside when I changed jobs, working as a sub-editor and freelance feature journalist in Belfast, before launching my copywriting business, Claire Savage Editorial in 2014.
Throughout this time, however, I had started submitting my work to literary journals, and was delighted when they started being accepted for publication, one of the first being The Incubator journal. This spurred me on to apply for a National Lottery grant from the Arts Council NI in 2014, which I was awarded and which supported me in producing a collection of short stories and poetry.
I continued submitting to journals, with my stories and poetry published in places like the Abridged Journal, Community Arts Partnership NI poetry anthologies, The Lonely Crowd journal and The Ghastling.
In the meantime, I had come across Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog on self-publishing. Someone suggested I could try this and, because I had received positive feedback on my writing previously, I decided to go for it in 2017. Armed with Howard’s book I returned to my manuscript, edited it again and then hired a book editor and cover designer. I also asked two local authors I respected to review the novel and provide cover quotes, with impartial and age-appropriate beta readers also recruited for feedback.
In April 2017, I finally published Magical Masquerade through CreateSpace, launching it first online and then offline. I had approached the Belfast Book Festival months before to ask about launching the novel and they agreed, which was brilliant. Throughout the next few months I contacted local media outlets to get coverage for the book, and the year ended by running writing workshops for kids as part of the SPBOOKY Festival in Derry, as well as doing an event as part of the Dublin Book Festival.
I also got my book into a few local shops and was supported throughout the year by Lagan Online as one of their 12 NOW (New Original Writers) for 2016-17. I still harbour ambitions to have a novel traditionally published, but I’ve enjoyed the self-publishing process, learned a lot and am now working on book two, supported by another National Lottery grant from the Arts Council NI, which I received in November last year.
Writer Events During Creativity Month
March 8-10; Women Aloud NI 2018, Various Venues - click here to see the full programme of workshops, readings and special events
March 11; Phil Harrison in Conversation with Glenn Patterson, Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, click here for tickets
March 17; Writing Fiction: Editing & Everything After, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, click here to book a place
March 18; Verse Speaking for Actors & Writers, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, click here to book a place
March 22; Flash Fiction Armagh, Mulberry Bistro, Armagh, follow Armagh Writers to stay up to date
March 24; Start Writing that Novel, Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, click here to book a place
This article has been published as part of Creativity Month 2018, themed around 'careers in the creative industries'. To see this year's programme of events running throughout March, click here.