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What it’s really like to be an author

Lots of people aspire to a career as an author. Perhaps you’ve gone through a life-changing experience, have expertise in a niche area or can’t get enough of young adult (YA) fiction.

But figuring out how to turn your passion for creative writing into a career – and, indeed, how to get a book published – isn’t always easy. There’s writer’s block and rejection to contend with, not to mention finding the time to actually put fingers to keyboard.

For Dr Jodi McAlister, a writing and literature lecturer at Deakin and author of a three-part YA series, says learning how to become a better writer was more about discipline and time management than it was about talent.

Here, she shares her experiences as a professional writer and offers her thoughts on how to become an author.

What led you to becoming an author?

‘It’s pretty simple: I wrote a book. It’s called Valentine and I wrote it while I was doing my PhD. In retrospect, it was a terrible idea trying to write a 100,000-word PhD and a 100,000-word novel at the same time, but it worked out.

‘I ended up getting a two-book deal about two weeks after I graduated, so I got to work writing the second book in the series, Ironheart, and they both did pretty well. Penguin then picked up the third book in the series, Misrule.

‘I really hesitate to describe being an author as a calling because I get very frustrated with discourse around writing that talks about muses and divine inspiration. Writing is work. Writing is labour. But sometimes you’re the kind of person who needs to write – sometimes it can be an escape, a reaction or a reflection of the way you see the world. And for me, it’s always been writing; it’s always been the word on the page.’

'Writing is work. Writing is labour. But sometimes you're the kind of person who needs to write – sometimes it can be an escape, a reaction or a reflection of the way you see the world.'

Dr Jodi McAlister,
School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

What does an average day look like for you?

‘In Australia, most authors have day jobs as no one starts off being able to do this for their nine-to-five. I’m a full-time academic, so I have a ritual where I write 1,000 words before breakfast. I usually write between 6am and 8am. I’m a morning person – I can’t write late at night. Luckily, I’m a pretty fast writer so 1,000 words isn’t too much of a struggle, although it can be sometimes.’

What do you love most about your job?

‘The ability to create stories – there’s something really magical about that. I made the decision I wasn’t going to write books where I was aiming to be “good”. I want to write the books I really want to read. My academic area of interest is popular fiction and I try to write books that are fun. The book I’m writing at the moment is just straight-up soap opera, and I’m having the best time writing it.’

What are some of the challenges of your job?

‘There are two big challenges that face every author: time and money. Authors usually do not have the luxury of being able to give their undivided attention to a project because it’s hard to make a living. Many authors teach or work as freelance writers, journalists, content editors, feature writers, or in day jobs unrelated to writing and publishing.’

What are the necessary skills required in your job?

‘The most important thing that you can have as an author is not talent or knowledge. It’s discipline. Because at the end of the day, you have to sit down and do the work. You can have all the talent in the world, and the greatest stories to tell in the world, but if you can’t make yourself do the work, you’re never going to write a book.’

What subjects or qualifications fit your job?

‘Authors come from all different backgrounds and occupations, and anyone can write a book if they’re willing to do the work. It can be helpful to do some formal training, which can provide structure and expert feedback, and also the opportunity to receive peer feedback. Getting feedback from people who are learning just like you is really, really useful.’

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Dr Jodi McAlister
Dr Jodi McAlister

Lecturer in Writing and Literature, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

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