Okay … moving from journalist to author. How can you make this happen?



Well, first of all, I should say that I don't think there's a hard and fast formula. As you know, there are lots of different kinds of journalists and lots of different kinds of authors. For example, many journalists go on to produce longer works that are non-fiction, but cover politics, world affairs, wars and such, in effect continuing their former field of expertise but in book form rather than newspaper columns. Other journalists write books while remaining journalists, using their name and any reputation they've won on the dailies to create factual best-sellers for some of the world's major publishers. Then there are those like myself, who've made the complete switch from gamekeeper to poacher, moving away from the real world of responsible, accurate reporting to the realm of fiction, where the only referee is our own imagination.

For every individual it's a different scenario. However, I do think there is some very basic common ground between the two. First and foremost, all those who follow this path must want and be able to write.

That may seem like a pretty obvious statement, but you'd be surprised. Journalese, as we used to call it - the sort of stilted, hyperbolic language that used to be common in the popular press - won't impress your typical major publisher. The sort of swift, slick but ultimately colourless 'read once and then destroy' copy that may be knocked out in the high-pressure environment of the newsroom won't make the average mass-market editor sit upright. And this is perhaps even more of a problem in the age of the internet, when anything that anyone writes can be published without any form of policing by a higher authority. We've all seen these atrocious but hugely self-confident essays posted on forums and message boards. Grammar and punctuation are often the first casualties. Text-speak is much in evidence (which at one time would have been the equivalent of a journalist submitting his stories in short-hand). Then there are the horrendous factual inaccuracies, the libels, the misquotations, the deliberate abbreviation of context for the sake of emphasis.

Now okay, I'm not saying this is journalism. Far from it. But the point is that a lot of people in the age of the internet think they can write when they patently can't. That muddies the waters badly for those of us who can. It also crams the field.

The upshot of all this is that, if we want to make it as published authors, we all of us need to be on tip-top form. Even those of us who know we can write, if we want to produce something that will have lasting emotional impact, something that will make the audience return to it again and again for sheer pleasure, must be at the absolute apex of our game.

So the first recommendation I'd make is that we dispense with all notions that we are already writers. Don't expect the mere fact that we were once journalists to open doors for us. The very baseline standard that an agent, editor or publisher will expect is that we can put words down coherently. That is only the start-point.

However, that doesn't mean that it won't give you an advantage of sorts. Because every real journalist will already understand the main requirements of professional writing: namely that you are succinct (no flabby news story ever made it to press, and neither did a flabby novel); that you must work to deadlines (there is no room in either of these fields for hobbyists, not if you actually want to make a living); that you must accept rejection (editors are editors the world over, whether it be in the newsroom or on the top floor of a major publishing house - it is their job to be hard as nails, and yours to take it on the chin if you are failing to deliver); and most important of all, that you must strive always to improve (back in the day there were trainee journos jockeying for position behind you, and same will apply now with stacks of young novelists looking to take your place on the list).

If all this sounds a bit over the top, I apologise. I just want to make the point that writing as a career option is a world on its own. You live or die by your own ability to produce work that people will pay good money to read. You are not on a wage, so if you aren't hitting your straps regularly and constantly, your family is not going to eat.

But how do you actually do it? How do you make the change?

Well, first of all you have to write.

I'm not being flippant when I say that. You'll really have to write, speculatively and protractedly, producing full-length finished works. Not because people will then take them home and happily read them, but because it will show that you can produce.

Say you are trying to sell your first novel. Unless you are one of the world's best-known journalists, it's impossible to conceive of a situation where you could approach an agent - and agent should really be your first port of call before a top-level publisher (but more on that later) - and sell a book purely on the basis of a pitch. It might be the best pitch in the world, the best-written one page premise, it might be the most exciting ten-page treatment, but until they know you can sustain this standard over 100,000 words, they're not going to take a chance on you.

So here's how it happened with me. Okay, this is slightly awkward. I didn't move straight from journalism into novel-writing. For a time I had two parallel careers, working on the newspapers and writing television drama, the latter stemming from my time as a police officer, so it's a bit irrelevant to this conversation. But none of this made any difference when I was trying to sell my first mass-market novel. I still had to write it first.

So, I had a chat with my alternative others - my wife and my agent - and finally decided that cops and robbers fiction was my strongest point. I then fished around for an idea that I could extend to novel length without padding it.

(I should mention at this stage that over the previous years, I'd sold a whole package of short stories to various anthologies and magazines, mostly horrors and thrillers. The short story market is an excellent training ground if you want to write prose - it teaches you about pace, character, story structure, economy of words, and basically how to tell a rattling good tale within a restrictive word-length; just so long as you know that you aren't going to make a great deal of money that way).

I knew that for my debut novel, this was going to need to be a hard-hitter, a shocker if you like - something that readers would really take notice of. Eventually my wife, Cathy, and I settled on a concept with the working title 'The Nice Guys Club'. I'd first hatched this as a potential horror story, but I'd never actually written it as at the time it simply seemed too horrifying. It dealt with a rape club; a gang of criminals who abducted women to order and provided them to high-paying clients. Perhaps in the age of sex-slavery and overseas trafficking, that doesn't seem to shocking, but five years ago it was something you didn't hear very much about. For this reason I still worried that it would be deemed too tasteless. However, it was Cathy who said that it would work as a police thriller if I focussed on the investigation rather than the crimes.

This I subsequently did. But I also knew that I had to work on the characters. I needed believable heroes and heroines, but also people who had lasting appeal, because franchises are very popular in the literary world these day. Recurring characters and situations make for excellent sequels and follow-up sales. But what followed next owed a bit more to my experience of writing for The Bill rather than as a journalist. On The Bill we had reams of character notes to work from. Even if it didn't always appear on the screen, those familiar faces had masses of back-story, which gave them great depth and context in the minds of the writers. I did the same thing with my own characters, but at this stage my journalistic experience did kick in. Because many of them were based on real people who I knew or had written about in the press. Obviously, the names were changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty) - you don't want to get your publisher sued any more than you did your newspaper editor.

And then I wrote the book. That in itself is a slog if you're used to writing short, sharp copy for news bulletins (especially if you're holding down a nine-till-five job at the same time). But it's unavoidable, I'm afraid. Once the book was finished, I refined it to the nth degree. You've really got to be vicious with yourself when you're editing. Anything that doesn't serve the greater good in some actual way must be hacked out. Okay, you'll have an editor to do that for you, but just as it was back in the newsroom, your editor will love you all the more if he/she has to do less.

Anyway, the book was then complete. So I produced my short pitch, my slightly more detailed outline of one or two pages, and my actual treatment of around ten pages (which included brief character notes and synopsis). It all then went to my agent, along with several sample chapters and a cover-note to the effect that the entire book was written and available to be read. From there, it went to the major publishers.

A quick word of extra advice now. As you'll have noticed, I keep mentioning literary agents, and that is not by accident. Even if you do all this - you write you book, you professionalise your pitch etc - you aren't going to get past the door of a major publisher without the services of a professional literary agent. But don't let that dishearten you, because this is where your journalistic talents will really come into use. Finding an agent involves something you are already experienced in, research - and in the age of the internet this is even easier than it once was. The old-fashioned way was to use The Writers and Artists' Yearbook, an annually-updated Bible for jobbing creatives. But now masses of literary agencies are listed online, along with details of their preferences, including many who are open to unsolicited submissions. From there it really is just a matter of trial and error; ringing them up or emailing them, finding out if they'll consider taking you on as a new writer. At this point you can certainly stress that you once wrote for the newspapers, as then they'll know you aren't just a wannabe.

Anyway, that is how I became a full-time novelist. As I've said, I was already a professional writer with TV credits, but I was forced out of that comfort zone by circumstances beyond my control, and I had to approach the book-writing industry as a novice. In addition to that, I didn't have a full-time job at the time, so the stakes were pretty high. Many of those interested in making this change will still be employed, so this is my final tip - and it's one you'll all have heard before.

I urge you, beg you, plead with you … not to give up the day job. Not at first.

My first novel was rejected by half a dozen publishers before HarperCollins pushed it to their Avon imprint, who bought it. That process lasted two whole years, and even then it was quite a while into publication before I began to see the kinds of paycheques that made life easier.

So for a time at least (hopefully it'll be short, but you never know), you really will need to work both professions at the same time. Again, don't let that put you off. If nothing else, this sorts out those who really want to make it and those who are only playing. If you have the drive and desire to see this thing through, you will.

Hunted by Paul Finch is out on 7th May.