Getting Started as a Writer: Chris Kelso Shares His Tips

Getting started as a writer and illustrator is relatively easy – all you have to do is put pen to paper, to write and to draw with conviction and resolve! The next steps, well, they can be a bit more of challenge.

It should be noted that I’m not a ‘successful’ writer by any stretch of the imagination. I make modest sales, I don’t write full-time, and I only have a very small (if awfully devoted) fan-base spread across the continent. However, I have been published extensively and am well acquainted with the various pitfalls of the publishing industry.

My journey was a fairly unconventional one.


Getting there

So, once you’ve got your content and you’re happy enough with it, it’s time to start pitching.

First things first – there/their/they’re; your/you’re. Do NOT make these basic grammatical errors, they count against you big time. Even indie presses hate bad diction and sloppy syntax. Proofread!

I recommend getting signed up to Duotrope

There are thousands of independent publishers with open submission calls; it’s your job to sift through the swells and find a press that best suits your work. I recommend getting signed up to Duotrope, a subscription-based service for writers that offers searchable databases of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction markets. You’ll be amazed at the diversity of choice.

Make sure you have a strong cover letter and always adhere to the publications guidelines. The process of working through a slush pile is an arduous one for an editor, so be patient – I once submitted a story in December 2014 and didn’t hear back until January 2016 (it was a rejection). Response times vary from publication to publication. DON’T FREAK OUT!

Don’t be discouraged by rejections either. They’re inevitable. Lord knows I’ve had my share; I continue to be rejected on a weekly basis. Remember, JK Rowling was famously rejected by a screed of publishers before Harry Potter saw the light of day. Just because the first 100 publishers pass on your story doesn’t mean that the next hundred won’t be clawing each other’s eyes out to sign you up! You learn from rejection: it builds character and toughens you up. You’ll need a tough skin, my friends.


Routes – agent/no agent, big press or indie press

Some writers go down the route of obtaining an agent before submitting a manuscript. You should know that agents can be harder to get than a publishing contract. I chose not to seek an agent. As a result, I became skilled at pitching my own work to respected publishers. Sometimes doing it yourself can really make things happen. But if you are lucky enough to get an agent it’ll remove the extra DIY aspect of your writerly life – which, admittedly, can be draining. Constantly self-promoting is…yes, draining.

Smaller companies won’t usually ask you to compromise your artistic vision

Small presses may not have the advances of bigger publishers but they do put a lot of their own money into making the final product look great. In fact, some of the most beautifully formatted and presented books I’ve come across were spawned from indie presses. Another thing - smaller companies won’t usually ask you to compromise your artistic vision. My first book was picked up by a small publisher from Manchester. They put a lot of effort into the product and marketing. Now I had my footing in the industry, placing my other material elsewhere is much easier. The bigger publishing houses I work with are always trying to spin my novels from a certain angle so that it’ll appeal to a whole new demographic of readers. Honestly though, I’m not all that interested in selling books on that kind of scale. I’d rather have artistic integrity. Maintain control. So I suppose another important piece of advice would be stay true to yourself.


Artistic pride

If you write for money then you’re writing for the wrong reason. I write some of the most surreal and dark fiction out there but there are always going to be people around who want to read that sort of stuff.

For graphic novels, I’d even recommend self-publishing. If you decide to self-publish you control the content (we’ve established that’s essential for a healthy artistic psyche!). This means you can then tour your comic at conventions and pitch it to industry professionals – and once you’ve successfully pitched your book to a distributor you can join the Live Literature database. Having the finished article to show off will really go in your favour.

Lastly, I’d say know your limitations – managing expectations is vital. My books are pretty scary and nihilistic, so I’m realistic about sales and feedback. I write marginalised fiction for a very niche crowd. When I get a bad review I just remember that not everyone is going to like reading about murderers and demons. Be strong. Believe in your own work.

Chris Kelso

Chris Kelso is a Scottish writer, illustrator, editor and journalist. He has also been printed frequently in literary and university publications across the UK, US and Canada. Discover more of his work online