Deborah Harkness

For Aspiring Writers

A number of readers have written to ask my advice on how to become a writer. Where do they start? How do they find an agent? Can I provide any tips to help them on their way?

I’m afraid my experiences won’t be of much help. I became a writer of fiction by accident and I already had a non-fiction agent when I started writing A Discovery of Witches. That said, here are some answers to a few of the most common questions.

Q. Did you have a complete manuscript for A Discovery of Witches in hand before you went looking for an agent / publisher?

A. I already had an agent who represented my academic non-fiction. He also represented me when it came time to sell A Discovery of Witches. The whole book was finished before my agent approached any publisher.

Q. Would you consider reading a sample of my writing?

A. I’m not an agent or a publisher, so the answer is sadly, no.  Besides, if I stopped writing to read, you’d never get the rest of Diana’s story.

Q. If you could give just one piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

A. “Say yes.” The world is asking you to try new things, have fresh experiences, meet people, see foreign places, and learn things. Most of the time we say no. Say yes. Go for it. Try. Live. Dream. Refuse to be negative. Be generous with your own time and gifts. See what happens then.

Q. What is your day like as a writer?

A. On a good day: I get up and make tea. I turn on the computer and get to work. Around 11:30 am I realize I am still in my pajamas and haven’t eaten anything because the writing is going so well. I shower/take a walk/let out the dogs. I eat something, usually with a notebook in front of me. I go back to work and at 7:30 pm realize I haven’t eaten dinner. I make dinner and try to have a conversation with a living person. This is usually a disaster, as everything I say either begins with “do you know what Diana did today?”, is an incomplete sentence or sounds alarmingly like Yoda. I go back to my office and write until two in the morning.

On a typical day: I get up and feed the dogs and make tea. I turn on my computer to answer two emails. Three hours later I take a two-minute shower and run to a meeting or class. I am late for everything that happens for the rest of the day. Somewhere in the middle I have an idea for the story and write it on the back of an ATM receipt. I come home and have a conversation with a living person, I feed the dogs, and make dinner. Around 8 pm I finally have some time to myself, locate the ATM receipt, and get a few hours of writing done before I go to sleep.

On a bad day: I get up and feed the dogs and make tea. My breakfast oatmeal burns and/or boils over. The phone rings and pings and hops across the table. I promise to answer the email that I haven’t yet read (because it is 7 am) but someone is now texting me about. I turn on my computer. Six hours later I get up and turn off the oatmeal (it is now charcoal). I am still in my pajamas. I put on yoga clothes and try to practice detachment and mindfulness, but all I can really think about is whether or not I will ever get the oatmeal off the burner. There is nothing in the house to eat for dinner. I go to the store. When I return the dogs have found a way to remind me that they needed to go out about six hours ago. My phone is still ringing. I still haven’t located the email I promised to reply to at around 7:30 am. I find it at 7:30 pm. I never put the groceries away, so decide not to cook dinner after all. We go out to dinner, where I try to have a conversation with a living person and end up with an entrée I don’t remember ordering. I drink a glass of wine and vow that tomorrow I will not answer the phone or get on email until after I write two pages. I vow I will not sleep this night until I write two pages. I get on Twitter on the way home and read messages until my phone battery dies. I go to sleep, and wake up at four in the morning and realize I never wrote the two pages I planned last night, never put away the groceries, and there is still oatmeal all over the stove. I roll over and sleep for two more hours.