How I Became an Author: Doug Johnstone
I arrived at being an author by a rather circuitous route. I was always writing stories at school, despite having a crap English teacher who didn’t really encourage me. Luckily, my dad was also a former English teacher and he introduced me to writers like Seamus Heaney, Bernard McLaverty and Raymond Carver. From then, I couldn’t stop writing and reading, and discovered more writers such as Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh.
I didn’t know anything about writing or the publishing industry, but I wanted to write a story about the world I saw around me.
But I didn’t pursue writing or English at university, instead studying physics. At the same time, I was still writing stories for my own amusement, and I began writing music journalism for fanzines, magazines and newspapers, as I was in bands at the time. Eventually, I quit my secure graduate job as an engineer to become a freelance music journalist, and it was only when I did that that I found my creative energies going through the roof.
Around that time I began working on my first novel, The Ossians. I didn’t know anything about writing or the publishing industry, but I wanted to write a story about the world I saw around me, a world that I didn’t see represented in the fiction I read. The Ossians was about an unsigned indie band falling apart in a mess of drink and drugs on a tour of the Scottish Highlands.
When it was finished, or at least when I was sick of the sight of it, I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and sent it to everyone who I thought might be interested. It got rejected by everyone I sent it to, over 25 publishers and upwards of 50 agents. But a couple of people rejected it nicely, and said they wanted to see anything else I wrote. That was enough of an impetus to carry on. God knows what I would’ve done without that.
So I wrote a second novel, Tombstoning, which Penguin offered to publish. I then went back and completely re-wrote The Ossians from scratch, and that became my second novel to be published.
Getting published isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning.
These days I’m part of Faber & Faber’s list of crime and thriller authors and I think that’s terrific, but in truth I’ve never really thought about what genre of book I’m writing. My first two books were marketed as crime novels, which kind of surprised me, but I guess they have crimes in them, and people behaving badly, so fair enough.
In between my second and third published books I wrote another big, rambling novel that remains in a drawer because it’s crap. It’s a personal reminder to me that getting published isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning, and you have to continually work on your craft, improving your writing, thinking hard about character, plot, themes, all that nuts and bolts stuff. I switched agents and publishers after The Ossians and wrote a short, nasty book called Smokeheads, and things have gone on from there.
I’ve been incredibly lucky, I’m well aware of that. If certain people hadn’t nudged me in the right direction at the right time, I might never have been published. If other people hadn’t supported me, I might never have had the courage to do the things I’ve done.
The utterly boring advice I have for any aspiring writers is just to keep going. Write something that’s true to yourself, something that you want to read. Write about your world in the most honest way you can, and hope that you catch a slice of luck along the way.