In spite of being encouraged from a young age, by his parents and teachers, to follow a path in the sciences Tim never managed to quash his passion for writing. Determined to write a novel, Tim only thought of turning his hand to other forms of writing when he took The Writers Bureau course. Read on to find out how Tim has forged a successful writing career for himself.
By Tim Skelton
It was there from a tender age, but it took a prod from The Writers Bureau to bring it out. Back in primary school I'd won prizes for my ripping yarns. I'm still proud of the stories I wrote there, although I can't remember a single word of them today. It might have paved the way for a glittering career. But instead I had a problem: I was good at maths.
This was the early 1970s – a time when we all believed we'd be wearing shiny silver suits and living in space by 1990. In those days technology was the future. The world didn't need more artists, and there was a shortage of engineers and technical boffins. This was how my destiny was decided:
'You're going to be a scientist when you grow up,' said my parents.
'You're going to be a scientist when you grow up,' said my teachers.
'Er ... OK,' said the indecisive ten-year-old me, with no idea what I actually wanted.
Cut to a clicéd black and white scene, of a sudden gale blowing the pages off a calendar to denote the rapid passage of time.
I went to university, and before I knew it I had a degree in Civil Engineering. Unfortunately, with the greatest respect to my fellow students, it didn't help my writing skills to be in a classroom with people to whom 'grammar' meant your dad's mother, and 'spilling errors' (sic) implied a South African darts tournament.
If my years training to be an engineer taught me anything, it was that I did not want to be an engineer. By graduation I knew I did want to be a writer – a novelist to be more specific. But I had absolutely no idea how to go about becoming one.
Instead, I spent the next two decades alternating between a miscellany of jobs and stuffing my worldly goods into a backpack to travel the world. Eventually I turned forty, having had a great time, but without achieving much of substance.
Sure, I completed my first novel back in 1989. But it had a slight flaw, in that it was rubbish. Utter rubbish. However much I swore at them, the agents and publishers I approached were spot on in rejecting it. I thought I didn't need to plan it. I thought I could dive in and see where the story took me. I thought I could emulate Jack Kerouac with my spectacular spontaneous prose.
It turned out I couldn't.
More care went into my second attempt, which took another ten years to complete – I even planned its structure. But while I am more hopeful of its success, there are good reasons why it may never to see the light of day either – until I'm famous of course, at which point everyone will be clamouring to represent it (watch this space ...).
And yet, even with two unpublished opuses under my belt, I never gave a moment's thought to earning money from writing any other way. For me it was novelist or bust.
Bust, in other words.
It took until 2003, and an advertisement for The Writers Bureau, for my attitude to change, although I was initially reluctant to sign up for a creative writing course. Arrogance told me I had nothing to learn, and it would therefore be a waste of money. I was completely wrong of course, and how glad I am I took up my wife's suggestion.
The first modules of the course – how to get paid for writing non–fiction – were a revelation. Call me naive, but this had never occurred to me. I'd assumed you needed a journalism degree or a close friendship with someone on the inside to gain a foothold.
Despite this, I followed the course's advice and started approaching editors, using my earliest assignments as speculative pieces. To no avail. The best lead I had was a reply saying: 'tell me about your fields of expertise'. When I responded I heard nothing more.
In late 2003 things improved. I had letters published. Most earned me nothing, though I did win a book for my efforts. Nevertheless it was a thrill to see my name in print. To this day, whenever I read the letters page of a magazine, I wonder how many are written by my fellow aspiring freelancers.
Early the following year I got an email out of the blue from the editor of Nexus magazine, to whom I'd made a speculative approach six months previously – using my very first assignment for The Writers Bureau. She commissioned me to write a piece on living and working (as I did, and still do) in the Netherlands. It was my debut paid writing job. My freelance career had officially begun.
More work from Nexus followed, to the extent that five years later it remains my most loyal client. And within months of the initial breakthrough, other publications started accepting my pieces. By the time 2004 drew to a close I had netted over £2,000, something I'd never imagined possible when I started out. When I first saw The Writers Bureau pledge to refund my signing–on fee if I didn't earn it before finishing the course, I remember thinking: 'I bloody well hope so, because I'll never earn that much ...' Never has it felt so good to be proven so wrong.
Mind you, there was one drawback to becoming busier: progress with my coursework slowed dramatically. Weeks between submitting assignments turned into months, and I'm sure my tutors began to wonder whether they would ever hear from me again.
When I look back at the whirlwind of the last four years, I find it hard to comprehend. My career took off exponentially. In 2005 I started appearing regularly in lifestyle and in–flight magazines. I updated travel guides for Fodor's (for someone who loves travel as much as I do, it's great to get paid to go on holiday). And the crowning glory of that year was being selected as a finalist in the Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel writing competition.
The following year saw an even greater ambition realised. I was commissioned by Bradt Travel Guides to write a brand new guidebook to Luxembourg (shameless plug: available now at your local bookstore!), an immense project that swallowed most of my 2007.
Then there is the craziness of the year just ended. Besides seeing my first book in print, I've appeared in The Times and The Independent, and updated yet more guidebooks for Fodor's, Thomas Cook, and the AA. As a result of my Bradt guide I've even become a Z–list celebrity in Luxembourg, where I've been interviewed on the radio and signed autographs for the British Ambassador. And I still work with my earliest clients, who have stuck with me throughout and to whom I owe my living. But above all, I am writing flat–out, and getting paid what I can now describe with pride as a decent salary.
And it is thanks to The Writers Bureau that I got this second chance. It provided me with the opportunity to realise an ambition – one that may have been with me all along, but which I didn't know how to nurture. I do now.
Sometimes I wonder what might have happened had I not been pushed into sciences, and gone straight into writing – although I don't dwell on it for long. It may not have taken me until the age of 46 to become established in a job that I love. But my life in between was a very happy one, so I have no regrets.
What is important is that I got there in the end. And my world goes on getting better. Busier too. I've still not had that novel published, but I'm working on it!
“I’m currently working on my fourth book, have been paid for my writing by at least 15 different magazines, and now earn half my income from writing – all thanks to The Writers Bureau’s course."
Sarah Plater - Writers Bureau Writer of the Year 2017