How to become a writer: Author Vajra shares his insights

An image of a woman writing on her desk. Author Vajra Chandrasekera's photo in a bubble at the bottom

If you’ve been desperately googling “How to become a writer” because you’re unsure how or where to get started, you’re not alone. Writing is a vast field and “Go get creative” is its slogan. Throw in AI and the space gets even more confusing! 

See, the number one thing to remember about writing is that “writer” is actually a very diverse role. You could be a novelist, a poet, a lyricist, a content writer or a journalist. You could write about travel, food, wars, or technology. To add to it, writing draws upon your lived experiences, general knowledge—even your hobbies. 

Sharing his insights with us is Vajra Chandrasekera, who published his debut novel in July 2023 but has over 100 publications to his name since 2012. With features in publications across the US, UK, India, China, Pakistan, and France, Vajra has a global perspective of what it takes to be a writer—particularly in fiction—today.

Starting out

Just like in any other profession, a writer doesn’t become a writer overnight! We all have to start somewhere. For some, it’s the headcanons of their favourite TV show that gets them on the journey. For others, it’s journaling. The inspiration that sets you on the path to writing could come from anywhere.

For Vajra, it was his father. 

“My single most formative influence as a writer is that my father was a writer. He was a writer of short stories and novels—mostly in Sinhala, publishing in the late 70s and 80s, mostly. In fact, his first novel was published a few months after I was born,” he said. 

Back then, a full-time writing career wasn’t easy to come by—especially in his home country of Sri Lanka. 

Describing his father’s drive to write, Vajra said: “He was a civil servant—a busy one. He used to wake up at three or four in the morning to have some time to write before work. He always expected—quite naturally, I think—that I would write as well. I had the privilege of being encouraged and supported as a writer from a very young age.”

This led to Vajra writing his first short story at nine, and intermittently throughout his teens. Engaging with his father’s work and publishing proved a vital experience through which he learnt a lot of the basics of copyediting, proofreading, and even pipe setting at a young age.

“I didn’t actually write seriously for publications myself until I hit my 30s, but when I did, I had that childhood experience and aspiration to fall back on,” he added.

Today, Vajra has written and published multiple short stories, articles, essays, reviews, as well as poems that have been translated into half a dozen languages. He was nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award nominee for ‘The Translator, at Low Tide’ in 2021.

Switching careers

Sometimes, a career path you take may not work out—and that’s alright! It happens to many of us. A very common misconception is that the path you started out is the one and only path you’re allowed to follow. 

Untrue! You can switch anytime as long as you put in the work needed to carve your space in a different field. Sometimes, what you really require is to analyse your strengths, weaknesses and career goals. Based on this, you’ll want to cross-check with what skills are required for the role/s you’re vying for.

(Of course, upskilling can be difficult but highly beneficial! Here’s how you can learn new skills quickly.)

Before the world knew him as a fiction writer, Vajra was, in fact, in tech. After a series of events in his personal life and understanding his own goals better, Vajra made the decision to switch to writing—but not as a full-time job.

“From my 20s through to my early 30s, I worked in tech. I didn’t even try to write during that period. In fact, at several points, I thought I had actually given up on writing as a life goal,” he explained. 

“I was just too busy and too focused on other things and my energy and my interest lay in the work I was actually doing. Conversely, when I switched over to writing as my primary goal, I did not attempt to have a full-time day job to help sustain that. I’ve made do as a freelancer working primarily as an editor of fiction and nonfiction, most of the latter.”

In his words, it was “uneven, unpredictable and precarious work,” especially relative to a full-time job in the tech industry. Sometimes, tough career decisions are inevitable but you have to weigh your options and choose carefully.

He added, “But I accepted that trade-off because it allowed me to write. At that point, writing and publishing had become my goal, even though it made life more difficult in a very practical sense for a long time.”

Years of work later, Vajra’s debut fantasy novel, ‘The Saint of Bright Doors’ is finally out! The novel is heavily based on Sri Lankan history, politics and culture, which brings us back to the concept of lived experiences fuelling writing. To Vajra, the way we express a particular idea is what genre is about, but the meat of it still comes from our own experiences. 

“I think it’s true in general of writers that our work comes from life. This is a commonplace understanding for writers working in literary fiction, but it’s just as true of writers working in speculative fiction. Genre makes no difference. It all comes through life because we write what we’ve lived through, what we’ve felt, what we’ve imagined. We have nothing else except who we are.”

The biggest hurdle

Challenges rise and fall throughout the span of any career—and as a writer, you’ll face no shortage of such hurdles. When it comes to fiction writing, though, getting published is probably the most confusing aspect of it all. 

Vajra explained, “Publishing is a very mysterious and unpredictable kind of industry, especially as a writer, because … you have very little access to both the industry itself and to reliable information about how to make things work. This is something that has been changing gradually over the last 10-20 years.”

To him, the biggest challenge was perseverance—especially through all the uncertainty that comes with writing.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about your next project, your next contract, your next client, so it’s very hard to make plans. It’s very hard to have a reliable income. You have very good years and very bad years, and you have to kind of stick it through the bad years to get back on top. You have to really want it,” was Vajra’s view.

While it’s true that there are plenty of opportunities to get your writing out there, there’s just as much—if not more—room for rejection, and that’s a part of the journey. But the thing is, you get to decide if you want to go through that.

“I don’t think anyone should have to subject themselves to endless rejection if they don’t really, really want it, but that’s why it’s such a challenge. It’s not a ‘you have to stick through this no matter what’ kind of challenge. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to quit and do something else with your life,” explained Vajra. 

He added, “Some people, for example, are more sensitive to rejection than others or some people are not as prolific as others. You find it harder to produce work at the kind of volume that lets you keep sending stuff out because you have to try many times if you want to publish. Producing one short story over the course of several years is not enough.”

It takes some tenacity to get through the endless emails, pitches, forum-scrolling, calls, etc., but it’s not an impossible task!

Demystifying publishing

The world of publishing can be pretty tricky to navigate if you’re an aspiring writer. Picture this: lots of writers vying for attention, literary agents acting as gatekeepers, and trends in literature shifting all the time. It’s like trying to find your way through a maze with no map.

“Publishing is very mysterious, even to people who are part of it. After a very long history of corporate mergers and consolidations, it’s mostly dominated by what people call the big five publishers (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Livre, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon & Schuster),” said Vajra, providing some insight into the general publishing scape. 

Each of the five publishers is owned by a larger conglomerate and has multiple smaller subdivisions called ‘imprints’, or a trade name under which work is published. 

“Outside of the big five, there are lots of independent presses of various sizes, small presses, trade and academic publishers, for example, university presses. Then there are self-publishing opportunities. So there’s a vast publishing spectrum.”

Diving deeper into how compensation is handled, he elaborated, “The publisher then pays you in advance usually. You earn royalties in every sale. There are different rates for the different formats. For example, 10% on the hardcover and 25% on the e-book. Roughly, that means you make a couple of dollars per every book that sells. If and when your share of royalties adds up to your advance, you start earning further royalties. That’s called ‘earning out your advance’.”

The thing is, most authors don’t earn out their advances—which is not as bad a problem as it sounds as publishers start making a profit before this point. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be the traditional model.

“This is roughly how the industry works. It can be simpler with smaller presses. Sometimes, you don’t need an agent. You can send your manuscript directly to the small press. Sometimes you don’t get an advance. If it’s a very small press, they might just give you royalties upfront,” he added.

Now, with the rise of digital platforms and self-publishing, things are … interesting.  If you’re a newbie, it can feel like the door to the publishing world is just a crack open. But now, there’s this expectation for authors to be marketing geniuses on top of writing brilliant stories.

So, what happens if you opt for self-publishing? Well, it has its own benefits and disadvantages. Self-publishers would have to do quite a bit of legwork for sales, marketing and distribution themselves—but they also get to set their own terms, which is pretty great.

Do publishers always know what’s going to sell?

Unfortunately, no. Publishers don’t necessarily have a very good idea of what’s going to sell or not. In Vajra’s perspective, this is due to the ‘real big sellers’ being non-fiction. Books like celebrity memoirs will inevitably have an audience—and the bigger the celebrity, the bigger the audience.

“The best case scenario is that the celebrity memoirs, cookbooks and other big sellers subsidise the riskier and more challenging work for the publisher. The worst-case scenario is an increase in generic attempts to milk formulas—squeeze out the more challenging work from the publisher.”

Some authors find success by staying informed, being tough when faced with rejection, and cleverly mixing traditional and new publishing strategies. Just remember, the publishing journey might be a bit of a rollercoaster, but for those who stick with it, the ride can be pretty sweet.

Final thoughts

Writing isn’t a strict set of rules or a corporate playbook; it’s the boundless freedom to create worlds that never existed and characters that feel more real than reality.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about words; you’re wielding and moulding knowledge and creativity and packaging it as a text-based consumable—if we’re getting technical. 

Your journey—be it as a copywriter or author or whatever writing it is that your heart demands you pursue—relies on your capabilities, drive and ambition.

The one thing you shouldn’t do is limit yourself and your writing because of arbitrary rules and fears. Go forth and write a world!

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Kahless is a writer with a special interest in sociology. He spends much of his free time travelling, reading, writing, and stopping his cats from ripping apart everything he owns. It’s advised to bring along a strong cup of coffee (3 espresso shots minimum) when approaching him.

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