SALLY HEPWORTH: 'I'm a best-selling, full-time author. This is how I did it.'

I was seven years old when I announced to my family that I wanted to be an author. I’d just written and illustrated a book of short stories called Mustard & Ink and had high hopes for a bestseller and a decorated career in publishing.

Unfortunately, Mustard & Ink didn’t take off the way I’d hoped, but I still like to think that from that moment, my career as an author was written in the stars.

"I wouldn’t say your talent was obvious, no," Mum said thoughtfully, when I asked her about my early childhood, (side note: it’s this type of Irish Catholic honesty that has kept me grounded over the years), "but you were certainly very single-minded. It was hard to stop you once you’d set your mind to something."

Unfortunately, my single-mindedness didn’t serve me well at school. I was, at best, an average student. I wasn’t sporty, a natural leader, or particularly popular. I was easily bored, prone to distraction, lazy. The only thing I excelled at, it seemed, was being the class clown. 

Watch: How to Trick Your Baby Into Loving Books. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

At parent-teacher interviews my parents were told "Sally talks too much; it distracts the other kids."


Once, my Mum famously replied: "That’s because she’s a very good storyteller."

(Irish Catholic mothers are very proud behind their children’s backs.)

She wasn’t wrong about the storytelling. When you aren’t good at many things, you come to realise quickly when you are. I’d figured out I had a knack for it - knowing when to pause, when to up the ante, when to leave people wanting more, when to drive the story home with a solid punch line. I’d already learned the great rule of storytelling - never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Eventually I started to write my stories down.

As an avid reader with a great love of storytelling, I’d be lying if I said the idea of a career as an author didn’t hold enormous appeal. But how did one even become an author? There wasn’t a clear vocational path. As far as I could tell, authors were old men, who wrote in their cabin in the woods, on a typewriter, with a bottle of whisky by their side. And I didn’t even have a cabin or a typewriter! Which left me somewhat at a loss. Eventually, I put my dreams on the back burner while I studied, worked and travelled the world. 

Taking the leap.

I was 28, living in Canada, and on maternity leave after having my first child, when I decided to revisit my dreams of becoming an author. But this time, unlike when I was at school, I had the most magnificent tool to help me. Google. It was an ordinary Wednesday when I sat down and did the most momentous thing of my career. I opened my Google browser and typed in 'How to Write a Novel.' From there, I bought half a dozen books outlining varying methods. Then my single-mindedness got to work.


What did the process look like?

Like most people writing their first book, I didn’t have the luxury of large uninterrupted periods of time. With a new baby to care for, my writing was done in the cracks of the day - an hour here, half an hour there. Whenever I found a few minutes, I sat down and wrote. Having created a plan ahead of time, I always knew what scene was coming next so I could jump straight in. In the time that I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about my book, trouble-shooting plot holes and character-flaws.

The self-doubt.

I didn’t know if I’d ever finish that first book. As it happens, I am excellent at not finishing things. And yet, in this task, my ‘single-mindedness’ seemed to become into its own, and each day, I wrote a little more. That’s not to say I didn’t experience self-doubt. Every time I opened my computer, the expected narrative travelled along the base of my mind - Why are you bothering? This will never get published. You’re locking yourself away, wasting all this time… for what?

(Note: Self-doubt is part of every author’s life. At best, self-doubt can push you to produce your best, most authentic work. At worst, it can stop you from producing anything at all. Making friends with self-doubt is an important part of becoming an author.)

On days when self-doubt was particularly bad, I wrote faster. (Weirdly, there’s something about writing fast that allows you to outrun the doubt. Trust me, all my writer friends agree.) I tried not to focus on the quality of the words, and instead, focus on the fact that I was doing it. I was writing a book! Maybe it was a terrible book (it was) but I was doing it!


While you're here, listen to Lady Startup Stories where Sally shares the moment she was told the book she was writing wasn’t good enough. Post continues after podcast. 

By writing fast and focusing on what I could control (the word count rather than whether the words were any good), I did finish that terrible first book. I then read a book on editing and edited it. Using my single-mindedness, I even managed to navigate the stream of rejections that followed, and the two more books I had to write before I finally managed to land a publishing deal that allowed me to become a full-time writer.

What I've learned.

Now I’m the author of eight novels. These days, I write full time, rather than in the cracks of the day. I make enough money from writing that my husband has left his job to become the primary carer of our children. In some ways, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. But my life is still messy and chaotic. The self-doubt is still constant. My mum still doesn’t think my talent is obvious (at least she doesn’t admit it).

So, what have I learned? Really, it comes down to three things.

Talent is handy.

Google is essential.

But single-mindedness is everything.

You can find Sally Hepworth on Instagram or her website and buy her book, The Younger Wife, here.

Feature Image: Instagram @sallyhepworth

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