Full-time writing: 2 years on

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

What’s full-time writing like? What are the pitfalls? How do you make the most of it? Reflections from a newbie writer.

Full-time writing: taking the leap

Two years ago, I retired to become a full-time writer after 42 years at work. I wrote a blog about how it felt (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). For 13 years as a British ambassador or head of mission, I’d had to stick to an official script. The freedom to do and say what I wanted was liberating. Janis Joplin sang “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” (her song Me and Bobby McGee contains some of rock’n’roll’s greatest lyrics). Suddenly I could no longer bring the Foreign Office into disrepute. Hooray!

But exiting the warm cocoon of the Foreign Office and writing full-time posed challenges. Let’s take a look at the ups and downs.

Hasn’t it gone well?

In two years of full-time writing I’ve had my Istanbul thriller Palladium published by Immortal Works in the US, and my diplomatic and life handbook The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy published – in German – by Czernin Verlag in Austria (an English version is due late 2024). A distinguished new literary agent has taken me on, achieving incredible results. Netflix asked me to advise on a drama series. I’ve written a new thriller and lectured at eight universities in the UK and Austria. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 I gave many TV and radio interviews. I’ve travelled, including an unforgettable month in and around Bali . In 2022 I went on a writing course in Greece, and (separately) joined a fantastic writing group. In 2023 I was invited to be a writer-in-residence at Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg.

Schloss Leopoldskron is a superb location

So what went wrong?

Full-time writing: a balancing act

Lots of people long to write a book. You don’t have to write full-time to do so: as someone said, Einstein wasn’t a full-time scientist. But having more time definitely helps.

The hardest thing is that full-time writing, like any other job, is a balancing act. It comprises lots of different elements, as well as sitting in front of a computer (or with a pen in your hand). Networking with other people is crucial. So is honing your writing skills. It’s useful to explore other writing-related activities such as giving talks or teaching. You have to maintain friendships, relationships and connections to your family. I haven’t always got the balance right.

The execrable yet charismatic British politician Alan Clark described in detail how his life fell apart when he retired (item 10 at the link). You may expect that retiring, or becoming a full-time writer, will give you a lot of time to do things. In fact, the lack of structure makes managing your time more important than ever (see “Writing regularly” below).

Plus, as countless writers have commented over the ages: if you only write, you won’t have anything to write about.

Doing other things: up a mountain in Indonesia, promoting “Palladium” in Vienna

Writing skills: courses and groups

Writing is a craft. Unless you are an out-and-out genius such as James Joyce or Anthony Trollope, you can learn to write better. Two great ways to do this are:

  • writing courses. I am a huge fan and have reviewed several. They are fun, stimulating, and introduce you to fascinating people. Plus, you learn a lot. If you are trying to get started, they’re a great way to give yourself a push. I wish I’d done more courses. I hope to do so in the years ahead;
  • join a writing group. The idea is, you meet a group of other writers regularly and comment on each others’ work. I am in a group organised by International Thriller Writers. The seven of us have enormous fun and my WIP (work in progress) has benefited.

My writing course in Loutro, Crete – and my balcony, early evening

Full-time writing: networking

If you’re writing full-time, knowing people can help get your work the attention it deserves. As you develop relationships, new opportunities may emerge (see “Netflix” below).

The biggest shock of full-time writing has been the time it takes to organise events. Appearing at a reading or lecture can generate literally dozens of e-mails. Yet such appearances are a great way to publicise your books and build up readership.

Retirement removes the connection with other people that comes with many jobs. As a diplomat you work regularly both with brilliant colleagues and extraordinary contacts – everyone from The Queen, Vivienne Westwood and Jane Goodall through Paul McCartney, Jools Holland and Deep Purple to the wise and witty Austrian President, Alexander van der Bellen and a host of other wonderful friends from many countries (for more details see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Diplomacy). I also, as mentioned in the book, met Satan – but that’s another story.

When you retire you have to work extra-hard at staying in touch with people. You have to take the initiative.

Family

Want to be a full-time writer? Don’t forget your family! When my dear brother Stephen died in July 2023 I was able to spend more time with the family than would have been possible if I’d still been working as a diplomat. In difficult circumstances, time is the ultimate luxury. However important your writing or other projects may be, time spent with your family can’t be wrong.

I also took a break from this blog, until now.

If you are full-time writing you may have more time for your family

Walking with my mum near our old home in Gatley, July 2023

Writing full-time: Netflix

My connection with Netflix came about when a wise woman with connections to the company read my book Blood Summit. Being invited to advise on a Netflix series was a privilege. I was fascinated to work with the rather awesome creative team. To witness a “writers’ room” in action was a revelation. They also invited me to tour the studio and watch some scenes being filmed, and to the premier in Washington D.C. (sadly I could not attend).

How did this happen? Through good fortune, meeting people, and self-publishing a book they could read. If you come across fascinating creative types, listen to what they have to say!

“The Diplomat” was a hit

Writing full-time: giving talks and speeches

Most people hate giving talks. But they’re a great way to spread the word about your writing and build a brand. A commissioning editor on a writing course I attended said: “when you send your work to a publisher or an agent, you’re not selling your book or your idea: you’re selling yourself”. Readers love to hear writers talking about their books. Get out there and express yourself!

Travel and writing inspiration

Why do we travel? What are we trying to experience? I have mused elsewhere on how to travel in an age of global tourism. The climate crisis poses new challenges as we work to cut our carbon footprint. But judicious travel is an unparalleled way to broaden your vision, and inspire your writing.

I’ve set my next thriller in a range of exotic and, I hope, exciting locations. Does it help to describe a place if you’ve actually been there? Most definitely.

Writing regularly

Fellow writers and would-be writers: writing takes time. In the 36 years between starting my first novel, Eternal Life, and my retirement, I completed eight novels and a book of short stories – roughly a book every four years (for details, see the next link). Since I began full-time writing, I’ve written two books in two years and worked on a few other things. More time definitely helps!

How do you get the hours in? A lot depends on you, and how you do things. In 2015, I wrote a post called How I write, what I write, when I write. I said then that I was a big fan of targets – I aimed to do two hours of writing a day. Since I retired, I aim to write – or do writing related activities, broadly defined! – for six hours a day. On average, I fail spectacularly to meet this target. But habit, and getting in the groove of writing regularly, are certainly crucial.

Full-time writing: ditching the pseudonym

After I retired in 2021, I abandoned my old pseudonym, “Robert Pimm”, and republished all my books, and this blog, under my real name. This was a massive task – I made lots of mistakes.

What to do next

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sketch of what full-time writing, and retirement, can be like. If so, I’d be delighted if you read any of my books and let me know what you think. If you have already read one or more, I’m desperate for reviews, or simple ratings, on Amazon: one disadvantage of writing under my own name is that my republished titles as “Leigh Turner” have rather few ratings and reviews. Happy reading!

Leigh Turner books

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16 Responses

  1. Great pleasure learning from your shared experience.My condolence to you for the loss of your brother please take comfort in the word of the Almighty Lord our God.”For God so love the world that He sent His only begotten son so that anyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”-John 3:16.
    Your experience as a teacher in schools of higher learning and as UK ambassador timely and consistently reveals your roles in assisting others while maintaining a balance with your private life.
    Thanks for taking time to share in your experience .

  2. Hi think one must just keep moving and learning, meeting people So mush to learn ro hear and see.
    One’s life is a learning project You have all the ingredients you will succeed..you have so much to offer..

  3. Thank you Leigh; you helped me a lot.
    I am in the same shoe; different size.
    Old surgeon never dies, changes rubber gloves only – maybe with Charon?
    But before it – after the last stitch put in – maybe time to write. Your lines are worth to follow. And I terribly envy you for your walk with your Mother on the Green Grass of Home.
    Full steam ahead.

    Tamás the Hun

  4. Great to get an insight into the writing life, Leigh, and to hear of the interesting new directions. What makes it particularly gratifying is remembering a conversation many, many years ago, when you told me you were writing and dreamed of completing and publishing a book. Look at you now! A dream in action – bravo!

    1. Thanks Lucy! Yes, two books “commercially” published, and I hope more to come. Glad you liked the blog. I always hesitate to put more personal stuff out there, but it’s good occasionally!

  5. Great post, Leigh. I always like the detail you use.

    As someone who is recently retired and wonders why the 8 hours a day I used to spend on work are not available for my new projects, I’d be interested to know what stops you spending 6 hours a day on writing.

    Paul

    1. That is an excellent question. I think there are two answers:

      1. When we are “at work” in a conventional sense, we are not actually applying ourselves to productive work all, or in some cases much, of the time. We are chatting to our colleagues, reading the news, catching up on things. One may argue this is all work, and contributes to our overall output – we could perhaps refer to it as “peripheral work”. But when we retire, and start focusing on exactly what we are doing all the time, we tend to focus only on core work – the new projects to which you refer. We are astonished that we have so little time to do it, but actually at work we only spent an hour or two a day on such core work.

      2. Once you retire, it can be hard to get down to work, too. You want to reward yourself for the fact you’re retired, and not sit in front of a computer the whole time. Other things push forward, demanding attention. Maybe that’s part of it, too.

  6. Hi Leigh! It’s a privilege to get an insight into your new writing life. Lots of exciting news, but also difficult things: I am sorry to hear of your brother’s passing — my condolences to you and the family. I am inspired by your commitment to writing alongside the demands of a career in diplomacy, and by you continuing to do so now. You’ve worked so hard for so long, and it’s great to see things coming to fruition.

    1. Hi Myro! Thanks for this. Coming to fruition – let’s hope! Hoping to see the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” published in English next year – would be fab.

      Hope life is treating you well,

      Leigh

  7. Hi Leigh
    with my own retirement coming up I finally read this great piece. You are in another league and excellent to read again that you are doing so well. Indeed, the main challenge will be the lack of structured time.

    warm regards from Caracas,

    Robert

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