How to write a book · Inspirations Scrapbook

Voice of experience: 5 things that established authors would tell new writers

Advice for the new writer Nail Your NovelA few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).

1 You are not alone.

This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.

I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?

How to have ideas: Your brain, mushroom moments – and why boring tasks are good for your writing2 Write down your dreams.

One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.

Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.

But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.

3 Accept that you might have to park a project.

Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.

4 Don’t give up the day job.

One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’

Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.

5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.

Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.

Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders

As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put  significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.


77 thoughts on “Voice of experience: 5 things that established authors would tell new writers

  1. It’s actually hard to think what to say to a new writer. I began as a kid, and much of my experience was of writing secretly, hidden away from the prying and critical eyes of my older brother. He managed to destroy my self-confidence before it was even born, but of that experience, I would give this piece of advice to a new writer: do not share anything of an idea or a story, with anyone, until you have gone a long way towards getting it down on paper(you know what I mean) as an entire first draft. If you share there are two risks (not of someone stealing an idea, contrary to what beginners may think). The first risk is of dissipating the power of that first vision, letting it leak away in dribs and drabs, dooming you to being a dabbler for all time. The second risk is you’ll never find your own voice because others will chip in, make suggestions, comments, criticisms, on an incomplete project; you will unconsciously be taking in their flavour, and that will taint your own. Later perhaps,if you find people you trust, you may want to discuss things, but not until you know your own voice, and know your own capacity to take an idea and bring it to a first fruition of completed draft. Many people think they want to be a writer but the act of writing is something that doesn’t come into the plan; it is, after all, harder than it looks from the outside.

    1. Hi Viv! Thank you for such a detailed reply.
      Oh, the horror of siblings and family – and I think you’ve touched here on a very important inhibiting factor. In the rough and tumble of family life, it’s often hard to ring-fence your privacy, and their reaction might be merciless.

      I like your other point too. I stick to that principle. The other day I was at an event where I had meetings with agents. They asked what I was working on. I’m at the stage where I’ll tell people the title of Ever Rest, and its genre, but not much else. This is a delicate stage and even the most innocent question or clarification might – as you put it so well – taint what comes out. At the moment, I need to explore my vision for the book before I try it on readers. (The agents were quite happy with vagueness for such a reason!)

  2. A couple of tips…

    #1 Plan your book.
    This is _not_ the enemy of inspiration. Shaping your story is crucial to it ending up being a satisfying, fulfilling read and one of the most important creative acts you can undertake as a writer: A sculptor creates an armature – a wire framework onto which he presses and shapes the clay – this doesn’t make him less creative, it’s good technique, part of the craft he must learn.

    I surprised myself by finding this stage of the writing process unexpectedly satisfying. Also, with the story outline of scenes, I never sit down and don’t know what to write about, but I still have the joy and delight of finding out what happens in detail – there are still many surprises to have while writing. It’s meant I’ve got to 51,000 words of the first draft of my novel – yay! There are still many thousands of words to go but without this outline, I would have gone down many blind alleys and writing cul-de-sacs, wasted many days and probably got so discouraged I would have given up.

    Roz’s first ‘Nail Your Novel’ book (see right) was enormously helpful in understanding the nuts and bolts of planning without losing a sense of inspiration, and you’ll want to check out her plotting book too.

    #2 Just keep going.
    If you keep writing, whether that’s day after day or more regular irregular sessions, those hours – and words – eventually add up and you’ll look back in surprise and go, ”Wow, I did all that!” Life may sometimes get in the way – some major health stuff has derailed things for me for a couple of months, but I’m now getting back into it.

    So, it’s more a marathon than a furious sprint – just don’t give up and you’ll get there. One of my favourite quotes is, ”Consider the postage stamp, my son, it’s benefit lies in it’s sticking to one thing until it gets there.”

    Hang on in there 🙂

    1. Hello Alistair – welcome to my blog!
      Excellent points there (and thank you for the nudge towards the NYNs). I used to worry that outlining would spoil the fun, and I was also itching to get on with the ‘proper’ book. But a novel takes many drafts anyway, building layer on layer, and each time we find material that surprises us.

      Love that postage stamp comparison! And here’s hoping you’re restored to full writing health.

  3. I’d add to #5, when you set your goals, make them SMART ones. Rather than saying, “I want to get published,” change it to, “I’ll submit my story to X markets.” Instead of, “I’ll get N sales on release day,” it becomes, “I’ll take out ads in X, Y, and Z for release day.” It takes the control from someone else and brings it back to you, plus it’s easier to change from your end (“I didn’t have time to submit to X markets, so I need to set aside more time for this”) if you don’t meet your goal.

    1. That’s a good one, ED. And I like the idea of examining what to do to make the goals achievable. Time is one of the biggest factors. We might not realise how much sheer slog it takes to do every little job!

  4. My two cents/pence…

    #1 Writers write. Keep writing, even if you can only manage a few hundred words a day. Starting up again after “taking a break” is often difficult and frustrating.

    #2 Publish. The most wonderful story in the world is worth nothing to anyone but you if it languishes on your hard drive.

    #3 Be realistic. Every published book is a new lottery ticket. You can’t expect to win if you don’t play. The key is to keep playing even if you don’t win every time. A breakout novel, if it should ever happen, is worth much more if you have a back catalog of other titles available.

    #4 Hone your skills. Some writers have a natural sense for an exciting premise, deep character development, spine-tingling plots, and a theme that speaks to the soul. Most do not. Books and workshops on the craft of writing can be energizing as well as educational.

    I also agree with “don’t give up the day job,” unless you can afford to retire. Adding the pressure of covering your bills to the frustrations of crafting and publishing an excellent story can suck the fun and satisfaction right out of your work.

    1. Forgot one…

      #5 Trust the process. (This mantra is my computer desktop wallpaper.) It’s okay for the first draft to suck. That’s what revision is for. Writing “the end” is really just the beginning. The most important thing to accomplish with the first draft is to get the story out of your head, because you can’t revise what you haven’t written. Once the story is complete, it will be easier to see where it can be improved. The joy of revision is in watching your manuscript go from rough inspiration to polished story.

  5. I really echo what Viv said, in the first comment – I rarely discuss what I’m working on. I like the ‘facing up to an idea not working’, too, that you wrote about. With my last novel, I started it again from scratch, 30K words in, because it wasn’t working. Hard to accept, but had to be done!! As for the dreams – I have a few written down that may become novellas, at least; the one I’m working on now is from a night time wandering. Just finished the first draft and can’t make up my mind if it’s a load of rubbish or not 🙂

    Re your number 4, I think the idea that when you’ve got a publishing deal you’ve made it, is something that happens when new writers don’t really understand the industry, and don’t know the difference between the vanity press (happy for your custom), indie publishers (available to most) and traditional (chance in a million!). I always remember a girl saying to me that she didn’t know why everyone said it was so hard to get published, she sent her MS off to three publishers and they all said yes!!! Then they look pityingly at me and say, “self-published? Never mind, I’m sure you’ll ‘get published’ like me, one day”….!!

    Very good article 🙂

    1. Thanks, Terry! I love your points about number 4 and the tangled world of publishing. Many people don’t realise how hard it is to get a publishing deal. On countless occasions I’ve heard people say they were writing a book and ‘might get it published one day’, as if all they have to do is post it through the letterbox at Random House. (They’ve never heard of self-publishing.) Beginners in this industry have an immense learning curve.
      Thanks for such a detailed response.

  6. I really like the advice about parking the project. I was so impressed reading an interview with Neil Gaiman in which he described the process of writing The Graveyard Book. He thought of the idea/premise as a young father but knew he was not yet the right writer for the project. He waited something like twenty years before he felt ready to complete the wonderful manuscript. I definitely have a book-in-a-drawer, too. I hope I’ll know when to bring it back out!

    1. Hi Deb – I didn’t know Neil Gaiman waited so long before writing The Graveyard Book. Thanks for sharing that.

      The novel I’m working on at the moment – Ever Rest – has been parked for years. It began as a short story and I was encouraged to make it into a novel, but I could never think of the right treatment for it.

  7. Reblogged this on Daily (w)rite and commented:
    December has so far been Backache month.

    I’ve tried to write and edit everyday (and not succeeded)–but blogging has taken a complete back seat.

    For the writers among you, a piece of unasked advice: Take Care of Your Back!

    And, here are five other things that a not-so-established writers would like to say everyone starting on the fiction writing journey:

  8. Well, let’s just say my first manuscript is still a work in progress, but after publishing a story in Awethology Light, I feel that I have a story in me worth telling. I wrote a novel called Epiphany High for NaNoWriMo 2015, that I am in the process of revising, and hope to get published in 2016. The only advice I can give writers is to keep writing, even if an idea comes into your brain at 2 AM. I find that my best writing takes place after midnight when I’m trying to sleep, so keep taking advantage of your writing excursions any time you get an idea.
    Also, let your environment speak inspiration to you. If you have wind chimes on your porch, or is there’s something outside your home that you like to watch or listen to, when those aspects of your environment begin to talk to you, just close your eyes and let the creative juices start flowing. You might surprise yourself with the myriad of ideas that come flooding into your mind. Your characters may even talk to you. These are the tips I have found that work for me. Happy writing, and God bless.

  9. After studying the industry for almost four years, this February I published my first book with two short stories in it (based on a new concept I’ve developed for stories.) Now here I am, almost a year later, and even with all the research I did before starting I can honestly say it’s been a challenging — but ultimately fulfilling — year. I gave myself three years to see this through before deciding whether to stick with it for the long haul. Let’s see where Year 2 and Year 3 take me!

      1. Of course, I’d like a larger readership. Who doesn’t? Mine is pretty small right now. But the process has definitely been fulfilling, professionally and creatively. So in that regard, yes, I’m completely satisfied. Thanks for your good wishes!

  10. I really connected with this article! I am the author of two traditionally published novels this year. I have spent the year learning how difficult the publishing industry is, especially as a new author! I loved the last tip about separating your publishing and writing successes. It is so easy to focus on your publishing failures and lose track of your writing successes. Thanks for the reminder that the publishing industry is volatile and if you only focus on that, you will forget about the great things happening.

  11. Your article inspired me, and gave me a few bullets I hadn’t read in books. I love the fact that you have established quite a community of writers here. Good work. I also like your name. Marsha Lee Morris Ingrao 🙂 aka tchistorygal

  12. Great article, I joined a writing group in the last six months and I can connect with a log of these points. Wonderful, thank you!

  13. As someone who has several unedited/languishing NaNoWriMo manuscripts, and mainly blogs, I’m finding many of these comments of great interest. I’ve been writing since I was around six or seven years old but stopped for many years after I became an adult. I started a blog in 2009. I am still so unsure of where I want to go with an activity that I have rediscovered after so many years.

  14. I published my first book this year, “Six Sisters”, a collection of novellas and am working in getting my novel into print. It is a painfully slow, totally laborious process which leaves little time for actual writing (and which is why I blog) – as an indie writer/publisher, you are forced to wear all the hats after you’ve tapped friends for help! – but it’s very satisfying to finally have something in print despite the doubling down on day and wrting jobs so I guess I’ll keep at it. Thanks so much for your informative blog!

  15. For me, this has been a year of live performance. I still send work to publishers, but I’m now finding there’s a lot of demand for people to stand up in front of an audience.

    This has helped my writing too, as it’s often immediately obvious when a sentence is too long, or when the tone isn’t quite right.

    Who knows what’ll happen in 2016?

  16. I’m writing the draft of my first novel and at this time i was learned that everything wrote in this first step must be erase and rewriten, because the idea is not ready until it becomes in story. You must put in words to notice what works and what doesn´t.

    Sorry for my english, i’m from Colombia. I love your blog 🙂

  17. It is extremely important to write down one’s dreams. Even if you wake in the middle of the night, go to your computer and write it down, before the memory fades. If nothing else, you’ll have material for a blog post. Seriously, if you get in the habit, it becomes easier to write down dreams in detail.

    1. Mark, if I went to my computer in the middle of the night, I’d still be there typing in the morning! But yes, you have to snatch it before the vividness fades. A friend gave me a pen with a light in the end – perfect for midnight scribbling.

  18. GAH! I hate #4 as there has been a large poop storm in my life around that very decision. I forget to think about $$$$ and think instead about TIME. I have a lot to write and who cares if it’s publishable or money makeable. I just want to be true to it and focus on my craft for the first time in my life…I’m NOT good yet but i know I can be and I’m willing to do the work, I can just grow a garden and not have to have a job because then I’ll have food, right? Thank you for this post. Really good advice!

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