Recently I marked my birthday, and as close as I can tell, the 10 year anniversary of when I started wanted to write.
Well, that’s not quite true. I still remember telling my Year 5 teacher that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but I think 10 years ago was when I started actively working towards it, rather than just saying it was a thing that I wanted to do.
So, to mark the occasion, I want to list 10 things I’ve learned in the time between when I started really trying to learn how to write, and now who I am as a writer.
- You can always change things
I’ve always seen writing compared to various kinds of surgery here, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a fair comparison, but the fact remains: You write something once and that doesn’t have to be the final version. You always have the chance to rewrite. The exception here would be if your agent/publishing house wants the final draft on a particular date, but I think most people reading this blog won’t have this problem. Instead, I will say, you always have time for one more read-through before you send a query letter, and you always have time for one more draft before you tell people that you’ve written a story.
- Books are more malleable than you think
You might think certain things won’t make sense unless you’ve written certain plot points first, but you may be surprised. If you’re willing to move secondary scenes around, it’s impressive what will just fall into place, narratively. Don’t think you “have” to have certain scenes first. The audience is intelligent, and you will find a way to put all the subtle hints into the first scenes so that it works out in the end, even if the order feels inevitable when you read through your first draft.
- Don’t trust yourself
This sounds harsh, but it’s true. If you want to know what you actually said vs what you meant, seek beta readers.
Now, that’s not to say you take beta readers’ advice all the time (in fact, I can list a few times in the last month when I’ve discarded beta readers’ advice because I thought their questions illustrated that I had accomplished what I intended to) but whenever you get criticism, read through it carefully and be aware of why you are rejecting or accepting their criticism. They’re not always wrong and they’re not always right.
Just listen to them, because you’re not always right, either, and it’s worth the extra set of eyes.
- You will need more drafts than you expect.
This one, I think, is true of all writers starting out. You think you have this writing thing sorted, and then you start writing and suddenly you feel like everything is going wrong! But at least you know why, and you can fix it on the second draft!
It will take at least three drafts, and possibly more, to get to where you’re happy with it. Learning to accept ‘fixing your own mistakes’ as part of the writing process is part of learning the job.
- Yes, you need to read that.
You can gain inspiration from a variety of places, and yes, you need to understand your genre if you want to write genre fiction. Some say this isn’t necessary, but I believe it is – that’s an argument that’s still ongoing. But we’re talking about things I’ve learned and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you should never shy away from reading or watching another genre just because you think it’s something you won’t enjoy. You might enjoy it, you might learn from it. As my parents taught me when I was young, give every book 30 pages and every book 30 pages to catch your interest before you give it up as ‘not my thing’. You’d be surprised what you end up liking in the end, and what you can add to your own writing.
- Be open to criticism.
Just as I said before that stories are more malleable than you think, if people say it isn’t working, listen to them. It might be a couple of people you trust, or it might be that a few people are telling you that a particular scene is falling flat. Learn to trust them. They may not be right in the ‘why’, but they are probably right in the ‘what’. Learn to listen to them, to interpret, and to ask them questions. The people who are willing to tell you that something is wrong are one of the greatest resources you will come across.
No story ever sprang to the page full formed, at least, not for me. Be willing to put a story aside while you come up with sideplots, secondary characters, nuances of the main characters, and all the other bits and pieces that transform a story from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Just because you thought of something doesn’t mean you need to write it right away. I like to keep book of my plot ideas separate and put ideas for plots I haven’t written yet in there, so that I don’t forget them. I also go through a worldbuilding process almost a full year before I put any pen to paper, so I know I understand things before they get written. That might not be everyone’s bag, but that’s what works for me, and that’s what I’ve learned in the 10 years during which I started seriously writing.
- You are more capable than you think you are
Keep a list of the things you think went wrong in your first draft. Often you’ll fix more problems than you think you did. Even if you had to ignore them and just continue to get the first draft done, your questions that you logged along the way will reveal more insight than you think they do. Trust yourself when things aren’t paced right, or aren’t set up right. You’re probably right, and you can always fix it in the second draft, before anyone sees it except you.
- Don’t tell anyone a set date until you’re certain
Corollary: It will always take longer than you think it will. Even if you’ve got the whole story ready to go, you will always need more time to format it, get your site working, get your cover art aligned, everything that you need to make it work than you think. Always allow more time than you need and never announce a definite date until you’re 100% certain you can deliver by then. This is something I am still working on.
- You may need to start again
I wanted this to be something inspiring, like ‘trust yourself’ or ‘write what you want to write’ but if I’m honest I already knew those things. I already had that from a lifetime trying to write things. The number 1 most important thing I’ve learned is that you may need to scrap everything and start again. You may need to try a different genre, a different format, a different style … even just a different story altogether. And if you need to do that, don’t be afraid of it. Just accept it, if you need to, write another story between them to cleanse your palate, and do it. They’re not all out yet, but I can tell you this: The Ferryman’s Apprentice changed formats, The King’s City had to be entirely rewritten, Same Coin had to be given a new set of protagonists and a new setting to work … never be afraid to completely rework something if you feel that would make it a better story. You’re not under any deadline except that which you set for yourself (unless you have a publisher who is setting deadlines for you, which is a different matter). So just do it! You’ll feel better in the long run, and trust me, the story will be better too.