15 Things I’ve Learnt From 15 Years of Writing

I’ve been a published author for 15 years now and it’s been a massive and fascinating learning curve.

And as I know many of the readers of this blog are writers or aspiring writers I thought it would be fun to write a piece on the key lessons I’ve learnt from my years at the writing coal-face…

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1. You do your best work when you write from the heart

A lot of people who dream of getting a book deal make the mistake of writing what they think publishers will want rather than what they want. As a result, publishers get inundated with imitations of previous best-sellers and end up craving something fresh and new. And writers end up demotivated and uninspired as they churn out some Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades epic. When you write from the heart about something that means a lot to you, you write with passion and your manuscript is far more likely to catch the editor’s eye and capture their imagination. Another bonus of writing something you feel passionately about is that you’re way more likely to find the stamina to show up at the page, day after day.

2. Don’t be afraid to be bold and experiment

Following on from the previous point, don’t be afraid to be bold in your writing. My first novel for young adults, Dear Dylan, was a real experiment for me – it was comprised solely of emails and one of the main characters was sixty years old (not usually a done thing in the YA book world). But my gamble paid off as this book went on to win a national award.

3. Character questionnaires rule

One of the best ways of quickly developing well-rounded characters is to complete a questionnaire for each of them prior to beginning the book. Give ‘character questionnaire‘ a quick Google and get downloading. Or you can create your own. A character questionnaire is a list of around 20 – 30 questions designed to help you get to know your character inside out, with questions such as: ‘What is your character’s worst fear?‘ and ‘How does your character get on with their parents?

4. A book board helps you visualise the world of your story

Prior to starting a new novel I always create a book board; a visual representation of the world of the book, full of photos of people and places and objects. It really helps me to be able to see the characters and locations before I start writing about them. You can create a book board on Pinterest or get cutting and pasting and make a collage.

5. Show don’t tell

Possibly the most common note I’ve made in my work as an editorial consultant is SDT (not to be confused with STD). SDT stands for Show Don’t Tell. All too often, writers can end up telling the reader what’s happened in a reportage style, rather than showing it through the character’s actions and dialogue. Whenever you’re checking over your work, make sure to be on the look out for examples of SDT and change your telling into showing.

6. You need to get messy

When I started my first novel it was a pain-staking process because I was so afraid of doing a bad job. I’d type a couple of lines, then edit the couple of lines, then change the words around, then experiment with some Italics, then wonder if I was using the right font, then read something by one of my favourite writers, then realise that what I’d written was useless in comparison and delete it and start all over again. This is the worst way in the world to write. Editing and writing use two entirely different parts of the brain, so when you edit as you go along your brain is actually at war with itself. I finally managed to escape this torture by telling myself that it was OK to get messy and write crap. Now it’s the first thing I tell any of my coaching clients. ‘Get messy and write crap then come back and edit it another day!’ Freeing yourself up in this way allows the words to flow and your writing becomes far less self conscious and clunky.

7. Reading is like fuel

Reading is like putting fuel in your writing tank. There’s something so inspiring and encouraging about reading another writer’s words. Whenever I read something well-written it fills me with excitement and has me itching to write because it reminds me of the beauty of just the right words, placed in just the right order and inspires me to raise my own writing game. There are also some great books about writing out there which can fuel you up to write. My top recommends are: ‘On Writing‘ by Stephen King, ‘Still Writing‘ by Dani Shapiro and ‘Solutions for a Novelist‘ by Sol Stein.

8. Getting physical helps your creative flow

Writing a book requires hours of sitting, bum-on-seat, hunched-over-screen. It’s important that you break this up with regular exercise. My typical writing day will always include a walk, dance class or yoga routine. And getting physical has creative bonuses too, curing writer’s block and getting ideas flowing.

9. Editors are invaluable

The fact is, there comes a point when writing a novel, when you can no longer see the wood for the trees – or the plot-holes for the typos. It’s at this point that an expert pair of eyes is needed, in the form of an editor. When I got a book deal for my first young adult novel I was lucky enough to work with an editor called Ali Dougal. Ali edited four of my young adult novels and over the years, her eagle-eyed notes really helped knock my novels into shape and helped me hone my skills as a writer. Subsequently, other editors have commented on how ‘clean’ my manuscripts are. This is all thanks to Ali and the incisive feedback she gave me on my earlier books. So, if you’re self-publishing your book, and you want that book to be its absolute best, it’s vital that you invest in the skills of an experienced editor. As Dr Seuss so eloquently put it: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Let an editor help you cut the slack and get your book as sleek and polished as possible.

10. People DO judge books by their covers

I learnt this one the hard way. My second novel for adults was a gritty love story, set during the miners’ strike of the 1980s. When I’d imagined a cover for it I’d pictured an 80s style vibe, incorporating a bright yellow ‘COAL NOT DOLE’ sticker. When my publisher sent me what they’d come up with, I wanted to cry. It was pink, with the photo of a model in a skin-tight t-shirt and it had a glittery font (the horror!). It was in no way representative of the story I’d written. But I was so grateful for being published I didn’t say a word. I also reasoned that a publisher that size would definitely know what they were doing when it came to book covers. A month after the book came out I did an author event in a book-store. When I introduced myself to the store manager she greeted me with: ‘I really enjoyed your book but I have to say I think the cover’s f***ing awful.’ Hardly the most encouraging start to the evening! I then gave a reading from the book and afterwards, when I was signing copies, everyone who bought one said the same thing: ‘I really enjoyed your reading but I would never have picked it up if I’d just seen it in the shop – I hate books with those kind of covers.’ Getting just the right cover for your book is a tricky and complicated business. If you’re being traditionally published and hate the cover your publisher sends you, don’t be afraid to speak out about your concerns. Most publishers really want to keep their authors happy. And if you’re self-publishing, invest in a professional cover designer – it will be worth every penny. I thoroughly recommend Michael A Hill, designer of the Dare to Dream logo and cover.

11. The publishing business model is bonkers!

I don’t know of any other industry where products are launched with virtually no marketing spend, but in the publishing world, this is a routine practice. Most debut authors only get a tiny slice of their publisher’s marketing budget. They then have a month for their book to start selling well before the stores clear the front tables and shelves ready for the next wave of new releases. When I was first signed by a publisher I naively assumed that I’d see posters advertising my book on the tube – I thought this happened for every book that got published. It doesn’t. And I’ve lost count of the number of authors I’ve spoken to who’ve become deeply disillusioned at the lack of marketing support they’ve received. But all is not lost because…

12. The internet is your new best friend

These days the internet makes it so much easier for authors to market their books themselves. Building your online profile via social media and growing a readership via your website and blog are fantastic ways of making people aware of your books. It also provides a great sense of community, something that can be all too lacking in the solitary, pyjama-clad world of the writer.

13. Getting dropped by a publisher is not the end of the world

In fact, it can be an exciting new beginning. With most writers only earning around £15,000 per year and most books only selling hundreds of copies (if that), the chances of being dropped by a publisher run pretty high. It happened to me after my first four books and it was devastating. But now I look back on being dropped as one of the best things that’s ever happened to me career-wise. It led to me developing a successful secondary career as an editorial consultant and writing coach and it made me write a book purely for the love of it – which went on to win an award and win me new book deals. Once I realised how crazy the publishing business model is, I redefined success. Now I no longer think of it in terms of book sales, I see success as pursuing my passion for writing and helping others through my words. Take the pressure off yourself by redefining success for you.

14. Indie publishing is great

In the fifteen years I’ve been writing I’ve had traditional deals for eleven books and I’ve self-published four. In my humble opinion, indie publishing is one of the most exciting things to have happened for writers. It allows us to take full control of our careers – giving us the opportunity to print what and how we want, often at very little cost. There was a time when self-publishing was sneeringly referred to as ‘vanity publishing’. But not any more. Now, many writers are making a great living from the much higher royalty rates indie publishing provides, and running thriving businesses, coining the term ‘author-preneur‘. For more info on the exciting world of the indie author check out the website: The Creative Penn.

15. And after all … it’s only writing

My ex is an actor. One time, we were at my mum’s house and he was talking about how much a friend of his had just been paid for his role in a movie. It was more than my social worker mum would have earned in ten years. ‘But I’ve just talked somebody out of killing themselves,’ my mum said incredulously, ‘and he gets paid all that just for pretending to be someone else.’ It was a sobering moment. The truth is, sometimes when we’re paid for a creative talent, it can lead to feelings of ‘specialness’. And if publishers, reviewers, readers shower us with praise, it can stoke our ego until it rages out of control. I once read an interview with a writer who talked about how ‘agonising’ it was when he was thinking up ideas for his latest masterpiece and his wife and children would insist on talking to him (the outrage!). In the end, he took to wearing a special cap whenever he was ‘thinking’ around the house so that they’d know not to talk to him. If I was his wife I’d have embroidered ‘SELF IMPORTANT EEJIT’ on to that cap. Having your family talk to you when you’re thinking isn’t ‘agony’. Working a back-breaking shift down a mine is agony. Don’t take all of the hoo-ha seriously. Write purely for the love of it and don’t believe the hype. Feel grateful and humble that you’re being paid to do something you love and enjoy every last moment of it.

You might also like:

Dear Dare to Dream: Should I Self-Publish My Novel?

Why Where You Write Affects How You Write

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  1. Has Harry Potter meets Fifty Shades been written? 😉 Fab post, Siobhan. I’m just about to get messy and bash out some crap. Liking the idea about the book board. 🙂 xx

    1. I’m actually writing it right now Sheryl 😉 with Voldermort in a Christian Grey-esque role haha
      I love making book boards – so much fun! xx

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