20 Lessons from 20 Years as a Writer
This year is my 20th year as a professional writer.
As someone who dropped out of uni because I didn’t think I had what it took or came from the right background to be a writer, this fact is still mind-blowing to me.
Ditto the fact that I’ve now written 27 books!
Because I really struggled with confidence when I was starting out, I care passionately about helping other writers achieve their dreams so, to celebrate my 20 years in the business, I’m launching a Writing Consultancy – offering one-to-one coaching, editorial feedback and online / business content consulting – and I’ve compiled 20 of the best lessons I’ve learned about writing in the post below.
If you’re starting out as a writer I hope they help and please feel free to browse around my Writing Consultancy pages to see if I can help you any further.
20 lessons from 20 years as a writer…
Your best writing comes from the heart
The two books of mine that have received the most critical acclaim are the ones I felt the most passionately about in terms of subject matter. I don’t think that’s any coincidence. When you write about things you care about your passion shines through your words. Don’t write what you think you ought to, write what you truly want to.
It’s OK to write a crappy first draft
The moment I learned this lesson, midway through writing my first novel, everything changed. The writing stopped being a torturous process of editing every line I wrote to death and I let the words flow on to the page. The best thing about this was that, weirdly, my writing ended up improving too. One of the first things I say to people at my workshops or during my coaching sessions is that they need to make: ‘It’s OK to write badly’ their new mantra. They always look at me strangely at first but end up thanking me profusely!
Writing ‘morning pages’ really helps to get in the flow
Morning pages is an exercise devised by Julia Cameron, featured in her brilliant book The Artist’s Way. She recommends you write three pages of stream of consciousness every morning to clear your mind and get around your inner critic / censor / editor. Everyone I know who has done morning pages, including me, has found it really helps when it comes to writing freely. It can also be a great help psychologically.
The only way to find your voice is to keep writing
A common worry writers have when they’re starting out is how they’re going to find their unique voice. This is something that really used to trouble me. But I discovered that the only way to find your voice is to write your way to it. Just relax, keep putting the words on the page and you’ll find your own natural rhythm.
Questionnaires really help when creating characters
I love character questionnaires. Not only do they help you to flesh out the finer details of your characters but they really help to generate ideas for plot too. I use them a lot in my workshops and they always produce great results. You can create your own character questionnaire simply by creating a list of random questions, like: What is their favourite meal? How do they get on with their parents? What is their greatest fear? Who is their closest friend? etc
Scene cards help get a bird’s eye view of your plot
Screenwriters use scene cards a lot but I’ve found them to be just as helpful for plotting novels or non-fiction books. You simply write a brief summary of what happens in each scene on an index card and lay them out on a table or the floor in front of you. The joy of writing the scenes on separate cards is that you can move them around and insert extra scenes as required when plotting. This exercise helps me enormously when I feel I’ve lost the plot, both literally and figuratively!
‘No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader’
This is one of my favourite quotes from the writer Robert Frost and I’ve found it to be so true. This is why I don’t think you should plot too rigidly. Always leave yourself and the story open to surprise twists. They inject spark into the story. And they make the writing process so much more enjoyable. Allow your characters to tell their story in their way.
Walking really helps overcome block
Whenever I’m feeling blocked I move my body, whether it’s through walking, running or dancing. It never fails to shake the ideas free. But remember to take a notepad with you as there’s nothing worse than getting an avalanche of great ideas and forgetting half of them by the time you get home.
When you hit a wall, refocus on your WHY
When writing a book or a novel you’re bound to hit a wall at some point as it’s such a marathon task. Refocusing on the WHY behind the book or story is a great way of re-motivating yourself, which is why the first lesson in this list is so important.
Constructive criticism from a trusted source is invaluable
It can be really hard, if not downright painful, to receive criticism of your work, but the truth is, if you want to improve as a writer, you need constructive criticism. Once the initial sting has faded tune into your gut instinct. Can you see how the criticism could make your work stronger? If so, be grateful for the help and get to work on the next draft.
You need to let go of unhelpful criticism
On the other hand, criticism purely for the sake of it (or for some other, more personal motive) is definitely not helpful. If the feedback you receive doesn’t feel genuine or correct, trust your instincts and have faith that you know what’s best for your story. I did this with my first novel for young adults – turning down a traditional book deal because I vehemently disagreed with the publisher’s suggested changes – and it went on to win a national book award.
Reading is a writer’s fuel
Reading is such a great – and enjoyable – way of improving as a writer, not to mention a great form of inspiration. Read with your writer’s hat on, making a mental note of the things you like, and dislike, about another writer’s work. Use reading as a way of learning about the craft and filling up your creative fuel tank.
Always edit with your reader in mind
Never forget that you’re writing for a reader, even if you don’t have a book deal yet. As you edit your first draft keep your reader at the forefront of your mind, asking yourself the questions: What will my reader get from this chapter / section? Is it gripping, interesting or entertaining enough? And will they understand what’s going on?
Take care of your body
I know writers are supposed to be drunkards, slumped over their typewriters, chain-smoking and mainlining Jim Beam but the reality is, if you want to make a living from your writing, you need to do a lot of writing, which means a lot of time in a sedentary position. To keep your energy levels up you need to take care of your body, whether that’s through exercise or diet. But obviously this doesn’t apply to coffee. As we all know, writing is the process of turning caffeine into words.
See rejections as stepping stones to success
Rejections are part and parcel of the writing process but that doesn’t make them any less painful. In the 20 years I’ve been writing I’ve had books rejected and I’ve been dropped by a publisher. But every time I’ve picked myself back up and got on with it, by refocusing on my WHY. If I’d let rejection defeat me I wouldn’t have had a single book published, let alone 27. So console yourself with the knowledge that it happens to everyone, learn the lessons, remember why you love to write in the first place and get back in the saddle (or at the desk).
Redefine ‘success’ for the sake of your sanity
Like so many things in our society, writing success is defined in terms of numbers – numbers of book sales, reviews, followers, money. The trouble is, when you’re starting out, it can be really hard to achieve big numbers. Don’t let this dishearten you. Define success on your own terms. For me, this means writing about issues that I believe should be highlighted, knowing that I gave my all to a book, and that I write with the intention of helping people. Letting go of the obsession with numbers was a breakthrough moment for me and it’s made me so happy.
Indie publishing is a liberating thing
When I turned down the book deal for my first YA novel I self-published it. I loved the freedom this gave me; not just creatively, but in terms of marketing too. I found the whole experience so liberating. When the book won a national award it ended up going to auction, with eight publishers bidding for it. Indie publishing kick-started my career as a young adult author and for that I’ll be eternally grateful.
Don’t let social media be the boss of you
There’s huge pressure on writers now to have a massive online presence and social media following. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing; if you can build an audience you instantly make yourself more marketable as a writer and it all helps with your career. HOWEVER, don’t let social media take over your life, or become a negative thing. Don’t feel you have to be present across all platforms, pick the one or two you like the most and focus on building your presence there.
Keep challenging yourself as a writer
If you achieve success with one type of book it can be all too tempting to keep churning out the same old, same old. There’s nothing wrong with this if it makes you and your readers happy but personally, I’ve loved trying my hand at writing for all different age groups and genres. It helps you expand as a writer, as well as reaching different audiences.
You have the right to write!
Overcoming self-doubt and fear are a big part of the writing process because writing is such a personal thing. Whenever doubt comes calling remind yourself that there’s only one person in the world who can tell your stories, in your unique way. And, no matter what your background, you have the right to write. We all do.