On Writing Fiction

Fiction is a matter of technique, but it’s also a matter of mindset. If technique is what you want to explore, then feel free to drift around the advice here or on this blog. But let’s spend a moment with mindset. What is it to write fiction? How do you get your head in gear for this strangest of activities.

Some tips and advice in a moment, but first a word about me. I trained as an economist and worked as an investment banker in my 20s. I always knew I wanted to write, but wasn’t in any hurry. ‘Later’ was fine. Then my wife got ill. I gave up my job to look after her, and in the process started work on my first novel. That one sold, as did four further ones, then three non-fiction books, and now I’m back with fiction – writing crime for Orion in the UK and Bantam Dell (Random House) in the US. I’m not (yet!) a massive bestselling author, but I have had a decent career and do know what it is to write. So here are some tips.

1) Find space
You can’t write unless you have some peace in which to write. Different people are different, so there are no rules beyond that – it’s whatever works for you. I know people who get up at 4.00 in the morning to write. Others who can write with their kids clambering over them. Others who write in pencil while on the bus. Whatever. As long as you have your locked-away time, several hours every week minimum, then you’ll be OK.

2) Know that it’s hard
Writing is hard, so don’t worry if it feels that way – a lot. Hard is OK. Hard is part of the joy. (But, by the way, there should be joy too. If you aren’t, overall, having fun with your writing, then give up. Play golf. Buy a puppy.) Mere difficulty though – phooey! And use your feelings. The more you can identify what you’re finding hard, the more you know what you have to work on.

3) You work when you play
No, that’s not some Zen koan, it’s just that if you can identify a particular problem with sufficient accuracy – a plot issue, maybe, or something to do with your writing style – then you’ll find your brain works out the solution when you’re doing something else. Time away from the problem can be a key part of solving it.

4) Plan
A controversial one this, and not one that’ll work for every writer. But I do think that a lot of new writers who give up, frustrated, end up doing so because they started skiiing down a mountain without bothering to take a look at a map first. You don’t necessarily need much of a map, but most writers will need something. For example, a decent idea of who your character is. Plus a good idea of the overall shape of the plot. Plus an idea of the market for which you’re writing. Writers who start with those things in hand before they start are a lot less likely to find that the whole book collapses into a pudding somewhere after chapter three.

5) Feel free to get help
Again, a tad controversial – not least because The Writers’ Workshop makes its money by selling services to new writers. On the other hand, if you wanted to dance, you’d go to dance school. If you wanted to paint, you’d go to art school. If you wanted to be an architect, you’d better damn well learn something about construction before you start to build your next opera house. So why should writing be different? There’s this crazy idea that all you need to do is sit and write, and inspiration will swoop down on you like a dove. That does happen to some extent sometimes – but it happens a heck of a lot more if you’ve got a really sold basis in craft and technique. So get help. Go on a course. Get expert feedback on your work. Obviously we offer these services (and they’re really good) but it doesn’t matter too much where you get them, so long as (i) you are taught by a real writer with proper books published by big publishers, (ii) you get individual feedback, not just a set of pre-pack course notes, and (iii) whoever you’re working with is properly plugged in to the industry of agents and publishers. Nothing’s stupider than spending a year or two writing a beautiful (but maybe too quiet? maybe under-plotted?) novel about whatever, getting loads of praise from your tutor – then being utterly unable to sell it. Writing is about writing for readers – and that means for publishers.

And again – good luck.

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