Things I wish I’d known as a new writer


A few things you won’t learn on that creative writing course

Of all the emails I receive each week, a small but growing number are from new writers – often young, and sometimes a bit bewildered, seeking advice on writing. They don’t know where to find ideas, or they don’t know how to start, or they’re scared that the rapid pace of change in our world will obsolete the book before they can write theirs.

While I try to reply to each of these messages, I thought it was time to write down some of the things I’ve learned over the years. I hope this helps.

Your ideas aren’t original, and that doesn’t matter

Best get this one out of the way at the start: all the ideas have been done. There is no such thing as an original idea, and in an era of more being written and published than ever before, this fact is becoming more and more obvious.

The good news is that this doesn’t matter. An idea may not be completely original, but what makes it worthwhile is your unique voice and perspective. So don’t be discouraged if you find out there’s already a book out there with a plot that sounds a bit like yours, or another outdoor writer has just published a feature on an area you want to visit. Unless you’re actually plagiarising – which is of course bad – then go ahead and write it. Even if you decide not to publish, the experience will still be worthwhile.

Inspiration is overrated, but still important

Inspiration kick-starts a project and gets you fired up about possibilities. It’s the magic fuel for creating characters and making plot breakthroughs, but it’s a finite resource. It won’t get you all the way through the manuscript.

Habit, tenacity, a sense of duty, and sheer bloody-mindedness will get you through the manuscript – plus, most importantly of all, the ability to focus.

Attention is your most precious resource

Here’s a harsh truth: the internet is compromising both your attention span and your ability to concentrate. Trying to work deeply while distracted by your phone or web browser is exhausting, and likely to end in frustration.

While attention is important for all writing, the bigger the project the more important it is to be able to focus intensely for long, uninterrupted periods.

When working on a major project, I recommend severely restricting your access to the internet. Do your research online and then disconnect for a while. Be strict about cutting yourself off while actually writing. Not all of us can write in monastic seclusion, but at the very least take steps to cut back on web-based distraction – switch off your phone, make use of blocking apps such as SelfControl, and unplug your Wi-Fi router if necessary.

Of course, not all distractions are digital, and we can’t always cut them all out. If you have small children (or just don’t get multi-hour periods of time when you can concentrate) you may have to get used to piecemeal, shallow working. But if you can make time for deep work the results will repay you.

For more information on this subject, I recommend reading the books The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and Deep Work by Cal Newport.

You have to be an avid reader

In my experience, people who say they want to write but who never read anything tend to be in it because they like the idea of writing.

People who read a lot tend to be overflowing with new ideas, and their writing is better from the start.

I recommend reading actively. Highlight passages, take and file notes, and write down quotations.

If you want to write novels, read everything that interests you, but focus on other novels. If you want to write outdoor features, read everything… but focus on outdoor magazines.

Life experience is more important than going on a writing course

When I was 16, I told my careers adviser I wanted to be a writer, and he told me to go and do a degree in creative writing. I thought he was wrong. I ended up studying computing science, working behind a bar in Glen Coe, becoming a climber, travelling a lot, doing a stint as a smartphone salesman, then retraining as a professional editor.

I think I’m a much better writer today, 16 years later, for having taken that path.

Technique is important, but life experience is more important. Go and do stuff worth writing about before learning the mechanics of writing.

Making money from writing is hard

Ignore stories about writers coming from nowhere and making their millions. The vast majority of writers aren’t able to make a living purely from writing – they rely on supplementary forms of income. There’s a lot to be said for keeping the day job.

The good news is that this is also a time of opportunities. New ways of bringing your work to market are emerging, and it has never been easier to find your audience, no matter how niche.

Editors will ignore your pitches

Editors get bombarded by pitches both good and bad. If yours has been ignored, it isn’t necessarily a bad idea – it might just not be quite right for that publication, or perhaps the timing is off. Maybe the editor isn’t commissioning new pieces at the moment because they have a big backlog of stuff to publish.

Alternatively, maybe your pitch is too much about you and what you want. If you can grab the editor’s attention and show them what you can do for them and their publication, you’re off to a good start. But even then, I guarantee that you will get ignored from time to time.

Personal contacts are important

Once you get to know a few editors and other writers, more opportunities will be available to you. Networking is vitally important. Social media can be useful for this but there’s no substitute for personal introductions and face-to-face networking.

Nobody will be impressed that you have written a book

Writing a book is incredibly hard, and can take months or years of sustained work, so you might be disappointed to find that few care outside your immediate circle of family and friends. Dozens if not hundreds of books are published every day. You will have to work hard to convince potential readers to devote their precious time to your creation.

It’s ok to self publish

When I started out 20 years ago, indie publishing as we know it today didn’t exist. E-books were in their infancy because adequate hardware hadn’t been invented yet. In those days, self publishing was rarely a feasible option, because the economics of publishing only worked at scale – there was no such thing as print-on-demand either. For those reasons and more, self publishing was looked down upon in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

This stigma lasted well into the 2010s, but today self publishing a book need not be considered inferior to traditional publishing. Both have benefits and challenges, and in fact the line between them is increasingly blurred.

So don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be a real writer without a publishing contract. It isn’t the best option for everyone but it is a valid option.

If you self publish, professional help is important

It’s a common misconception that self publishing means doing everything yourself. If you try, you’ll almost certainly do a bad job. Few people have the necessary combination of skills – and nobody has the objectivity to edit their own work.

At the very least, you need to hire a professional editor and cover designer. Some authors will also choose to hire marketing consultants, formatters and social media managers; while these are less essential, they can save you a lot of time and stress.

Print is not dead

It might feel like everything in the world is being replaced by smartphones and tablets, but people are still reading paper books and magazines. Don’t assume that e-books are the way forward and that you can safely disregard paper.

One of my clients, John D. Burns, sees far more sales in paperback than on Kindle – and this is by no means unusual even today.

It will be years before you’re any good

The truth is that your first couple of novels, first handful of short stories or essays probably won’t be very good.

Nowadays there’s a prevailing culture of ‘publish and be damned’ – it’s expected of writers to self publish their first manuscript as soon as it’s done, because YOLO. But not many writers are capable of producing quality work without an apprenticeship. Years of constant writing, deep reading and critical feedback are needed to build that foundation, backed up by relevant life experience.

Getting quality private feedback is vital. Network with other writers and experienced, objective readers. Critique and beta read each other’s work, helping other writers develop as they help you – and learn from what your peers tell you, even if it’s more critical than you might want.

There’s a lot of mediocre work out there, so why add to it? Build your experience and wait until you can contribute something of genuine value before publishing it.

Ideas that matter will stick around

In 2002, I started working on my third attempt at a novel. The idea was worthwhile but my implementation poor due to my lack of experience. I shelved the manuscript.

In 2016, after 14 years, I recycled the setting, central theme, and a couple of characters in my short story Cold Witness, published in the sci-fi anthology No Way Home. I was glad that I’d waited until I had the skill to do the idea justice.

Good ideas are evergreen. If you aren’t happy with your efforts the first time around, you shouldn’t be afraid to revisit them a few years later.

Know the rules before you break them

You know what I’m talking about:

  • Write what you know;
  • Use adjectives sparingly;
  • Avoid the passive voice;
  • Don’t use clichés;
  • Etc.

Following those guidelines may be a good idea some or even most of the time, but you should never feel constrained by ‘rules’ once you understand them.

It’s worth it

There is no feeling like holding the first ever copy of your first novel in your hands, or reading your first major feature in a national magazine. The pay might not be that great, and the road to where you are today might be paved with blood, sweat and tears, but it is worth it.