Thursday, 27 January 2011

Starting to write: Why? What? How?

First seminar of From the Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells last night, and a full class.  It’s always a  nerve-wracking moment when you stand up in front of a new group, but it’s exciting, too, to think that the course might be one of the steps in a great writing career for someone there ...  As I told the class last night, I truly believe that while a measure of luck and a measure of talent obviously play a part in publishing success, a good part is also down to application and, importantly, to understanding exactly what you’re doing.

Before you even set your fingers to a keyboard, if you want to be published I think you need to ask yourself three questions.

First, WHY do you want to write? 

Do you have a book burning inside you?  Or do you want the independence of writing for a living?  The received wisdom is that you should never write for money, but that’s what I did and I (obviously) think it’s a perfectly valid reason for writing.  But if you are thinking about a career as a writer, are you prepared for the insecurity, and for how long it can take before you get any real income? 

Do you want to write a bestseller, or is it enough for you just to see your name in print?  And while having your book published may seem achievement enough to you right now, are you prepared to write another, and another, and another …?  It’s not just about being about to write one book.  It’s about being able to keep on writing, keep on making deadlines.  It may sound ungrateful, but it can seem relentless at times.

There are no right and wrong answers here.  It’s your dream, and dreams are private things.  But I think you should be clear in your own mind about what you want, because it’s going to involve a lot of hard work, and you need to know why you’re doing it!

The second question you should consider is: WHAT do you want to write?

I know it seems obvious, but it’s surprising how many people will tell me that they want to write a romance without knowing how many different kinds of romance there are out there.  Do you want to write chick lit or erotic historicals?  Medicals or romantic suspense? Regencies or paranormals?  If you want to write for Harlequin or Mills & Boon, you should be clear about the differences between the lines, and which one you’re targeting.  There are guidelines for the different series available on the Harlequin and Mills & Boon websites, which you should read carefully.  

And talking of reading, once you’ve decided exactly what kind of romance you want to write, it pays to read widely within that genre and understand what makes it distinctive.  And read new books!  It’s a common misconception that romances are all the same.  They’re not, and they change with the times.  Yes, it may be cheaper to buy them second hand at the market, but you’d be surprised how quickly stories date.  You need to know what kind of stories are being published now, not five years ago.   (And when you’re published, you’ll appreciate those lovely readers who actually buy your books!)

So identify your market, and be clear about exactly what you’re going to write. Until you know what you're trying to match, you won't know (a) how to fit into that category and (b) how to make your story different enough within those guidelines to catch an editor's eye.

This goes for other kinds of genre fiction too, by the way.  Are you writing a psychological thriller or a serial killer thriller? Is your crime novel going to feature a gritty cop or a cosy detective?  Is your fantasy set in Celtic Ireland or in outer space?

If you know what you’re doing, you’ll find it easier to get back on track when you lose your way – and chances are, you WILL lose it somewhere along the line!  The rest of us do, so why shouldn't you?

OK, so you’re raring to get going, but before you flex your fingers and sit at that keyboard, take some time to think about a third question: HOW are you going to write?

Many aspiring writers lose heart before they ever get to the end of a manuscript.  Writing isn’t easy, and setting out to write a book is a brave thing to do.  It’s often so hard I don’t blame people for giving up.  But whether you’re taking a deep breath and trying for the first time, or are determined to make it this time, it’s worth giving some thought to the practicalities of writing and how to keep focused.

Coincidentally, there is an article by Maria Connor in January’s Romance Writers Report on this very topic.  Maria has some useful advice about how to get your writing back on track.   I particularly liked her recommendation that you give yourself SMART goals, that are:

Time bound

Goals are the way to go, but there’s no point in aiming vaguely at ‘write bestseller’.  Be realistic about what you need to do to get there, and break your dream into smaller, more achievable steps.  Aim to write a chapter rather than the whole book, a rough draft rather than a final one.

Personally, I make my goals even smaller.  I write myself a timetable and give each day a target of a number of pages or words, depending on what I’m writing.  I’m generous with myself too, usually starting my timetable after I’ve written a few pages, so I get the psychological boost of being ahead of my target, and then staying ahead of it. 

Set yourself a time when you write, and agree with everyone who lives with you that short of emergencies, that is your time and you’re not interrupted.  I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me they’d love to write a book if only they had the time, and I always wonder how much time they spend watching television or on the internet.  Learn to say no (easier said than done, I know) Oh, and email and the internet are the biggest no-nos if you’re short of time.  The best advantage you can give yourself is to limit your time on both severely (and here, do as I say and not as I do!)

So, make a plan.  Find a time to write.  Give yourself a realistic timetable to reach short-term goals – maybe it’s just a page, every day, but the pages will mount up and you’ll realise you’re getting somewhere.  Don’t expect them to be perfect pages first time either.  Some writers polish as they go along, but I certainly don’t.  I knock out a rough draft that is just words off the top of my head – usually about 25-30 pages – and when it’s done I never look at it again but start on a proper draft.  This one tends to be pretty rough too, in all honesty, but for me it’s about putting words on paper and getting to know my characters.  I shape and revise later, and for me that’s much easier to do if I’ve got something to work with.  So don’t give up if what you’re writing isn’t any good at your first attempt.  Keep going and we’ll talk about revising later!

It’s also a good idea to give yourself a place as well as a time to write.  Again, it doesn’t matter where you write best – a café, the corner of a bedroom, a desk – but make it the place where you sit down and take yourself seriously as a writer.

Now you can start writing … Good luck! 


  1. What awesome advice for aspiring writers! Thanks so much.

  2. No wonder your courses are fully booked! And the best thing was that I had answers to all your questions which I was both surprised and pleased by. I look forward to the revising advice.

  3. Fantastic post Jessica! Thanks so much!

  4. I wish I'd thought of these questions when I started writing, but no, I just blundered into it like everything else. I just hope that my courses/blogs will save some writers from the mistakes I made!

    And Elissa, if you're ready to revise now, I can recommend Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon. I found it very useful when it came to revising my 'time slip' partial for submission, when I was back at the beginning of the learning curve!

  5. Your blog has inspired me to persevere--I am attemting an autobiography but have been hindered by a cancer/health problem and have lost heart. I feel the need to share my exciting life story, and in particular to let my children and grandchildren know what it felt like. I must get back to it.

  6. It's very hard to write when you're unwell. I think the important thing is to be realistic about what you are able to achieve every day (or week, or month) and to give yourself easy deadlines so that you feel a sense that you're making progress rather than losing heart as you've done. I'd suggest being gentle on yourself and not putting yourself under unnecessary pressure, but still sticking to some kind of timetable that enables you to measure your progress.

    If your 'name' is anything to go by, you've got a great story to tell, and I'll be really glad to think that I've inspired you. Good luck with it!