7 Lessons I Wish Someone Had Taught Me Before I Started Writing

lessons learntWhen I first started writing, I was worse than a kid in a toy store. I wanted it ALL…NOW. I was desperate to be ‘good’ at writing. I didn’t want to just ‘be’ a writer, I wanted to Stephen King that shit.

I was deluded. Not because of my dream, but because I was unconsciously incompetent!

I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Which frankly, at that point, was less than fuck all. So I set about rampaging my way through everything that had even the faintest whiff of ‘writing tips’ attached to it.

The problem was, I got overwhelmed, saturated with conflicting advice and utterly bewildered as to which direction to go in. I didn’t know what to learn or how to learn it.

I realised there was no avoiding the fact it really does just take time to develop your writing muscle. However… along the way, I also picked up some pretty nifty tricks that helped me speed up the process. Tricks I wish I’d known earlier.

So I swallowed down my bitter pride pill, accepted I didn’t know shit and set about sharpening my proverbial pencil.

These are the lessons I wish someone had told me before I started:

darts-155726_1280Lesson One: Focus

Writing is a black hole. It’s fucking endless. Even when you’re old and wrinkled on your death bed there will still be an ocean of shit you could have learnt. But knowing that isn’t helpful to anyones writing crusade.

The only way of sailing across that ocean is to focus.

If you try and learn everything in one go, you end up not learn a thing.

Instead, focus on one aspect at a time.

I wrote a list of everything I wanted to learn, like: characterisation, arcs, dialogue, plot, pace, outlining etc and that’s where my Monday posts come from. Each one is a lesson I’ve learnt.

Lesson Two: Specificity

Focus is great but it’s not enough, being specific is equally important. Don’t just say you want to learn about dialogue. Hone it down. For example, maybe you want to learn how to differentiate between characters or perhaps, understand the pace at which a young adult speaks.

Being specific means when you read books, you know what to look for. Your not wildly scanning pages hoping for word osmosis to give you shit hot authorly skills.

Being specific means you can easily identify the detail of whatever skill you want to develop. You can then deconstruct it and analyse/learn the technique the author uses.

Lesson Three: Objective feedback is a gift

I remember the first time I got real feedback. It hurt like a bitch and crushed me into a sobbing hysterical wreck. I nearly quit writing for good. But then I realised my terrible mistake. I’d given them a first draft to look at and everyone knows (although I didn’t back then) all first drafts are shit.

I mean, it didn’t really matter, because I was ignorant and assumed I’d be the one that could write something that wasn’t dog turd on a first draft. I was wrong. I didn’t just write dog turd, I wrote fly infested rat shit. I also NEVER showed anyone a first draft again!

After I finished crying like a wuss and licking my wounds I took the feedback out again. I read it. Read it again and read it some more after that. Then I listened. I edited, I changed and I tweaked. I got better.

I’m not saying all feedback is right, but if it comes from the right source, it is more than worth it. And that’s why I said ‘objective’. Friends, family and general ‘readers’ don’t know writing like writers do. It’s not that their feedback is any less valuable, but writers critique in ways non-writers just don’t.

That’s why I use two critiquing services:

I’ve mentioned  Esther, my Writers Bureau tutor many a time. Her short story and flash fiction competition is ending on the 31st of this month, check it out here.

But I just recently used Joan Dempsey’s service too. She has an awesome newsletter which I recommend signing up to here: Joan’s newsletter. It’s filled with helpful resources and revising techniques as well as providing updates as to when her service is open to new clients.

I can honestly say both their feedback has been off the freaking chart invaluable. If you want to get better, that’s a sure fire way to do it.

Lesson Four: Benchmark

I hate that I’ve sullied my blog by using the phrase ‘bench marking,’ because it’s the kind of mind numbing buzz word I dish out at work as often as I send emails.

Much to my horror, it fits. So stick with me.

Everyone tells you to ‘read’ your genre. But no one actually tells you what the bumblefuck that really means.

I’ve consumed a ridiculous amount of YA books. But I didn’t learn a thing. Not till I realised I should be benchmarking.

And by benchmark, I don’t mean compare yourself. No. No. That’s worse for your writing career than a pint of arsenic and a double hand amputation. At work, when we bench mark, what we actually do is look at specific ‘things’ other organisations do. We take a project, process or service they run and deconstruct to see why they are so good at it.

The same logic applies to books in your genre. Before you read, decide what you want to learn from them. I’ll use YA as an example. YA’s think differently than adults. They have less experience and more hormones, so one of the things I look for is how YA writers portray protagonists emotions and decision making processes.

Every time I spot an emotive section in a novel or a section where a YA character has either formed a conclusion or made a decision, I’ll highlight it, and then come back to it at the end to analyse what they have done. 

More often than not, I will then compare how a couple of authors have done it. The commonalities between them are the things I know I need to include. The differences are stylistic and therefore unique to that author.

Lesson Five: Benchmark Everything Else

Covers, prices, back of the book blurbs, book length, chapter length, popular themes in books blah, blah, blah. I make hoarders look tidy with the amount of shit I collect.

Collect it so you know your market. 80% of a writers job is marketing these days. What’s out there. What’s been over done? Where are the gaps in the market? and what’s popular?

Cover collection is one of my faves. There are key ‘styles’ in genre book covers, it’s how a fantasy reader can spot a new fantasy book on a bookshelf from half a library away.

If you collect them and examine their basic construct, you can decide whether you want to step in line or buck the trend and stick your finger up to conformity.

teddy-1361397_640Lesson Six: Make Writing Friends

No matter how supportive your friends and family are, there are just some things they don’t get. Like why a spike in stats or sign ups is awesome. Or what the pain of the 18th edit is like.

If you want to stay sane, you need writing friends. Besides, who else is going to read you 6th draft of the same paragraph with only one preposition change?

Lesson Seven: Time

Unless you’re privileged enough to write full time, no matter how many pissing charts and to do lists you write, everything takes much, MUCH, MUCH longer than you think.  End of story.


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123 comments

  1. TOTALLY AGREE with everything here, but TOTALLY AGREE MORE with item 7. I used to plan with the double-it approach, but I am learning that I need to double that doubled number… 🙂 Living is learning.

  2. Everything you say is so horribly true…I didn’t have a clue as to how dificult and confusing my life would be as a writer. No, that part is wrong, writing is the easy part. It’s what you do with it, and how you do it that’s dreadfully hard…

  3. ‘… Know less than fuck all’ Hmm, what’s that then? Fuck nothing? And the photo for the newsletter which looks like you’re about to vom up a tonne of ball-bearings; interesting branding. But between those extremes everything resonates. Esp the bit about showing someone the first first draft. What a mistake. They’ll never read anything of mine again without a sigh as deep as the Mariana Trench.

    1. If only I knew what trench u meant! Anyway – branding ha! It’s just a bit of fun, if you can’t poke fun at yourself you might as well give up!

      But yeah – fucked it with the first draft – what can I say, I was young and stupid. At least I’ve learnt!

      1. Deepest point on the planet, some 37000 feet below sea level or something mad. I can’t even say I was young, just thoughtless. Still as you say there’s fun in learning. And yes, there’s a lot to poke fun at!! Sorry couldn’t resist!

  4. If I were to be THAT GUY who adds another item to the list, I’d offer number 8: “You’re shit now, but that doesn’t mean you always will be”, in the hope I could knock the younger me down a peg or two without making pre-me give up altogether.

    But, thankfully, I’m not that guy, so I won’t.

  5. Sacha, you speak to my heart with that post. Time….. never ending….. When I started writing my first book I just started. I had a concept but the more I wrote the more inspired I was. Whatever I looked at inspired me for another chapter. At one point I had to stop and say: That was it! Everything else flows into the next book. Oh, and this darn marketing. You are so right! It feels good that not only I experienced all of these 7 points…. It is like having kids. The adventure simply takes over…. lol!

    1. Ahh thank you Erika, I know what you mean about inspiration I have about 14 books I want to write as it is! lol. Glad I’m not the only one to have experienced the lessons.

  6. I like the new face at the end – very fetching. What a great post, I’m saving this – I think all your hard work has paid off and you’re an awesome writer! I think good things are going to come from you!

  7. To be honest, even being a full-time author makes it hard to find time. Part of it is that you still have other responsibilities, which I’m saying while a 6-year-old jumps on the bed next to me talking about how one of his Thomas trains are sick. My opinions on this tend to be rather off because people around here still act like me being home to write means I’m also here for errands, chores, conversations, and will just write at night. Honestly, I think a lot of authors have to fight for a point in their lives where they are taken seriously enough that time is not a rarity.

    1. I am sure it is still hard. The more time you spend doing it, the more pressure there is to make money. IF you’re full time and have kids you have no hope. So I sympathise. I get barely any time it’s torture.

  8. I so agree and receiving good objective feedback from someone that is outside of your circle of friends but is extremely competent and has experienced in the literary world is very important.
    Shalom,
    Patricia

    1. Glad you agree Patricia, I actually think it’s one of THE most important ones. Otherwise we end up deluded and that doesn’t help anyone achieve their dream. Thank you for stopping in have a great week

  9. Great list, Sacha. You are way more organized than I am. I seem to learn everything by accident. Perhaps that’s one luxury of writing full time – I can have frequent accidents! I don’t collect information like you do, but I do most of your steps (in a disorganized way), particularly noticing what the pros do. And you are so right about feedback from people in the know – it’s vital. You inspire me 🙂

    1. Ha! I don’t know about that, maybe I just appear to be organised! I don’t feel it right now, I am so very very behind with my writing life.

      Thank you for such a beautiful, lovely comment. It’s made my day <3

  10. Thanks for the shout out, Sacha, and for sharing these important tips. I would add another one, which is to get over yourself (not ‘you’ Sacha, but ‘you’ everyone). Every writer I know is riddled with self-doubt, and the sooner you realize you’ve got the same doubts everyone else has, and your writing won’t be any good when you first start out, the sooner you’ll begin to learn to be a better writer. Feel the doubt, and move right on down the road. 🙂

    1. Haha, for a second there I was like wait, what?! Then I read on! :p

      SO true, I’ve been riddled with that pesky plague, but thankfully never tried to quit. Don’t think I will either. Much as I am still plagued by it, I am more determined to get my stories out there than ever.

  11. Yeah, I had to learn lesson one and two the hard way as well. For awhile there I was on my way to looking like one of those deranged nut types they show so often in the movies, huddled beneath a wall of tip clippings muttering to myself “it’s all connected…” over and over again.

      1. Not as well as I’d like Sacha, thank you for asking. But it’s my own fault. That pesky “Real Life keeps getting in the way” excuse. I think it’s time I stopped being my own obstacle.

        How’s yours?

  12. Dedicated, obsessed writers never stop learning. Between the ages of about 10 to 23 I was an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, westerns and historical fiction and then I signed up for my first creative writing class at the local community college soon after I started college on the GI Bill. That was in 1968 and I haven’t stopped learning how to write, and I never will. After I finished my first book length manuscript I started collecting rejections from traditional publisher and kept collecting them for more than 38 years and during those years I did everything I could to learn more about the craft of writing. I changed my major to journalism and picked up the BA in 1973. That didn’t seem to work because the rejections kept coming so I attended writing workshops out of UCLA writing extension program for seven years in the 1980s. The rejections kept coming so I thought I must be doing something wrong, and I decided maybe an MFA would do the trick. Ha, LOL, the rejections kept coming. What was I doing wrong? During those decades, I’d also subscribed to “Poets and Writers” and “Writers Digest” magazines and read them cover to cover every month. That didn’t seem to work either because the rejections kept coming. Then in 2008 I learned about e-books and self publishing and published my first historical fiction novel on my own, and the rejections stopped coming, and readers started to buy my first book and some of them wrote reviews on Amazon and other sites. Most of the readers that left Amazon reviews said they enjoyed the book. A few couldn’t stand what I wrote. Maybe I learned something about writing after all, but there is so much more to learn and none of us, I think, live forever so we’ll probably never learn it all. And I’m still an avid reader who doesn’t have as much time to read because I’m a writer too and writing and promoting your work eats time like a termite feasting on an old, abused house.

    1. I haven’t collected any rejections yet, but I will. I am editing my manuscript and want to send it out towards the end of the year. But my other manuscript I won’t even bother to, I will self publish and get on with it. I think you’re absolutely right though. There is SO SO SO much to learn, and as we grow and change so to does our writing and then we need to learn more! It’s a beautiful thing knowing we can’t learn everything – it means we don’t even try and can focus on enjoyment of writing and learning for the love of learning rather than to ‘complete’ our knowledge.

  13. Great advice – thanks!!!! I would also say, read all the writing tips, guidelines and store them for reference, but nothing is hard and fast, we should all have our unique writing personality, and not feel boxed in by all the rules and what everyone else has done. Of course that probably means we won’t sell one book, and that sucks. It is such a quandary (or is it a quagmire) to me.

    1. haha, I agree. I think it’s important to read advice and guidance, but as you say, be empowered not to listen to it. At the end of the day we are all unique writers that will each break different rules. The problem is, when you’re a new writer its easy to believe whatever any one else says is right, and it’s not always. I learnt that the hard way.

  14. I love how you get your points across – wisdom, insanity and entertaining. 🙂 Great post and thanks for the links. Oh, and I’m particularly with you on #3 and #6. 🙂 <3

    1. hehe, well I am kind of marmite, you either love me or hate me. The swearing isn’t for everyone, but hey, I can’t help myself… :p

      Aww, glad you agree, it’s people like you that make blogging such a wonderful experience. <3

  15. Haha! Yes it certainly does! And if I was doing half the things you do as per this post, I’d never write a damn thing ever again… I’m slow enough as it is lol! But I agree, reading LOTS of books, not just in your genre, is one of the best ways to learn, and lots of fun too. And having great honest writer friends is not just good for your writing, but your soul (and sanity) too.

  16. I have three people I religiously use as beta readers who are fellow writers, but I do like to get feedback from non-writers because they’ll read it as a reader, and ultimately that’s who’s hopefully going to be buying! It is important to get feedback but just remember you can’t make ALL the changes suggested because sometimes those giving feedback don’t agree 😉

    1. Yeah that’s true about needing actual readers as beta readers. I have actually just got some teens to read my story, but the feedback isnt always 100% useful. Thankfully what I got was, but I do think there’s a difference between reader feedback and writer feedback.

      But haha, you’re right there too. We shouldn’t make all the changes because as much as feedback is important it’s not always right.

        1. Ahhh. Well see, Geoff has a good philosophy on that. Always take feedback, but never suggestions for changes, because they are always wrong. The only person that knows your story is you. I kind of like that philosophy.

          1. I don’t know that they’re always wrong…depends who’s suggesting the changes and what the changes are! Luckily you do develop an instinct for these things 🙂

  17. Excellent post. I did the same thing – bounced from article to article, searching for magical writing advice. There’s so much sh*t out there. There’s no way you can implement all the “expert tips” on offer. Best thing to do is focus on writing.

  18. Great advice. It’s difficult to focus with all the amazing ideas that pop in our head on a daily basis. 😉 But, yes, writing friends and time…two things I don’t have. Those are crucial.

  19. “Writing is a black hole.” That is so true. I find just blogging takes up all my free time. I don’t know how some bloggers also find time to write books too. When do they sleep? Do they sleep? They deserve medals for the sacrifices they make to literature. 🙂

  20. This is all so true, Sacha – as I think everyone has commented. I remember thinking ‘piece of cake, this writing stuff,’ when I started, as I’d already been writing for other people for the past few years. HA HA! Writing stories is a different craft altogether, and I knew next to nothing about it. I remember sending Oak and Mist out to agents, I think it was maybe the third draft but still way way off what it needed to be, thinking I would be signed and it would all be sweet. How much I had to learn…. 😀

    1. LOL. I think if it weren’t for all the advice the bloggisphere has given me, I probably would have done the same. I look back at some of the earlier drafts I gave out, and cringe. WHY??? WHY DID I LET THEM GO?! I didn’t know how to write! ah well, I guess it’s all part of growing and learning to be a writer!

  21. I’m glad I stumbled across this post, because you are entirely right there are lots of “how to’s” and “do’s and don’t’s” about writing but I like that your’s is concise and in no way condescending, like so many others that I’ve found. Thanks for the advice 🙂

    1. There really are, its so overwhelming. I guess I try not to ‘how to’ my posts, despite the how-to-ish titles, I am still learning all I can do is share what I learn along the way. Thank you for such lovely words.

  22. Great post, Sacha. It’s true. The less we know, the more we think we know. The more we know, the less we know we know! There will never be enough time to learn all we wish to know, but we need to keep working at it.

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