Can practice and experience improve an author’s craft?As I write this I am about a quarter of the way through the first draft of my latest book. It is the eighth I’ve written and the third in The Tarnished Crown quartet. If numbers add up to anything you might expect the process to become easier with time, but does it? In my case the answer is yes. And no. I’ll deal with the yes first.
Since embarking on my first novel, Mortal Fire, in 2009, I’ve encountered many slings and arrows along the way; but I’ve also seen positive changes in the way I approch my writing. As an aide–mémoire for those moments of doubt, I’ve come up with an (admittedly) incomplete list of the benefits garnered from years of writing:
- Understanding how novels work in my genres of historical fiction and romantic mystery-suspense takes much of the gueswork out of plot and structure. This has come with experience and being open to learning and refining aspects of the craft.
- I’ve developed my own written language style. I didn’t know what it was before I began my first novel, but I do now. That’s a plus. Writing increases confidence in your own unique voice – the one that identifies your work as, well, yours.
- I know what to expect of my writing journey. Since producing my first book in the euphoria of ignorance, I now realise that size really does matter. A 350,000 word book is not going to appeal to a publisher no matter how well it is written. My books are still long, but they are now within the range of what is acceptable for historical novels.
- I have an idea of how long it will take me to produce the next volume. I reckon on the first draft taking a year – give or take a few months for moving house, Christmas and other such eventualities.
- I’ve worked out what daily routine works best for me and plan my schedules accordingly. Emails get answered in the morning, then it’s gardening, cooking, or household maintenance (DIY, restoration, cleaning) all before early-afternoon. From then onwards I write until at least 7pm and woe betide any interruptions or interruptors.
- Over the last decade I’ve concluded that editing is preferable to writing the first draft. I like to have the backbone of the story done before fleshing it out and adding the details that provide richness and depth. The first draft can be a bit of a white-knuckle ride, an adrenaline rush before relaxing into the second draft.
- The subsequent books in a series tend to be easier to write because the fictional world and its inhabitants have been established already.
- It has been a real eye-opener working with publishers and seeing the world from their perspective. They are the ones producing and selling your books, so it helps the relationship if you have an insider’s view on what sells, how books are marketed and how you can help the process.
- Marketing and self-promotion – ah, yes, two things writers are urged to embrace with all the enthusiasm of a convert. I have yet to conquer social media and I confess I’d rather be writing than Tweeting, but I am working on improving my understanding of such things. I have already learned a tremendous amount, made many good friends, and sold books to readers across the globe who enjoy my work. That can’t be bad.
So much for experience helping with aspects of writing a new book and all that goes with it, but what continues to be tricky?
The actual slog of writing is much the same whether it is your first, tenth or last book. It requires mental effort, discipline and, not to put too fine a point on it, bum-glue. Yes, without dedicated time at your desktop or with your quill, that book will not get written. Accept it and buy a decent chair that supports your back.
The snakes and ladders of writing are just the same whichever book you write. You start off on an anticipatory sprint, slow down to a jog, before mooching about in the mire in the middle. Pulling yourself out is tough, but once over that hump and peering at the finishing line, you’re almost there. N.B. Write that down and remember it for the next book you write. There will always be ups and downs – plough on.
For many writers, including me, self-doubt is the elephant in the room. Learning to open the door and invite it to step outside is the one thing you can do for yourself. Recognise the doubts, analyse them for what they are, and then give them the boot.
Looking back, I’m struck not by how much easier writing each book has become – and it has – but the confidence that has grown out of tackling each new project. In a note to myself, I must remember that and, before embarking on the next novel with all those snakes and elephants, repeat the words made famous by Chief Dan George in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales:
When in doubt I must ‘endeavour to persevere’.