Writing – Six Faults

I was looking at a blog today, and it sparked an idea.

The idea was, thinking of the worst advice ever given to aspiring authors. Where on earth would you start with a piece like that, I wondered. And then I started thinking …

So here goes.

My favourite bits of dreadful advice.

1. You should be a writer.

This is right up there. I can remember my mother giving me this piece of advice many years ago. However, she wasn’t to know back then (I was still at school) that I would soon have the unenviable record of destroying any business with which I formed even the loosest of relationships.

I started off working with Wordplex, in Greencoat House, Kingston-upon-Thames, and had a great time working with Dick Houghton and the others for five years. Then I went to Wang Labs and enjoyed (mostly) five years working in the west end.

But all in all, I had thirteen jobs in thirteen years. None survived. Some folded while I worked with them (quite a few, actually). Only one dispensed with my services, but they went the way of all my other employers, I’m glad to say. So, all in all, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that soon after I started writing, publishing discovered that electronic formats could be as damaging to books as they had been to music.

2. You should be a writer.


If someone tells you that you should be a writer, ignore them. Unless they happen to be an editor who is already opening a chequebook, their advice is ill-considered. Always.

I actually thought of this because of the famous quote from an anonymous agent: “most people have a novel inside them – and most should leave it there.”

Sadly, not everyone has a story to tell. It’s not just that writing is a skill that requires practice, it’s the simple fact that some people do not have time to sit back and plan, imagine and dream. It’s a creative thing, and if your entire life is spent working in business,  you are not giving your creative juices the spur they need. And occasionally, people write things down thinking that they are being fascinatingly imaginative, only to find that they – well, they aren’t.

I once knew a successful author  who had been a policeman. He told me that he spent all his working life reading books that were completely unrealistic, and thinking, “I could do better than that.”

So, one day, he sat himself down and started to write. He produced a really good, working book based on his own experiences.

It was rejected by every publisher.

In the end, it went into a bottom drawer, and later he had a good hard look at it, and immediately saw why it had been rejected. As a police procedural training manual, it was great.

As a work of page-turning fiction, it wasn’t!

3. Money.

“If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom He gives it,” Maurice Baring once said.

That puts me on the right side, apparently, being broke.

I’ve already blogged about money, but this is a heartfelt comment. If people write expecting to make themselves lots of money, they will fail.

The fact is, people who tend to make the most money as writers tend to be the ones who suddenly had a massive break. Da Vinci Code was written by an author who was an established mid-lister. 50 Shades was written on the internet without any concept of making the sort of money it subsequently earned. Ian Rankin spent years earning very little as he tried to establish himself as a crime writer, before fame and success suddenly struck.

All, after many years of hard work and graft, became “overnight” successes.

There are plenty of people who will say that you’re a fool if you don’t write for money (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Samuel Johnson), but equally, if you write exclusively to make millions, your stories won’t carry other people. Or so I believe.

I once had a friend give me a good word of advice. If I wanted to make money, he said, I should write stories based on Formula 1 racing or baseball. Those two sports were so popular in the US and Canada that I’d make a fortune.

Which was true, I suppose. And the same could be said for soccer in the UK – but it forgets one minor detail: I detest football and know nothing about motor racing or baseball. For me to write about them would be as enjoyable as volunteering to have needles stuck in my eyes. I am happier writing my books in the hope that there is a market for them, than trying to write about things that do nothing for me. If you write about things that excite you or make you witter enthusiastically, you are more likely to excite and enthuse readers.

I have to include one more quotation here: Molnar’s. He said he started writing in much the same way a woman turned to prostitution:

“First to please myself, then to please my friends, and finally for money.”

He had it in the right order. Money comes if you write well about things that interest you. Not because you want to make money.

4. Don’t make enemies

I know of so many guys and gals who set out on a career and then manage to upset all those who could have helped them. We all upset people on occasion. No one is a cheerful, happy companion at all times (although the Crime fraternity is better than most), and sometimes we get a little grumpy. All of us do.

However, there is no point criticising friend’s work; no need to be nit-picky; no justification for putting down another’s work without damn good reason.

Writers are in that happy position of not actually being in competition with each other. We tend to write books that some people enjoy. Our fans may be equally smitten with other writers we cannot stand.

I personally know of several writers whose work – well, I mentioned sticking needles in my eyes before, so let’s just assume I don’t like their work too much. Who? None of your business. The fact that I cannot stand their writing style, find their prose too verbose or too dry, that I cannot stand their narrative and think that their plots are more turgid than the Telegraph’s Royal Diary section, has nothing to do with you. You may well love their work.

And by writing about their work in that manner, I can only upset someone else who is only trying to write to make a living (probably). So I have no reason to do so.

Beethoven once said (don’t know to whom) “I rather liked your opera. One day I think I will set it to music.” From a great composer, that was unforgivable. He had no need of greater adulation, but wanted to offend and insult another’s hard work. Why? Perhaps he felt the other composer was a terrible threat to his own reputation? I think that kind of comment is based entirely on weakness of character.

So: I am a firm believer in not doing down anyone else’s work.

Others don’t agree with me. They think it’s more important that they talk down other authors’ work because they think there is some finite amount of money out there for all the books in the world, and they want the largest slice.

I think they’re silly.

5. I cannot emphasise this enough: Read the Rules!

This is based on my experience as coordinator and judge of the Debut Dagger competition for the CWA.

I spent ages reading 3,000 word beginnings to novels, and 300 word synopses, and the thing that staggered me was not only the inability of many people to proof-check or edit their work, it was the inability to read the rules.

If you enter a competition and the rules state typed manuscripts only, sending in handwritten copy will not help you win. If you are told to type double-line-spaced, and you send in a copy written single-spaced, you will likely not pass “go”. If it says you can send in no more than 3,000 words, and you send in 6,000, the reader will not give you marks for effort.

Similarly, if you are looking to send in a manuscript to an agent or editor, first ask them what they are looking for, if you cannot see it on their website. When in doubt, check.

They will usually help you by telling you that they need their books sent in either electronically, or that they want double-spaced text, with at least one inch margins, and under no circumstances should it be bound. The number of aspiring authors who think that presenting a bound novel, with full-colour artwork on the cover and acetate jackets is astonishing. Editors are too busy for all those fripperies. Many have told me that the first hint for a rejection is a book that’s bound. They want loose-leaf because it’s easier to work with on their desks and won’t thank you for making them get a knife to cut the pages free.

And that last point about rejection is important. If you are presented, as I have been, with over a thousand novel concepts to look through, you very soon realise that the key to success is learning quickly how to reject.

Editors aren’t looking for the next Harry Potter concept when they read your book. They’re looking for any niggles for which they can reject them. If you have bad spelling, if you repeat the same word in succeeding sentences or paragraphs, if you write in clichés, if you have a problem with grammar – they will reject you.

Why, are they fools?

No, but editors have to work with an ever-diminishing pot of money. They have limited resources to spend on new authors. They must read and pick the gleams of gold from the piles of rough spoil they have uncovered. All editors tend to receive at least ten unsolicited manuscripts every day. Ten. And they do have daytime jobs to attend to, with meetings, and all the tedious project forecasts and budget controls.

A good editor is worth her (I’ve never met a good “he” editor) weight in gold.

She will nurture talent wherever she finds it. She will cut out pointless description and replace ill-considered words with stronger ones. She will present your novel to her commissioning committee with flair and style – she is tying her career to your ability, don’t forget. She will help you to build your sales and your career and your reputation.

But, and it’s a big “but”, she won’t bother if you don’t take her advice.

6. A Bonus Feature Thought: Get on with it!

OK. You want to be a writer, do you? You want the flattery and kudos and cash that comes from being published? So how do you go about it?

Many people go to courses at university. There they learn lots. All about sentence construction, how to dissect literary styles, how to write about different people and scenes … lots.

Others go to creative writing courses in their spare time. They study, write, read aloud to friends and colleagues. They learn lots.

Many, many more stay at home. They regularly get out sheets of paper and stare at them. They pull out typewriters or laptops and fiddle with the keys for ages before putting them away again, consoling themselves with the thought that even Shakespeare had his bad days, and put on Eastenders.

If you fall into that last category, you will not be a writer.

If you fall into the two topmost categories, you may become a writer – but it’s more likely that you’ll end up as an editor or publisher.

The thing is, if you want to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write. Every day. Regularly.

Writing, if you want to do it properly, is a serious undertaking. You are documenting lives and situations that will shock, entrance, horrify or engage in some other way. You are wanting to put down on paper in a manner that will stab a reader’s brain through his or her eyes. You are demanding a lot, because of your writing. You are demanding someone’s undivided attention for six or seven hours. If you want to do that, you need to remember at all times that your readers deserve your respect as much as you deserve theirs.

You need to plan your work, yes. You should have a basic understanding of other books and how they were composed and set down, yes. But the main thing is, you need to write. You have to hone your art. It took Ian Rankin about fifteen years to become recognised. It’s taken me a damn sight longer (but I live in hope). However, going to university or attending creative writing classes, while no doubt useful to many (CJ Sansom and Robyn Young attended the same creative writing evening classes in Brighton), are merely a way of putting off the evil day when you have to put your efforts in front of an editor somewhere. And if you want to be an author, that is what you are trying to achieve.

So: sit down – now – pick up that pen, and start writing.

5 Responses to “Writing – Six Faults”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Far to many new writers these days simply fail to realise that like any other worthy occupation/vocation, you have to serve a form of apprenticeship. We all make classical blunders in our writing. Well said that man. ;)


  2. I think I would add that reading – anything and everything – is vital, even genres that you say you don’t like. Not only do you get to read (hopefully) great stories and meet great characters, you also learn about plots and storylines; how to put it all together; how to “show” rather than tell. Thanks for the post – made me think.


  3. Old Trooper says:

    “Witterer” — Under #3 you said something to the effect that you wouldn’t write on certain subjects because you didn’t know much about them. I can appreciate that, however, look at the folks that have done just that and without research. ;-)


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