books 2

1. The Blank Screen Is Your Enemy!

The only way to write a novel is to, ahem, sit down and write it. Research is important, planning , sketches and notes all important, but in the end, you just have to sit down and get on with it.

2. Success Is In The Editing Not The Writing

Get it down. It’s easy to get bogged down in the first three chapters, wanting to make them perfect. So, just keep doing, get it all down – however messy and random your first draft is. Until you’ve got something to work with, you’re not in a position to make it perfect

3. Lack Of Confidence

Most – possibly all – first time writers think that writing comes easily to everyone else, it’s just they who are struggling. The truth is, whether it’s your first novel or your thirty-first novel, we all have good and bad days.

4. Stick To Your Idea

Often a good start, is followed by a soggy section in the middle where everything gets bogged down. Don’t lose heart, don’t think that it’s because your lead character doesn’t work or the story isn’t holding together, just keeping writing through the tough bits. Writing is hard work.

5. Write Every Day – Or 5 Minutes Is Better Than No Minutes…

It’s tempting to think it’s not worth sitting down if you don’t have at least two hours/a morning/a whole day/a weekend. Truth is, writing is like exercise. You must do a little every day, to keep your writing muscles flexed and ready to go, so writing becomes second nature and not something exceptional. The more used to writing you are, the more likely it is that you can concentrate on your story rather than your craft.

6. Every Writer Is Different

Find out what suits you – are you a nearly-bird or a late-at-night writer? Do you work best at the kitchen table or the local library? Do mind maps help you imagine your characters or storyboards? Then, when you know what works best for YOU -and of course most of us have to work around other commitments, so it can be hard to achieve this – try to stick to it. I write from about 4am in the morning until midday, give or take, simply because that’s when I’m at my best!

7. You Don’t Have To Write Chapters in order

It’s OK not to write in sequence. Say, you have a great battle scene, or a sex scene, or a showdown scene – any scene you are really looking forward to writing – if you suddenly feel like tackling it, even though it’s several chapters ahead in your actual novel, that’s fine. Enjoy yourself. Though don’t forget, when you are editing, to make sure the timeline still makes sense.

8. Failure Leads To Success

Remember the words of the late, great Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Never mind. Fail better.’

Put another way, it’s all the stuff that ends up in the rubbish bin, the cutting room floor, that makes the novel the book it is supposed to be. Failing is good, because it helps us all to develop our skills.

Kate Mosse
Eight things I wish I’d known before writing my first novel

these are traps

March 20, 2018

If you must write, you must do it in the face of all opposition… Do not spend too much more time on culture & reading, these are traps. When everything conspires to make the thing impossible, when you are tired, worried, with no time, or money, it is then that things get done.

Samuel Beckett
Letter to Claude Raimbourg, 3 May 1954

a questionable occupation

February 24, 2018


For many decades now I have been a fiction writer, and from the first I was aware that mine was a questionable occupation. In the 1930s an elderly neighbour in Chicago told me that he wrote fiction for the pulps. “The people on the block wonder why I don’t go to a job, and I’m seen puttering around, trimming the bushes or painting a fence instead of working in a factory. But I’m a writer. I sell to Argosy and Doc Savage,” he said with a certain gloom. “They wouldn’t call that a trade.” Probably he noticed that I was a bookish boy, likely to sympathize with him, and perhaps he was trying to warn me to avoid being unlike others. But it was too late for that.

From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, one of the most widely read authors of the early ’30s, taught that our tired old civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and to embrace mechanization and become engineers.

In refusing to be obsolete, you challenged and defied the evolutionist historians. I had great respect for Spengler in my youth, but even then I couldn’t accept his conclusions, and (with respect and admiration) I mentally told him to get lost.

Saul Bellow
Hidden Within Technology’s Kingdom, a Republic of Letters

an initial gift

February 17, 2018

wriiting 5

Anybody can write. You know, one of my daughters teaches writing at a community college. She teaches kids how to put sentences together, and then make the sentences hang together so that they can express themselves in writing as well as they do in speaking. Anybody with a normal IQ can manage that. But saying anybody can be a writer is kind of like saying anybody can compose a sonata. Oh, forget it! In any art, there is an initial gift that had to be there. I don’t know how big it has to be, but it’s got to be there.

Ursula K Le Guin
Interview with Choire Sicha 4th September 2015


If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes? The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your blintzes.

We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.

With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.

Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.

Ursula K Le Guin
On Writing

mysterious secrets

February 10, 2018

happy ending

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.

Ursula K Le Guin
On Writing

to restrict voice

February 6, 2018

This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment…

Ursula K Le Guin
When to bend, when to break
Los Angeles Times 5th January 2003

committed to writing a book

February 3, 2018

writing 3

Now, you see, here’s where I’m really different from almost all the professional writers I know: I never sell a proposal. I’ve never done it. I’ve forbidden my agents to do it. I write on spec and I turn in a finished manuscript. Once or twice, when Virginia Kidd was my agent, she made a three-book deal, and so she had me committed to writing a book I hadn’t written yet. I was absolutely miserable. I could barely forgive her. Somehow I managed to do it, but I just said, “Virginia, never sell anything again that I haven’t written or you haven’t seen.” She understood. People look at me with round eyes when I tell them that that’s how I work. They go, “How did you ever get going?” Then I have to confess: I wrote seriously for ten years before I sold anything.

Ursula K Le Guin
Interview with Choire Sicha 4th September 2015

genre writing

February 1, 2018

a murder 1

I was asked recently if I had any good writing advice I might share. I’m afraid I fell back on that old wheeze, “Write what you know,” because there’s truth in it, and also because I couldn’t think of anything better. This advice, while valid, gets tricky in the case of genre writing – if you grow up quietly in a small town in Iowa, as I did, and what you love to read is mystery novels…in particular tough-guy private eye novels…how exactly do you apply that advice, anyway? I had never worked my way to Europe on a tramp steamer, let alone walked down a mean street.

In my case, I tried shifting the big-city setting of New York or Los Angeles, common to most hardboiled stories back then, to my own small home town, Muscatine, which I called Port City. (Muscatine is on a bend of the Mississippi and is nicknamed Port City.) I also made a young comics collector the secondary lead of my first book, Bait Money (1973, available in Two for the Money from Hard Case Crime), and the bank I robbed in this heist novel was the one where my wife worked. I used Port City for the first Mallory novel, too – Mallory was a hometown boy who became a mystery writer – and the first in my Quarry series, as well. Quarry is a hitman, but he is based in part on a stressed-out Vietnam vet who was a friend of mine, also from Muscatine.

That was decades ago. I still use Muscatine in the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series, co-written with my wife Barb (under the joint byline “Barbara Allan”), though we now call it “Serenity.” We also use our own interest in antiques, and the family background of Brandy Borne, the main character, derives from Barb’s own family. The next one will be out in May – ANTIQUES CHOP – if you’re interested.

So I continue to find ways to “write what I know,” despite the mystery/crime genre I’ve chosen.

Max Allan Collins
Seduction of the Innocent: The Story Behind the Story

essential detail

January 30, 2018


When in doubt, cut

One of my mentors in grad school was famous for dispensing pretty much just one stock phrase in the margins of stories: could cut.

All told, this guy’s students probably learn as much from him as they do from anyone.

That’s because beginning writers tend to be verbose. We can’t tell the difference between an essential detail and an inessential one. We’re like golden retrievers romping through Storyland, and pretty much every damn thing we see is a squirrel.

But push this advice too far, and again, you’ll get stuck writing mediocre fiction. Because sometimes the things that don’t work are actually important. They don’t work not because they’re the wrong things, but because they’re the hard, ambitious, at-the-very-edge-of-what-you-even-know-how-to-say-things, and the only way to land them is to dig deeper, work harder, and sometimes even (god help you) add rather than cut.

Susan Defreitas
The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have)