It’s three years since my first novel, ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’, was published and my new book, ‘Tulip Taylor’ has been out six months. So what have I learned about writing in this time….
- Writing is not something you do alone
Well, it is. The rather well-worn seat of my chair in the study is evidence of that. But before you can even think about putting your work out into the world, you need feedback. You need to find your book people. I have been so fortunate in this respect, firstly with my cohort on my Creative Writing MA and secondly with the north west SCBWI group based in Manchester. Not everyone has a wonderful experience of being part of a critique group but when it works, it’s unbeatable. You get feedback on what works for other readers and what doesn’t. Sometimes you need to make an adjustment; sometimes you don’t. But you have a sounding board for your ideas and when your words on the page make other people happy or sad, you know you’re on the right path.
So, find your book people and when you do, don’t let them go…
- You might be able to craft a perfect sentence but can you plot?
I am a pantser by nature. In case that means nothing to you, I’m addicted to the magic of not knowing what’s going to happen in a story and just finding out as I go along. The problem with being a pantser is that until recently, I got a fair amount of feedback such as ‘Great start, shame about the second half.’ When more than a few people say it, you have to take it seriously (see point 1). So, I have learned my craft by going to plotting workshops. For me a SCBWI session with Alexandra Sokoloff was a turning point. Encouraging us to watch movies in a similar genre and see how they plotted the mid points and climax was incredibly helpful. I watched ‘Legally Blonde’ and suddenly my second half made a lot more sense…
- You can plot but can you write a perfect sentence?
A lot of writing advice is all about the plot. But you can read all the plotting books in the world and at the end of it, all you’ve achieved is an understanding of a well-constructed plot. But that doesn’t mean you can write. Or create the all important and ever illusive voice of your character. Nothing beats reading. More reading. And then a bit more reading after that.
- You can’t change your true writing nature…
This is something I’ve realised recently. I am a pantser. Nothing can change that. I have learned the importance of plot but I can’t plan without writing it first. This is a pain because it means it takes me a long time to get anywhere. I can have the roughest of rough outlines but until I’ve written that incredibly bad first draft, I don’t have themes, the heart of my character’s emotional journey and certainly not the voice. This might explain the three-year gap between my first and second book being published! But at least, now I know.
- Write what makes your heart sing
There’s a lot of talk about YA being a crowded or slow market at the moment (it is). So, is it a good professional move to move to the middle grade market where there seems to be more interest? Well, it certainly seems to make sense. Except that lots of other writers are doing the same thing, the market may well shift back again in a year or two and most importantly, do you want to write what you love or what you think will sell? Writing can be such a tough game, it seems strange to me to spend your time writing something which isn’t your first passion.
- What is success?
This is the hardest thing to get my head round. If you’d have told ten-year-old me, that I’d have two books published in three different countries, I’d have been ecstatic. Or I would have been if I could spell it. And I am very, very proud of my achievement. But I think ten-year-old me would be surprised to learn that I have three other paying jobs apart from writing and that not many of my writing friends make their living solely from selling books. In my head, I’m still not that successful because my job as a teacher is my main source of income. However, given point 5, I’ve learned to see this as a positive. As I’m not dependent on writing for my living, I can write what I love.
Aiming for publication is a very tough business. It’s a combination of talent, hard-work and luck and only one of those things is something I can influence. Having a novel on submission with agents was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had. Having novels on submission with publishers then took that to a different level. It’s all beyond my control (which I hate) and it’s all so incredibly personal. What I’ve learned in the last few years is this. I’m a lot happier if my ideas of success are things I can realistically achieve. So currently targets for success have been…
- aim to improve my craft,
- read more novels/watch films/shows in my genre (yay!)
- finish that project that’s been living in my head all these years,
- then re-work it so that it shines and lives up to what I’ve always wanted to create.
Currently I’m very successfully working on point 2. All of this makes me feel much happier and in control than having ‘Publish book 3 next year’. I’d like that to happen of course. But I think it’s much more likely to happen if I follow my success criteria first.
To conclude – I wish you happy writing, reading, TV watching, researching. Find your book people and write what makes your heart sing.
Anna read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ aged 7 and hasn’t stopped reading yet. She has had two contemporary teen books published, ‘Rebel with a Cupcake’ and ‘Tulip Taylor’.
Anna will be running our Sheffield Writing Weekend, with special guest Melvin Burgess.
More details below: