Why We Sometimes Need to Go Back to Basics

I’m a professional author. I’ve written six novels, am currently writing my seventh, and have also published four works of non-fiction. All these books have been written for, and published by, big publishers – the likes of HarperCollins, Random House, the Hachette group and Bloomsbury. So I know what I’m doing. I’m a pro.

But jump back ten years. I’d just sold my first book, a novel, to HarperCollins after a multi-publisher auction that pushed the price up to a more than satisfactory level. Book one was done and dusted. Now I just had to write number two. Same again, right?

Oh baby, no. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That second novel of mine was a torture to write and a mess on completion. I handed it to my publisher who told me (in very delightful terms) that the manuscript was garbage. And they were right. It was.

So I deleted that novel. Literally. Started afresh with a blank screen. Made a decent fist of it, and my writing career resumed as though I’d never had a car crash. And yet, I had – and I learned profoundly from the experience.

The simple truth is that, almost always, the first novel arises from inspiration, the second novel arises because you’ve signed a contract that requires you to write the damn thing. And at that point, under a contractual compulsion to produce Great Art or (in my case) a Damn Good Story, you discover that you don’t actually know what you’re doing.

I mean that pretty literally. Unless your resume happens to include some kind of creative writing study – whether an MFA program or a simple online writing course – you will never have been given a systematic exposure to the fundamentals of writing. I’d never been on any kind of creative writing course, not even a workshop, and had no idea about how the basics actually work. What makes a plot tick? How do you create lifelike characters? What is the difference between a third person limited narrator and a third person omniscient one, and why the heck does it matter?

Those are things I didn’t know and came to find out the hard way. My own creative writing course involved writing – and scrapping – an entire novel, reading lots of textbooks and figuring a lot of stuff out for myself. It worked OK. The next iteration of that disastrous second novel did fine, and the ones after it did even better. But it wasn’t the right way to do things.

These days, I advise any new writer to take a writing course of some description before they get too far into their project. I tend to advise against the life- and finance-gobbling MFA programs. They’re OK if you reckon you’d enjoy the experience, but they’re needlessly time-consuming if you want to do things more swiftly. An online course – if it’s well-taught and well-led – can easily give you what you need to get started or to develop your existing skills.

Indeed, part of what I’ve learned about writing is that the topics themselves never change, it’s just that your understanding of them deepens. That fact argues for a more modular approach. At an early stage in your writing career, take a beginners writing course so you can get to know the landscape. As you acquire experience, do something a little more intensive e. Or once you’ve actually completed a novel and need help banging it into shape, go on a self-editing course.

With hindsight, my career would have gone much more simply if I’d adopted my own advice ten years ago. What’s more, because I’ve been involved in writing tuition for a long time now, I recognize that my own creative skills are better developed than they would otherwise be. It’s not that I never hit problems, it’s that I know what to do with them when I do. And as for that second novel experience – the Ctrl-A, Delete one – that will, I hope and pray, never recur.