7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jon Steele

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Jon Steele, author of ANGEL CITY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Jon is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Moscoboy won.)


angel-city-jon-steele        jon-steele-author-writer

Jon Steele is the author of ANGEL CITY (Blue Rider Press,
June 2013), the second part of The Angelus Trilogy. Picking
up where THE WATCHERS (NAL, 2012) left off, the story follows
Jay Harper, Katherine Taylor, and Inspector Gobet as they try to
survive in a world under attack by the forces of darkness.
Connect with Jon on Twitter or at his website.

1. Know the last sentence before you write the first one. Everything I know about the writing craft, I learned from my twenty-four year career as a television news cameraman. I’d get dropped into some far flung corner of planet earth with a deadline looming over my head, and I’d look for two things straight away; a closing shot then an opening shot. Two shots that would frame and define the story I wanted to capture in the camera lens. Once I had those two shots, all I needed to do was fill in the middle bit. Of course filling in the “middle bit” in a manner that was true to the storytelling and worthy of the open and close was often a hard, and sometimes dangerous, slog. But it’s a method I used in my first book, WAR JUNKIE…a memoir about working as a frontline cameraman for British television. Weirdly, when I switched to fiction to write THE WATCHERS and ANGEL CITY, I used the same method; what’s my closing shot, what’s my opening shot? And it worked.

2. Don’t talk about it. Words put to page to tell a tale are precious things. No, forget that…they are magic things. Words on paper have the power to transpose thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, entire worlds from one human being to another. By any definition that’s BIG magic. But writing requires drawing from some internal source that is unique to each writer. Call it a soul, call it a spirit, call it inspiration. Point is, a writer must take care when drawing from the source of their magic because only The Great Editor in the Sky knows the depth of the well. Therefore, avoid the temptation to talk about what you’re writing as you’re writing it. And never let anyone (beyond your editor) read a story till it’s finished. Think alone, plot alone, write alone. Though going over what you worked on each day at the corner bar is OK, as long as you find a dark corner to hide in.

(How many agents should you contact at one time?)

3. Be prepared to be alone a lot…and while in public, be prepared to have strangers stare at you because you’re babbling to yourself. There has come a time during the writing of three books where my wife stands at the door of my writing room and says, “Do you realize you haven’t spoken to me in three days?” or “Do you realize you haven’t left the house in a week?” My answer is always the same, “No.” The aloneness is the hardest and most necessary part of writing. I won’t delve into the psychological reasons for such a thing in my case, it’s just is. And just now, getting ready to begin work on book three of The Angelus Trilogy, I’m overcome with a familiar dread. Soon, I will surrender to the aloneness so the characters may emerge from the depths of my imagination and come to life. Soon, their voices will begin to drown out the sounds of the real world. Soon, they’ll follow me through the streets, chasing after me, talking to me. And there’ll be moments on trains, or on a bus when I’ll start speaking their words aloud, listening to the rhythm of their voices. And sure enough, there will be a little old lady next to me ready to call the police. You don’t have to be a little crazy to write, but in my case it helps.

4. Speaking of characters, don’t let them escape their fate, even if they beg. I had a character in THE WATCHERS I adored, probably because he was drawn from the most vulnerable part of my own psyche. In many ways, the character was me, and I killed him. He begged me not to do it, but it’s the only way the story would work. I wept as I wrote the words. I more than wept; I curled up in a ball on the floor and shuddered with grief. Luckily, it was the end of the book. This goes back to knowing the last sentence before writing the first one. In my head, the characters are free to say what the want and do what they want within in the context of their personalities and environment. But in the end, none of them can escape their pre-ordained fate. It’s the very thing that makes characters seem alive, that they are so much like us. We are, each of us, buffeted by fate. Sometimes wonderful, sometimes cruel. For characters to be believable, they must be like us. They live, they love, they suffer, they die.

5. Carry a notebook, keep pen and paper by the bed. You know that horrible feeling when the Word program crashes again and you realize you opened your manuscript in a new window from the last bloody crash, BUT you forgot to set the auto-save to every two minutes, and you just lost seven thousand words? My personal best was losing sixteen thousand words. I stared at the screen for an hour before proceeding to throw lamps and books about the writing room in a blind rage. That’s what it’s like when you’re walking about town or dreaming, and a line of character dialogue comes to you and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll, remember it.’ No you f—ing won’t. A writer’s mind works 24/7 on a story in progress. When not at the keyboard, a writer’s mind is working in the background; synapses are rewiring, reconnecting. In the process, flashes of dialogue or narrative sometimes break through the firewall separating unconsciousness from consciousness. Nine times out of ten, those flashes are enough to write your way through a scene or chapter. Remember the part about writer’s drawing from the source within themselves? Well, flashes of dialogue or narrative of dialogue crashing through into your consciousness are like gifts from God. So when they are given unto you, my son, stop whatever you’re the hell you’re doing and write them down.

(Just starting out as a writer? See a collection of great writing advice for beginners.)

6. There’s no such thing as “a writing schedule,” there are only deadlines. Working twenty plus years as a news cameraman, I never missed a deadline. Getting there I’ve worked both flat out for seventy two hours with no sleep in Rwanda, and at a leisurely pace in Venice with plenty of time to boat over to Lido Island for a fine lunch of calamari and Verdicchio. I missed one deadline as a writer, but I was sick for eight months and didn’t have a choice. I had got to fifty thousand words in Angel City then wham…I was down for the count. (PTSD + two bouts of pneumonia = not pretty.) When I was back on my feet, I was working to a new deadline and wrote the last one hundred thousand words in six weeks because I so hated the thought I’d missed one deadline, I never wanted to do it again. Grahame Greene religiously wrote five hundred words a day. Ian Fleming wrote one book, each year, while on his annual vacation to Jamaica. Hemingway wrote each day to the point he knew where he was going, then stopped before completing the thread so he’d have a starting point the next day. There are a billion tips on writing in all those “How To Write Gooder” books, but I’d give them a miss. Fact is, writing is a private function regulated by individual physical, mental and emotional rhythms; so it’s important to know thyself. Study the habits of writers you admire, but you need to find your own way. Me? I work as much as I can using Papa’s method. Write, write, write till I can see the way ahead, then stop. I try to reach that point every day…but if I can’t, I shut down the computer and try again the next day. And I trust in myself that I’ll get it done.

7. Write for one person who isn’t you. To make a story work, you need write as if tell the story to one person. Your partner, your child, your shrink, the batty guy down the street who has no idea what you’re saying but seems to be having a swell time listening to you anyway. Imagine you’re telling your story to that one person. If you start out trying to write for a mass audience (because you yearn for the moment when the world will recognize your brilliance) you aren’t a writer, you’re a contestant on “America’s Got Talent.” Don’t obsess over ‘an audience’, comments on Goodreads or Amazon, Facebook likes. Because while such things are valuable tools to the world of publishing, they are distractions to the mind of a writer. A writer must concentrate on weaving magic with words…magic that takes the reader to another pace.

GIVEAWAY: Jon is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Moscoboy won.)


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11 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Jon Steele

  1. Debbie

    “Think alone, write alone, plot alone”…and only you, alone, will feel the depth of success and able to finally take a relaxed breath. Great advice.

  2. Vcg

    Great advice! Number 3 was definitely an eye opener.

    I disagree somewhat with #2: I have always been very protective about my writing and only shared it when I was sure that it was near-perfect or that I at least could take the criticism (mind you, I’m German – criticism is part of my culture and fragile creativity does need protecting). But I realised recently that this is what creates writer’s block for me.

    A story needs to test itself in the real world, even when it is not quite ready to stand on its own two feet. You have to put it out there, watch it struggle, watch it fall and pick itself up again, even if it hurts. If you are too protective over your story you will never be prepared to let it go. What is more, your story will never become ready to face the real world on its own.

  3. vrundell

    Thanks so much for your thoughts–it seems to me the most important part to take away is focus. Find the theme of the stroy and let that guide your path. For those of us without an editor or agent I find a supportive critique group to be the next best thing, and would advise all writers to find one.
    Best of luck on the trilogy!

    1. jackiegillam@frontier.com

      Dear Jon: I don’t thing of my self as an obsessed person but I am obsessed with my writing. Your 7 points all hit home. I almost hesitated to even read your article as you and your book are a departure from the middle grade I write. Now I want to read it…
      1.I need that last sentence or thought-it does carry me through. My characters are so real sometimes they have their own ideas but that end in my mind forces every one back on track.
      2. Honestly people want me to put Aunt Harriet in or have life’s lessons or… I tell them those are great ideas they can use in their book.
      3.My characters are so real I never feel alone, but in fact writing has a lot of lone time for me. I’ve discovered I like it. To your words I need to add: Be protective of your time. There are only so many lively hours in your day, or when your eyes are not blurred. Do not let your friend squander your time.
      4. Characters need a fate, a personality, a flavor–I like to hold on to that. Another flash idea can always create a new person maybe even in a new book but what I call character purity makes it all work better. Just as in real life, one person cannot be everything,nor can any of my created people.
      5.The mind does not have an on and off-even for those who meditate and thing they are off. And ideas, phrases, names etc come when they come. Be prepared and you will have far less if any writer’s block. If your characters are real to you then you need to keep them alive all day…
      6.I like to end a writing session with something mentally hanging for me. Then I am excited to pick back up.
      7.I recently wrote a book for one person and found it was a refreshing, invigorating and rewarding way to go. Good idea.
      Thank you for just doing what you’re doing and know you are alone with those who share your passion.
      Warm regards
      Jacqueline Gillam Fairchild

  4. LynnRodz

    Thank you, Jon, for such wonderful advice! Like bailish, “Know the last sentence before you write the first one.” is a favorite, but I especially love, tell your story to one person and that words are magic and…. Okay, okay, I love the whole article!!!

  5. moscoboy

    Thanks for ruining my night. It was 1 a.m. and I was doing my daily perusing of WD for a few golden nuggets. I was compelled to put away my glass of red and read your article and then write down your words of wisdom. I’ts 2:30 a.m. and I’m going to bed a smarter panster. Thank you very much for a great read.


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