7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Simon Morden

 

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Simon Morden, author of EQUATIONS OF LIFE) 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.

Simon is excited to give away a free copy of his latest novel to a random commenter. Comment within one week; 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: Nancy won.)

 

Dr. Simon Morden is a bona fide rocket scientist,
having degrees in geology and planetary geophysics.
He’s a writer of multiple booksmost recently the
mass market Samuil Petrovitch series, with the first
in the trilogy, Equations of Life (March 2011; Orbit)
called “engrossing … with a fresh and engaging
character” by Publishers Weekly. His books combine the
categories of action and sci-fi. See his website here.

 


1. Write what you love.
I know the usual adage for fiction writers is “Write what you know,” but writing what you know will only carry you so far. If you’ve lived an incredibly adventurous life, experienced amazing things and lived to tell the talethat may be enough to sustain your career. For the rest of us, we have to start making stuff up at some point: sooner rather than later if, like me, you write speculative fiction. So write what you lovewrite what engages and excites you. Write what you’d like to read yourself. Life’s too short to do anything else.

2. Nothing is ever wasted. That pile of manuscripts you’ve got turning into coal in the bottom drawer of your desk? You didn’t waste your time writing those unpublished and possibly unpublishable stories anymore than an athlete wasted their time getting up at six to go training, or a cabinet maker did when they practiced making mortice joints that never saw the inside of a chest of drawers. It’s your apprenticeship. The lessons you learned then are the lessons you’re applying now. Don’t be worried about mining those old manuscripts for goodies, either: a plot, a character, even a phrase you like. You created it, so why not use it?

3. Do your research. If I had a penny every time I’ve heard, “I’m writing fantasy so I don’t have to do research,” I’d have a seriously big pile of pennies. Every story, whether it’s set now in your neighborhood, five hundred years ago in Renaissance Venice or five hundred years in the future on a city-ship between starsneeds a solid setting, a believable plot and characters who act in character. You can only get these from having put in the hours over the books, or increasingly, the internet. Writing a police procedural? Call up the local cop-shop, tell them you’re an author, and go and talk to them. As for fantasy not needing research? Have you seen Tolkien’s notes? The first draft of Lord of the Rings was eight foot high…

4. Read. You need to have spent a lot of your time reading. It doesn’t really matter what; what counts is that you’ve figured out how a good story works, and how a bad story loses its way; how an interesting character is drawn, how dialogue should be written, how different points of view change the narrative; and most important of all, what sort of story you want to write. And the best thing of all? It’s never too late to catch up! Always have a book with youor an audio book in your car or on your iPod.

5. You never know it all.
Well, you might if you’re Ray Bradbury, but most of us aren’t. Which means there’s always the opportunity to get better. Writing is a craft, so doing yet more reading, writing, editing, and listening to other writers talk about their methods and techniques will feed into your own style, making you better. There are plenty of how-to books around as well, but if you don’t see a name you recognize, ask around for recommendations. Don’t be proud about this learning thing
humility becomes a writer.

6. Be good. At some point, things might start to get seriousyou get work accepted by publishersand you end up with obligations. You’ll have deadlines and other contractual duties. It’s really important you know what you’re agreeing to. It’s just as important to know you can deliver. Getting a reputation for being difficult, devious or downright unreliable is bad. Far better is being known as someone who can take editing with good grace, hands manuscripts in on time and is pleasant to work with. Obviously, there’ll be times when it all goes horribly wrong, in which case it’s far better for you to be open and honest from the start of your problems, as opposed to when you’ve got your editor shouting down the phone at you.

7. Remember writing is not the most important thing in your life. You might be the talent, focused and driven to succeed. But you’re also a spouse, a partner, a son or daughter, a father or mother, a work colleague and a friend. My kids don’t really care that I’ve got another chapter to write: they care about whether I can take them to athletics or help them with their homework. Don’t neglect your relationships; they’re all we’ve really got when the lights go out.
 

 

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21 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Simon Morden

  1. Susie Richards

    Thanks for the accumulated wisdom and advice. This was just the prescription that I needed to get me to dust off my bruised pride, get back on the horse, and start galloping on the write path.

  2. Nancy Poehlmann

    Number 2 hit me between the eyes. I’ve so many drafts in drawers, and often lament that they will go nowhere, that I wasted my time on them. Thank you for the new perspective on all the work, and love, that went into those drafts.

  3. Pamela Mooman

    You make great points. I’ve learned them the hard way. I’ve always written my entire life and considered it just part of my soul. I started writing professionally as a journalist, and making the switch to fiction writer and poet has been the journey of a lifetime. Thanks for the tips, and keep writing!

  4. Deanne Kearns

    I’d add the research to #2; research is never wasted. I have hundreds of bookmarks on my netbook dedicated to research. Some of the things I’ve come across in researching one topic led to a completely new story idea. I love learning new things and turning them like puzzle pieces until they fit into the story. Not every piece of research is going to appear in my stories, and that’s okay. Learning, for me, is the joy of the research, and working to make my stories more interesting by providing a bit of authenticity through it.

  5. Val Lies

    If only I’d known about number 4 when I was a kid and dodging chores to hide out with whatever book I was reading!!! I could have EXPLAINED it all to Mom, and surely she’d have granted dispensation for me to READ all I wanted to prepare myself for a career as a writer.

    Not.

    I’ve always written stories that I wanted to read. The types of stories that I love. Of course, this means that I can get pretty impatient with the reality of the time it takes to write the darned thing. I hate waiting.

  6. Laurie Outlaw

    i too thought the "nothing is ever wasted" tip was a particularly good one. I have put situations or characters into a story that I absolutely loved but that just did not work in that particular piece. The idea that these things can just rest quietly in my files until the right story for them shows up on the page is comforting. I think these articles are absolute GOLD for aspiring writers…so glad Neil Gaiman mentioned it in his blog.

  7. Dianna Zaragoza

    Fantastic, very down-to-earth advice here. Personally, number one and number seven were particularly relevant to me.

    I’ve tried writing to order, and writing to the market, and the only thing that brings out the sparkle in the work is when I’m writing what I love and what I feel strongly about.

    It’s also so tempting to ignore everyone and everything around me in order to get my day’s quota done, but my kids are growing up so fast…I have to constantly remind myself that my writing enriches my life, and my life enriches my writing. They feed off each other, so I need both.

  8. Lisa Lane

    This is without a doubt the best "7 Things I’ve Learned So Far" I’ve read. A lot of writers have good advice, but most of the time they offer the same good advice as everyone else (i.e. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, join a feedback group, listen to your editor, etc.). I agree with every point here, and I think each one here is important. Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. Steve Skojec

    All good tips. Point 7 is tough for me on both sides of the issue. I tend to keep trying to focus on my creative work (while my kids are bugging me to play Connect 4 or watch a movie) but on the flip side, this leads me to spend all spare time with family and have almost nothing left for my work.

    At the end of my life, I think I’d regret neglecting either. Finding balance is the hard part.

  10. Gary Scott Thompson

    Thanks for number seven. I often forget that and beat myself up if I don’t write four hours every day, or even 30 minutes. I have a full time job, two little boys, a wife, and other things that make up life. A big obstacle for many writers is finding the time and/or motivation to write, but your point made me realize that it’s also important for some of us to remember there is more than just writing. And how can we write about people if we isolate ourselves from them?

  11. Crystal

    These are all great tips. I’m just starting out with this whole writing thing and I feel like I have a lot to learn. I really like the information you’ve given, and really liked how you said to READ a lot. That’s exactly what I’m doing now, trying to soak up all the knowledge I can and also allow myself to be inspired by other books.
    Thank you! And I hope I win!

  12. Chris Pepin

    Your blog post is a very unusual (and rare) combination of humour, useful advice, and a realistic hope for the future (if you want to be a writer). Point number 2 also applies to students who complete assignments and wonder what the payoff of all that effort will be.

  13. Christine Venzon

    The best bit of writing advice I’ve read in a long time. The emphasis on taking the time to learn your craft and balance your life especially resonates.

  14. karen lee hallam

    you got me choked up with that last line–" our relationships are all we’ve got when the lights go out"

    I agree whole heartedly with all you said, especially being a Scifi writer myself. It is what fuels and inspires me, and I take the journey to learn more and discover. — What a thrill when i get goose bumps along the way. Nice post. thank you.

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