7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Colin Falconer

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning. This installment is from writer Colin Falconer. Colin Falconer is the author of more than 20 books (many historical fiction), and his work has been translated into 17 languages. A recent novel, When We Were Gods: A Novel of Cleopatra, was called "smoothly written" by Publishers Weekly and "enthralling" by Booklist.
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This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Colin Falconer, author of WHEN WE WERE GODS: A NOVEL OF CLEOPATRA) 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.

Colin Falconer is the author of more than 20
books (many historical fiction), and his work
has been translated into 17 languages. He has
his own blog, sharing his thoughts on writing
historical novels. A recent novel, When We Were
Gods: A Novel of Cleopatra, was called "smoothly
written" by Publishers Weekly and
"enthralling" by Booklist.

1. Don't quit. Back in the 1960’s Winston Churchill was asked to deliver a valedictory speech to a group of undergraduates, so that he could pass on to some of England’s best young minds the secrets of his success. The auditorium was packed. Students sat poised with notebooks and pens, ready to record the thoughts of one of Britain’s greatest statesmen. As he took the podium there was awed silence. He tapped the microphone. He shuffled his papers. He put on his spectacles. He surveyed his audience. “Never.” He cleared his throat. “Never.” He peered at them again over the rims of his glasses. “Never. Ever.” A pause. “Give up.” And he sat down again. End of speech. Great advice if you’re looking for your first agent or your first publishing deal. Or just even thinking about being a writer.

2. Get something down on paper. A successful TV scriptwriter once told me they started writing at nine o’clock in the morning and waited for inspiration. If it wasn’t there by five past they started without it. This is good advice. It doesn’t matter if it’s genius or pure dross, get something down. You can always edit it later. Set yourself a do-able target—and then, like Nike says, just do it. (Just remember to pay your sweatshop labor in China more than twenty cents a day.)

3. Always remember: You’re only as good as your last game. If you’ve ever played competitive sport, you’ll know this one. It can work both ways. How many writers have gained rapturous applause for their first book, only for the sequel to bomb? So don’t ever get carried away with yourself. But the reverse is also true. There’s some talented writers out there who have lost their way, and have re-launched themselves with new names and new genres. If you’re in it for the long haul, forget the last book, find a way to make your next one the best book you’ve ever written.

4. Get lucky. One of Napoleon’s staffers once jealously remarked that a rival officer was just ‘lucky’. Napoleon is supposed to have countered: “Yes well, it’s good to be good. But it’s better to be lucky.” So here’s some great advice: try really, really hard to be lucky.

5. Don't ignore the business side of publishing. If rule number four doesn’t work, try rule number five—because successful careers are not all just luck. Someone once told me early in my career: ‘Be a businessman in the morning and a writer in the afternoons.’ (Naturally Mister Pig-Headed here didn’t take much notice back then.) What this means is: ‘be creative, but also have a business plan.’ So learn as much as you can about this crazy industry and where you want to make your niche in it. Because it shows when a writer knows where they’re going and have a plan to get there.

6. If you don’t want criticism, don’t publish. Keep all those manuscripts in a drawer, like JD Salinger is supposed to have done. Criticism, rejection, it’s all a part of the business. Sure, not everyone is worth listening to. But there are plenty of people who are—including your readers, your editors and your agent. If you cross your arms and think ‘screw you, and your dog’ every time someone says something less than complimentary, that’s not very smart. Whether you’re a novice or a veteran, well considered criticism is worth more to you than your mother telling you you’re the best thing since Shakespeare.

7. Never believe anyone who tells you there are only seven things you have to remember. They are almost certainly wrong.

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