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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 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 Dr. Simon Morden. Dr. Simon Morden is a bona fide rocket scientist, having degrees in geology and planetary geophysics. He's a writer of multiple books—most 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.

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.)

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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 tale—that 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 love—write 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 stars—needs 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 you—or 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 serious—you get work accepted by publishers—and 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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