7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Tim Stretton

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 Tim Stretton. Tim Stretton's fantasy, The Dog of the North, was published by TOR, prior to which he self-published two novels.
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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 Tim Stretton, author of THE DOG OF THE NORTH) 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.

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Tim Stretton's fantasy, The Dog of
the North
, was published by TOR, prior
to which he self-published two novels.
You can learn more about his projects
and the craft of writing on his blog.

1. Be omnivorous. This is a metaphorical omnivorousness: I'm not suggesting vegetarians will never make it into print (who better to write A Universal History of Tofu?). Regardless of what you want to write, omnivorous reading is the place to start. If you are a genre writer, read outside your field. So you want to write horror? Read crime novels—if nothing else, they'll teach you the importance of rigorous plotting. Read romances—you'll learn about character dynamics. I've argued that writers are born and not made, but the kind of writer you are depends on what you read. Why not read a bit of everything?

2. Write. There’s no getting away from this one: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. No excuses. Just keep plugging away. In my experience, persistence is a more accurate predictor than talent of whether a writer will ever be published. The only way to improve any craft is to practice.

3. There’s no “one right way.” If you’ve taken creative writing classes, or searched around the Internet, you’ll have found all kinds of advice on how to succeed in writing a novel. So far, so good. Much of that advice will be contradictory—somewhat less good. In the end, what works for you depends on the kind of writer and the kind of personality you are. I don’t like to outline in too much detail: I need to know the beginning, the end and two or three intermediate stages; I need a sense of three or four main characters. And I need to take a lot of walks. I know that approach works for me; sadly I can’t guarantee that it will do the same for you. But somewhere there is a method that fits the way your creativity works. Experiment until you find it. 

4. Don’t personalise rejection. There are a lot of writers out there in today’s marketplace, and sooner rather than later, your submission is going to be rejected. Fact. It’s important to understand what rejection means. It’s not saying you’re unworthy as a person; it’s not even saying you’re unworthy as a writer, or that your book is valueless. Rejection means that a particular publisher or agent, at a particular time, doesn’t feel that your book will make them money. It really is that simple. Take it on the chin, submit your work somewhere else, and carry on with whatever you’re writing now.

5. Don’t chase the market. Vampires are big at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you should be writing vampire stories (unless that’s what you wanted to do anyway). If you decide to start writing the Great Vampire Novel today, you’re looking at two years before you see it on the shelves—and by then the moment will have passed. In two years, everyone will be wanting to read about midget trolls, or pink dinosaurs (you heard it here first). Write what fires your imagination, not what you think will sell: If it’s good enough, the market will come to you.

6. Decide what success looks like. How will you know whether you’ve done a good job on your novel? Are you looking for sales volumes and monetary reward? To find a commercial publisher? Just to finish the damn thing? Again, there’s no right answer—it depends on your values, and what you expect to gain from writing a novel. It’s worth taking a while before you start to address the question, though.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is not to make your idea of success dependent on anything you can’t control: whether you land an agent, or a publishing deal, for instance. I set out to write the best novel I can. I know it will never be perfect, and it’s not down to me if it gets published. But if I’ve had the best crack at the idea I can, then regardless of what happens afterwards, then I feel entitled to a bit of satisfaction.

7. Get a good accountant. As a beginning novelist, you probably won’t earn a whole lot of royalties; but what an accountant will save you in tax allowances will pay for his fees several times over. Unless you’re a person who finds tax really exciting, you’re better off paying for expert advice.


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