7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Natasha Solomons

1. Hearing voices in your head isn’t a bad thing if you’re a writer. When I start to hear voices in my head, it’s a good sign. It means that my characters are coming to life. When I start something new, I’m always waiting for that moment, when, Golem-like, my characters will take on their own lives. For me, that’s when I start to hear them talk. I finish a scene on the page, but I can still hear them chatting. I like to eavesdrop on their conversations. It’s very reassuring.
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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 Natasha Solomons, author of THE GALLERY OF VANISHED HUSBANDS) 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.

natasha-solomons-author-writer
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Natasha Solomons is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. Her latest novel
is THE GALLERY OF VANISHED HUSBANDS (Plume, August 2013), a story
set in 1958 London that Good Housekeeping called "a charming tale" and RT
Book Reviews called "absorbing and exciting." Natasha is also the author of
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English and the New York Times bestseller
The House at Tyneford. She lives in Dorset, England, with her husband
and young son. Find her on Twitter.

1. Hearing voices in your head isn’t a bad thing if you’re a writer. When I start to hear voices in my head, it’s a good sign. It means that my characters are coming to life. When I start something new, I’m always waiting for that moment, when, Golem-like, my characters will take on their own lives. For me, that’s when I start to hear them talk. I finish a scene on the page, but I can still hear them chatting. I like to eavesdrop on their conversations. It’s very reassuring.

2/ Don’t listen to everybody. Because this is the road to madness. Not the pleasant, conducive, voices-in-your head madness but unhelpful, going round and round in circles until you need to lie down quivering in the dark type madness. Everyone will have a different opinion on your writing, and some people will love your work for precisely the same reason that someone else dislikes it. Find a few people whose opinions you trust—and listen to them. My first reader is my husband. He’s a writer, too so our lives are a mini writers’ workshop. It can be intense and lead to tetchy moments over the chicken at dinner but I always trust his view even when we don’t agree. I also listen to my friend and agent Stan, as well as to my editors. Even if I’m not sure about the precise note, they almost always point to something that’s not quite right in the manuscript.

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)

3. Only make paper plates not china ones. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given is from my friend Jeff Rona, a composer. For a while he stopped having fun writing music. He knew he was creating pieces of art and he fretted about posterity. Then one day in the studio he ran into another artist. This guy was recording and having a great time, and he and Jeff got chatting. He explained to Jeff that “Your problem is that you think of your music as fine china while I think of mine as paper plates.”

The metaphor holds for writing fiction, too. I like to have fun when I write. It’s not always enjoyable—some days it’s just hard and I feel that everything I do is nonsense. But, when I don’t worry and I try stuff out, play with words and see what works and what doesn’t, good things happen. I can always cut the mistakes—no one needs to see the dodgy first draft. I can throw stuff away. After all, it’s only a paper plate.

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4. You can’t wait for the Muse. I like the Muse to find me already at my desk. Usually, I’ve been there quite a while before she shows up to work, but the act of writing, reviewing and tea drinking helps to persuade her to appear, however late. I don’t have time to wait until I’m in the mood. I’ve found this to be even more true since having my son. There’s absolutely no time for any rituals. If he’s asleep/playing quietly away from plug sockets then I need to be at my desk.

5. Allow yourself to be surprised. I have a plan when I write but I keep it purposely vague. I have story waypoints and scenes that I’m writing towards, but I need to be surprised along the way. When my characters have taken on a life of their own, they drive the story and often the scene I’ve been imagining for a hundred pages turns out differently from how I expected. I’ve learned that for me this is part of the joy of writing. I enjoy these surprises and if I try to force the characters into the scene precisely as I’d planned, it doesn’t feel quite true.

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

6. If anything else apart from writing can make you happy, then do that instead. Writing as a career is hard. Sometimes it’s not so much a career but a compulsion. If you think that something else could make you happy, then you’re probably not a writer. Writers tend to write not because they want to, but because they have to, even though the odds of success are stacked against them. I really can’t do anything else, not only because I have few other discernable skills/uses but if I’m not writing I’m a miserable creature.

7. Never forget Bunny if you’re on a book tour with a baby. I’m currently touring with my husband and small son. We’ve learned that the most essential item in our luggage is a well-loved/nibbled grey bunny. He’s been across the US with us all, and as long as we have Bunny, it will be a good day.

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