7 Things I've Learned So Far, by Nina Darnton

Nina Darnton is the author of the new acclaimed suspense novel, THE PERFECT MOTHER. Here she shares 7 pieces of writing advice.
Publish date:

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by Nina Darnton, author of THE PERFECT MOTHER) 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.

(Never open your novel with a dream -- here's why.)

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Nina Darnton is a former psychologist and staff writer for Newsweek and
a former frequent contributor for the New York Times. Her suspense/thriller
novel, THE PERFECT MOTHER, publishes today, Nov. 25, 2014 from
Plume. The book, which is about a mother who learns her daughter has
been arrested for murder while studying abroad, has been praised by
thriller authors Robin Cook & Clive Cussler. Connect with
Nina on Facebook or Twitter.

1. Don’t wait for inspiration. Write a specific number of words a day—no matter what. Sometimes that means sitting with nothing to say for an hour or more. Sometimes it means writing your designated number of words and discarding them the next day. But it is a discipline that ultimately helps you get the book done. My husband, who published 7 books (two of which were best sellers), taught me this. He was a journalist and he thought in column lengths. He determined to write 1000 words a day, (which is a lot. I do more like 500). If he was in the middle of a paragraph when he reached his goal, he stopped. He wanted to be excited about starting again the next day. It worked for me too.

2. On the other hand, unlike my husband, there are times when I know I’m on a roll, and if that happens, I make use of it. On those rare days, I won’t stop writing until the well feels dry.

3. Carry a pad around (or use your IPhone or IPad) and jot down notes when you think of something. It’s like cute stories about your kids. You think you’ll never forget an adorable sentence they’ve uttered or an observation they’ve made, but you do. Keep a record.

4. You don’t always have to know everything before you begin. I heard an interview with Lee Childs in which he said he works completely intuitively. He doesn’t write an outline, for example. He says he doesn’t even really know the story until he begins writing. Others need a detailed outline, sometimes chapter-by-chapter. I am somewhere in the middle. I like to know where the story begins and approximately where it ends. I know some of the characters. But in my recent book, “The Perfect Mother,” for example, my favorite character, a Spanish detective named Roberto wasn’t part of the plan. He just kind of appeared when my main character Jennifer needed a friend and took over. I don’t really know where he came from, but I was grateful he appeared. So you have to give your creative instinct room to work, even as you plan and structure the plot.

(How should you discuss a book's series potential in a query letter?)

5. Take your inspiration where you find it. By that I mean, if you read something in the newspaper and it sets your mind wondering and inventing ramifications of that story, don’t be afraid to use it (another trick I used for my latest novel). If someone tells you a story or you observe something interesting, use it if you want to. Don’t be afraid that it’s already been done. Inspiration can come from anywhere. There are only a few stories in the world. It’s how you develop them creatively that takes stark facts and events to a narrative that resonates.

6. Write whatever you want to, even if you are worried that someone you know will be upset by it. I once sat next to E.L. Doctorow at a dinner many years ago and I asked him what to do if you had an idea for a book but were afraid executing it would hurt someone you cared about. His advice? Always write the book, but know that you don’t always have to publish it. I think that’s good advice.

7. In today’s book market, I think it is very important to know that your book may be wonderful and it still may not sell. This means that you should not write a book unless you really like the process of writing. Once it’s published, you do, of course, what you can to promote it. But you can’t count on commercial success. You may get poor reviews and feel hurt and humiliated. (I try to remember that a review is only the opinion of the person writing it and not sacrosanct). So the only reliable reward is the pleasure you get from the creative process itself.

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