2. Learning to Write

You learn to write by writing. Over the last five years I’ve written four novels and several short stories. I’ll tell you about the short stories in another post. That comes later. It was the novels that formed my main apprenticeship in writing.

The first novel was a dark psychological thriller- very dark, and unfortunately, very short. It’s only just over 50,000 words. I now know that a good length for a debut novel is between 70,000 and 90,000 words. The second novel was a better length, but not very commercial. It was much too literary. I had great fun writing it, but it’s very much a journey of the mind. Probably not enough happens in it to please a general reader.

Which raises an interesting question. Who do we write for? If we’re not writing for ourselves, at least in the first instance, there’s not likely to be much passion or imagination in it. But, at some point in the writing process, if we’re not writing for the readers, the book is never likely to see the light of day.

Quite when you make the transition from writing for yourself to writing for other people is a matter of personal taste and temperament. Certainly, the first draft should really be for yourself. This is where you explore the story, let your characters take you by the hand and show you their world. It’s magical, at least for me. But it doesn’t produce a readable work. Maybe in the second, maybe in the third draft you have to switch to writing with a cooler and more dispassionate judgement, bearing in mind how it will work for a reader. You may need to develop a lot more backstory at this point. You may need to explain things more slowly. You may discover that what you thought was a very cool idea doesn’t really work. You may discover that you’ve put in too much of the research you did. You may find that there’s not enough tension and interest in the first chapters. It’s not unusual to discover that your story really starts only in the third chapter. It’s an old adage of screen writing that you should “go in late and come out early”. In other words, start where the main action or plot development, starts.

There’s a really useful checklist on the website Flogging the Quill (www.floggingthequill.com/) about the elements a good first page should have.

  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

Like all checklists, use it with caution, but I find it useful.

Edit, edit, edit. Be ruthless. Be prepared to junk your first chapters. Be prepared, as they say, “to kill your darlings”. You will need to take out all the clumsy passages, all the self-indulgent interludes, everything, however precious to you, that doesn’t move the story forward. After the first draft, your book belongs to your readers, not to you. If you don’t like editing, force yourself. If you can’t force yourself to edit, have a long think about whether you want to write for others or simply for your own pleasure.

So that brings me to my third novel, A Prize of Sovereigns. It’s a historical fantasy of around 79,000 words – the right word length for a debut novel. It has intrigue war and revolt. It has princes, peasants, statesmen and storytellers. This is the one I decided to push. This, I felt sure, was my first commercially viable book.


I edited it, cut it, reworked it, moved chapters around, and added new characters and scenes. I read it to my writing group and made many of the changes they suggested. I researched topics like medieval armour and the Hundred Years War, read the entire transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc, and took an archery course to understand how bows are fired. I paid a literary consultancy, Cornerstones, to take a look at the initial chapters and the synopsis, and worked in many of the very helpful changes they suggested. I read other writers in the same genre, from George RR Martin to Ken Follett, and noted how they did things. It has been through eight or nine drafts in the two years I’ve been nursing it.

In later posts I’ll tell you about how I have gone about pushing A Prize of Sovereigns. The main point for now is that, unless you have an exceptional talent, your first attempts at writing may not produce something that’s good enough to take to market. It makes sense doesn’t it? A carpenter has to serve an apprenticeship, learning his or her craft. Why would it be any different for an author?

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