Advice for New Writers
One question I get asked during interviews almost more than any other, apart from “Where do you get your ideas?” (Answer: I really don’t know) and “How do you pronounce your last name?” (Answer: It sort of rhymes with Kellogg) is “What advice would you give writers just starting out?” I always give one of two answers to this one, often both: (1) Don’t listen to advice (2) Just write. Those answers may not sound at all helpful. They may even sound a bit abrupt and callous, as though I just couldn’t be bothered to give the question much thought or resented sharing any really helpful hints from my own experience. The contrary is true, however, and I do usually go on to explain what I mean. I will do that here.
One interesting discovery I have made from numerous encounters with other writers over the years, some of them of bestseller fame, is that we are all vastly different from one another in almost every imaginable way. Here is one perhaps fairly trivial example. I like to get up early in the morning and tackle my writing immediately after breakfast while my energy level is high and my brain fresh. I know at least one bestselling author who fritters away the day, finding any and all excuses to avoid her work-in-progress, until finally, in the mid to late evening, she sits down at her computer and writes well into the night. I am brain dead by then, while she is in a brain fog in the morning. Which of us is doing it right? We both are. I do it right for me and she does it right for her. There is no rule, you see, for when you should write—except that it should be some time. It would be wrong of me to tell a new writer that this is the time of day you must work if you wants to achieve any sort of success. All writers have to find what works for them.
Here is another example. I am a very organized and disciplined person. When I am working on a book, I write every day, seven days a week. I have a goal of two thousand words each day, except when I am revising or making adjustments to what I have already written. It takes me on average four months to complete a book. I allow myself lots of time to finish before the contract deadline date. I know another bestselling author who, despite all intentions to the contrary, just cannot meet her deadlines. When one passes and her editor is breathing down her neck for the finished manuscript, she is perhaps one-third of the way into the book and panicking. After fretting and procrastinating for another week or so, she finally writes the rest of the book in a frenzied burst of creative energy and does not come up for air night or day until she has finished. Which of us is doing it right? Well, we both are. I could not stand the pressure of a looming (and passing) deadline while she seems to need the stress of impending disaster in order to get motivated.
These are just two examples of many more. There are, in fact, innumerable ways of going about the writing process, all of them right if they suit the author who uses them. There are no hard and fast rules. If anyone tries to tell you there are, please don’t believe them! If you feel you must read some instructional books or attend how-to seminars and workshops, try to keep a wide open mind. Never feel that you must write a certain way merely because such-and-such a book or writing expert tells you so. Whenever I give a talk to writers, I preface it with the advice that my audience not believe a word I say just because I say it. Once, when I said that, an audience member raised her hand and assured me that that was fine. All she really hoped for from any talk, she told me, was one “ah-ha” moment, something that resonated with her and got her excited about her own writing. I loved that comment.
What concerns me more than anything else about all the instructions and advice that are forever on offer for would-be writers is that they can impede the natural flow of creativity that is the writer’s motivating force. All authors of fiction have stories to tell—otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. And all writers know how to tell a story—they have probably read thousands in the course of their lives and made up hundreds more in their heads. They just fear they don’t know enough (we writers are such insecure people) and so seek out help from the experts on how to create everything from plot to character to suspense to pacing. They constantly feel they must read one more book or attend one more writers’ workshop. It is very possible they will end up either not knowing how to write at all or else producing cookie-cutter stories with paint-by-the-number characters. I have one friend who attended a workshop given by a well-known authority and then tackled that same expert’s workbook on writing fiction. There were dozens of chapters and a written exercise at the end of each. She did it all diligently but was in deep distress by the time she had finished. She felt she no longer had any idea how to write or who she was as a writer.
By far the writer’s most precious gift—but also the most fragile—is her or his voice. By voice I mean the writer’s unique view of life and way of expressing it. It is indeed unique and quite distinctive when you come across it in a well-written book. There are certain authors I can recognize as soon as I start reading even if I have a hard time explaining exactly what it is about the voice that is distinctive. It can be so very easily tampered with. I remember being at a conference with a woman who had two manuscripts on the go so that she could work on one while her critiquing group was going through the other. Then she would swap and work on their suggestions while they went through the other manuscript. This had been going on for a long time—this constant swap and rewrite. I really was aghast. I wondered how much of her story or vision or voice remained in either of those two manuscripts after a few go-arounds. I would guess very little. I told her that no one sees any of my books until they land in my editor’s computer after they are finished. However… Well, I do understand that some writers need the support and input of a trusted critiquing group. There really are no rules for everyone, you see. Perhaps that lady produced two masterpieces out of those manuscripts! Who am I to say do this or don’t do that? Do you see what I mean?
All I can say with any certainty is that in my opinion (to be ignored if you choose), if you are a writer, you must write. You don’t necessarily need to listen to the advice of either experts or amateurs–or Mary Balogh! You can do it yourself. Believe that and do it, then. I know some of you will disagree. I have one writer friend who tells me in some exasperation whenever I talk like this that it is all very well for me to tell writers simply to write. It comes naturally to me, she says. Other people need help. Some people need a lot of help. No doubt she is right. Even the very limited advice I am prepared to give may be wrong, after all! Or right for some and wrong for others. But please, please if you want to write, do it!
I wonder what you think on the topic. Do please let me know in the comment section below (which I fervently hope is working this week and not blocking you all as suspected bots! You may want to take the precaution of saving your comment before trying to post it). To one of you who leaves a comment here by Wednesday, February 10, I will send an autographed copy of either HEARTLESS or IRRESISTIBLE (winner’s choice).
Have written and been published a couple of times but just with poetry and would love to get into writing of some sort also. Thanks for the advice.
Ahha! Thank you. I love your voice.
I have seen other writers say that too. One always says something like , Put your butt in the chair and write. Write anything!
Love love your writing 💙
I love your books. The regency period is one of my favourite periods. I really want to write the stories I have going around my head but I worry but historical accuracy. I also worry about them containing too much historical detail and being boring. I would love to read about how you do your research and how you find the right balance
This advice gives me relief in a way because I want to be a writer and I’m tired of studying already. I don’t have time to do it also. I’m waiting for that aha moment so I can start my own story and of course I would love to win your signed books. 😊 I love your writing style. It feels like I can read anything you write.
Writing news and feature stories are easy for me, yet writing fiction, creating interesting plots and believable characters are a challenge for me. I very much admire your talent.
Your characters walk out of your books. I’m sad when they walk back in as I read the final sentence and close the cover.
We all want to write like that. I agree that too much critique can change an author/would-be author’s momentum. I’ve learned a lot from conferences and seminars, yet you are correct: The best thing is just to write.
Go away botssss! I agree with you 10000000% i Love your job dear!
Love all your books especially the older standalones
Great advice and encouragement. I am a long time reader of your books but just recently found your blog. Will definitely be back often.
I have a few ideas in my head for a novel but have never committed to just sitting down and writing. Straightforward advice is always the best advice.
Mary thank you for sharing the information. I’ve been wanting to write a romance for the past 30 years, but the fear of being criticized has stopped me. After reading your blog I think that I’ll give it a go.
Thank you for this…very informative.
I love your books and am inspired when I read your work. Guess you can say that writing is like any other passion in life. Just put your mind to it and do it. But I do believe you have to have that passion first. You just have to let go of your fear and believe in yourself that you can get it done.
All good advice – I would also add, write what you would like to read, not necessarily what someone else thinks you should be writing. After all, this way you will always have at least one dedicated reader…
I note this website doesn’t believe my website really is http://www.pcarey.uk
Love this advice. It reminds me of the phrase, “Everyone starts at the beginning”. To become a writer, you must simply start at the beginning and….write.
What reassuring advice. We all can do it our way. I feel my writing is like a river. It flows -sometimes prolifically, sometimes just a trickle. My problem is getting someone to publish it. In the meantime I love reading, particularly your books because of the gentle humour in them. Thank you.
I have to say that I like your advice. I’ve always wanted to be a writer from the time I was in high school; but I lacked the confidence and found excuses for not persuing it. I have attended classes and workshops on writing for children, but found that after all the critiques and changes, my story no longer felt like my story. It was very discouraging. I did eventually collaborate with my mother (on her request) and wrote and self-published a children’s picture book, which my mother illustrated. It is called “Oscar the Tortoise: A Story of Acceptance”. I have done nothing since. Perhaps I will again some day, if I just write!
Very sound advice in my opinion. I knew someone who took a creative writing course and afterwards said it ruined her creativity. I tend to avoid those kind of things myself. It’s really exactly what you said, what works for some, doesn’t for others.
Your survivors series brought out such deep emotions, I had to purchase the whole series.
I love George and Sarah ❤️
Your advice is exactly how people of ALL ages and levels should write.I think the creative process should flow and not have a formula or system. I have two young sons who excel with reading but struggle with the rules of writing. I told my eldest to write the way he would tell me a story, not how he is supposed to tell me a story. Suddenly, the words started to fill the page. His story was chosen to be printed in the local newspaper this past Christmas and he was SO proud of himself. I would think the same applies to professional writers. So I agree, just write. I appreciate your thoughts on this topic and LOVE your books.:)
I love your writing and I hope to write. I have had academic writing published.
Your advice seems very sound. I am not a writer – just dabble in poetry – but love your books. I find in most things, people have to find the way that works best for them.
Love, love, love your books!! Thank you 😊
Thank you for this! Your words have came at an opportune time for me – someone who has written on and off for several years now, but has decided to take on the challenge of writing a novel and finally pursuing her wish to be published. Insecurity is so real to me in many aspects of my life and I have let it hold me back from many things – many things I enjoy! Writing may be hard but it is a joy and I need to remember to silence that inner critic, trust in myself and just WRITE!
it is important to be dedicated to whatever you want to do…Writing isn’t always easy but keep on doing it, if it is truly what you want to do!
It would be wonderful to be organized the way you are when writing… would be. I have to admit to be a procrastinator, and understanding what the writer you describe might be going through: now, is this the main reason why I don’t even try to get published? That and the fact it feels like it’s always perfectible. Like for years.
One thing I don’t do anymore is to show a work in progress. It kills it for everyone wants to give advices which, too often, contradict each others.
I feel for the “voice” thing. Reading some authors is like coming back home or listening to a favourite song we almost forgot about… until it plays. Music is actually one of the most inspiring of tools when it comes to writing. I can’t listen to music while writing but tend to listen to one song (the loop way) or a specific album for weeks (months, sometimes!) while plotting a new story.
Precious advices you shared with us, thank you!
I’m an introvert; the last thing I want is a bunch of people staring at me or wanting to chat. However, I also need a way to express myself. So for me, writing is an act of courage. The more I let go and explore “my truth”, the stronger my writing becomes.
Last time I was a bot. This time I am a ___. am about to find out. Do I dare or keep wasting time here. I don’t think I have my own website. Does this make me ineligible?
When I write (admittedly not novels), I find I have to be disciplined and organized as well. I write my thoughts out in a notebook which I keep by my bed. Then I sleep on it. If an idea pops into my head in the night, I add to the notebook. In the morning I write. I do not proof until the next day. Then I pretty much write a bit each day until I am through. This process is the same for a technical paper or a musing for a blog.
If I waited for a deadline, I would be too sick to write.
I agree with Jenn Griffin. Writing for me is an act of courage. I am glad I am courageous! And, as I love to read as well, I’m glad that others have courage too 🙂
Hi Mary, I am a very avid reader and have written a few little stories mainly for children.. Nothing that I ever sought to publish though
I agree that one should just write! Those individual creative voices telling stories is such a unique skill, and I don’t think that that is something that can be taught with courses, no matter how successful the writer giving it is. Love your stories, and all the different people that you have introduced us to.
Your books are so wonderful to enter!
I wish I had the creative ability to write. I truly enjoy reading from those who can.
I can’t figure out who said it, but my favorite writing quote is, “There is only one way to become a writer. Unfortunately, that way is different for everyone,” The way to be a writer is YOUR way, not anyone else’s. I’m glad for all of the writing classes I’ve taken because there’s always something new and different I can learn, but I can see that other people could find that paralyzing.
Also, I’ve been reading your books since the Signet Regency days and I’m so glad that you’re not only still writing, but still writing great books with characters I fall in love with. Thank you.
Irresistible is my ALL TIME FAVORITE Mary book!
Writing is hard, though Mary makes it look so seamless. To those of you who write, keep at it. Practice may not make perfect, but you’ll smooth your edges & develop your style. Don’t try to be someone else. Find your voice and use it!
I would treasure a signed copy of Irresistible, but no matter, I’ll continue to love my well-read copy.
Hi Mary. I’m not a writer but definitely a reader of romance novels. I am a huge fan of your amazing library of beautifully written stories. I donwondered where you get your ideas but they read and feel unique and believable. I can’t say this about any other writer I follow. One of your many fans. Molly
I do not understand people who leave everything up to the last minute. But neither do I understand people who rush everything and who are finishing a task before they even started it. Each to their own.
Greetings from Germany
I love all your books and am just so grateful you keep writing!
I could never be an author but I am a great reader. Love your books.
I enjoy reading your books. Thank you for the advice about writing. I would love to win a copy of any of your books.
Mary , it was a very informative piece, I would love to write but I don’t have it in me ,I’m imaginative I just don’t have the words to express all the thoughts and feelings that make a great read , so I’m not sorry to say I’m a reader not a writer . Idler history and romance so all your books hit the right notes with me . Many thanks for your wonderful books
I’ve been writing for years but never seem to finish any of my novels. Never published anything though when I do finish a short story.
I’m a long time fan, love reading but have never had an interest in writing.
I do appreciate this so much. I had felt that I must get advice from others, which really isn’t me. I also felt that I had to plot things out…but I only ever have a general idea of a story and enjoy “seeing where it goes” or, when I know the ending, I just enjoy seeing what happens to get there. Sometimes, its just a “moment” that I want to evoke. I have written a few non-historical romances. But, my latest was my first regency. It is so hard to live up to your writing though!!! However, I wanted to try one because they are my favourite genre, and you have been my favourite author since you began publishing! My big challenge now is trying to figure out how one gets published. Stay tuned!
I feel the same way you do, Mary. I do not want to workshop my writing with others. I live and breath my characters. I spend a lot of time reading and re-reading my work to improve it but it isn’t something anyone else can do. I know details about my characters that are never going to be revealed.
Yes to all of this. I’d add that this advice also applies to overcoming writer’s block. The inability to move forward with a story is a problem of process, not lack of divine inspiration. It simply means you haven’t yet found the tools for constructing a novel that work best in your unique hands. I went from an agonized “pantster” to very happily (and productively) developing my stories in increasingly detailed layers. If a technique isn’t working, experiment until you find the one that fits.
My dream was to be a famous writer. I used to write poems and articles when I was in college, but then I stopped for long time. I wish if could writ again.
Your article motivated me. I love your novels.
He was irresistible and heartless.
I have been reading your books for years, Mary, and you persuaded my wanna-be-author self to write from the heart. So many of your books just reached into my heart and either made me cry or laugh or read it again. I met you at HRR 2019, and I was so impressed when you told me “I’m just Mary”. We talked for a bit and I realized that you were indeed, just Mary. How wonderful to transfer that attitude to your books and your life. I have written one book, (It took me 63 years, life you know) and am working on my second. You cannot know how much your words lifted me up. Every article you read, every author who tells you what to do, every class, they all start to muddle your thoughts until it’s not even your writing. So many of the “big” authors are not just themselves, many are very nice, some are a touch conceited, and many are not just anybody, they are the accumulation of all their books! That day in Spokane was a revelation to me, and not just in writing, in life. I am just Jinny. And I love your books and I love just Mary.
I am nearly finished with my Masters in Creative Writing and I have valued so much of what I’ve learned. Not all of it fits my style of writing, but it has forced me out of my comfort zone of writing and given me a little more confidence. I do, however, completely agree with your advice. When I’m asked in school to detail my process, my answer is usually always, “I just write.” Of course, that never flies with the professors so I always have to detail more, but for the most part, I just write.
I love your work and your inspiring advice to up and coming writers. Hopefully one day, I’ll follow my dreams and try to get my own work published!
Your advice of just write is I excellent. Each time I write I find out what my weaknesses are. My stories don’t translate well to paper. I agree with you that everyone has their own way of doing things and each has their own motivator.
My English is not so perfect, but your books improved my studies in English. ( Portuguese is my first language) and I saw a interview, and Mary said, just write, and after that I started… This advice was so important to me. So thank you Mary.
I wrote my first novel not knowing what I was doing. I wrote my second novel with just a clue. I started my third novel while the second was with a content editor with slightly more than a clue. I’m back to revising my second novel. I have taken several classes because I didn’t know how to make it better. My revisions benefit from that learning, but I’m not sure I would have understood the concepts when I just felt impelled to write. And writing wasn’t hard because there were no rules except I put words on paper.
You are an amazing writer
My advice from a reader’s perspective: Unless you are writing in the vernacular, please use proper English and grammar. I love reading and really appreciate a well-written book or article with the aforementioned.
I just love the way you always use the word myriad correctly. Seeing it used incorrectly jolts me right out of the story. Thank you for that 🙂 I didn’t know about ‘Heartless’; it’s another one I look forward to collecting.
I’m taking on a huge challenge – writing and illustrating a children’s book. I’m a watercolorist and am inspired to put words to my work. I’m doing this work because I need to – It’s in my soul.
I can write well, I have a great character in my head but I haven’t had a compelling story to tell. Just need to bite the bullet and write something every day so she can make herself heard.
I thoroughly enjoy your work
The last best story I wrote was in 5th grade. I won a mum. I had to use all 20 of our spelling words. For any new or repeating writers… imagination is key!
I love all your books. They are the biggest part of my keeper shelf. Thank you, Mary.
I believe there’s at least a tiny part of every avid reader that wishes they could write. I think of beginnings f stories all the time, but after a few minutes, I’m lost. I think you’re correct, that if you’re a writer, you have to write. I’ll probably never write a full story and I’m ok with that. I’m just very grateful that there are people like you, who have to write. Because I have to read!
Thank you for such an insightful look into building a story – very appropriate advice! One day I may write a story that hums around in my head – your piece here gives me confidence that I could do so!
While I am never going to be a writer, a sad fact I accepted many, many years ago, I am always fascinated by writers and their process. I always worry about the writers who say I have to sit in this spot so I can reach everything I need, I can look out this window and I have my tea and pet by my side. If a catastrophe happens and they loose their writing setup, how much would it disturb their writing?
Isn’t it great that we are all different and no one size fits all!
I really love, when you talk about writing and give such advice 🙂 It’s made me bolder to just be me and look for my way, to listen to all the “solutions” and take just what clicked with me, what made sense, what I tried and found it worked. It’s advice and not pushing one way as the only way. It’s great.
Also, such posts are a serious “pick me up”, when my writing is down. JUST WRITE is the simplest and the most amazing advice I’ve ever heard.
Thank you for reinforcing that we’re all different and it’s normal 🙂
Your books are my go to books! Re-reading them is like visiting with old friends!
Looking forward to adding your new book to my library. Never loan yours; they don’t come back!
Love reading and admire writers who can describe emotions and feelings in a meaningful way. Your books are a delight.
Love your advice. I took several writing classes and all they wanted to do is correct me, change my story idea, etc. The best book I ever read was if you can talk you can write. I started writing without worrying I wasn’t good enough. Thanks from Mary Jane
I found this uplifting and true. In taking college English and Journalism courses years ago, I always marveled at the Professor who said he loved the way I wrote😊of course I never had the confidence in my work to become the writer over the years. Perhaps after reading this blog by my very favorite author I will have the courage to try again. Thank you😊
I would love to be able to write a book but it’s so much easier to read yours!
I’m no writer, but I am an avid reader who appreciates someone as good as you. It seemed like almost all of my big writing assignments in school occurred over the weekend. I would agonize all weekend long – writing and re-writing. Finally, on Sunday evening, when I realized I HAD to put something on paper to turn in, I usually went with whatever my first draft was. I usually made excellent grades, but I thought I could never make my living writing – it would kill me (smile). Love your stuff. I’m a real fan girl!
I agree with the comment about spelling. It always ruins the experience of the story when the conversations are spelt as the author means them to sound. But when I read I can hear their voices, see them as if I am there with them. So, to spell the words as they sound is a distraction and I find that it detracts from the story/experience.
I’m certainly not a writer but oh my, I love to read! Your books are so enjoyable mainly because they touch upon real emotions and I can relate to that.M
There are no rules! “You can do it yourself. Believe that and do it, then.” I was an avid writer in high school but an “event” led to massive writer’s block. I couldn’t write anything. Not poetry, not fiction, not even an essay for school. When I went to college I tried a creative writing class to try to get my mojo back. It was unsuccessful and I haven’t written anything in over a decade. The stories are in my head, I can form scenes and dialogue when I’m lying awake in bed but when I try to put anything to paper I just…blank.
There are no rules! “You can do it yourself. Believe that and do it, then.” I really liked this advice. It resonated with me and maybe someday I will be able to put two words together again.
I’m not much of a fiction writer, but I have written a fair number of essays as a student. I usually end up writing most of my work last minute– the pressure motivates me! The stress associated with that isn’t great, I must admit, but I always manage to get the task done.
I agree with your advice! There isn’t any one way to go about writing–you just have to find what works for you!
I’ve been mispronouncing your name for quite some time… :/ Thanks for your lovely article!
I’ve edited some fiction, and I have published a couple of short stories. The best advice I know is to write the story that wants to be written. Write it – it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to be there. If you need to, you can go back later. Just write it. Please. We need more stories.
Have had some of my poems published. Am usually able to write a poem on most any subject. Writings are non-fiction. Have had some published in scriptural publications many years ago. Haven’t done much in recent years other than journaling. Do enjoy your writing.
Your blog post is my new life motto. If I could, I would tattoo in on my arm (but my arm is too short, and I hate needles). I am even more grateful because thanks to this post I discovered your writing, and I was looking for Regency books for a long time! In my country there is a lot of cynical, à la Scandinavian crime story books and romances which are mostly pornographic. It will be such a relief to read something warm, intelligent and comforting. I wish you all the best.
I’m a reader with great admiration for gifted wordsmiths. I have just finished reading “Someone Perfect,” and wondered if Estelle’s twin, Bertrand, will have his chance at romance? I see two interesting possibilities for him among existing characters: Maria, Estelle’s sister-in-law, or, perhaps more unlikely, Winifred Cunningham, Camille and Joel’s daughter. Both possibilities feel Ike interesting stories-to me. Of course there could be some unknown young lady Bertrand has yet to meet.
I do hope to write a story for Bertrand, Joan Decker, though it will not be for a while. I even have a heroine picked out for him–though you will not have met her yet!