ADVICE FOR NEW WRITERS
One question I am asked almost more than any other, apart from where I get my ideas and how my last name is pronounced, is what advice I would give to writers just starting out. I always give one of two answers, often both: (1) don’t listen to advice (2) just write. Both may sound a bit abrupt and callous, as though I just can’t be bothered to ponder the question or share any meaningful hints from my experience. The contrary is true, and I usually go on to explain what I mean—as I will do here.
I could just show the cartoon above, I suppose, and rest my case, but the burning question is—how does the book come out? One thing I have discovered through my encounters with numerous other writers down the years, some of them very successful, is that we are all different in almost every imaginable way. I like to get up early in the morning, for example, and tackle my writing immediately after breakfast while my energy level is high. I know at least one bestselling author who fritters away her time all day, finding any and all excuses to avoid her work in progress until finally, in the mid to late evening she sits down and writes well into the night. I am brain dead by then. She is in a brain fog in the morning. Which of us is right? We both are, of course, but I am right for me and she is right for her. There is no rule. It would be wrong to tell a new writer that this is the time of day when you must work if you want to achieve any sort of success. That could cause real and unnecessary frustration. Each writer has to find what works for her/him.
Here is another example. I am very organized and very disciplined. I write every day when I am working on a book, and I write two thousand words each day, except when I am doing revisions. I know another successful author who, despite all her intentions to the contrary, just cannot meet her deadlines. When one comes and goes and her editor is breathing down her neck, she is perhaps one-third of the way into the book. 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 right? Well, we both are. And there are numerous other ways to go about the writing process too, all of them right if they suit the author who uses them.
I know writers who plot out a book with meticulous care before they start writing it. It is important to them to have a story packed with action and suspense and those other ingredients that propel a story forward. I can’t plot to save my life. If I try it before I start a book, I contemplate an absolutely blank mind from somewhere outside it. Nothing, nada, no use. I can plot only as I am writing. It is because I write from deep within the point of view of my main characters, I think. They live in the present. They do not know the future. They create it as they go along. I create it along with them! Which type of plotter is right? Well, we both are. Each writer has to create in the way that comes naturally and not according to rules or a formula dictated by someone else, no matter how experienced or knowledgeable that someone else is.
There are no rules, in other words. No one can tell you how or when or how much to write. And if anyone tries, don’t listen! Avoid how-to books and how-to talks and seminars. All right, sorry—I am slipping into giving advice, aren’t I? So don’t listen to me. Read as many books as you like. But also WRITE!
What concerns me more than anything else about all the writing advice that is forever on offer for would-be writers is that it can impede the natural flow of creativity that is the writer’s motivating force. All writers of fiction have stories inside them—otherwise they wouldn’t be writers. And all writers knows how to tell a story—they have probably read thousands in the course of their lives and made up a hundred more in their heads. They just think they don’t know (we writers are such insecure people) and so seek out help on how to create everything from plot to character to suspense to pacing. 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 famous expert, and then she tackled the workbook he had written on how to write fiction. There were something like thirty-six chapters, for each of which there was a writing exercise. She did it all quite conscientiously and was in deep distress by the time she finished. She admitted that she no longer had any idea how to write.
By far the writer’s most precious gift, and also the most fragile, is her/his voice. By voice I mean the writer’s unique view of life and way of expressing it. It is quite distinctive when you come across it in a well-written book. There are certain authors (and they tend to be my favorites) whom I can recognize by the way they tell a story 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 lady who had two manuscripts on the go so that she could work on the second one while her critiquing group was going through the first. Then she would swap and work on their suggestions for the first while they had the second manuscript. This had been going on for a long time—this constant swap and revise. I was aghast. I wondered how much of her story or vision or voice remained in either of the constantly new-and-improved books she was working on? I would guess very little. I believe I told her that no one sees any of my books until they land on my editor’s desk after they are finished. I advised her, a bit hyperbolically, to shut herself into a room without phone or internet and not come out until she had finished her book.
If you are a writer, write. You don’t need to listen to the well-meaning advice of either experts or amateurs. You can do it yourself. Do it, then. I would expect that some of you will disagree. I have one writer friend who tells me with some exasperation every time I talk like this that it is all very well for me to tell writers simply to write. It comes naturally to me, she tells me. Other people need help. Perhaps. Even the very limited advice I am prepared to give may be the wrong advice! If it feels wrong for you, ignore it. I look forward to reading your comments, pro and con. Life would be very bland if we all agreed on every subject, wouldn’t it?
To one person who leaves a comment below by Monday, February 18, I will send an autographed copy of either IRRESISTIBLE or HEARTLESS (winner’s choice).[The winner is DEIDRE–I don’t know her last name yet. Congratulations to her and thank you for all your comments.]
I would love to have more time…I have a number of stories begun, but I’m either hung up on getting to the next step, or just lacking time to think about it. I think I need to set aside a time for writing, or it will never happen.
Hi Mary. Love your books.
Thanks for sharing, Mary. Writing a book has been on my “bucket list” for as long as I can remember! 🙂
Thank you. Very interesting take on giving advice for writing and it makes so much sense.
Would love to have a copy of this book.
Love reading all of your books.
I absolutely love heartless its one book that I can read over and over again love the storyline and all the characters
Don’t worry about it being a polished piece.
I have found that every writer whose book I’ve read is different in the way they write, some write in the morning and others write in fits and starts while others are the proverbial night owls and I love all the books they write
I’m currently a full-time student and I took a creative writing class over the summer. I loved it so much. I’m slowly but surely plugging away at a book. Mostly during breaks when I don’t have mountains of essays to produce.
I’ve recently retired and I am just starting to begin to commence to consider writing. Appreciate your sharing your point of view.
You have pointed out my problem: I’m so busy reading your books (and others) that I don’t have time to write.
I wrote a lot when I was about 15, and my teachers usually liked what I wrote in my composition exams too. There are still times when an entire story just appears in my head – plot, characters, everything. And this usually happens when I’m too busy to write. I wish I could find a way to harness the creativity of my busy brain and make it come forth when I’m idle and can’t think of anything to write.
Thank you for living a disciplined life.
I have lots of ideas and lots of “how-to” books but for some reason can’t seem to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. I once read that reading is the best preparation for writing, in which case I are over-prepared!!
I do find writing partners and critique groups helpful, and most of the time it is for the community of kindred spirits that help me feel like I am not crazy for pursuing my writing goals. Right now, I’m trying to get a bit more structured in my writing time after retirement — some days I try harder than others! But… the “butt in seat” is probably the most practical advice for anyone truly interested in finishing a book, no matter what time of day or night works best. I find it difficult to always have to come back into a project after being away… getting to know my characters again so they start living and breathing. Thank you for the chance to receive one of my favorites of yours — Irresistible!
Do you have any appearances scheduled in the US? I would love to be able to meet you!!
I don’t have any appearances lined up, I’m sorry. Megan Williams.
Not an aspiring writer, but I think you’re right – listening to advice, researching the ways to write, weighing pros and cons is not going to get the job done. If you have a book in you – just start writing. Good or bad, take that first step!
My friend started writing like that. She read a lot, but then she started to feel the urge for more. She wanted to tell stories as well, so she sat and wrote a novella. She first showed it to the closest friends – we all read it (it was raw but had great bones) and encouraged her to keep writing. Now she has more than ten novels and novellas, and we love all of them. She’s not published yet, but she has posted her stories online and has hundreds of fans 🙂
This post was actually very insightful, Mary 🙂 For the past gosh, I don’t know, 6 years I have been working on a series of books I’ve wanted to write. Historical romance of course. You and many other authors are my inspiration. I spent days meticulously plotting and creating family trees (which is incredibly fun actually.) in terms of writing the books themselves, I got nowhere far. Until this last August I got into the Halloween spirit and wanted to write historical vampires, ha! I am four chapters in thus far without any serious plotting and creating like I have before. I just write. Sometimes, all it takes is one simple idea and then the plot bunnies take over and before you know it, you’re half way through writing your first book.
Thanks again, Mary!
I sometimes wake up with a children’s story line in my head. How do you get that down on paper before you forget it?
As a history major, major mistakes always annoy me.
Many years ago (in graduate school), I entered what was supposed to be a short-story contest. The story just poured out of me, but it was longer than a short story. I won second place, but my story didn’t get published with all the others because, well, it was too long. But the most amazing comment I got from those who did read it was, “Where’s the rest of the novel?” For me, the biggest problem (aside from keeping the story in my head, not on paper) is finding the ending. My not-so-short story had an ending that satisfied me—and that’s the closest I have come. How do you know when, and how, to stop?
With a love story, Phyllis GIlmore, once I have reached the point at which there is nothing left to tell except the happily-ever-after (though I hate that term), it is time to stop. Otherwise it is easy to fall into the trap of wallowing in happiness, which can become a bit saccharin.
I think writing is a gift like singing or dancing. You can train and practice, but some people just have a natural talent that no amount of practice can reach. I know I’ll devour any book put in front of me, but I would be hard pressed to come up with anything good myself. 🙂
Your advice is right on the mark. Everyone has their own way of doing things. So nice to have it elucidated so clearly.
I always think so too. The best advice we can give a person is not to follow any other advice, just follow your instincts. There are no other person who knows what story you want to write.. and it’s your story write as you please.. write a book that you will love and people will love it too.. 🙂
Writing is unlike maths. With the second there are clear rules. I believe everyone has a story to tell but the problem is not everyone is able to tell it in an interesting way. So in my case I keep my story to myself and stick with maths. 🙂
Excellent advice! Or would that be non-advice? It’s easy to get bogged down in all the how-to books and articles. The main thing is to figure out what works best for you and to write.
Love your books
Although you’d deny giving it, this is great advice. 🙂
I too think writing is a gift.
Thanks for your advice. I enjoyed reading it. One reason I love your stories so much is your distinctive voice.
Great advice, Mary. I love your books.
I have created stories in my mind since I was a little girl. However, I realized at a young age that what I could imagine was wonderful, but putting those images on paper was impossible. Thank you for writing your characters in such a way that I can imagine them and their world immediately as I read each paragraph.
i Guess writing is like life – everyone’s will be different. I’ve heard that J. k. Rowling had the entires 7 books in the Harry Potter series fully developed in her head before she ever set pen to paper. Other writers create spreadsheets and lists to track their plot lines and characters before getting to the actual process of writing. Some do lots of research, others just make things up as they go along. I’ve tried plotting things out in advance myself, but when I start writing things never go in the direction I originally intended.
I loved Heartless when I read it many years ago. I believe I have read Irresistable too, but I’ll have to refresh my memory. I’ve read most of your books. I wish Signet was still producing regencies because the ones you wrote for them are some of my favorite stories.
I love reading your books and listening to them on CD during my long commutes to teach. If I did not spend all of my time teaching and reading for pleasure, I might like to write. In order to captivate the minds of students a teacher should develop storytelling abilities and I am always telling stories about mythology or Roman history to enhance my Latin lessons.
Alas, I fear that I lack the self-discipline to sit down and write a book. When I was ten I thought it would be easy to do that and made a good start. The older I get the more intimidated I am at even the thought of trying.
I am so glad that you persevered and have made a career of writing. We, your loyal readers, are so blessed to be able to enter a different time and place and escape from all else for a while.
Love your books. I read them more than once. I used to have more time and read them within a weekend. I would get so involved that I did not sleep. Your characters come to life on the page. I love the endings, and hate when the book ends. I feel I am leaving friends.
Keep on writing, we need more of you.
I think this is exactly the advice I need. I have been planning a novel but have been reluctant to start writing because I don’t know anything about writing! I think that “just write” is the best thing I could possibly do now. Thank you!
Love your books. I have always wanted to write and admit I have read some of the “how to” books and felt inadequate. After reading this, I will just write. thanks
I write and you’re right. Plotter or pantser, morning or night, critiqued or not, getting the ideas down is what is most important
I enjoyed your blog very much, especially since I am in the process of writing my second book. I just write for myself, not because I plan on being published one day. I found what you said very encouraging.
I remember in school when we had to write non Fiction/ informational texts we were supposed to make an outline and turn that in too. I always wrote the paper and then made the outline. I can’t plot out first either- even with non fiction. I need to let ideas flow.
One of our library’s goals is to support writers of all levels and styles. We want to encourage people to write down their grandma’s recipes, an observation of their children’s day, a poem, a short story . . . whatever interests and moves them. (We have someone working on the script and world-building for a video game.) So, yes, if you want to write, write. And, of course, read.
Thank you for this wisdom, Mary.
I do not have writing workshops at my disposal but do have books. And am floundering now among them.
Your words are like a breath of fresh air. I will follow them and keep returning in moments of self doubt.
Love your books! I would love another one!
Thanks for this great advice. Deep down I’ve always known that I just need to “do it”. I’ve become very adept at procrastinating (maybe it should be fear-crastinating) by reading books about writing, listening to podcasts about writing and my latest avoidance strategy – reading the “early books” of all my favourite authors – again or for the first time. I am enjoying your Second Chances collection right now. It’s a first time for these stories. Thanks again.
Good advice, Mary! Only two things I would add. In order to develop one’s own style, I would suggest reading a good deal of great literature: poems, novels, plays, and short stories. That in-depth reading will teach well how to recognize style and perhaps something of how to develop one’s own voice. And I would add an excellent grounding in the mechanics of writing, from grammar to spelling and all points in between, is rather helpful. As a former slush pile reader, poor mechanics had us sending a first novel back with a few comments on the mechanics, but rarely; as a reader, I felt bad, but we had to be careful in what was said, due to legalities and other considerations.
I have always wanted to be a writer. There are so many stories or even characters going through my head. I fear I lack the discipline to bring anything to fruition. One day I hope to get a handle on it. Thank you for the advice. A great mantra to repeat. Just write.
To pen a life, fact or fiction?
Thanks for showing us a variety of ideas for writing. I’ve never believed there was a “right” way to write, rather a number of methods as diverse as the authors.
I think every possible advice and its opposite may be right in a specific given situation. Giving advice on writing seems sometimes, in a writing/reading community, to be like dispensing medical advice: every single person has an opinion and a recommendation. I think it may be useful to find out what eworks for other people, how other writers tackle specific issues if one doesn’t lose sight of their own purpose of writing and their own inspiration – what you call their own voice.
Thank you for this post!
I simply love the art of story telling ! I have several daughters who LOVE reading and spent their childhood making up stories and writing a few down. My adult daughter who is a nurse came home to visit and shared with her younger sisters a book series idea that’s been running through her head for a while and I wish I would have video recorded the scene….they were all mesmerized by her 15 minute description! I LOVE your voice, Mary, and I love your stories! Keep writing!!
Thank you for your insights (not advice!) about writing. I find the hardest thing about writing is to share my writing with others!
I love your writing and eagerly await your next book. Also appreciate that you are publishing reprints of some of your older books.🙂
My problem is when I write I find that I compare what I do to you or other really good writers. Ugh!
Mary, Your books are like a ray of sunshine for me. I am 80 years old & have always been an avid reader. When I was a child we always lived in the country> We had a “Book Mobile” that came around about once a month & boy I was always so glad to see it. I always watched the clock because I knew what time it would show up. Without my books life would be very lonely. I’m always so happy when you have a new book released, so keep up the good work.
Just write is quite good advice, but I’d like to add that don’t force yourself to write. If the story doesn’t come out, do something else and clear your head before trying again. I’ve done my worst writing when I stubbornly sat and wrote even if I had no idea what I wanted to say.
Very interesting! I plan, generally, in my head, let it bubble, then write at the last just before deadline. It seems if I start before I’ve thought it through, I just have to change everything (I’ve written mainly research papers). My husband is the opposite. He is writing a mystery having to do with a construction project. He lets the characters and situations take him where they will. Retired, so no deadline!
BTW – one of the few books of your I don’t have is Heartless.
I think what you say is so true and not just about writing I have always been a morning person. Even after 10 years of retirement, I’m still up at 5:00 am. I try to do my most complicated tasks early in the day. I am a plodder and a planner myself, but I’ve known plenty of “fly by the seat of their pants” kind of people who do fine. As we used to say when I was a sweet young thing “different stroke for different folks”.
Fabulous advice. Thanks Mary!
Thanks, Mary. I needed this. I have been so unmotivated and I need to just write something. I tend to overthink things.
Great advice! It all boils down to “a writer is someone who writes” and each of us can tell a story in our own way.
I’m just happy to see more new books from you. Reading helps me deal with tough times. I need it especially now; my husband died 6 days ago. I’m in shock and reading helps me to breathe and relax during this tough time.
I wish I had some device that would take what is in my brain and transcribe it onto paper (or at least a computer screen) without it having to go through my fingers. But alas, the technology isn’t there yet. Maybe soon…
Very interesting piece. In the end, every person is a whole world, and so their writing style will be unique in their own way. What works for one, may not work for the rest, and that doesn’t make it less valid.
All good advice, but don’t forget inspiration from the writers who have gone before you. That means you have to read, read, and read some more and then want to write what you would like to read the next time.
I enjoyed reading your blog almost as much as your books. It was refreshing to hear your advise not to take advise. (giggle)
I have felt for years I had a book in me, but fell into the self made trap of “I’m not good enough”. So I read alot of self help books and ended up confused and frustrated when these “helps” didn’t work for me.
I have started carrying a note book with me because I get snipets of ideas or conversations at the oddest times. I just need to find what works for me. Thanks again for your insite. I look forward to reading more from you.
You are so right about writers having their own voice! I love the voices of my favorite authors and slip into their stories like a comfortable pair of shoes. I mourn when one of my authors die, for many reasons, but one is that voice has been silenced. Someone is writing Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books still. Very close but still off the original. Can’t relax and enjoy them. Please stay healthy!
Mary I love your books I just read two of your latest and had a really hard time moving on to another book. I would hold the new book in my hand and wonder how the Westcotts were doing.
I love your point of view for your characters that they live in the present in your books when you are writing. It is so true. Thank you🌸
I loved reading how the ideas, plots, characters spring from your beautiful mind, hit pen to paper & give so very many a deep satisfaction. You are right about letting the creativity flow, as it will, taking a path of least resistance to that blessed soul. Go with what works for YOU. Endeavor to know & treat yourself with confidence. It will either happen or not. It can’t be forced. Ms. Balogh, I thank my lucky stars I was introduced to you as a young woman by my mother. Infinite reading pleasure is mine since that introduction. Take care of yourself & bless your prolific creativity. 🤗🙏
My family fostered for 15 years and then I worked at a lodge for 9 years where I worked from casual to co-head cook. The plan has always been to work to 66 retire with a pension and write children’s books. Changes were made by a new manager so I am forced into retirement 4 years early. So here I am studying and writing every day to prepare me for my journey. I will succeed. PS My 86 year old mom has lived with my husband and I for 8 years. Mom and I have had great fun attending book sales and library sales to find books, it was in these travels I can across my first book by you. I love to find anyone Canadian and I love historical romance. Thank you
After reading a zillion historical romance novels (some amazing, some not), I am in awe of anyone who can tell a story in print. One piece of advice I would give a new author is to find a good editor and listen to her. Poor grammar and improper use of language specific to the period along with typos are a kiss of death to a novel.
Totally agree with Lori above, I have started reading many historical romances, only to cringe when there is glaring modern language used. I have great respect for writers but especially those who can draw you into a time period and really make you feel that you are there.
It is very true that we are all different, and I imagine that each person who writes has a different routine that (hopefully) works for them. I think that each character that you create is so real to us because of the way that you focus on their lives and surroundings while writing them. Your organized and disciplined writing technique certainly produces very believable characters and situations. Love all your books!
I already have both books, but happy to tell all how glad I was to see “Elizabeth” get a happy life. It’s a telling thing that I’ve reread Mary’s books multiple times. Still loving those Bedwuns!
I have no desire, urge, need or want to write a book. I limit my writing to letters to my family and friends. I will leave the writing of books to those who have that talent, the imagination, the patience, the skills, the vocabulary, the knowledge and the love to do so. I am so happy that I can then enjoy reading what they have put together. Thankyou for writing the Survivors series. I fell in love with all of them.
I have talked to a lot of writers and the only consistent piece of advice they have for those wanting to be writers is to write every day. How you write, where you write, what you write . . . just write. I thank every one of you who do this as I am a READER.
I love this post. I love pointing out that we’re all different and we need to find our uwn way to write, the one that is best for us and may not really work for anybody else. The only one thing that is common is WRITE. It’s something we who write (not everyone would produce stories that would be loved by many, but we have a group that loves to write) tell others and… get smashed, surprisingly. When we say there is no magical way for everyone, no secret how to write. “You don’t know how it is to have neither story nor want to write” said one woman, looking for a quick fix for her problem. We said “write anyway, if you want to write, just sit and write” and we were treated like we were keeping something from her…
I learned early to take what I can from workshops and disregard of anyone wants to tell me what is “the only right way”. I like them because of camaraderie and friendships I started during those. I did get some useful tips. But I have to admit one of the most important motivators were your early blog posts when you started revealing what’s your creative process. I started writing with a wordcount goal in mind and it clicked for me. I am, however, a heavy planner and then I need to write my story once, to know what really happens and how to make sense of the story. The second draft is the one I write, when I know the story 🙂
Thank you for another great post.
I never had the desire to write, I have no talent as a writer! You are my favorite author so I will leave the writing up to you Mary!! You write and I will read! ❤️
Ironically, I’m here one day after your deadline for the autographed book. That’s okay because, honestly, and respectfully, I’ve never heard of you. This blog post is the first thing I’ve read of yours. With that said, I wholeheartedly agree with ever word you said. Common sense is the best sense. You’re a wise, sensible person and I immediately like and respect you! Get all the advice and help you think you need, then throw out everything that doesn’t resonate with you out and just write. The best writing advice boils down to one, simple word: Write. The long answer extends to four words: You do you, Boo.
Your article has actually helped me in another area of my life that I’ve been struggling with. I thank you.