I’ve recently had a number of emails from young writers asking for advice on how to improve their writing. They seem to think that because I write books, and some of them have been successful, I can explain how to write a successful book. If only it were that easy. The truth is, I can’t tell you why one book is popular and another isn’t. There isn’t a formula to learn like in maths or physics.
I am not an expert on writing. I am just a writer. I don’t feel comfortable giving advice about something that I am still learning. But since people have asked, I will have a go.
Firstly, I have already written some stuff in my FAQs, but no one seems to read that!
The way to improve your writing is to write. Write, write, write and then write some more. Practice is what makes you a better writer. If you wanted to be an Olympic gymnast or an AFL footballer, you wouldn’t expect to walk out onto the mat/football field and be an expert immediately. You know you would have to train for years. It’s the same with writing. A few writers have great success with their first novel, but more than likely they have spent a long time writing and rewriting it, perhaps writing other unpublished things first.
I started off writing short stories. That worked for me. It gave me practice at writing. I tried different types of stories. I tried to get them published, to see which ones people liked. Then after a couple of years, I tried writing a novel. It took me two years. It was terrible. It was never published (thank goodness!). I kept writing all kinds of things—TV scripts, newspaper articles, brochures, more short stories. It was all good practice. It was eight years before my first book was published.
The other question I get asked is “How do I make my story longer?” The short answer is, you can’t. A story is as long as it takes to tell. That may be six paragraphs or 600 pages. If you try and stretch a story, it just gets boring. If you want to write a longer story, my advice would be to spend some time plotting it before you start. I don’t start writing until I have a beginning, middle and end to a story. Then I write a synopsis of about three pages. It might take me two months to come up with those three pages. Then I start to write the novel. That will take me about a year, and that’s writing every day. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do it.
I know J K Rowling and Christopher Paulini became millionaires with their first books. But that isn’t what usually happens. Writing isn’t a way to earn a quick million. And this is my last and most important piece of advice—Only write if you love writing. If you haven’t got the patience to write lots, then writing probably isn’t for you. You have to do it because you love it, not because you want to be rich and famous. You have to be prepared for the hard slog.
I hope I haven’t made writing sound too hard. There are times when it’s wonderful—you get a great idea, or write a terrific paragraph, or think of a fabulous turning point, or someone tells you how much they enjoyed reading your work. Then it’s the best thing in the world.
Good luck to all the writers out there. Keep at it.