10 things I learned about writing in 2016

I’ve just spent my first full year as an agented writer after years of learning how to write children’s fiction. In no particular order, here are my lightbulb moments of the last 12 months: things I’ve realized that have helped me most in my development as a writer this year.

  1. Beautiful writing abhors repetition, unless deliberate. There’s a fabulous, funny example of intentional repetition in BECAUSE YOU’LL NEVER MEET ME, one of my top reads of last year.
  2. Transcendent writing says something about the human condition. Frances Hardinge writes exquisite sentences I could happily live inside for a month, but it’s the insights that pepper her work that make feel wiser, and changed, after finishing one of her books.
  3. Revision always hurts and is always worth it. Wonderful pieces of writing may get cut during this process. Lin Manuel Miranda said this better than I can recently: “You don’t cut because it’s not good, you cut because it’s about serving the story and momentum. Editing would be EASY if just bad bits fell away.” Remove whatever’s needed and work hard to go deeper, closer, realer.
  4. Making up words is okay (viz. RIVERKEEP).
  5. Length doesn’t buy us depth as writers. LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET has 757 words and yet it’s heartbreakingly profound. I also learned that one of my favourite books of 2016 was given a last-minute edit just before press by its author, who pared back 3000 words at the 11th hour.
  6. To write something worth reading, the story must be in me and I in the story. The manuscript I’ve just given to my agent was ostensibly for my daughter when I first drafted it two years ago. But I realized during early edits that this wasn’t enough. I located the place inside myself that the story really sprang from, and that’s what brought it to another, stronger place. James Scott Bell talks about this in PLOT AND STRUCTURE: the need for a personal resonance in the stories we choose to write.
  7. Experimentation is good: challenging myself with new forms is worth the risk. I discovered that a story told from two points of view could work, but I had to let go of the metronome-like regularity (even back-and-forth between both characters, interspersed by an outside insert) of the first structure I tried; loosening up a bit helped the narrative function better.
  8. Beginnings matter. This fantastic blog from Jennie Nash talks about the need for confidence from the very first line. Some of my writing friends said they felt the need for hooky openers is overstated these days, but I disagree. If we can write, why not write something memorable, right from the starting gun? Maybe this is an impulse from my copywriting day job, where every syllable counts. A captivating first line is large part of my satisfaction as a reader, and I’ll do all I can to deliver the same experience for my readers. I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and Dickens knew what he was on about in this regard. “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
  9. I need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself. In my most recent story, character motivation wasn’t strong enough, stakes were too low and the goal unclear. I prioritized the changes I had to make, took my agent’s advice on which areas were dragging, and got to work. The new draft made us both a lot happier.
  10. If editing feels hardest as I near the end of the story, that’s because it is. And that’s okay. Writer Vikki King said (I’m paraphrasing) the work of writing a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.

What were your lightbulb moments as a writer this year? I am actively seeking tips – please let me know your insights below. 


Image from Sheng-Fa Lin on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/CeuUD

10 Replies to “10 things I learned about writing in 2016”

  1. Great lightbulb moments! I get what you say that a captivating first line will pull a reader, but it’s the rest of the book that will keep her. So I would add: if you’re not giving as much attention to the rest of the book as you have your opening line, then you’ve got work to do! Happy new year!

    1. Good one Candy – I know agents and editors have often said there’s the palpable sense that a manuscript has had its opening 20 pgs groomed to perfection, but that attention falls away later in the ms.

  2. These are great lightbulb moments. I think I’ve learned a lot this year. I know I need to edit and improve. I really loved reading these and have learned a bit or two xx

  3. This really resonates with me at the moment because I’m right at that 75% mark in revision and it’s really easy to beat up on myself for how messy it all is. Thanks for this great post! “[W]riting a story is in three parts – the first 75%, the next 20% and the final 5% – and the secret of success is putting the same amount of effort into all three parts. Think on that.”

    1. Laurel thanks for your comment: I am glad this resonated with you, because it did with me. It gave me both confidence and hope that there is an end to the messy business of revisions, but only eventually, and the only way past it is straight through…no shortcuts.

  4. sheila –
    something else struck me during the past year, which relates to your #9 above (i need to read my drafts cold and be honest with myself)
    it’s an edith piaf quote which sheds a positive light on what you (or a critical reader) identify as sub-standard in your work:
    ‘use your faults, use your defects’

    1. Thanks Philippa. That comment from Lin Manuel Miranda gives me hope: it makes it sting less to know that other writers are going through the same painful reimagining and cull during revisions.

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