‘We’re all writers,’ I tell my students. ‘The only difference between us is experience, and that’s what I can share with you.’ At this stage, experience is certainly something I can claim. I’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults — everything from picture books to epic crossover trilogies. However, as every professional writer knows, experience doesn’t equal ease. In fact, I wonder if our very experience might at times hold us back creatively. Writing can become a battle between what we think we know and simply relaxing into the story.
While finding that sweet spot between expertise and letting go seems the ideal, trusting one’s instincts can be a challenge — and perhaps more so for those of us who also teach creative writing or are editors. Half my work time is spent explaining writing techniques; reading manuscripts; considering how to help improve a piece of work. When the time comes to simply write, it’s difficult to relax into creative freedom. Though I tell my students about the two ‘hats’ one must wear – one for writing, one for editing – I know better than anyone that this can be easier said than done.
Yet I once had the same attitude about writing as many of those I teach: a sense of wonder; fearlessness; undiluted joy. I wasn’t afraid to tackle big novels because I didn’t know how difficult they were. Writing seemed easy — the stories just wrote themselves. By the time I was 26, I had a single short story published and the first draft of a novel that no agent wanted. But I still recall feeling on top of the world that year, because I’d just had an idea for a children’s fantasy. I had no clue what happened in it. I could hardly wait to find out. With dialogue, characters, a whole world tugging at me, I eagerly sat down and started to write. Creatively, the world was my oyster.
Five years later, I’d finished a first draft of the novel and somehow landed an agent. It was a different era, more forgiving of an imperfect draft. My agent sold my book, and suddenly David Fickling was my editor. I was starstruck. David Fickling was Philip Pullman’s editor. I was certain this was my moment — that whatever wisdom David imparted would transform my book into a bestseller. As it turned out, David admired my writing but felt the story’s structure was deeply flawed. He was right. I’d written it wholly on instinct, without even the whisper of a plan. I was the ultimate ‘pantser’ — and the term hadn’t even been invented yet. Structure wasn’t a concept I had ever encountered before and I had no idea how to tackle it.
I was about to start my long road towards experience.
Cue meeting after meeting with David, where he took apart each of my attempts at a rewrite and essentially taught me craft: scene structure, story structure, the importance of threads weaving together. I spent three years trying to impose structure on a meandering, unplanned story without discarding any of my favourite material. It took me far too long to realise that this is like trying to save the wallpaper while you knock down the walls. But along the way, I learned to self-edit. I started to get a sense for pace; purpose; how a scene feels when it’s coming together. My children’s fantasy eventually fell to pieces, wearied by the repeated joins. Yet when I (clandestinely, guiltily) started a new novel, I suddenly realised how much I’d learned.
In five more years, I’d written four young teen novels for David and was doing freelance editing and teaching on the side. I honed my skills further as I taught and advised others. I made graphs showing story structure. I deconstructed scenes for my students. I explained ‘Show Not Tell’ and presented contrasting ‘told’ and ‘shown’ examples. We talked about dialogue, subtext, character arcs, backstory, pacing. When to trim your writing, when to flesh it out. I discovered a love of teaching, and still teach today. I mentor; I design writing courses. I’ve advised on over a hundred manuscripts, as well as writing dozens of other books myself. So, with all this technical knowledge, all this experience, writing should now be simple – or at least simpler – right?
Professional writers will most likely not be shocked to learn that no, this is not true, at least not for me. Though experience is of course an advantage, I think its greatest benefit is in simply knowing that I can write a novel — because I’ve done it before. At times, I’ve found that my experience can actually bring a strange short-sightedness. For instance, in my current novel I’ve been struggling with a particular plot point. The answer – to let the reader know a key piece of information upfront – took months to find, because relinquishing that big dramatic reveal went against what I ‘knew’ to be true.
Similarly, while a greater understanding of structure was in many ways the key that opened the door to publication, I learned the hard way that novels cannot be tamed by structure alone. Twelve years ago, having written over thirty children’s series fiction titles, I thought I’d finally mastered this writing lark. I sold my first 100k+ novel based on a few sample chapters, and when my agent asked how long I’d need to complete it, I did sums: ‘Well, I can write a 15K story in three weeks, that’s 5K a week, and 100 divided by five is twenty…how about five months?’ My agent suggested six instead.
I happily sketched out a chapter plan as I’d learned from series fiction, then tucked into the story. It didn’t take me long to feel as if I were battling a hydra, with characters who refused to do what I wanted and plot-holes popping up at every turn. Some authors can write an epic-length novel in half a year; as it turned out, I’m not one of them. No matter how much one ‘knows’ about structure, each novel presents its own challenges. As Neil Gaiman famously reported being told by Gene Wolfe, ‘You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn to write the novel you are on.’
Today, with six epic novels under my belt, I know that novels of any length are endlessly challenging, fascinating, and often frustrating projects. In contrast to the twenty-six-year-old me, who didn’t give the how a thought, or the older me, who believed she had the how completely sorted, I now view the prospect of writing a novel with much respect and not a little trepidation. My experience has taught me how difficult even the supposedly simpler ones are. Now I scrutinise new story ideas carefully. Diving right in is a thing of the past. How will I structure this? A multi-point-of-view cast, once a thing of god-like joy, now brings serious pause for thought. (All those emotional arcs!) Every time I sit down to write a new novel, the task seems nearly impossible. I look back at the ones I’ve written and think, How did I do that?
Many of my author friends report that they, too, have found writing a progressive challenge, regardless of accolades or number of books on the shelves. It stands to reason: as anyone who teaches writing knows, the student who thinks their work is marvellous usually has the furthest to go. The more one learns about writing, the more one realises there is to know — the more one becomes painfully aware that one’s vision still falls short of the finished work. This perhaps especially applies to published authors. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is a thing for a reason.
Yet the joy when a novel does come together is like no other. We professional authors often feel driven: we need to write. We live for writing; eat it; breathe it. Writing is what defines us, and maybe if it were easy, it wouldn’t feel as worth it. One of my favourite quotes, from the film A League of Their Own, sums this up: ‘It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.’
As I tell my students, all that separates us as writers is experience. The things I’ve learned along the way have been hard-won, and I’m deeply grateful for them. But at times I need to let go — to reach again for that child-like state where anything is possible, where drawbacks and difficulties don’t exist. One never stops learning when it comes to writing. As I enter my third decade of writing professionally, I view my students’ passion, their fearlessness, and realise that I have much to learn from them, too.