Learning to Write

For some while now I have been thinking about novelists’ ways of learning to write. Then three conversations recently presented the issue to me in quite individual and thought provoking ways. And I am missing the chance to discuss it with friends and fellow authors. Missing it badly, if I’m  honest.

For this is the season that the Romantic Novelists Associationholds its annual conference as I write. And I am missing the panels, the talks, the workshops – not to mention the kitchen chats and the goody bags. So  all the stuff that I regularly count on to raise my industry knowledge, various writing skills and sheer enthusiasm is happening. Only. I. Am Not There.

So this blog is a sort of wish fulfilment. Were I at the Conference, I would be hunkering down in a kitchen with like minds and a decent bottle or two and… Well, you get the picture.

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First conversation. I am lunching with dear friends and fellow authors

Two of us came to publication through the RNA’s New Writers Scheme. We have all critiqued ms for it and taught various writing workshops and classes. Do they, I ask, ever worry that they are giving writers advice that sets the poor souls off on the wrong track for some reason?

plotter-writer confessesThey hoot. They have all sought and received advice over the years. And the consensus is, you don’t keep banging away on some track that doesn’t fit your characters, plot or way of writing. If it works for you, it sticks. If it doesn’t, you can’t even remember it.

Unanimously they refer me to my own offering “Screw the punch”. Not that it was original. But it works for me so well, I have often shared it with others, including on this blog.

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I had a bit of a hiccup with my email this week and ended up falling onto an old  exchange I’d had with the sadly missed Anne Weale. She was a forthright person, independent-minded and, as very young writer with Mills & Boon, a founder member of the RNA. Her golden period M&Bs are classics.

She was also a very early adopter of social media and used to write a regular column for the Bookseller on key bookish blogs and websites. New platforms, new contracts, new publishers, these were subjects that one author could legitimately teach to another, she argued. They were hard facts. But Creative Writing? No. That was taste and judgement. It was either in you or it wasn’t.

I demurred.

characters in shadows - crazy authorHer come-back was brisk. “Do you remember those painting by numbers kits?” she asked. “Did you ever see a result one of those that looked natural?” Um. “No, of course you didn’t. They were crude imitations. Awkward. No natural flow. They looked wrong. You can’t programme yourself to write. It has to grow from the inside.”

Well, OK, I said but what about when, say, an author had backed themselves into a cul de sac. (It was prescient. Exactly that happened to me a few years later. EL Sodh. Curses on his heroic head.) Surely that author might look for a course, or a mentor, to help get him or her back on track.

Her solution was exactly what you would expect from a women who wrote her first novel in an isolated bungalow in up-country Malaysia, while her husband was often away on duty. “You read lots. And you just keep on writing until it starts to flow again.”

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The wonderful Diane Pearson also prescribed reading, I remember. She Editor Extraordinary (Kate Atkinson, Terry Pratchett, Joanna Trollope and a host of other best sellers). And she was also a best selling novelist in her own right.

She was more Zen about writing courses. If you went on one, she thought, you would almost certainly take from it whatever would benefit you. Sometimes it would be a way of looking at character or plot or structure. Sometimes it was an editing tool or two. Neither you, nor the tutor was wholly in control. But just being in a creative mind space was generally good. As long as you didn’t expect it to solve all your problems. (A good warning. El Sodh fought back. For months.)

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This was a lovely piece of serendipity. I had finished my early morning writing and was pottering in the kitchen, feeding the cat and listening to Start the Week. And suddenly there was a a chap off on a rant about story structure gurus that our own Dame Isadora would envy.

“As a screen writer, Joseph Campbell is a red alert word. The minute we hear the words Joseph Campbell we know that what follows is formula.”  And “It’s why so many modern films are so boring. That’s Hollywood understanding of myth.”

The ranter went on to claim to a nineteenth century romantic view of originality himself. Aha, I thought. Sound chap. He turned out to be eminent award-winning playwright (of Pravda and so much more), Sir David Hare, currently re-imagining Peer Gynt for the National Theatre.

Actually the whole programme, with Stephen Fry, Alison Balsom and Lucy Hughes-Hallett as well, is a fabulous discussion about Epic Quests and Greek Myths. Sir David’s Epic Rant is quite late at just after 34.30 minutes in. He’s pretty rude about the Royal College of Music too. Well worth the detour. Bless the BBC’s podcasts!

Yes, I thought. It IS possible to steer people onto the wrong track and – if you’re too big a name, or the professor on whose end of term report their degree depends – damn well insist they stay there. Authors need to be alert to that possibility.


Well, it pretty feeble but I think they’re all right. My best advice is to try anything anyone suggests to help your writing along. But if, after a decent effort, it doesn’t feel right, don’t tie yourself in knots to stick with it. You don’t need that particular bit of advice. At least you don’t need it right now, for this piece of work. Maybe one day you’ll be grateful for it. But not yet.

And don’t beat yourself up about that. Yes, I’ve done that too. I know of what I speak.

Have a wonderful Conference everyone! Can’t wait to hear all about it. 

Sophie Weston AuthorSophie

9 thoughts on “Learning to Write

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    I am not at Conference either and missing the buzz and camaraderie, the reigniting of one’s author status. It’s odd how even 30 years later I can still feel like a fraud and need that reassurance. I still read Writing Magazine and soak up nuggets of writing lore I hadn’t thought of. Workshops at the conference had the same effect when I could confidently say to myself, “Yes, that’s right, I do that.” Another little reinforcement that I do know what I’m doing. Advice at any stage of one’s writing life can be a boost. Or discarded if it doesn’t ring for you.

    1. Sophie Post author

      You’re right Liz. A writing course can be an affirmation and really heartening. I can think of several classes that have done that to me, at least three of them at an RNA conference. And one of them was from you. Feathers! (She said darkly.)

  2. Jane Lovering

    I’m also not at Conference, and came to the blog to get some Writerly Words of Wisdom (because I am missing those kitchen chats…). I absolutely agree with most of what’s said – and that the NWS is the best thing in the world because the feedback is anonymous. You have no idea if the advice is being given by The Biggest Name in the World or a writer who is struggling with plot, theme and character as much as you are. So it’s easier to take the words of your report as guidance, rather than deciding you must slavishly follow their every word because they came direct from The Biggest Name in the World.

    It’s a fabulous scheme.

    But yes, missing Conference. Boo.

    1. Sophie Post author

      SO sympathise with you, Jane. And I hadn’t thought about that aspect of the anonymity of New Writers Scheme reports but I see your point exactly. You don’t know the source, so you take it out for a bike ride in total freedom. No prior assumptions. That’s something you can’t get from face to face teaching or those online Masterclasses.

      Wow, two replies to my blog, it isn’t even nine in the morning and already I’m thinking more widely! Thank you, both.

      (Still miss the kitchens, though.)

  3. lesley2cats

    I’m not there, either! Excellent blog, Sophie. I agree about CW courses and classes, even though I went to Uni to do a Master’s and taught it for the local Education Authority and the WEA. The Master’s was hilarious – they knew nothing of popular fiction and I actually gave a talk on the RNA at one point. But I got something out of it – my publisher. And a week staying in an isolated pub in Wales with a lot of sheep farmers. When I taught it, as “Writing for Pleasure and Profit”, I concentrated on the absolute basics (only write on one side of the paper for instance). I think I have come to agree with the great AW. It’s in you or it isn’t. But technicques can be taught. I’m not advertising, but I’ve just read Jane’s excellent book, co-authored with Rhoda, on romantic comedy, and it reminded me of some of those basics in timely fashion.

  4. lizharriswriter

    A very interesting blog, Sophie. Thank you for it.

    I smiled when I read your reference to Anne Weale. One of my last online exchanges with her was about the difficulty of the BBC and so many others to use correctly ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.

    I’m another who couldn’t make the conference this year. I must await the reports in Romance Matters and the photos. Next year, I shall be there!

  5. Liz Fielding

    I’m just back from the conference and buzzing with all the great presentations and classes. Such an amazing atmosphere and lifting of everyone, no matter how new or experienced.

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