Advice for Writers from Writers – Part One

Gollancz Fest Banner 1A publishing list would be nothing without its authors, and we’re always astounded by how welcoming, helpful and downright nice ours are. So as part of #gollanczfest we asked them to provide us with some suggestions and advice for aspiring authors. We have four posts for you today from authors such as Joanne Harris, Aliette de Bodard, Elizabeth Bear, Tom Lloyd and many more, so keep checking back! But to kick us off, here’s Miles Cameron, Mike Carey, Gavin Smith and Connie Willis!


Miles Cameron2Miles Cameron:

‘There is no substitute for experience. If a character needs to have a skill, it’s better to try and do that thing, no matter how difficult, than to pretend the knowledge, even from an expert opinion. I learned more from an hour of trying to write on parchment with period ink than all the books I read on calligraphy.’

“The way to write twenty pages a day is to sit and write as if it was work, without access to internet or a good book or anything else.  Just write. All day.”

To find out more about Miles Cameron follow him on Twitter: @Phokion1


Mike Carey:

At rock bottom writing is a purely mechanical skill, like riding a bike or doing open heart surgery. And just as with mike-carey-1those things, the more you do it the better you’ll get. Okay, I admit I wouldn’t want to meet a heart surgeon who was still in the hopeful, bumbling, learning-from-your-mistakes stage, but the point stands all the same. If you keep on writing your writing will improve. Especially if you get other people to comment on what you’re writing and listen to what they say.

Incidentally, that last part doesn’t work for heart surgeons. “You should totally have gone in through the left ventricle, dude…”

To find out more about Mike Carey follow him on Twitter: @michaelcarey191


Gavin Smith-detailGavin G. Smith: Not to be taken too seriously:

-If, like I did, you got into writing so you could spend a lot of time in a room on your own, listening to music you like, then you’re in for a shock.  You will be forced to socialise with other people.  Editors and PR types will use strange and terrifying words like ‘promote’ and most dread of all ’network’ (I fucking hate this word.)  Most entertainingly, however, you will have to attend conventions with other writers.  These are hysterical.  Imagine a building full of introverts all trying to get noticed.

-Telling a commissioning editor that he is going to publish you sooner or later, so he may as well get used to the idea, is an acceptable pitch approach.


-Embrace rejection but assume it’s a lapse in the rejecter’s taste/common sense so it doesn’t affect your confidence.  Conversely, do accept feedback (you are frequently not the best judge of your own work, you’re too close). If people have bothered then it’s always well-meant.  “It’s shit, you should stop writing,” isn’t feedback, it’s spite.

-Proof reading the previous day’s work is a good idea, but wait until you’ve written the full story before you go back and fix it.  If you try and fix it as you go along you’ll just get bogged down, and even if you think you hate what you’ve written you may find that it’s not nearly as bad as you thought when you go back to it.  (This is the main difference I know between people who finish books (i.e. writers) and people who just kind of fancy being a writer.)


-If you’re ever at a convention and you get into real trouble, it’s alright to tell people that you’re Joe Abercrombie.

-Consider other vocations (I don’t need the competition).

-But mostly alcohol.

To find out more about Gavin G. Smith  follow him on Twitter: @gavingsmith


Connie Willis:connie willis

What advice do I wish I’d gotten when I was starting out?  That’s a tough question.  So much of the advice you get as a writer is irrelevant–“Plastics!”–or rude–“You’ll never get anywhere with that Peter Pan collar!  And those glasses!–or just plain bad–“What you need to do is write a trilogy.  In six massive volumes.  About zombies!”–that I hesitate to give anybody advice, but in the many years I’ve been writing,  I suppose I have learned a couple of things that might be useful.  They are:

– Never slap anyone, no matter how satisfying it might be.

– Instead, practice something polite to say to all the people who offer you unsolicited advice and/or criticism. And practice a smile that is not a grimace while saying it.

– Never wear anything white to a booksigning. It immediately attracts coffee stains, soup stains, spaghetti sauce, indelible ink, and unflattering comparisons to Emily Dickinson and/or Tom Wolfe (for which you will need the polite response and the smile.)

– Before speaking, check your person for the aforementioned stains, your teeth for kale and sesame seeds, and your speech/notes/manuscript for missing and/or out-of-sequence pages.Write. Write some more.  And some more.  Malcolm Gladwell’s “it takes ten thousand hours to get good at what you do” theory is dead-on.  Our version in workshop was that you had a hundred thousand words of garbage to write before your stories started looking like anything, and if you read any biography of a writer, you’ll see that’s just what they did.  And it’s not just writers.  Steve Martin spent twelve years in smoky comedy clubs perfecting his act.  And Van Gogh studied color theory and took an art correspondence course.  (I am not making that up.)  Writing is an art, but your talent and/or genius won’t stand a chance of coming out if you don’t learn your craft.

– There are lots of ways to do that, but the best is by reading people who’ve put in those ten thousand hours and are really good at what they do. Not Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson–they’re so good they just make you despair.  But everybody else.  Read Victor Hugo and Agatha Christie for plot, Dickens and Jane Austen for character, Daphne DuMaurier and  Ross Lockridge, Jr. for setting–and P.G. Wodehouse and Thornton Wilder for how to make people laugh and/or sob helplessly.  You’ve got the greatest writing teachers in history right at your fingertips.  Learn from them.

– Don’t give up. Somebody-or-other famous said successful writers are the ones who were too stubborn–or too stupid–to know when to give up, and that’s definitely true.  So keep going in spite of rejection letters and harsh critiques and failed projects and orphaned books and savage reviews and dashed hopes and writer’s block–and divorces and disasters and betrayals and humiliations. They’re the price of admission.

– And they’re utterly impossible to keep going in spite of unless you’re writing what you love. So forget about catching the latest trend  or writing a bestseller or a breakthrough novel or figuring out what the next thing to go viral will be, and write the stories you want to write, the stories you have to write. Write the stories that really matter to you, and do what you love.  I was just in Kansas City for the World Science Fiction Convention, and while I was there, I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which is dedicated to the black baseball players who, when they were denied the chance to play in the Major Leagues because of bigotry, formed their own teams and leagues.  One of those players, Gene Benson of the Philadelphia Stars, said:  ”  I never felt I wasn’t making the money the white players made, or I wasn’t famous.  I just wanted to play baseball.  I loved the game.  I’d have played for a hundred dollars, for a dollar.  I’d have played for nothing just to get out there on that grass, that dirt, and play baseball.”  That’s how I feel–how I’ve always felt–about writing science fiction, and it’s why I’m still here writing it after all these years.  It should be how you feel.


Check back on the blog later today for more writing advice.

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