Five things I relearned to be a fiction writer

[This blog post first appeared on in December 2017]

relearned - Novel Rocket

When I started writing fiction, I did what everyone does when at the start of a journey.

I looked forward.

With an excited deep breath, I developed my story ideas, built my platform and sought to be inspired by best-selling author blog posts, while dreaming of joining them.

But when I got that one judge’s feedback on my first fiction ACFW competition, I realized I didn’t need to look forward, I needed to look back.

I had been writing professionally for twenty-five years (I’m a freelance journalist and copywriter when I want to get paid for writing) when I felt the nudge to write fiction. I thought it would be an easy transition; an extension of what I was already doing. After all, I’d clocked up thousand-word days for decades.

But while the judge in the Genesis contest loved the story idea and characters, they were politely enquiring as to my grasp of the English language. So why the harsh feedback? With me, writing fiction was a whole different kettle of fish, and that kettle was half-way around the world. That was what the Genesis judge didn’t know – I wasn’t speaking American English because I’m not American.

I’m an Aussie, born in the land of Hugh Jackman and Thor.

That may not sound like a big deal as our cultures are similar, but my readers spell differently, use grammar differently and have different turns of phrase. While I could write blindfolded, there were ten-year-olds in Boston whose American English was more consistent than mine.

Let me show you what I mean: colour, recognise, finallist. This Australian English spelling has served me well since I was a sports journalist at nineteen, but to my readers’ American eyes they’re mistakes that wouldn’t get me past round one in the Wenatchee School District Spelling Bee.

So I realized I would have to relearn the very skill I’d honed over a career because my new marketplace demanded it. It was like jumping into the driver’s seat after spending years behind the wheel, but needing a driving instructor because now I was driving on the other side of the road.

I needed to do more than just type with an American accent. There were five things I needed to relearn, and I’ve found that other authors have had to relearn them as well.  This might be your experience too.

  1. Unlearning some of what you’ve learned. I once had an English teacher who claimed Shakespeare was the pinnacle of great writing and all fiction should aspire to follow the Bard. That’s just not true. I truly admire Shakespeare’s turns of phrase and mastery of language, but I’m writing contemporary fiction, which requires different structure and different pacing. “Out damn spot!” would only work if my antagonist had a naughty dog and liked cussing.Another teacher taught us to be as descriptive as possible, even if it took pages to paint a picture, and demanded ten variations of the word “said” in every piece. Again, not useful for my genre and I don’t even use those tags anymore. The key to unlearning was a shift in focus towards what my potential readers want and away from some kind of English Literature professor ideal.
  2. Cherrypicking the best knowledge from school. There are some things that haven’t changed from high school English – the basics of grammar, spelling, and style. I scoffed at our journalism professor when he held up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style back in 1990 and told us we’d need this for the rest of our lives. He was right, only for me, it has taken on greater significance. I need it for a writing career of a different kind, and I’m glad I kept the book. But the biggest lesson was one I learned on day one of my journalism studies: know your audience. That advice is very relevant now. What they think matters and a focus on them is absolutely critical when producing a story that captivates them from the front-of-book dedication to the epilogue.
  3. Unlearning what you’ve picked up along the way. Sometimes you have to unravel the lessons picked up in the workplace. If you’ve written in business, you would have adopted business writing style or had any creativity beaten out of you with the constant “that’s just how we write things here around here!” I’ve had to do this based on my work in the corporate world, where some clients have a style which tempts me to break rules I once held as sacrosanct. Deprogramming takes a while, and means when you get serious about fiction, you need to …
  4. Learn to care again. One of the issues I find with writing today is the sacrifice of quality for speed. I run corporate workshops about writing and run headlong into this belief that good writing is an optional extra; the fact it was written was enough for the box to be ticked. Why it matters has been lost due to the choking grip of time. I found when I changed gear to fiction that I needed to care again about getting it right – that my half-thought-out 11p.m. tweet dropped into the rushing rapids of social media wasn’t good enough.The corners I had cut to keep clients happy needed to be stuck back on. I had to remember my first love for language, and realize that it mattered, even if it did add some time to the process.
  5. Going against the flow. Life wants you to do things faster. Social media demands responses in an instant. I’ve spent a career meeting deadlines that pop up like targets on a shooting range, but I had to rethink my approach to time. My writing requires the exact opposite of a fast-lane mentality. Storylines don’t emerge, they percolate. My characters don’t always leap onto the page, sometimes they distill over two drafts. For my second manuscript, which my agent currently has in front of several publishers, I wrote the opening line last. The hook took that long to come.

The feedback from that judge hurt when I read the scoresheet, but as more water has passed under the bridge and I’ve waded deeper into the waters of fiction writing, I’ve realized just how valuable it has been. It has forced me not to just to rethink but to relearn writing in a way that’s seen my writing develop to a point where it’s on the cusp of fulfilling its potential.

The next year, that same manuscript was a Genesis finalist, and I was on my way. I hope the judge was the same person and noticed the difference.


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