I’ve never formally studied creative writing. I don’t have a degree in it, I’ve never been on a novel-writing course or workshopped a story — I’ve never even been on a retreat. (Although considering I’ve more than once used a 2-week self-isolation period to get a head start on a project before being released back into the world, maybe that counts…)
This is fine: you don’t need any of those things to become a writer. I sometimes wonder whether, if I’d started writing later, I’d have bought into the myth that you do; as it was, I was thirteen and invincible and the internet told me all I had to do to be a writer was write, so I did. By the time the impostor syndrome and desire for qualifications caught up with me, I had enough novels under my belt to feel reasonably confident that I could go it alone, so I studied medieval Irish instead, because that seemed a lot harder to do by yourself.
That’s not to say there’s no value to studying writing. I’m sure there is. Personally, I learned to write by doing it wrong, over and over again. The Butterfly Assassin was the fifteenth novel I wrote, and it still took seven years to get from first draft to final draft, because I got it wrong so many times. Every book that I’ve written has taught me something, and I don’t regret writing so many of them, but it’s definitely a labour-intensive way of doing things.
I tell people my early novels were bad and they say, “Oh, I’m sure they’re not as bad as you think.” I promise you, they are. While I’m occasionally a poor judge of my more recent work (I recently reread the third draft of Bard, which I wrote last year, and realised I was wrong to shelve it because that book has a lot of potential), I’m more than capable of being objective about my fourteen-year-old self’s output, and I know that they’re irredeemable. It’s fine. It was a process of learning.
I’ve always been a hands-on learner; you can tell me or show me how to do something and I’ll take in nothing until I do it myself. Maybe that’s why I never studied writing: even when I read about it, instructions and ideas don’t make sense to me until I’ve tried to apply them myself, and that usually results in me abandoning whatever I was reading to run off and write a new novel. I tried to take an online seminar last year and only got a few videos in before I got distracted with a new project. (I keep meaning to go back to it, but I never have.)
But my first drafts are a mess. Not on a sentence level — they’re pretty readable when it comes to the prose, which sometimes tricks people into thinking they’re better than they are — but on a plot level. They usually start out okay, and then somewhere in the middle they become a pile of events that don’t completely add up, leading to an abrupt and/or anticlimactic ending, and as soon as you start asking questions of the story it becomes apparent that I don’t have the answers. That’s why I tend to take such a drastic approach to editing, rewriting the book from the beginning — there’s no point fiddling with a sentence if the whole chapter might get yeeted when I change the entire plot to make something work.
Partly, my plot woes stem from the fact that I’m a pantser. Despite my best intentions, I seem incapable of plotting a book before I write it — if I do, I find myself deviating from my outline in chapter two and throwing the whole thing off course. The only way first drafts get on the page is if I start at the beginning and keep going until I get to the end, wherever it may take me along the way. Then I dismantle it in order to plot the second draft, now that I have some idea of what I’m trying to achieve.
Pantser by nature or not, sometimes you hit a point where you need an outline. Now is such a time: I have to write a synopsis of a book that isn’t written, and therefore I need to plan it. Okay, so I have a first draft, but I’m planning to completely overhaul the plot and change the ending considerably, so I have to plan it as though I don’t. As though the 98k I wrote last year was just the first outline, the bad outline, the mess I needed to make before I could do it properly.
And that’s why I’m telling you all of this, about writing things wrong as an integral part of my process, because you need to understand where I’m coming from when I say that there is nothing which activates my writing impostor syndrome like trying to outline.
I know some writers who plot their books practically to the page. They have spreadsheets. Beat sheets. They know exactly what should happen when in order to create the perfect 3-act arc (or 5-act, or whatever their chosen approach is). I live in fear of them, because my brain simply does not work like that. It’s not that I don’t think structure is important, but I’ve always just gone with my gut, relying on intuition honed by years of voracious reading.
Unfortunately, years of medieval literature have scrambled my intuition, convincing my brain that “a series of episodic combats followed by a long list of names followed by a one-page final battle where nothing really gets resolved” is an acceptable structure for a story. Which it is, if you’re an eleventh century Irishman, but for a modern novel, that stops looking like a book and starts looking like a hot mess pretty fast.
And that was fine, when I had as many drafts as I liked to get a story right — when I could just keep reworking it until the pieces clicked into place. But once you start writing professionally and start having contracts and deadlines, suddenly the whole process needs to speed up. No longer can I write a draft a year for six years before sending a book out into the world: no longer can I write by getting it wrong, over and over again, until the day I don’t.
When intuition fails me, that’s when I start to understand why people study writing. Why people like rules and advice and charts and tables. I still don’t think that’ll ever be me: I’ll read one (1) book about writing and decide that’s quite enough for me, thanks, and once again breathe a sigh of relief that my eighteen-year-old self didn’t decide to do a whole degree in it. Again: I’m sure that’s amply rewarding for some people and teaches them a lot (whether about writing or in terms of transferrable skills), but I think going down that path might have put me personally off writing forever.
So, I read a book about structure a couple of days ago, because I felt I needed the help. There comes a point in the process where you go, “Yeah, I need some assistance here,” and since nobody in the world has read the latest version of book two in this trilogy and therefore I cannot ask anyone to help me plot book three, I figured I would have to get my advice somewhere else.
It kind of helped. I had a lot of ideas floating around in my head that I hadn’t entirely figured out how to get onto the page. Or at least, I had them on the page, some of them, but not in the right order. I’d spent a bunch of time talking to myself in a notebook to figure out the character motivations (my usual method of planning: I will literally ramble to myself on paper like, “Could it be X? No, that doesn’t make sense with Y. What about Z?”), but I needed a way of making the resulting plot points fit, and ensuring it was narratively satisfying. With a slightly more formal understanding of how to structure a story under my belt, I was able to come up with an approximate outline, so that’s something.
(The book about structure was Into The Woods by John Yorke. I didn’t 100% vibe with it in places, so this is a recommendation only with caveats, but I appreciated that it didn’t take a prescriptive “this is the only Right Way” approach the way so many writing books do, and also that it looked at 5-act structure rather than prioritising the more common 3-act approach. I have never clicked with 3-act structure, but five acts I can get my head around, possibly because I was a Hamlet nerd as a teenager and some things rewire your brain permanently.)
But even though it helped, and solved a problem I was wrestling with, and encouraged me to cut the oldest plotline in the book because it simply wasn’t working… reading about structure makes me stressed, and sets off alarm bells in my head. Did I do it right in The Butterfly Assassin? I ask myself (because if I didn’t, it’s too late to fix it now). What about book two, am I going to have to rework that completely? Couldn’t somebody have told me this earlier? Am I a hack, a fraud, an impostor who somehow got invited into the writer club when they really don’t know what they’re doing?
And the thing is: I do know what I’m doing, most of the time. On a gut level, running on instinct, I know how to write a story. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. I have to keep telling myself that, when the impostor syndrome closes in. But that instinct-led approach means I have no idea how to explain what I’m doing, and it certainly doesn’t always fit neatly into diagrams.
That’s okay, mostly. Not everything has to fit into the diagrams. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that there are no rules that can’t be broken and there’s no method that works for everyone, or even for every book written by the same person. It’s a constant process of rediscovery and re-invention, figuring out how to write.
But. This book needs to be plotted in a particular way, and that’s the way I find hard, and that makes me feel like a fraud. It’s a very hard book to write: it has to be narratively satisfying both in its own right and as the conclusion to a trilogy; it has to wrap up its own plotlines and any loose threads from the first two books; and being a third book means it starts in a state of absolute chaos, so your usual approaches to the first act of a book don’t work and it kind of has to be structured back-to-front. Unlike a standalone book, where we start with a normal that gets disrupted, a third book following on from a cliffhanger starts with a complete mess that needs to be gradually resolved: there is no normal, and we get dropped in the deep end.
Plus, this book isn’t under contract yet, but I would very much like it to be, so I need to make it look appealing and functional right from the synopsis — something I never had to do with an unwritten book before I started doing this professionally.
So, I have to face up to the thing I’m bad at, accept that I’m bad at it, and teach myself how to do it — all while my brain screams at me that I should have learned how to do it before I tried to make a career out of this, and probably my book is going to flop and it’ll be a disaster and I should give up now. These are not helpful brainweasels to feed, and I try to avoid it, but there’s something about being six months out from your debut novel’s publication that sets them all a-chattering, and I have to say, it’s a full-time job just trying to keep them quiet most of the time.
It doesn’t help that I’m in the process of arranging my first school visit as a professional author — what a bizarre sentence to write — and was asked if I wanted to do a talk or whether I wanted it to be more of an interactive creative writing workshop. Immediately my brain went, I can’t teach anyone how to write, I barely know what I’m doing. And, well, that’s not totally true, but I’m certainly not convinced my approach is replicable.
These brainweasels, this imposter syndrome… it’s all part of the process of going from writing as a hobby to writing as a career, I think — not that I wasn’t always trying to improve, but it’s different, when somebody other than yourself will care if you mess this up. And it is a process, this transition: it’s a constant, ongoing, humbling process. No matter how well I thought I understood my approach to writing, it will change now, by necessity, because a book written under contract is a fundamentally different beast than a book written over the course of several years with nobody breathing down your neck. A book written specifically to be published, rather than a book written only with the aspiration of publication, is a different beast. There are new rules and new methods to be determined.
One of those is learning about structure. And it’s probably not the case that every book I write from now on will fit in a five-act chart before I write it (more likely I’ll write the first draft in my usual chaotic way and try and fix it afterwards, as I always do). But this book needed me to learn this, and so I did. And the next book may require me to learn something completely different, so I will.
Maybe I don’t know how to teach people about writing, because nobody taught me about writing, but I know this: it’s completely fine to learn by doing it wrong, but you have to be able to recognise when that’s what you’re doing, otherwise you’re never going to do it right. Writing this book badly only worked because I could see that it wasn’t working and was willing to make the effort to take a different approach. Without realising the problem was structure, and teaching myself how to fix it, I’d probably have just continued to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Write it wrong first. But then figure out why it’s wrong, and write it right.