Ten Writing Tips from Peter Robinson
- Remember that it’s writing you want to do. I’ve met many students who want to be writers, no doubt attracted by the glamour of being mentioned in blogs and tweets, darlings of the social media, full page reviews in the New York Times, the adulation of fans, hanging around the bar at Bouchercons with James Patterson and Michael Connelly, and so on. But a lot of these students don’t seem to want to write, and don’t really see that as a prerequisite. As Ed McBain said, “Put your ass on the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and write!”
- Read a lot. Again, when I ask would-be writers what they read, I’m surprised by how many admit that they don’t have time. You must make time to read a lot if you want to be a writer. The only thing I try to avoid is reading police procedurals when I am actually writing one, but other than that, all reading is fair game.
- Develop a thick skin. You’ll have to get used to rejection, and I usually find that the best way to deal with it is to think of the person rejecting me as an idiot with all the literary understanding of a particularly small flea. When I used to write poetry, I divided my poems into groups of five or six, had a list of possible magazines, and circulated the poems. As soon as they came back from one, they went to another, and so on. Eventually they got published. (Well, most of them!)
- Make time to write. It’s not always easy, especially with such inconveniences as jobs and family getting in your way, but try to carve out a little space for your writing every day. For me, the ideal is a few days, or preferably a few weeks, with nothing on my calendar—a rarity these days—and a hideaway with no phone or Internet. The thing is to build up some momentum in your writing, especially if it’s a novel, to get on a roll. This stop-start, stop-start rhythm you usually end up stuck with is very frustrating as you have to catch up with yourself each time you start over again, and just as you are getting somewhere, you have to stop.
- Don’t worry about outlines. Don’t even read books about them. The important thing is to find out what kind of writer you are. If you feel the need to write out the skeleton of your story before putting the flesh on the bones, then go ahead and do so. Why change? If you’d rather just plunge in at the deep end and try to stay afloat, then that’s the way for you. Both methods have their pluses and minuses and pitfalls galore, but it’s finding the working method that suits you best that’s the most important. Once you know that, you can make yourself aware of and learn how to deal with the problems that may arise.
- The worst advice I have ever heard about writing is, “Write about what you know.” Think about it. Unless you’ve lived a really exciting life full of incident and adventure, then you really don’t know very much. Certainly not enough to interest thousands or millions of readers. My first attempt at a crime novel featured an unemployed English Ph.D. graduate, which was about all I knew. It was crap. Far, far better to write about what interests and intrigues you, what you care about and feel passionate about, what you want to learn more about.
- Let your characters develop slowly, the way you get to know someone in real life. Don’t try to cram their entire lives into your first paragraph. And don’t feel the need to give a physical description of every character the minute she walks into the story. In fact, get your story moving before you start filling in character and place background. Once readers are caught in the flow of your story, they’ll be happy to pause for a while and learn more about young Michaela’s childhood or the geography of Wookey Hole.
- There’s a lot of rubbish talked about dialogue. Don’t try to imitate the way you hear people speak. It’s mostly unintelligible when written down. Shape your dialogue as you would your narrative prose. Try to find a voice for your characters, something that distinguishes one from another, but don’t settle for mannerisms, such as someone saying “old boy” at the end of every sentence. Try to be original. But most of all, remember that dialogue is fashioned and created speech, not a mere recording of what you hear.
- There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There are good days and bad days. If you’re having a bad day and nothing seems to be working out, take a break, go for a long walk, visit a friend, go and get drunk, or whatever. But make sure you’re back down at that computer or typewriter first thing next morning to try again. The same if it happens that day. And so on. There may even be bad weeks, but I guarantee that if you keep at it, it won’t be long before you’ve gotten over the hump and back on track again. Or maybe you’ve decided to write a different story.
- There’s nothing more important that determining who is telling the story. It’s called point of view, and it’s such a huge subject that you probably should read books on it. Suffice it to say that if the story isn’t going well, it may be because the wrong character is telling it, or it would work better in first person than in third. Try switching and see how it feels then.
BIO: One of the world’s most popular and acclaimed writers, Peter Robinson is the bestselling, award-winning author of the Inspector Banks series; he has also written two short-story collections and three standalone novels, which combined have sold more than ten million copies around the world. Among his many honors and prizes are the Edgar Award, the CWA (UK) Dagger in the Library Award, and Sweden’s Martin Beck Award.