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Writing Tips

Ian Irvine

Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.

Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.
Book 1 of the long-awaited sequel to The View from the Mirror. Out May 17, 2016.



Lots of people tell me they want to write, but don’t have the time right now. But if you only write one page a day, that’s a book in a year. If you can’t write a single page a day, do you really want to be a writer?

Writing is a lot harder than it looks, and it takes many years of hard work to become accomplished at it. You have to be prepared to work as hard, and as long, as you would to become a concert pianist, a professional footballer, or a lawyer.

Essentials of a Story

At its simplest, a fantasy story involves a character in a setting, faced with some kind of problem which the character has to overcome to achieve his/her goal. The choices that the character makes in response to that problem create the story and move it along. In longer stories, the plots and subplots will go through many cycles of conflict, crisis and resolution as the characters get out of trouble only to end up in worse difficulty.

The essential elements of the story are conflict, crisis and resolution, and by the end of the story something should be different – either the main character, the situation, the attitude of the main character or the attitude of the reader.

That’s all you need to know to get started.

Getting Started

If you want to write, don’t read books on writing, or go to courses, yet – they probably won’t be much use to you until you’ve done a fair bit of writing on your own. Besides, you don’t need to learn how to write beautiful, correct prose at the moment. That’s not what editors are looking for unless you’re writing ‘literary’, in which case read no further. I’m talking about popular fiction: the stuff that ordinary people buy. Write a wonderful story and editors will probably want to buy it even if it’s got some flaws. Poor grammar or the odd writing flaw can be fixed, but if there’s a lousy story beneath your scintillating prose, no editor will touch it.

Writing, like painting or any other art, can only be learned by doing it, a lot. A painter who’s been painting for a year or two is an amateur, and so is a writer. It takes years to learn the craft so you need to get started right away. Think up a character or two, work out where the story is going to take place, and then get stuck into it. Put your characters in an interesting, difficult or dangerous situation and write them out of it, then have them land in an even worse one. Write a bit every day. Don’t look back over what you’ve written, because the editor that lurks inside every writer will find so much to hate that it’ll put you off writing. Keep going as fast as you can to the end, then don’t look at it for a couple of months. (Don’t stop working; write something else).

Revising and Editing

After the break, start from the beginning and read your story all the way through. You’ll find a lot you don’t like, but also a fair bit that you do, so then you can start on the real part of writing, which is revising over and over again until you’re happy with what you’re written. Once you’ve written that first draft, and revised it a few times, you’ll need some help. As I mentioned, editors may buy a wonderful story in spite of its other faults, but there’s a lot of competition out there and the way to get published is to be more professional than everyone else. Brilliant writers often don’t get published; professional ones do – particularly those that never, ever give up.

Writing References

There are a lot of good references on writing. I’ve found these to be among the best and they cover just about everything you need to know:

  • On the art of storytelling, ‘Story’ by Robert McKee.
  • The rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling etc, ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk & E B White.
  • For advice on editing, ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Renni Browne & Dave King.
  • General – ‘The 38 Most Common Fiction-Writing Mistakes’, by Jack Bickham
  • On writing fantasy — Orson Scott Card, ‘How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.’
  • Fantasy clichés — Diana Wynne Jones, ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’.
  • Fiction writing workbook — Kate Grenville, ‘The Writing Book’.
  • Guide and motivation — John Marsden, ‘Everything I know about Writing’.
  • Critiquing Fiction – Victory Crayne, ‘How to Critique Fiction,’
  • Research – G Ochoa and J Ogier, ‘The Writer’s Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe’.

Writing Courses and Mentors

Once you’ve done all that, and not before, take the writing course or seek a mentor, if you’re so inclined, though bear in mind that you have to learn your trade, and the more time and effort you put into it, the better your chances. A teacher or mentor can’t teach you anything until you’ve done enough writing to understand what you’re trying to do.

People often write asking me to read stories they’ve written. On the rare occasions that I agree, in a fit of weak-mindedness, I’m sent what is obviously a first draft, with a plot and characters recycled from a well known fantasy novel or movie, and full of spelling mistakes as well as incompetent punctuation and grammar. I find this insulting. After sixteen years of writing, and five years of that full time, I would never give my editor a first draft, or even a second or third. I’d be too embarrassed because I’d know how much it would be improved after I’d done more work on it. Don’t insult your teacher by giving them rubbish – learn the basics of your craft before you seek advice.

The Reality of being a Writer

It takes me (and most writers), the best part of a year to produce a finished book. The first draft of a 600 page book takes me a month or more, but by the time I send it to my editor I’ll have done another five or six drafts, starting at the beginning and working word by word to the end. And then, working with the editor, I’ll do another two or three drafts. It’s the rewriting that produces the quality.

The competition to get published, and then to stay published, is utterly ruthless. Only the best and hardest working people get there, and only a few of them actually make a living at it.

Getting Published

When the story is as good as you can make it, and you’re looking to get it published, remember that the big publishers get upwards of 4,000 fiction manuscripts a year, of which they might publish as few as two or as many as eight. So you’ve got roughly a one in a thousand chance of being accepted that way. Don’t bother showing your work to a publisher till you’ve done at least half a dozen drafts, and preferably a dozen, because it’s in the redrafting, not the original writing, that you really learn to become a writer. And it takes as long to become a good writer as it does to become a good brain surgeon, so you need all the practice you can get.

If the publisher does accept unsolicited manuscripts, expect it to take a long time. More than 90% are rejected on the first page, and 99% by the end of the first chapter, so your absolute best writing has got to be up front, just to get the book read.

But to maximise your chances, you need an ‘in’, i.e. a contact in the industry who will at least look at your work. Do a good writing course (after you’ve learned to write), go to writing seminars, workshops, literary festivals, SF conventions and all the other places where writers, agents, editors and publishers congregate. And then, pester them (in the nicest possible way) to take a look at your stuff. If it’s no good, they’ll still reject it after reading the first few pages. But if your writing has something, at least you’re getting personal attention, which puts you in the pile with thirty or forty manuscripts in it, rather than the dumpster with four thousand.

Good luck with it.

(September 2003)