17 Pieces of Excellent Writing Advice In One Handy Post

To all and sundry* a big hello. Now that I’m back to blogging, but before I return to the nefarious narcissism of the Superblogger, I thought I’d interrupt that particular bile with my customary speciality – dubious writing advice.

In 2015, the restaurant critic and broadcaster Giles Coren made a programme for Sky Arts called “My Failed Novel”. In it, he explored the possible reason why a decade before, his one and only fiction novel, Winkler, failed in fairly spectacular fashion, both commercially and critically.

17 Pieces of Excellent Writing Advice In One Handy Post

Giles Coren (happy)

Because Coren is a minor celebrity in the UK, it meant he got to interview a lot of heavy hitters (the like of whom you might pay actual money to hear speak at a literary festival, for instance). Immediately I saw it, I thought: good grief, that’s jampacked full of advice and insight! I should put some of it into a blog post and share it, says I to myself. And it only took 2 years of it sitting on my telly box to actually do it.

So here it is – practical, helpful and realistic advice, divided into the 4 stages of the literary process known as Hope, Delusion, Stress and Despair (otherwise known as Writing, Publishing, Selling and Criticism).

And before you say it, none of this advice is coming from me, which is what makes it so excellent. If you don’t agree with some of it, don’t blame me.

1. The Beginning: Advice on Writing

1. Jeffrey Archer still does 14 drafts of every novel before submitting to his publisher. “You’ve got to put the work in… never be satisfied”.

2. David Mitchell said that there’s a difference between being a writer and an author. The writer sits in the back bedroom writing the book. The author launches it, and goes to literary festivals, and does the interviews, and signs the books. If you start to think of yourself as an author all the time, you’ve had it. The writer gets payoff while they’re actually writing the book, when the writing goes well.

3. However talented you are, you still have to learn how to write. You have to learn how to organise a plot.

4. Rose Tremain said you can teach people how to write better simply by recognising what they’re really good at, and what they’re not really good at – by bringing the former up, and making the latter go away. It’s editorial more than teaching. All you need to be a novelist is empathy, patience and imagination.

17 Pieces of Excellent Writing Advice In One Handy Post

Giles Coren (not so happy)

2. The Middle: Advice on Publishing

5. Having a public or celebrity profile, such as Coren, will help you to publish a novel, but it won’t help you to sell one.

6. Rachel Johnson said success comes from familiarity, which explains the popularity of trilogies and series: “It’s all about long-form now. It’s not about the quick hit. People want the same thing over and over again. Don’t ever try and do anything new.”

7. Curtis Brown agents said some of the things which put them off straight away are easiest to avoid: starting off by saying “I know my book’s not very good but I was hoping you might look at it anyway”; sending queries to one agent addressed to another; and failure to follow basic rules e.g. capital letters at the beginning of names.

8. William Nicholson was already a hugely successful play, screenplay and YA fiction author when he got his 8th rejection for adult fiction. He says: “Successful books might be clumsily written, but they still come from something visceral and emotional deep inside the writer.” He believes that writing a novel takes maturity, and that writers hit their peak in their late 50s.


3. The End: Advice on Selling

9. Rachel Johnson said you do not write a book for money, because you won’t get it. Also, there’s no point to having a launch party. They’re expensive and ineffective.

10. Despite Coren being a famous restaurant critic and journalist, his first book only sold 771 copies, after he was paid an advance of £30,000. Jeffrey Archer’s first book sold 3,000 copies. He didn’t break through until book no. 3. (Cain & Abel).

11. Readers have to hear about a book 5 times before they buy it. Word of mouth is the singlemost important thing when selling a book.

12. Kate Mosse said that if you don’t win a prize or your book isn’t shortlisted for any, it might only stay on shelves for a maximum of 6 weeks.


4. The Aftermath: Advice on Criticism

13. Some traditionally published authors get no reviews at all.

14. Your worst reviews can come from people who haven’t read your book. Coren concluded that criticism from people who haven’t read your book is “simply by-the-by”.

15. Your worst critic might have thought they were making a joke.

16. When things go wrong, authors blame agents, publishers and readers. Never themselves. But Sebastian Faulks said if you write a good book, the readers will come.

17. Coren believes that ultimately his book failed not just because it wasn’t very good, but because he wrote it not for its own sake, but for the things he thought it would bring him.


*(Who is Sundry, anyway? Does he ever get invited to parties? I bet he brings terrible gifts. At the moment I feel like Superblogger is coming back next week, but time will tell.)

  40 comments for “17 Pieces of Excellent Writing Advice In One Handy Post

  1. July 7, 2019 at 11:05 am

    Good advice – I also believe that launch parties are a waste of time.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. July 7, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    All excellent advice. I’m heartened by Mr. Archer’s 14 drafts of every book. My three or four attempts at perfection with each book no longer make me feel like a hack. Yes, I KNOW a tiny, minuscule percentage of writers finish a book in one draft but that knowledge doesn’t lessen my feelings of inadequacy and abject failure when my first draft is riddled with insertions and sticky notes. (P.S. It’s lovely to see you again.)

    Liked by 3 people

    • July 7, 2019 at 3:41 pm

      Thank you Luanna – it’s good to be back (I think!). I’m not sure any writer really finishes a book in one draft – or a good book, at least. Saying so can create good spin, but one wonders what it means for the formal editing process.


  3. Sue Featherstone
    July 7, 2019 at 1:45 pm

    I’m encouraged that writers hit their peak with maturity – bodes well for me…

    Liked by 4 people

    • July 7, 2019 at 3:42 pm

      For us all, I think, Sue! I think there’s a reason writers who are both young and successful hit the headlines – it just doesn’t happen all that often.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 7, 2019 at 4:20 pm

        Certainly bodes well for me. I started writing my first novel in my late 50s!

        Liked by 3 people

  4. July 7, 2019 at 4:27 pm

    Thank goodness I’m already in the middle of a big, fat mainstream trilogy! (#6) They take a while to write.

    #11 – readers have to hear about the book at least 5 times – sounds like it rewards pushy authors, but I think if ANY of those 5 or more times are the slightest bit negative, they aren’t going to help.

    If you’re a writer, you really have no choice in the matter.

    Happy writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 7, 2019 at 9:39 pm

      Agreed, Alicia – I would go further and say that nobody ever wants to hear about a book 5 times from one person, let alone the person who wrote it!!

      The point they were making in the show was really that people need to have heard about it 5 times from different sources – e.g. bestseller lists, reviews, word-of-mouth, etc. Ultimately I think pushiness from authors only results in lost sales.


      • July 8, 2019 at 8:32 pm

        Especially the person who wrote it – and isn’t impartial!

        Word-of-mouth is best – and I seem to have a lovely cohort of fans who are waiting for the next book in the trilogy, and are keeping the first one secret.

        Granted, it’s the kind of book you want to keep all for yourself, but we will have to learn to share.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. July 7, 2019 at 7:23 pm

    Yay, you’re back! Such excellent advice – I’m feeling inspired now to keep cracking on with my w.i.p.

    Liked by 2 people

    • July 7, 2019 at 9:40 pm

      I’m delighted – and excited – to hear that, Liberty!


  6. July 7, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    Fascinating piece, and quite inspirational! Thanks so much for posting it, Tara…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. July 7, 2019 at 8:12 pm

    Some good points there, but the fact that Giles also seems to be a bit of a cock may also be an important factor in his failure. His sister, on the other hand, is awesome. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 7, 2019 at 9:41 pm

      Aha – so you’re one of those, Nick!! Are you a paid-up member of the VCM fan club or in the closet?

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 8, 2019 at 8:27 am

        Perhaps not fully paid up but I do try to catch Only Connect if I’m feeling bright (I usually finish the show feeling denser than ever). VCM, however, makes the whole thing rather fun. And I love the fact that she’s married to David Mitchell (not the author).

        Liked by 1 person

        • July 8, 2019 at 10:43 am

          She is the gold standard of sexy brains, ‘tis true. Although I have to confess to liking her brother (sorry!). I thought he was witty and self-deprecating, and the Supersizers show he made with Sue Perkins about eating through the centuries was one of my most favouritest shows ever.

          Liked by 1 person

          • July 8, 2019 at 12:44 pm

            No worries – I thought he was fine on telly. Turns out it’s his social media & journalist gubbins that raised a few eyebrows. He’s either writing drunk or has a problem filtering for appropriate behaviour/language. Perhaps he thinks he comes across as a “bantering lad” but to a lot of people he’s a cock.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. July 7, 2019 at 8:33 pm

    tremendous plagiarism… well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 7, 2019 at 9:42 pm

      I did do rather well, didn’t I Geoff?! Thank you for noticing. Might be a whole new career for me. I’m a bit tired of having ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

      • July 10, 2019 at 12:03 am

        quite; total waste of all that time you could be spending ranting at an empty fridge…

        Liked by 1 person

  9. July 8, 2019 at 12:15 am

    Reblogged this on Author #SherryCarroll .

    Liked by 1 person

  10. July 8, 2019 at 2:36 am

    Glad to know I’ve got a few more years before I hit my peak – of course I’m looking at a bit of steep climb.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 8, 2019 at 10:38 am

      Steep for us all no matter what age we are, Armen! But writing may well be the only career where maturity isn’t seen as a handicap.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. July 8, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Maybe I am misunderstanding Johnston’s comment “Don’t ever try and do anything new.” because just want familiarity. It sounds really depressing because it goes against the spirit of creativity and imagination doesn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 8, 2019 at 11:47 pm

      It does, but it might just be that comments like that will be made by people who are momentarily tired of the whole business! She was quite jolly in the programme but I got the impression she was also under pressure. Who knows what goes on beyond the closed doors of successful publishing?!


      • July 10, 2019 at 6:11 pm

        Ah yes, when you read the quote again in that possible context, it comes across as quite a bitter statement.

        Liked by 1 person

        • July 10, 2019 at 7:01 pm

          It does indeed, but if I was reading her reasoning correctly, I can completely understand why a person might feel that way!


  12. July 8, 2019 at 6:16 pm

    Hmm, I go with most of this, but I have found launch parties helpful. Organise it yourself – even if mainstream-published, self-cater (cheaper), have friends and family, doing the work (because you only have time to meet, greet and sign) and bravely invite, by name (otherwise numbers are too vague), all the people you know who could get there, or are vaguely interested in the subject/issue in the story. Primed with wine and delicious savoury pies or tea and luscious home-made cakes, people buy a surprising number of books and either read them or give them away and with any luck the recipient reads them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 8, 2019 at 11:51 pm

      I think they’re essential when it comes to self-publishing, Hilary, at least from what I’ve seen, because it’s the only sales boost you get without a 100% successful advertising strategy, and when did we last hear about one of those?!

      I’ve also seen several trad published authors say ‘never again’ after a launch, though…


  13. July 8, 2019 at 9:02 pm

    i find that I have a rather unhealthy thirst for writing advice, when I should actually be writing. However, welcome back and thank you for the encouragement and distraction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 8, 2019 at 11:53 pm

      You know me, Tric… always ready with a distraction (or to drive you to one 😜)

      Liked by 1 person

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