writing & publishing

Practice & Composition

In a nutshell: with practice, you get better at the technical stuff. (Or, for writers-to-be: complete your first book, then get over it.)

Longer explanation: I’ve always maintained you need to get a couple of hundred thousand words out of your system before you’ll get published. As an established novelist, I think it’s great when you get a book finished and in the bag because, when you move on to the next one (in theory and if you’ve been listening to your editor) you become so much better at putting the components of a novel together.

That confidence is hugely reassuring. You enjoy the process a lot more, and that’s where I’m at currently.

I’m not talking about the prose level, though yeah, that can improve too. I’m talking about the other stuff: putting together a plot, knowing how many words it will take you to do so-and-so, which allows you to plan structure with ease. Understanding when is the right time to let the reader know something about events or certain people.

Even by reading criticisms, you can learn to, for example, develop your own characterisation perhaps. Most importantly, if you’re lucky enough to have a good editor, then you begin to realise where you’ve been going wrong. The whole process is there as an education and all of your learnings can be brought to your next project. Sometimes I think I’ll be practicing for decades (if I’m lucky).

Just like you practice musical scales, you improve at the technical stuff, which means it’s easier to orchestrate your novel, but putting down the notes in the right order, to compose a novel, will still be difficult.

One of the things I’ve always observed, with new writers, is a bizarre attachment to their first book. Sure, it’s their baby, but more often than not it’s going to be a stinker. Mine was, and remains unpublished. (Some people might say the later ones are stinkers too.) But what experience has taught me is that the more you write, the more books you have completed, the better you will get at writing them. So once you’ve sent that Magnum Opus off to an agent for consideration, don’t just sit there, get practicing again. Think. Type.

The good parts are yet to happen.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

5 replies on “Practice & Composition”

Nice post, I’m always struck by how many authors seem to look on their early works as rougher than their successors, while their fans often take the early books to be the best. To what extent do you think both perspectives are subjective – the authors’ being a reflection of the changing tastes and interests that lead them to change their work in the first place, and the fans’ reflecting the fact the early books would have been the first time they caught the author’s imaginations?

It’s an interesting point that. I’d say (personally) that I can see the changes I’ve made, the developments, improvements in technique and so on, so when I do look back at Nights of Villjamur, I do cringe a bit. There’s a lot I’d like to smooth out. I try to think of it as objectively as possible because the aesthetics are vaguely similar. I think I’m pretty much split 50-50 on that point because nearly everyone who’s read City of Ruin thinks it’s a great improvement over Nights, too.

There is something to be said about the weight of series pressing down on authors, though, so that later books might buckle under that effort. And, of course, it’s worth stressing that not all authors choose to take lessons from earlier books. Some editors might not be able to make the changes they’d like to, if an author’s reputation becomes too great? (I know mine would slap me down no matter how big the books theoretically could become!).

It’s not an exact science, any of this.

The more I think about reader expectations, the more interesting it is. An author can get better, but if a book is not the same mood or feeling as that first time, the magic can really fade can’t it? Well, maybe fans set themselves up for disappointments. I know I’ve been the same, which is why I feel the need to change rather than write more in the same setting; and, also, why I’ve tried to change each of the individual books as much as possible.

Maybe readers have a duty to develop themselves too?

Nice post, and coming at a time when I need to start pushing ahead with the next book. I’ve seen some people (like Patrick Rothfuss) say they wrote just one book, but wrote it numerous times.

A question though. When you wrote Nights of Villjamur and it was in that limbo of being done but not having sold, did you work on City of Ruin or something else?

Hi Adrian,

Post-Nights, I had sketched out City of Ruin, but had begun working in a different world entirely. I decided that if the first book in a series was rejected, there was no point writing the second, but I had the plans in place should someone want it, so I could crack on as soon as possible.

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