5 Things I Learned from Writing

Lessons Learned 350

I always assumed my writing would improve as time went on, though I have to say I wasn’t sure how that would happen. With 13 titles out in the world now, it got me thinking about what I’d learned from each of my books and how that affected subsequent creations. I’ve only included my middle-grade books here, since I reckon these have made the most difference to my writing.

The Devil’s Porridge Gang

This was my first novel so naturally I’m very proud of it. However, since I’d mainly written stage plays up til then, I wasn’t even sure if I could write a novel, so my main challenge was to see if it was possible. And also to see if I enjoyed it.

When I started, all I had was the title and this way of working has stayed with me – make a title, write the book. Like many authors, I don’t want to know the ending before I get there, since I’d be bored before I started. What interests me is finding out what happens. It’s worth saying I wrote this book over the span of several years, though the bulk of it was written over a two-month period.

What I learned from Devil’s Porridge is that I hate working on something that takes a long time – I want to start it and finish it within a reasonable time frame. In addition, it hadn’t occurred to me to open the story with a bang, and instead I rambled away about stuff I thought was quite interesting but didn’t actually move the story forward.

Lessons: Set a deadline. Don’t ramble.

The Architect’s Apprentice

Immediately after finishing Devil’s Porridge, I started this one. I’d already written two or three pages a few years previously (for a writing competition), but didn’t have much idea about where it was going. Planning to write as fast as possible, I gave myself a deadline and managed to finish it (near enough) within three months.

Although this is a children’s book, I discovered I’d focused quite a lot on the adult characters. In most of the kids books I’ve read, this doesn’t happen and I realised I’d have to be careful not to leave my heroes behind, or my readers might get a bit hacked off. My biggest challenge was sorting out the time-frame, as my characters were moving back and forwards in time. I did get terribly confused towards the end and had to move several chapters around for it to make sense. Phew.

Lessons: Stay focused on the main characters. Stick to chronological – it’s easier. 

The Hounds of Hellerby Hall

I started a new series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’ as soon as I’d put the previous novel to bed. I’d come up with the title years before when I was trying to write a comedy radio play. However, that project didn’t work out and I stored the title away for a rainy day. I began with a female protagonist this time and though I concentrated more on the children’s characters, I found I was still veering away from them a little too often. I also introduced more characters than I needed and at one point began to wonder if I’d created a monster. In the end, it worked out fine, but my job would have been easier if I’d been a little less generous in inviting all and sundry to join in.

Lesson: Stay focused on the main characters. Again.


In the follow-up to The Architect’s Apprentice, I assumed because I’d already created the characters etc, it would be easier this time. Wrong! The problem started with the fact I’d created a world of time-slips and needed to develop this without getting too caught up in how the phenomenon actually worked. As with its predecessor, I had to move chapters around for the story to make sense, and I found the restrictions of focusing on one place (Dr Dee’s house at Mortlake) a bit too restrictive. Nevertheless, I also managed to surprise myself when a character I wasn’t expecting turned up out of the blue. (This is why I don’t plan – it’s more exciting).

Lesson: Make sure the premise can sustain the story.

The House That Wasn’t There

With the follow up to Hellerby Hall, I stared with a ‘puzzle’ title – I wanted to tell a story that began with a mystery: someone is stealing children and taking them to a mysterious house on Deadman’s Lane – except, the house isn’t there. I worked out the solution, but couldn’t be sure if it was just a bit too farfetched. On the positive side, I did focus on the main characters much more, but towards the end of the novel, I needed an additional character for the whole thing to make sense. Doing a fair bit of re-writing, I was able to make it work, but it would have been easier if I’d spent more time thinking about the plot and less time doing my usual seat-of-the-pants thing.

Lesson: Sometimes it pays to plan.

  9 comments for “5 Things I Learned from Writing

  1. 01/06/2017 at 8:28 AM

    Instead of plays, my creative writing classes were for screenplays. Normally my goal is to get the story on paper. Therefore, I wind up with pages of dialog. Later, I’ll go back and fill in descriptions, expressions, et al. I generally start off with a loose idea and see where the characters take me.


    • 01/06/2017 at 2:14 PM

      Loose is good – I don’t understand those folks who plan everything out first to the nth degree. Then again, (as I always say), if it works for you, just do it. Thanks for stopping by, Ernesto.


  2. 01/08/2016 at 10:30 PM

    I’m like you. I’d probably become bored if I planned everything out. Nothing would be worse for a reader than to read a book written by a bored author. If I’m not enjoying writing my book and excited to discover how it all pans out, the reader would soon be nodding off. I too was delighted to read in his book ‘On Writing’ that Stephen King doesn’t plan his books out too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 02/08/2016 at 4:59 AM

      Yeah, I find I often discover/decide things just before they happen in the book, so it’s a bit like the reader’s experience and is as much a surprise to me as anyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. 31/07/2016 at 4:26 PM

    We keep living, writing, and learning!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Janice J. Richardson
    31/07/2016 at 2:26 PM

    Whew! Relieved to know that other writers don’t map out everything first, they let the story unfold as they go along. Thought I was doing it wrong, but it seems to work out well.

    Interesting and informative article. Thank you Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 31/07/2016 at 6:11 PM

      I think whatever works for you is the way to go, and let’s face it, if it’s good enough for Stevie King, how could it be wrong? Thanks for visiting.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to Joy Mutter, author Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: