Don’t Put Off Creative Writing Until Later in Life–I Regret It

I have always had a desire to write a novel since my early twenties. I had plenty of ideas, but I always procrastinated and delayed starting. When I was younger, written English was never my strongest subject at school—debatable that it is now :-). In fact, I hated English lessons. We had to read books I didn’t like and write essays on subjects I was not interested in. I was also quite stubborn, so if I wasn’t interested in the subject, I didn’t give it a lot of attention. It didn’t help that I did not get on with my English teacher. Looking back, I was the problem and not the teacher. I was young and thought I knew it all.

I enjoyed reading novels, but in my teenage years, I didn’t read as much as I should. I would rather be out with my friends, or playing video games. After I finished university, started my career and settled down in my early twenties, I started reading more books again. I like to read a variety of novels: science fiction, fantasy, spy thrillers, horror. Pretty much most genre fiction novels, although I am not so leen on romantic, or literary fiction; they are just not my thing.

As I read more books, I had ideas for my own stories. I have always had an active imagination, and I loved the idea of being able to write my own stories. Some people want to be rockstars. I liked the idea of being a novelist. As fun as this sounded, I had many excuses for not starting. I regret a lot of these now, but hindsight can help me uncover my regrets.

Intimidated by Other Books

One problem with wanting to start a creative endeavour is that it is easy to compare your ideas to those of others. Whenever I picked up another author’s novel to read, they always struck me by how flawless they seemed. The plots were well thought out. The grammar seemed perfect. Overall, the quality was high. I found that intimidating. How could I ever do the same?

What I didn’t understand at the time was the process an author goes through to write a book. I had attempted to write short stories before, and although I was pleased with them, the writing didn’t seem as good as I was reading in other novels. I just assumed I didn’t have the skills to produce something of the same quality. My short stories were essentially first drafts that I didn’t develop further.

If I had done my research, I would have found out that an author will write a first draft. That draft will not be very good. They will then do a full revision of their work. Then they’ll do another, and another. This revision process could happen many times until the author has a good draft. This revised version is the real first draft. Even then, the book is not complete. If they are signed to an agent and they have sold the book, then the manuscript will go through a further series of revisions with a professional editor. 

Once the publisher’s editor has finished, then there is a final stage which is the final line edit and proofread. Your book could easily go through ten to fifteen revisions before it’s published, along with multiple gate-keepers. No wonder published novels are of high-quality. Over a long period of time, the text has been revised and reworked. Of course, my first draft stories didn’t seem as good. I hadn’t gone through the entire process.

Worried my Ideas are Bad

I thought my book ideas were good, but everyone thinks that of their ideas. I was worried about what other people would think. People can be cruel. You can find reviews on Amazon to see what people really think. Even for popular books, if you look at the one and two star reviews, people can be very nasty, especially when hidden behind an anonymous name. 

Being criticised is scary. Nobody likes it, but now that I am older and hopefully a little wiser, I am not so worried about it. Sure, if I get a bad review and there are lots of other positive reviews, then I just think the book wasn’t to their taste. I now believe that if you do the best work you can, go through the revision steps and use a professional editor, and take their advice, then the product you put into the marketplace will be good. If someone doesn’t like it, well, that’s on them.

I mentioned before that I have released some non-fiction books, so I now have practical experience of this. All the steps I mentioned above about revision, I did with my non-fiction books, and I put out the best books I could. I know they are good, and the reviews are all mostly very good, so if I get the occasional bad review, while it still hurts, I have learnt to brush it off. Provided the reviews are not deliberately offensive, then I try to learn from them.

Scared by the Amount of Work

When I was younger, I was intimidated by the amount of work required to write a book; that was just for the first draft stage. Like a lot of younger people, I wanted instant gratification. I liked the idea of having written a book. I was worried about the amount of work it would take. As someone once said to me, ‘you want to get to the destination, but you don’t want to do the journey.’

I will bet that this is a common problem for anyone looking to tackle an enormous project. As a young man. I was not as experienced in how to plan a large project. With over twenty-eight years of industry experience working on huge software development projects, I would tackle a book project like any of my former career projects: lots of planning, and break the project down into smaller pieces. It’s like that joke, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ That is so true. 

Some writers blame inaction with a project on writer’s block, or the muse not being with them. I don’t agree with that. If you get stuck on one project, work on something else; you can still write. You don’t hear of a car mechanic suddenly getting mechanics block, and can’t work on all those cars that are booked into the garage. When I get stuck on a plot point in my novel, I work on another non-fiction project, or a blog post—like this one.

By focusing on a little at a time, you can complete the project. I experience this firsthand with one of my non-fiction books. It was a business and entrepreneurial book called ‘The Path to Freedom – Starting a Business for the Reluctant Entrepreneur’. The final manuscript was one-hundred-fifty-thousand words. That’s a big book, but I applied the same principle to that book. Working on a small piece at a time. It took eighteen months to write that book, but I wasn’t daunted by the size of the project anymore because I had broken the problem down into much smaller pieces. I believe that if any project scares you, then you haven’t broken it down far enough.

Busy Learning Software Development

Like most career minded professionals in their twenties, I was trying to build up my career in software development. I started my career in the video games industry, and after eight years, I moved into financial services as a software developer, and then through the ranks as a leader. My career wasn’t writing novels, that was just a dream; a nice to have.

Even though I have regrets about not starting a novel earlier in my life, I don’t have regrets about focusing on my career. You need the career to help provide for your family, put a roof over your head and make sure everyone has what they need. Building a stable career is very hard, so while I include career building in my reasons for not starting a novel, this one is justified.

Starting a Family Took Up My Time

I don’t regret building up a decent career, and I also don’t regret having children. I have two kids, Amy, thirteen at the time of this post and my son Daniel, ten. If you are reading this and you have young children, then you understand they are fun, yet very tiring. Bringing up infants is exhausting. Me and my wife found two children hard work. Anyone that can raise three of more children deserves a medal.

As a parent, when you have a little spare time and you want to write, or take part in some other creative activity, you’ll be tired and uninspired. I know I was. This constant level of tiredness also contributed to not wanting to start a novel. All the other reasons I stated in this chapter were the primary reasons, but being tired with children was the perfect excuse, as I don’t really think anyone would argue with it.

Now my children are a little older, they are not as challenging. We do lots of activities as a family, but the kids also want to play with their friends, do sleepovers, play video games etc, so me and my wife find we have more time to do activities together, and also do our own things. For a little of motivation for young parents, it gets easier; I promise. 

Now you know why I put off starting my novel for so long. You have probably read this post, thinking these are just excuses for inaction. You would be correct, they are. That’s why a lot of them are regrets, and I hope I can save you from the same problem. At the time of writing this post I am forty-five and I feel like I have wasted a lot of writing time. Don’t make the same mistake.

Understanding Your Destination with Personal Writing Commandments

I have always been a strategic thinker. Every project I embark on, I need to know the end-game upfront. If my project was a ship, I need to see the dock, so I know where to steer. My writing is no different. I am part way through drafting (on the third act) a middle-grade novel, called Diary of a Martian. I will need a home for the novel at some point. It could be my desk drawer, it might be an agent/publisher, or I might release it myself. There are many options, but to understand where to end up, you need guide-rails to help get you there. It’s the same in corporate strategy. You need to see a bigger picture so you can steer that enormous ship, a company, in the right direction.

Steering a ship to your ultimate destination
Your writing destination is a lot like steering a ship to a port.

With all this in mind, I set about defining what my personal commandments are for my writing. Writing a series of commandments helps to solidify, for me, why I am doing this in the first place—other than just for fun. These commandments will be important later when I have finished writing my novel, as I will have to decide what to do with it: publish through a traditional publisher (well, try anyway), or independent publication. 

Just like biblical commandments, I will refer to these further down the line if I reach an impasse with my work, or feel as though I am veering in the wrong direction. The moment I get a feeling that I am taking a wrong turn, I will refer to these commandments. Commandments shouldn’t be mistaken for goals. Goals have a determined outcome. You can tick off when they are complete. These commandments aren’t like that. It’s more like trying to steer that vast ship; by following them, the ship should head in the right direction.

1. Create a lasting legacy

When I hit my mid-forties, I looked back over my career and didn’t like the idea that most of the projects and products I have worked on over the years no longer exist. Software systems get superseded; companies bought out; technology and teams replaced. With my writing, I want the end result to last long into the future, and live after I am eventually gone. This feeling is probably a symptom of a mid-life crisis. I never used to worry about such things, but now I do. I want a lasting legacy, something I am proud of, that doesn’t go out of date or expire. 

2. Create something I can pass on

Following on from the previous commandment, by creating a lasting legacy I am proud of, I can pass my work down to my children and grandchildren. If my books ever become a success, then this can help my children in the future. Even if the books are not a financial success, long after I have shuffled off this mortal coil, I will have a body of work that my children and grandchildren can remember me by. 

The legacy of my other work in creating online corporate training just wouldn’t have the same sentimental impact on my family, even if I think that work is pretty good. But, a series of stories that can live on beyond my own life that my children can enjoy and remember me by, is something that is really important to me.

3. Not put financial gain as a priority

This is quite an important commandment. Creative writing can either be a passion where monetary gain isn’t the major success factor, or I can treat it like a business. I put a lot of thought into this, probably too much considering I haven’t actually finished writing the novel, but I am an over-thinker. 

I have been very fortunate. For many years I have worked for myself, doing work that I find interesting. There comes a time, though, that when you do something that is fun and also your job, the shine can wear off as financial stress sets in. For my “day job”, that is a given. It’s how I earn my living and help to provide for my family. So, the question is, do I want creative writing to be a job? 

On one hand, the thought of sitting here writing novels every day sounds fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But I know that if I have other people and companies depending on the words that I write, would that fun diminish for me? I already know the answer; it’s yes. Having commitments and dependencies can and will lead to stress. Is that what I want with creative writing? I don’t think it is. I want it to remain enjoyable, on my terms.

4. Produce my best work

Most of your time writing a novel has you, the author, on your own crafting the story. To produce your best work, you need the help of others, such as editors, beta-readers, proof-readers etc. Book covers need to be created by professionals to make them fit in, and the typesetting has to look professional. 

If I publish my book independently, then I will hire all these people to help me make the best book I can. I will go through the same steps that a traditional published book would go through, and with the same level of editorial critique. I don’t intend to take any shortcuts. I will have to pay for these services, and they can be quite expensive, but people spend money on their hobbies and interests all the time; this is no different.

5. Seek to satisfy my vision above anyone else

In traditional publishing, there’s a lot of talk about writing to fit market trends. A good example is when the Hunger Games novels came out. These books created a big resurgence in dystopian young adult books. Because of the success of the Hunger Games, a lot of publishers were suddenly looking for young adult dystopian stories and the market became flooded. If you queried for an agent and publishing deal at the right time with a book that fit the mould, you could get a deal. Over time, young adult dystopian books fell out of favour. It’s not that they are bad, on the contrary, but the market cooled to them and other genres became the in-thing.

If your timing was bad, you might have written an amazing dystopian young adult book, but if that’s not what the publishers are looking for, then you face a barrage of rejections. On one hand, I get it, the publishers are businesses with enormous overheads; they have to publish what’s on trend to make money. It doesn’t feel fair to the creative who has spent months, if not years, slaving over their book.

Diary of a Martian (my novel) is a science fiction and fantasy story. I am writing the book because I think it’s a fun story and I really like the characters. In terms of market fit, I am not sure how well it would fair with a traditional publisher. Fantasy books for a middle-grade audience at the time of writing seem to do well, but with a science fiction theme, I am not so sure. 

If I was trying to think with a commercial mindset, I might be tempted to abandon the book and work on something else that I think has commercial appeal; perhaps another Harry Potter clone. If I did that, it might take me a year to eighteen months to write that book, at which point the market will have moved on to something else and all that effort becomes wasted.

If I ignore the commercial and market focused aspect, then I could just write the book I want to write; because I want to write it. That may not be the best “Business” approach, but I have already decided that this is a creative exploit primarily, and financial gain isn’t my chief priority. If it sells a lot of copies, then fantastic. I will certainly try to do that, but I am not treating it as a get rich scheme to replace my primary income.

6. Not sacrifice my rights on the altar of success

I am fortunate in that a traditional publisher has published me—for non-fiction books, so I know what it’s like in that environment. I am also friends with people that have traditionally published fiction. While signing that publishing contract can be exciting, and if that is what you want, then you should go for it, but there is a side to it I don’t like. 

When you sign that publishing contract, you are signing away the rights to your story. You still own the copyright, but you are giving away the rights to publication. If your book sells, and you go through multiple reprints, then you are in a great position. The harsh truth, though, most books do not earn enough money to earn out their advances and make any additional money for the author. If you get an advance, it is just that, an advance on future earnings. The publisher wants that back before you see any royalties, and most royalty rates for traditionally published books are very low—between ten and fifteen percent.

If your first print run takes a long time to sell, the publisher may decide that your book is not commercially viable enough to pay for another print run, and the book goes out of print. If that happens, and it happens, there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t own the publishing rights anymore, the publisher does, so you are at their mercy. Your contract may have a clause that states if sales dip below a certain threshold then you can have a discussion about getting your rights back. Sounds good, but there is a catch. 

The publisher will still sell copies of your ebook. I have spoken to authors who wanted to get their rights back based on sales volume, but the publisher will set the ebook temporarily to 99p (or 99c in the US) and run a promotion for a month. You sell a lot of copies at this price, then the book returns to its normal price. The publisher has hit the sales threshold to keep the rights; yes, this happens.

A lot of writers are happy to go into this situation as they are desperate to be published via a traditional publisher, but for me, I think the sacrifice is too great. I really don’t like the idea of giving away the publication rights to something that I came up with and spent a long time writing. This is a long way of saying that I am not prepared to give away rights to my work. I would rather sell fewer copies but own all my rights than make a gamble that a publisher will sell a lot of copies. 

The publishing industry differs from what it was ten years ago. As an author, you are on your own to promote your book when it comes out. If your book gets some traction and sells a lot of copies, then the publisher will start actively advertising and promoting your work. Until then, they expect you to promote your own book, all for a small royalty percentage. I would much rather spend that advertising money, knowing the vast majority of the royalties come back to me.

It took a while to come up with these commandments. Each one required thought to decide what’s important to me. Your publication journey can be long and difficult, but I think it is important to understand what you want up front, even before you have a finished writing the book. That’s strategic thinking. Making your ship sail in the right direction, course correcting along the way.

The Joy of Writing Fiction

I have been a professional writer for many years in the non-fiction space. When I was younger, I had a desire to write fiction, but at the time I never had the confidence to start, so I put it off. It wasn’t until the pandemic happened, and I needed to channel my attention into something new to keep me sane. Being locked in with your family, and trying to home-school, as well as do your day job work was tough; I’m sure many people will relate to this. I needed something I could work on as a distraction. I could spend as little or as much time as necessary to see results. Hello creative writing.

I had lots of story ideas, and I really liked the idea of writing for children, so with that in mind I started learning and writing; short stories to start with. I took online classes with platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Masterclass, and The Great Courses. I also embarked on a nine-month creative writing class by applying to take the Faber Academy – Write a Novel course; I will write a review of that soon as I just completed the course.

With all this learning and story writing, I reflected on why I have fallen in love with creative writing so much. So, in true internet blog form, I have written a list post.  In no particular order.

1. Something I Can do By Myself

If the pandemic was good at one thing, it was making sure you couldn’t do anything with other people, unless you wanted to sit for hours on a Zoom call, which I didn’t. The great thing about writing is it left you alone with a word-processor and your own thoughts. That’s all you need. Okay, you work with editors, proofreaders, beta readers later, but, for the vast majority of the creative work, getting your first draft and revision completed, it’s just you.

As a self-confessed introvert, that suits me just fine. I am not shy; I love talking to people, but I recharge my mental batteries by being alone, and what better activity to do alone: writing.

Throughout lockdown, when the daily homeschooling finished, and I had struggled through my day job work, I would relax and work on short stories. Even if it was only half an hour. That private writing time, with my headphones on, allowed me to reset from a hard day. Would I say it was a kind of therapy? Yeah, sure, that works. That leads us on to point number two.

2. Relaxing and Calming

After a busy day home-schooling and working, I found the simple act of creative writing to be calming and relaxing. I was working on short stories with no particular agenda. There were no editors waiting for them. No pressure from publishers. It was just for my benefit. Will I release those stories? Maybe; I could put them out into a small collection for my own gratification. But there were no expectations. I could write a story and have fun with it.

I like to write middle-grade fiction, so I aimed my stories at children. Having two kids in the house, a daughter (now thirteen), and a son (now ten), also meant I had a small audience. I nervously gave my kids the stories, as they both read before bed, and they loved them. Quite how honest their reaction was is anyone’s guess, as family members will always be nice when they read your work. But they appeared to enjoy the stories. We discussed the plots, and they even gave me some useful feedback from a kids’ perspective to improve them. That was a lot of fun.

3. Doesn’t Require a Lot of Equipment

In my career (training and public speaking) I have often taught people that working within limitations and constraints forces you to be creative with what you have available. This is certainly true with writing. All you really need as a modern writer is a computer and a word-processor. You don’t even need a fancy computer. An old hand-me-down works too.

If you really want to talk about limitations, then you don’t actually need a computer. You can produce work that is just as fun to read with a pad and pencil as anyone with the latest Apple Super-Duper-MacBook-Pro.

If you use a computer, then you can even get away with not paying for any writing software—legally, of course. If you own a Mac, then it comes with Pages, Apples own word processor, and it’s pretty good. You can also download Libre Office, which is a free of cost, and an open source equivalent to Microsoft Office. LibreWriter is a very capable Microsoft Word equivalent, and it won’t cost you a penny. If you are a fan of Google, then you can use their Google Docs, cloud based word processor. So many great options.

4. Learning the Craft is Fun

Whenever I embark on any new hobby or interest, I am the sort of person who has to learn all I can about the subject. I find learning about something just as much fun as doing the activity itself, and creative writing it no exception. As I already mentioned, I took several online self-paced classes, and also undertook the nine month Faber Academy writing program. All of which I enjoyed immensely.

I have also bought and read many books on fiction writing and writing craft. It is so satisfying to read about another writer’s experience, and see how they tackle writing a book, even if you don’t like their approach. It is all valuable information. 

During lockdown, I upped my walking, as that was pretty much all you could do if you left the house, so I sought podcasts to listen to. My favourite was a British show called Writer’s Routine, where the host interviews a writer every episode to talk about their routine and process for writing a book. I started with the latest episode and worked my way backwards through the catalog. I listened to every episode. I haven’t done that with any other show. Super Nerd or what!!

5. Building Worlds in Your Imagination

Now to the writing itself. Fiction writing is partly about world-building, especially in science fiction and fantasy writing. It is so much fun designing a fictional world, and revealing it gradually on the page so that the reader can see a vivid image of your creation in their minds-eye. 

I set my first novel in the future on an established Mars colony. You can just imagine the amount of fun I am having with that. With the story set in the future, I can take liberties and come up with some really cool technology. World-building through writing can be powerful.

When I was on the Faber Academy course, I was reading one submission from a classmate. We had to read and critique each other’s work. In the extract she posted, there were a few lines that described a mechanical bird flying down and landing on someone’s shoulder. 

As I was writing up my feedback, I mentioned that in two sentences; she conjured up a vivid image in my mind that would take a team of visual effect specialists weeks, if not months to achieve in a film. This is why writing fiction and world-building is so much fun. In a few sentences, you can get the same result in your mind with only a laptop that a movie might take ages to achieve. No disrespect to anyone who works in the movie business. Your work is amazing, but the simplicity and power of just a few short sentences struck me. Where else can you achieve so much impact?

6. Understanding People Better

Creative writing isn’t all world-building. The characters we write are just as important. I have found that by trying to write convincing and fun characters; I understand people better. If I write about a character that is trying to deal with a tough situation, I think about their predicament. I will do research to learn about their struggles, and I will use all this to bring a convincing character to life. I guess what I am saying is writing excellent characters improves your empathy towards others, and your understanding of the world.

Something I found very hard, and am paying particular attention to in my first novel, is making my characters multi-dimensional. Trying to add layers to their personality beyond what is just required to move the plot forward. It’s hard.

It’s probably the hardest aspect, but you just know when you get it right as you get a sense of what the character is like in your mind outside the plot. Your mind races with other situations and scenarios. I have added a lot of extra characterisations by having parts of the character’s personality just leap out at me. I guess this is what a lot of writers mean when they say their characters talk to them. I always thought that was rather cliched, but I think there is something to it now.

Also, if someone is mean to you in real life, you can get your revenge on the page. So, watch out. Muhahahaha

7. Improves Your Observational Skills

I have found that since writing fiction; I am better at observing people and their behaviours. A mum arguing with a toddler in the supermarket. A couple having an argument in the street. The old man who goes to the local park every day and sits on a bench feeding the ducks. All very mundane interactions, but when you write fiction, you pay attention. I have even started jotting some of these interactions down in a notebook, as you never know when they will form the inspiration for a story.

When I was walking my son to school, we were walking behind a dad and his two daughters. They were in an earlier school year to my son, but what I noticed was these two girls were identical twins. They looked completely identical in their appearance. The only difference was the colour of their jackets and a hairband on their heads.

As I was walking home after dropping my son off, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be interesting if two girls used their identical looks as a superpower, and a way to cause mischief in school? That simple interaction led to me writing a short story called Operation Body Swap. A fun story about two cheeky young girls who hatch a plan. One simple interaction and subsequent thoughts when taking my son to school led to an entire story. Nice.

8. It’s Challenging

I would be lying if I said writing fiction was easy. It’s blooming hard. Much harder than non-fiction. With non-fiction, you spend a lot of time preparing a detailed outline, do all your research, and then write to the outline that you signed off with the publisher. It’s quite linear.

With fiction, you are trying to hold a cohesive plot together, along with subplots, and write interesting, multi-dimensional characters. I find this very hard, but that is something I like. I don’t want it to be easy. Easy is boring. Getting to the end of a draft and having a complete story that makes sense is satisfying.

Sometimes, when writing Diary of a Martian, I got stuck and wasn’t sure how to progress the plot, even though I had a fairly detailed beat sheet. I struggled with some details. Once I had solved those problems, I was left with a draft that I was happy with, and that feels great. I can’t wait to get my novel finished and through the revision stage as the thought of reading that final draft is exciting.

Like with everything in life, if something is challenging and difficult to achieve, you will appreciate the results so much more.

These are some of the main reasons I find writing such a joy. Do you agree with what I have said? Are there any other reason that you find writing a joy? If so, leave a comment and let me know.

The Great Reset

Is there anyone here? Hello? It’s a little dusty in here; a semi-abandoned blog. Like that creepy cabin that your mum told you to stay away from. After Covid first showed its ugly teeth to the world, it became apparent that it wouldn’t go away quickly. Weeks turned into months. Months turned into years. The pressure of home schooling, social isolation, and general anxiety about the world meant a few of the plates I was trying to keep spinning, collapsed and were left abandoned. This blog was one of the fallen plates.

Creepy abandoned cabin.

Over the past few years, I have re-evaluated my creative priorities. To stay sane over the pandemic, I decided I wanted to leave lockdown better than when I went in. I wanted to learn something new, but if I’m honest, I was getting jaded with the pace of technology and software development; more on that in another post. A large part of my career still involves training, and I love doing it, but I wanted to learn something new.

I decided I would focus more on creative writing. I am already an experienced non-fiction writer with books that are both self-published and published through traditional publishers. I had dreamt of writing stories when I was younger. But I always felt intimidated by the process. I tackled that intimidation and start learning. I had lots of ideas. I just needed to learn about it. I won’t go into detail about that in this post; I’ll cover that soon, as I have been very productive.

This means the focus of this blog is changing. I contemplated whether to just blitz the content here and start again, but I decided against it. While the older articles, especially the technical articles, are not my main focus, I left some of them as they are still relevant. But this post is drawing a line under it, and I am starting again.

For anyone that comes to this blog who has read my non-fiction books, or watched my Pluralsight courses, hello and welcome. I am still writing those books. I am also still engaged in creating and maintaining content with Pluralsight. I love working with them. I’m very proud of that content, but this is going to be more personal. If that doesn’t interest you, then I won’t be offended if you leave and don’t come back. Thank you for following anything I do up to this point. 

If you decide to stick around, then I will write about the art and craft of creative writing for fiction and non-fiction. I will cover the technical aspects and talk about how I feel about the process. I will probably keep the posts fairly short, to ensure I actually write the blog posts. I’m considering turning this into a journal as well as an educational website. We’ll see. 

Anyway, welcome to the new stephenhaunts.com. I hope you like what I want to talk about and will follow along.

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