I knew nothing. So, when I was 16 I started a novel. You fear nothing then. I had devoured books since I was 4; O and A level texts were challenging. I learned by reading and then by actually writing. I discovered was that there are no rules and that has been my mantra ever since, never mind what they try to teach us now.
In 1960 I had a lot of publicity of the ‘teenager writes sex novel’ variety and it nearly got me expelled from school. But I wish I had learned alongside it that I was nothing special, that you start over with every single book. It was a hard lesson when my second novel crashed and burned. I should not have assumed that I would to earn my living easily as a writer. I have, but not easily, it was a precarious one for decades and I was relieved to marry into a salary.
I knew I had to follow my own nose but it took me a while to understand that I was writing for myself but not only myself. The other people who matter are those fellow novelists who write better than you ever will, and whose good opinion is of infinite value, if you are lucky enough to win it, because only they truly know what it is all about. And then there are your readers, most especially those who become regular and loyal ones and those who recommend your books to others of their kind. Without them, you don’t exist. I write to please myself and them, even if I still do come first. I like to surprise us both, too, by swerving from crime to ghost stories, ghosts to ‘literary’ novellas to children’s books to a Christmas poem to non-fiction about books and reading. I had boundless confidence when I began – far too boundless, and I hope my confidence now is based on a surer foundation. You come to rely, and rightly, on experience. Whereas my head was in the clouds as a young writer, now my feet are also on the ground. Note that both are important.
What I was sure of then, and am doubly so now, is the kind of writer I am: an entirely instinctive one. I never plan ahead but work from day to day, hour to hour, page to page. I never know more about what comes next than the thoughts I may keep in my head when I finish for the day.
There is rarely much in writing to guide me when I start a book – perhaps half a page of notes with names, a suggestion of scenes, plus an atmosphere, a place, a mood. I never do more than one draft though of course I correct and tidy up. But for years I wrote with a fountain pen on paper – sometimes I still do because the physical act of hand-writing really does bring bring me closer to the words, but in the beginning writing was physical hard work so re-writing was kept to a minimum. Besides, for my first three books I was doing school and university essays and exams as well. Laptops changed everything.
There are no rules. Do what you want. Be yourself, but never forget that it isn’t all about you, it just starts with you.
I know that now.
Susan Hill published her first novel in 1961. Her books have won the Whitbread (now Costa), James Tait Black and Somerset Maugham Prizes and were shortlisted for the Man Booker. The play adapted from her best-selling ghost story The Woman in Black has been running in London’s West End for 30 years. Susan has been a judge for most British book prizes, and was made a CBE in 2012 for services to literature. In 2018 she joined Andrew Holgate and Kamila Shamsie on the panel of judges for the Young Writer of the Year Award.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.