1 When you sell your first novel, you’ll think you have it made. You don’t. With rare exceptions—and you expect you’ll be one, bur you probably won’t be—getting a second novel published is even harder.
2 Do not ignore all those first, second, and third pass pages and proofs. You imagine that publishing companies are professional organizations whose staffers will do their jobs. Uh-uh. All of those versions of your book are full of mistakes. Every time you identify one set of errors, the minions will generate new ones while inputting the corrections. You are the only one who really cares enough about the copy to make it flawless. Also, when your readers find you’ve confused the words “heroin” and “heroine”, they won’t blame the publisher. They’ll blame you.
3 Enjoy yourself. For reasons less than obvious, writing fiction only gets harder, and confidence grows in steadily shorter supply. Relish the sensation of dashing off a chapter in a state of self-congratulatory glee. Later you’ll get anxious, always second-guessing yourself while certain that everything you’re writing is dreck. Unwarranted self-satisfaction is much more fun.
4 Trust your gut instincts. Editors are only making suggestions. You don’t have to do what they say. They’re often wrong. They’re often very, very wrong. They will frequently ask you to cut the very lines that get quoted admiringly in reviews.
5 That said, screw the reviews. They don’t matter. Sales matter. I know. Grim news.
6 You are much more entranced with artful language for its own sake than your readers are. Don’t show off. It backfires.
7 If you are ever even passingly bored by what you’re writing, that means your readers won’t be “passingly” bored, but homicidally bored, throw-the-paperback-across-the-room bored. Remember that the delete key is your most powerful literary device.
8 Choose your subjects by heat seeking: you want to write about anything to which you have a strong emotional response, even if the topic might seem small or a little weird.
9 If you write about your family, even if they’re disguised, you will pay a price. I’m not saying don’t do it, but go in eyes open. Somehow no one ever takes being fictionalized as a compliment.
10 That advice about “always kill your darlings” is nonsense. Your favourite passages are the best passages.
11 Never edit out the jokes.
12 The actual writing is the best part. Post-publication promotion rapidly becomes just a job, and it’s a dreary job. Throughout the endless repetition, you’ll come to hate yourself, and for a while you’ll even come to hate the book. So treasure your solitude. When it’s just you and your story, hey—that job is glorious.
A prolific journalist with current columns in The Spectator and Harper’smagazine