I don’t believe that there are any rules about writing, just experiences to be shared and small pieces of advice that may or may not resonate with others.
My first novel was published when I was 47… so I never qualified as a “young” writer. I was middle-aged right from the beginning. Before then, I had never even considered writing a novel and there are no half-written stories in a drawer or jottings that had never evolved. Until my forties I didn’t have anything that motivated me to write fiction (beforehand I worked in PR and as a freelance journalist). Perhaps this is still the one thing I know: that in fiction writing there has to be that simple thing called “a story”, and I believe it should be one that you are compelled to write. It should feel as if there is no choice. It’s a horrible cliché (but sometimes clichés have a function, and I refuse to let this belief go!) but that moment when the idea for a story comes is like falling in love. It’s usually unexpected, an irresistible coup de foudre. For the first phase of it you are happy, almost euphoric, and it seems that nothing can stand in your way. Then of course the going can get tough and you have to decide whether to keep going because the honeymoon is over. Doubt creeps in and the word count seems to rise with painful slowness. This is the phase when the future of what you are writing seems less uncertain. Surely this is reminiscent of love?
An idea that is going to excite and motivate for a few years (and that’s often the timescale) has to be a strong one. Forget whether the reader will be interested, will you, the writer, sustain a passion for it that will sustain you in all the thousands of hours that will be needed to put it in a coherent form? If there isn’t a starting point such as this, then there are much easier and more certain ways of putting bread on the table.
Though I didn’t think of it in this way when I began, writing is a profoundly unsociable activity – it makes you selfish with your time, with your thoughts, with your emotional “availability”. It’s hard when you are in full flow to leave it all behind when you shut your laptop for the evening. Your characters are still with you, more real than the friends or family that you are sitting with at a table – however, I would urge any young writer not to sit down at that table and talk about what they are writing. My recommendation is to keep the idea close and save all the story-telling energy for the page.
Perhaps the most important thing I wish I had known from the beginning was to be wary of too much solitude and I would encourage any writer, young or old, not to become isolated. At the end of my second book (both of the first two were written alone in a house down a country lane, with only sheep to gaze on) I was profoundly unhappy. I think the diagnosis (though the therapist never got there) was simply loneliness. Life changed when I adopted a wholly new routine. It was one that might not work for everyone but it was transformative for me. I essentially swapped one silence for another. I discovered that in a library the sound of other people breathing and gently tapping on their keyboards was enough to cheer me. In periods when I am not travelling for research, I go each day to the London Library. Of course the book collection is significant and useful, but it’s not the reason I wait on the steps at opening time each day. It’s for the quiet company of fellow writers. It’s this that keeps me writing – and sane.
Victoria Hislop is the author of five novels with Mediterranean settings, all of which have been number one bestsellers in the UK. Her works have been translated into more than thirty-five languages and have sold ten million copies worldwide. In China, France, Greece, Israel and Norway they have been bestsellers and Victoria has travelled to those countries and many others to give presentations. Her novel, The Island, was made into a 26-episode television serial in Greece, and Victoria acted as script consultant. She recently had her first work of translation, a short story by Cavafy, published in Found in Translation, a collection of the best short stories from around the world. Her new novel, Those Who are Loved, is to be published on 30 May 2019.
Victoria read English at Oxford and was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Sheffield. She worked in publishing, PR and journalism before becoming a novelist, speaks fluent French and competent Greek.
This article is part of a series of experienced writers and authors sharing what they wish they had known when they first started writing.