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Louise Penny Master Class: 18 things I wish I'd known before starting my first book

Canadian crime maven Louise Penny has been leading us in an online master class on the art and craft of killer crime writing. In her final blog, she doles out a heaping helping of lessons she learned the hard way—so you don't have to.


Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.    
—Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

  • I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to get it right in the first draft. In fact, I couldn’t. Writing’s a process—and it’s the very ‘mistakes’ that lead to inspiration. That’s how the light got in. 

  • I wish I’d outlined my first novel sooner. The reason I kept getting stuck is because I didn’t know where I was going. I thought I should just start at page one and see what happens. For some it works, but not for me. 

  • Writing, for me, is a balance between planning and letting go. Having a platform from which to take off, and having a place to return to when things get murky.   

  • I wish I’d been more discerning about who saw the first manuscript. I had no idea how fragile I was, and frightened. And I had no idea how cruel, intentionally and unintentionally, some people could be. 

  • Now, when I get stuck, I listen to music. Each book has its own soundtrack, but I didn’t start that until Book 3. I wish I’d realized sooner how freeing and powerful music can be. 

  • Now, when I get stuck, I also go for walks. I stroll and try to clear my mind. It’s shocking how often a solution will present itself. When I was writing that first book and got stuck I’d fight and fight and get more and more upset and befuddled. Now I call the dog and we go for a walk.   

  • I wish I’d known that manuscripts are double spaced, written in 12-point Cambria font (or any other clear, simple font) and should be about 100,000 words. 

  • I wish I’d known the length of a manuscript is judged not by page number, but word count.   Not knowing this, I looked at the novels in our library, saw most were between 350 and 400 pages, so that’s what I wrote. Single spaced. 250,000 words. I had to take out more than half the book.  

  • I wish I’d known about all the great writing contests out there for Best Unpublished First Crime Novels. The CWC, the CWA, the MWA. The Malice Domestic/St Martin’s Award. Most come with a first prize of actually being published. Indeed, it was only in being shortlisted for the CWA award that I found an agent and was eventually published. 

There are five rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald



  • One of the many editors who read my first book and declined it (there’s a polite word) took the time to give me notes. Now some, honestly, made no sense but some were brilliant, including this piece of advice: 

    First-time writers generally make three mistakes: the book is too long, with too many ideas and too many characters.

    He then went on to explain that I’d made all three mistakes. After cursing him, and his family, I settled down and realized he was right. This forced me to ask a key question: What’s the book about? Not murder. That’s an act, not a theme. So what holds this book together?

    It took a long time to realize my first book was about choices and change, and how the characters meet both. That then guided all my editing decisions.

    It was, and continues to be, extremely important advice for me.

  • When I was writing my second book, and riddled with doubt and flop sweat, I had a call from my agent. This is always a bit like being summoned to the principal’s office to explain myself.

    "Louise," she said, in her curt British accent. "How’s the writing going?" 
    "Well, Teresa," I sniveled. "I’m kinda afraid. It’s going ok, but then I get all stressed and worried -," 
    "Oh, for God’s sake," she cut me off, "it’s not War and Peace you’re writing."
    After a brief pause, in which I silently cursed her and her family, I realized she was right, and started to laugh. It was perfect, insightful and sublime. I wished I’d known earlier not to take myself so damned seriously.

And this is what I wish for you:

  • That you write from the heart as well as the head.

  • That you dig deep and find the courage to use all your thoughts and emotions and experiences, beautiful and dreadful.
  • That the choices you make are driven by your own desires and not market forces.

  • That you never, ever, listen to anyone who tells you you can’t do it—whether that voice is inside, or outside, your head.  

  • That you believe in your book, and yourself. Because if you don’t, no one will.

  • That you write with joy. 

  • That you fear neither the cracks, nor the light.


*****

Louise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including The New York Times, the London Times and The Globe and Mail.



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