Writing a Novel: 6 Lessons I Learned From Freelance Writing

    writing lessons fiction

    Do you dream of writing a novel?

    I never imagined I’d write children’s books.

    I thought I’d found my groove writing online and for print media for over 25 years, freelancing for 12 of those.

    A few years ago, my groove began feeling like a rut, and I began to think about writing fiction.

    I’ve always been a reader, but I’d never thought of writing novels of any kind.

    Writing fiction was something that other (much cleverer) people did. I didn’t have the faintest idea of where to begin.

    Or so I thought.

    Once I actually sat down to write my first novel (which remains unpublished), I took the enormous leap of faith that goes with taking an idea and swimming through 90,000 words to reach ‘The End.’

    And I began to understand the quiet, invaluable lessons that freelance writing had taught me about writing fiction.

    Here are six lessons I learned.

    1. Where to find ideas

    If I had $1 for every time a new freelance writer asked me where my ideas came from, I’d have retired to my private island years ago.

    Ideas are everywhere and it pays to pay attention to what people are talking about, what they’re watching, thinking, and reading.

    It’s a muscle you can train, just like any other.

    The Mapmaker Chronicles, my adventure series for children, came from two conversations I had with my eldest son, then nine. One about how far space goes, the other about how the world was mapped. Tapping into those conversations and a thought (what’s really at the edges of the universe?) became an idea, which became a three-book, 160,000-word epic adventure.

    Lucky that attention muscle was in shape…

    2. How to write dialogue

    I’ve been interviewing people for a long time, and here’s what it’s taught me:

    • Learn to ask the same question three ways to ensure you get a succinct answer.
    • Know how to reach the essence of a quote, honing it for maximum power.
    • Learn to listen for the rhythm in a voice. A pause can be more effective than words will ever be.
    • The key to any interview is asking the right question—even if you feel stupid uttering the words.

    Quotes are the lifeblood of any feature article, quickening the pace, giving the story bounce and flow. And so it is with dialogue in fiction.

    If you talk to many different people, you get a fantastic sense of how to give your characters distinctive voices.

    3. There’s always more than one side to a story

    As every journalist knows, there are always at least two sides to a story. To produce a well-balanced article, you need to present both, and allow the reader room to decide.

    In fiction, you can switch point of view to offer differing perspectives but the most important thing to remember is that every character is the hero of his and her own story.

    Your hero may dislike the villain—in fact, the latter may be the blackest, darkest character of all time—but you can never forget the villain’s perspective. Even in the backstory you don’t include, it is important to remember each character’s side of the story if you are to create well-rounded characters.

    4. Write for an ‘ideal reader’

    When I worked with an interiors magazine, we created an ‘ideal reader.’ She was a 40+ mother of two with a blonde bob and a healthy income, and her name was Jan. If we were arguing about whether or not to include a particular house or feature in the magazine, we would simply ask ourselves ‘would Jan like this?’.

    When I wrote the first book of The Mapmaker Chronicles, I did not write it for ‘children.’ I wrote it for my then nine-year-old son.

    I wrote the kind of story I knew he liked to read—and when I read the first draft aloud to him, I noted whether or not he laughed at what I thought was funny, whether things made sense to him, and ended up removing all the ‘boring bits.’

    It’s difficult to write for a large, faceless audience; so much easier to write for one person in that audience, while keeping an eye on the universality of your story.

    5. Stay true to your voice

    As a freelancer, you become adept at adapting your writing style across a wide range of publications. The very best writers, however, manage to hold on to a modicum of their own voice even as they write to suit the environment. That voice is what makes you stand out in a crowded field.

    As a writer of fiction, your voice is the key to the whole world. You can study structure, tweak dialogue, obey the rules of genre, and outline your plot until the cows come home, but if you aren’t using your own voice, none of it matters.

    Years of working as a freelance writer taught me to write like I speak—only better. It is the single most valuable thing I have learned as a writer.

    6. The importance of a deadline—even a self-imposed one

    While the dream of freelance writing involves pyjamas and daytime television, for working writers, the reality is very different. Productive (and therefore paid) writers need routine and discipline—and there is no faster way to learn that than a relentless onslaught of deadlines.

    Freelance writing taught me that the best way to cure writers’ block is to write. It taught me that it’s possible to write 1000 words on a day when you’re not ‘feeling it,’ but your deadline is looming.

    And it taught me never to wait for The Muse. Instead, I assume she is stuck in traffic and start without her, hoping she’ll catch up when she can.

    When I began writing fiction, I fit it in around paid work, wedging it into cracks in my day. I quickly realised that it was easy to put it off. When you’ve spent an entire day writing articles, the last thing you want to do is pull out a manuscript.

    So I gave myself a deadline—and announced it to the world. There is nothing like a battalion of interested friends asking ‘Have you finished your novel yet?’ to spur a person on…

    For me, deadlines are essential to getting work done, and writing fiction, though fun, is hard work. Just ask The Muse…


    Freelance writing is still my day job, and I’m glad, because it continues to teach me so much. Every day, I interview experts in their fields. I talk to real people about their lives. I deal with deadlines and discipline and the delicate art of negotiation.

    All of which fuels the fiction writing I love.

    Have you learned any lessons about writing fiction from your day job? Please share in the comments, and keep the conversation going.

    If you’ve enjoyed this post, do share it on social media!

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    About the author

      Allison Tait

      Allison Tait is a multi-genre writer who has more than 25 years’ experience in magazines, newspapers and online publishing. Her popular children’s series The Mapmaker Chronicles is published by Hachette Australia.

    • ASHVIN says:

      Must say great tips you’ve shared. Read each and every bite of this article and found it valuable for me. Specially I loved the 4th point. Got something new to learn today. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nguyen says:

      The article you have shared here very awesome. I really like and appreciated your work. I read deeply your article, the points you have mentioned in this article are useful

    • Thanks for sharing with us, every bit of this article looks informative, even it is a two- three months old artile. I liked that 4th point which you described easily.

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    • Ohita Afeisume says:

      Thanks for sharing. I really need to create more rounded characters.

    • Em Fairley says:

      Thanks for the great reminders, Allison! Love the article!

    • An excellent article. Thank you! I need my self imposed deadlines if I am to ever complete anything, being easily distracted. And i especially like the point about the villain’s POV. Extremely important if one is to avoid creating a cardboard cut-out villain. But daytime television? That’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare!

    • Must say great tips you’ve shared. Read each and every bite of this article and found it valuable for me. Specially I loved the 4th point. Got something new to learn today. Thanks for sharing.

    • JC Haley says:

      Thanks for the tips. This article has come at a very good time for me. I am (after many years) finally signing up for NaNoWriMo. I especially liked your comment about writer’s block. I will use the visual of my Muse being stuck in traffic to help me along. Thank you!

    • Yoav says:

      Loved the villain point of view tip. I’ve read somewhere that it’s often the villain’s character that makes the book, because the hero is often limited with what he can do because his conscious limits him (think Superman) but the villain can do and think anything (The Joker).

    • Allison,
      Great points and #3 really struck a chord with me. Knowing how characters may act, or react, in certain situations regardless of whether they are the focus of that action is an awesome way to really understand and flesh out the characters.

      In point #1, you write about having the “attention muscle” in shape. How would you define that muscle and are there more examples of how to exercise it than the way you mention it here? I’m a little unclear what you meant to say.

      Finally, I also agree with what Rebecca Bowyer wrote in the comments. Don’t skip a writing day in the first drafts. It’s hard to stop the momentum and pick up again. Jerry Seinfeld used to talk about his creative process as marking a calendar at the end of every writing session, so that eventually, each “X” on the calendar began to dominate the month. It helped create it’s own momentum, and he claimed his only goal was to “not break the chain.”

      • Hi David, thanks for your comment and love that advice from Seinfeld! When I talk about the ‘attention muscle’, I’m talking about those powers of listening and observation that allow you to spot a story idea. It’s something that I learned through many years of working as a journalist – when you’re stuck for a feature idea, you tune in on what people around you are talking about and something usually presents itself.

        Fiction is similar. A conversation with a friend might spark an idea that you then mull over until it turns itself into an interesting premise. As an example, I saw a blog post yesterday about ‘surprising things people leave in library books’, which to some people might have been an exercise in curiosity, but to me was a whole series of story ideas.

        I think that writers sometimes believe that they need to conjure ideas out of their heads, but often the idea may be right in front of them. I think it’s worth the time to learn to see them. A

    • I would add “Don’t stop writing”. Taking a break is a bad idea as I’ve discovered! Also – set realistic deadlines and don’t let self-doubt push you off course. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you advise it before (and I’ve certainly read it elsewhere) – get the first draft down, then edit.

      • Hi Rebecca, I laughed when I read your comment – yes, taking a break can sometimes lead to a very long hiatus. But pushing through the first draft and then taking a break is very valuable! A

    • Juliar Nur says:

      Thanks for tips Mr. James. I’m new in writing fiction, but i have some. i wrote it in my notebook few days ago. Making fiction out of my daily activity sure is easy and fun. Like making my worst day become much better day.

    • Kylie says:

      Hi Allison my name is Kylie and I’m a junior in high school. I’m an aspiring writer and wanted to know how I could get started. I am the kind of writer that can sit down and write for 8 hrs straight BTW. Right now I do fiction and I love bring pain into the lives of my characters to mature them and reveal their personality and struggles. I literally become emotionally attached to my stories. Is there a way I can contact you to learn from you more?

      • Hi Kylie, if you visit my website (link in the story above), I have lots of tips for new writers on my blog. Writing is a very personal thing and I think that one thing we all find difficult is letting go, but this is something that gets easier with practise. The best thing any aspiring writer can do is to write, and write, and write – and to allow themselves to take onboard constructive feedback. A

    • Linda Freeto says:

      Allison, I totally agree with our article on writing fiction. My biggest problem is setting a deadline for myself. I think I am an A+ procastinator. Thanks for your article.

      • Hi Linda, there’s no doubt that procrastination can be hard to overcome! I think the best way around it is not to try to do too much at once. Rather than setting a deadline, give yourself a wordcount for each day – and make it 200 words, which is completely do-able (and you’ll usually find you write much more). Getting started is the key! A

    • pat says:

      Thanks for the wonderful reminders. I especially like 3 and 4. Congratulations on your shift.

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