The Only Writing Advice You'll Ever Really Need

While I was in Oxford recently, I dropped into The Story Museum to hear Philip Pullman read the opening chapters of one of my favourite books —Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Philip posing beside the life-size image of himself in Long John Silver costume

I killed time until the scheduled hour for the reading by wandering through the museum's current 26 Characters exhibition, and kept bumping into Pullman and his wife, Jude, who were doing the same thing.

We got chatting, and he asked me what I was writing. I told him, but admitted progress was depressingly slow, despite being represented by a wonderful agent who was waiting for the book. He asked me what the problem was, and I told him I never believed the pages I wrote were good enough, that I was my own worst enemy. 

His response was immediate, and emphatic. "You've just got to keep going! It's the only thing that matters. You keep going, whatever it takes, until it's done. It's never as bad as you think it is." 

Then he added, leaning closer with a gleam in his eye worthy of Long John Silver himself, "and when you've finished it and sent it off, the first thing you do is take a fresh sheet of paper, write Chapter One at the top, and start writing the next one."

No prizes for guessing what he wrote in my copy of His Dark Materials...

But, you know what? As this draft creeps closer and closer to a submission-ready state, it's the echo of Philip's distinctively husky voice saying, "Keep going, Lia!" which has helped me push through the constant self-doubt.

I'll never forget his sincerity, his concern, and the kindness he showed to a completely insignificant wannabe writer. I've often wondered since why he bothered. 

In the end, I could only conclude that my frustration must have struck a chord with him because, as his wife confided in me after the reading...

"You know, he never thinks he's good enough, either."

Want more? 
Listen to a BBC Radio 4 interview with Philip Pullman and his publisher, David Fickling: From Alice to Lyra - Philip Pullman on why Oxford is the home of children's literature

LIA KEYES is represented by Laura Rennert, Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

A British expat, she's currently finishing a fantasy adventure for young adults. You can find links to her online haunts on her website.

Lia's other musings


This is terrific. Today, I will "keep going!" <3

You do that, V. I'm waiting for my next full read of You-Know-What. :)

It really is the best advice ever--similar to what another fantasy author (Kim Harrison) told me: "If you love it, never stop."

Yes, but the point in this case is not just to keep going, but to let go of the thing that's most likely to stop you from doing so - the desire to be "good enough". Perfectionism is the most difficult dragon to vanquish.

Thanks for this post, Lia. It is personal and yet universal. I guess we all have that dragon to fight!

Oh, sorry. Guess I missed the point. Thanks for letting me know! I will keep going and try to vanquish my perfectionism dragon!

I'll be waiting to read the results! :)

Which reminds me of GK Chesterton's justification for the existence of fantasy stories, "not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten"! Good luck with your dragon, Carol. I hope it's not a Hungarian Horntail. :)

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