Author Boris Starling’s 20 tips to success

Author Boris Starling. Photo: Katharine Davies
Author Boris Starling. Photo: Katharine Davies

Tucked away in Prospect House, Poundbury, author Boris Starling has just finished his latest book Unconquerable: The Invictus Spirit. Reflecting on his 20 years in the industry Boris has this advice;

Twenty years ago I received a call saying that HarperCollins wanted to publish MESSIAH. It was a call which one way and another changed my life, and which I always regard as the start of my career as a writer.

I was thinking the other day of what I’ve learned in the course of those 20 years. Probably less than I should have. But here, in no particular order, is one thing for each of those years.

  1. The less you think you need an editor, the more you need an editor.
  2. There are always three stages to everything I write: the stage where I think it’s the best thing anyone’s ever written, the stage where I think it’s the worst thing anyone’s ever written, and the stage where I realise it’s neither.
  3. Everyone asks two questions: how long does it take to write a book, and how much do you earn? The first is unquantifiable and the second is none of their business.
  4.  Any writer who tells you there aren’t lows as well as highs is either very successful or very full of shit. The lows make the highs sweeter. The highs help keep your bank manager sweet.
  5.  It’s a job and you have to treat it as such. Show up every day. Some days it’s like drawing blood from a stone. Some days it’s like taking dictation. I wrote the last 10,000 words of THE STAY-BEHIND CAVE in eight hours, including 45 minutes of the loudest fire alarm I’d ever heard.
  6. I dream of writing The One: not just the one which sells millions, but the one which becomes part of the zeitgeist, even for a short time. The one people talk about to each other and take on holiday. Gone Girl, Fever Pitch, The Da Vinci Code. Especially The Da Vinci Code. Seriously. I started it on a flight back from Moscow and didn’t look up until I finished it five minutes before landing at Heathrow. 
  7. Marketing always want you to write The Next Big Thing, but also the same book as last time. This is publishing’s version of Schrodinger’s Cat.
  8. There’s no necessary correlation between (a) effort and quality (b) quality and success (c) effort and success. 
  9. My office has a view of suburban houses. People always think writers need views of mountains or lakes. If I had a view like that, I’d spend all day looking at it and do no work whatsoever.
  10. Walking the dogs or going running has helped me unravel more plot points than sitting and staring at a screen ever has.
  11. Fight your corner. Stand your ground. But choose your battles.
  12.  A good agent is equal parts attack dog, editor, friend and shrink.
  13. Always check before you send. Always.
  14. If you start off as a novelist before becoming a screenwriter, you think that screenplays are basically novels with the adjectives taken out. You stop thinking this roughly halfway down page 2 of your first script.
  15. Most screenplay scenes are greatly improved by taking out the first and last lines. Come in late and leave early. Also applicable to quite a few life situations.
  16.  A film or TV option means almost nothing in terms of actually getting something made. But no film or TV option means absolutely nothing in terms of actually getting something made.
  17. How people do things is as important as what they do. One producer lied and lied, and I would never work with her again. A different producer on a different project eventually fired me, but did so with grace, warmth and sorrow. I’d work with him again anytime.
  18. Knowing which advice to heed and which to discard is one of the most valuable skills for any writer. It’s also pretty much the hardest to achieve, except with hindsight.
  19. Having readers who will tell it to you straight and honestly is invaluable. Your mother is unlikely to be this person.
  20. But sometimes all you need is for someone to tell you you’re brilliant. Your mother is almost certain to be this person.


Boris Starling’s latest book Unconquerable: The Invictus Spirit is available now in book shops and online. 


Boris Starling's new book Unconquerable: the Invictus Spirit
Boris Starling’s new book Unconquerable: the Invictus Spirit

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