Something unfamiliar is emanating from my blog this week. Contentment. I’ve finished my book and it is now with my editor (as I like to call him). It has been a long and sometimes arduous journey but I have finally made it. Not that I’m completely happy, but I’ll talk about that more in a bit.
So, seeing that NaNoWriMo is coming up and many writers will be in the same situation I was a year ago, I thought I’d pass on my top tips, novice writer to novice writer. These are the key things I have learnt. Now, this list may well change with more experience, but these are the things that I wish I’d known before I had started.
0. You can do it
This isn’t a tip but a statement of fact. You. Can. Do. It. Can you be the next Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hugo or Hemingway? Probably not. Will you sell books in the millions like King, Brown or Rowling? Highly unlikely. Will it be any good? It depends on who is judging. But you can write a book, whether it takes you a few months or a few years. Anybody who tells you otherwise is a big fat liar, and that includes you.
1. Learn your craft
The best way to learn how to write is to write, in the same way as the best way to learn how to drive is to get in the damn thing and put your foot down. But as any driver will tell you, it isn’t as simple as that. The good news is that there’s lots of help out there. The bad news is that much of it is contradictory. There is no right way to write a book (despite what many snake oil salesmen will tell you), but there is a right way for you. So read up on the fundamentals, learn about character arcs, point of view, the three act structure and pantsing versus plotting; then pick something that resonates and go for it. I prefer learning on the job, so even though I had already started, I continued to read articles on writing, how to books, lists like these; and picked out what made most sense. If I had my time again there are many things I would do differently, but I don’t regret the time I have spent learning my craft and will continue in my efforts to learn more.
2 Write the book you would like to read
If you hate historical romance or young adult vampire epics, don’t write them (unless, of course, you are writing satire, in which case go for it and make sure the knife remains drawn and bloody). In my book I wanted to play around with two ideas: if we can truly live forever, and whether our political processes prevent us from making the big decisions. Now I love to read genre fiction, so writing a political thriller set in the near future allowed me to play with the ideas in a setting I enjoyed.
3 Decide on what narrative point of view to use before you start
Point of view is a tricky thing to get to grips with, especially if you have never written before, and you will mess it up at some point during your journey. What is important, though, is to choose your point of view and stick to it. Changing the POV of a book once written is a lot of work. If you are writing a grand, sweeping epic then 3rd person is normally recommended; a more intimate portrayal of a personal journey may be better in first person. Many first time writers prefer first person, because it is easier to write. I liked the style chosen by George R R Martin for a Song of Fire and Ice series, which is a close 3rd person point of view with each chapter giving the viewpoint of a single character. However, there were times when I felt strangled by this choice.
4 Don’t stop writing until you get the story down
Once you start writing the story, don’t stop until you finish. This doesn’t mean you should stay strapped to your keyboard whilst taking espressos intravenously. What I mean is never go back over what you have already written until it is finished. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, wild asides or changing your mind about going on; just write. You can always go back and change things during the edit at your leisure. What is important is to channel all that creative energy and enthusiasm into getting the story down.
5 Do not be surprised if the story ends up different to how you planned
As I was writing my first draft a funny thing happened; my characters started saying and doing things that I hadn’t planned. I had plotted out how the story would unfold but the characters were having none of it. Somehow, they started controlling me, making me write dialogue or action scenes that were absolutely right for the character, but caused major issues with my original plot. Also, the more I wrote, the more I realised that the story wasn’t about my main character, but about a supporting character instead. The point is, it doesn’t matter whether you are writing genre fiction or high browed literary fiction: characters drive the plot, not the other way around, and if the plot changes, so be it.
6 Leave it. Go off and do something else.
The most consistent piece of advice I read was that once you have finished the first draft, put it away somewhere and don’t look at it for a while. This doesn’t mean don’t write, just don’t work on your manuscript. I left my first draft for 6 weeks and when I finally went back to it, it was like reading somebody else’s work. This made the editing a lot easier
7 Edit ruthlessly, but always keep in mind pace, structure and flow
There are many good books out there on how to edit. The one I found helpful was Self-editing for fiction writers by Browne & King, but there are many others. The one lesson I would pass on from this process is that while you are always told to cut hard, remove all dead words, keep description to a minimum etc. it is important that you continuously review your changes and their impact on the whole. For example, I would read out each sentence and trim out any unnecessary words. This made my sentences trim, sharp and to the point. When I read back what I’d written my prose was all over the place. Each individual sentence was fine, but they didn’t flow as a whole. My brain felt like a car driving over a potholed road, all jumps and jags as we rumbled over the prose. And this was after my fourth edit.
8 Once you have finished your first edit, give to someone else to read
You may be unhappy, embarrassed even at the way it is written, but this is the time to let somebody you trust read your story. I chose three close friends, all book lovers, who I knew would have different perspectives on what they look for in a story, but importantly wouldn’t be afraid to tell me what worked and what didn’t. Their help was invaluable, because one of the biggest issues you have as an author is that you know the story. You know the characters inside out, what motivates them to do and react as they do. You also know the world they inhabit. What you don’t know, or can’t see, is how much of that you have successfully placed on the page. In my case, I had cut a very large boring descriptive passage from my book, fun to write but all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’. What I didn’t do was add back a key plot point. I couldn’t see it because I didn’t need the point explained to me. I knew it. My readers, however, didn’t, leading to much confusion.
9 Take on or ignore the feedback from your test readers – but be honest with yourself
Your test readers are there to let you know what doesn’t work with your book. Sometimes their advice can be hard to take. It is at this point you have to be honest with yourself. Your goal is to write the best book you can. Was their feedback correct or not? If not, ignore it, but if it was, swallow your pride and make the change; you’ll be grateful you did.
10 Let go
Your story will never be perfect, because if you are looking for perfection then your story will never be finished. At some point during the editing process you will find yourself changing your writing without adding any value. It will be different, but not better. It is at this point you need to let go. You’ve done your best, now it is time to let your progeny out into the world (or lock them in a draw never to see the light of day if that is your preference). Don’t waste any more time, because you are anything like me you will have the next one to think about.