I hate giving writing advice.
There’s something distinctly awkward about it. I dislike the fact that some people can dictate any one system for writing. You have to do what works for you. That said, continuing the Tips series of posting, here are some things that come from the old editorial/bookselling side of my brain. (I might not actually take any of my own advice, however.)
So, some random thoughts on how you approach writing, and for those who might ask where to get ideas…
• Shocking fact: you don’t have to be a good writer to succeed. You just have to tell a good story, the right story for a particular market, and tell it competently.
• Again, tell that story. That’s what it’s about in commercial publishing.
• Have lots of ideas—the genre is ideas based. If you struggle to think of ideas, writing will be a difficult direction to go in. Don’t be afraid to take things from wherever you can—be inspired by everything if you can.
• Get outside and talk to people. Listen. There are hundreds of ideas you can take for novels. Use things that happen to people. It makes for a realistic story. And stories are about people.
• Read newspapers or historical sources—these are plentiful supplies of inspiration, and ‘what ifs’.
• Know where the story is heading before you write it.
• Just write something. Every day if you can. Get a routine.
• Try not to get caught up in theory too much, too early on, because this will be apparent. Have faith in what you can do. (Tell the story!)
• When you read other novels, keep these things in the back of your mind. Analyse, become more critical. Suddenly it might seem like novelists you love aren’t that good…!
• Make sure the first few chapters has the best writing you can do. There’s no point saying that the good bits come later. Editors won’t read later. Most customers in bookstores will not read later. Get it right at the start.
Here are some common technical mistakes / things to bear in mind to make your writing stronger. (This ain’t gospel, but these are things that can annoy the hell out of an editor…) Many good writers will put down what you think is bad writing, but they’re still in control of what they’re doing.
• There are lies about having to restrict adverbs and adjectives. This is something every creative writing class tells you, for a good reason, but don’t eliminate them completely. It’s a simple trick to help over-descriptive writers to be more careful. So be selective. Use them in a surprising way. Unless you are writing in a noir style, deliberately hardboiled, and not the next Peake.
• When you put pen to paper, think—why am I writing in this style. Is third/first person present/past the right way to tell this story? Is it necessary? Am I showing off?
• Showing / telling – ignore a lot of the bad advice out there. Do whatever is right for the story. It’s simply to stop over description. Read what Ursula has to say.
• Be careful about telling around dialogue that already tells: “ ‘Don’t do that,’ he said, warning her. ”
• If the first chapter begins with a lot of introduction and a lot of dialogue, the reader has very little to no sense of place, nor any sense of what the characters are like as people (beyond their role in the story). Also called ‘White Room’ syndrome.
• Starting sentences with –ing words. ‘Running up the stairs, he opened the door.’ At the same time? Really? Not possible…
• It is not necessary for characters to open each door, walk through it, and then close it behind them unless it is important to the story.
• Be aware of points of view, which character is ‘seeing’ what. Don’t forget, we see a scene through one character’s eyes. We’re not in the Victorian age anymore… Read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series for a good example of this done properly, and effectively—because readers can be shown the whole picture through many different viewpoints, whilst characters suffer in ignorance!
• Watch out for ‘drama queens’ – people whose voices hitch, who sob or well up with tears every time they say something serious. Sometimes not reacting can effectively make a situation more grave. You don’t want every dramatic scene to turn into a soap opera.
Really enjoying your tips, they are really refreshing compared to the standard high brow advice you read all the time (not saying the high brow advice is not normal mind)!
I am on the final stretch of my novel now and hoping to be finished be Christmas. I’m really not looking forward to the dreaded editing part but am determined to do it right, just out of curiousity did you ever use any of the critique websites when writing NoV, or did you just show a few select people?
Thanks, Rob – I’m all for being honest about publishing and how it works!
No, I never used critique websites. To be honest, only a select few people ever read NoV before it was accepted; which is not to say there aren’t benefits to such sites. You have to do what feels right for you, really.
Best of luck with your own writing.