Ten Tips For Novelists

Over on Twitter, I’ve been sharing my top tips for aspiring novelists.

 

Getting Your Zing Back

Everyday pressures can rob you of your creative spark, and leave you sitting at a keyboard waiting for words that simply will not come. You find you lack inspiration. Nothing you write seems good enough, and all the fun seems to have gone out of it. Some people call this unfortunate state “writers’ block”; I call it, losing your zing.

There are many ways to lose your zing: tiredness, stress, overwork, lack of confidence, and depression can each kill it stone dead. But how do you get it back?

Lost Your Zing? Here are seven quick tips to put the bounce back into your writing.

1. Don’t panic. Everybody has their off days, and panicking will only make things worse. Try to remain calm and remember: this too shall pass.

2. Stop trying to force it. If you’re getting nowhere, stop banging your head against the wall. Trying to force an idea onto the page when you’re incapable of doing it justice will only result in disappointment. If you’re really stuck, admit it.

3. Get away from the computer. Go for a walk. Get a coffee. Have a nap. Hang out in a library or park for a while. Find somewhere away from your daily routine, where you can relax and forget about everything else for a few minutes. Give yourself permission to relax and to think about other things.

4. Exercise. Go swimming. Mow the lawn. Jog. Exercise stimulates the mind as well as the body, and it makes you feel better. You can’t expect to do your best work if you’re constantly plagued by the aches and pains that accompany prolonged inactivity. Get the blood pumping and the oxygen flowing, and you’ll be able to return to your keyboard feeling invigorated.

5. Read! Remind yourself why you started writing in the first place. Re-read those books you loved, the ones that first lured you into writing stories of your own. Then read something completely unreleated to anything you’re trying to write. Give the brain some new food to chew over. Find some new books to inspire you. Immerse yourself in the kind of writing you love to read.

6. Chunk down. Set yourself realistic goals. If writing a whole novel seems too daunting, break it down into smaller tasks. Chunk it down into individual scenes, and concentrate on writing one scene per day. After all, it’s much easier (and less scary) to say to yourself, “today I will write a scene,” rather than, “today, I will tackle a novel”. As I wrote in an earlier article:

“If you’re going to eat an elephant, you have to do it one mouthful at a time. In the same way, you can’t write a whole story or novel in one go. Break the narrative up into a series of important incidents, and then write a scene describing each incident.”

7. Be a writer. Still lacking confidence? Try to look at the world around you as you would if you were a successful writer. React to things the way you would if you were a successful writer. Let yourself feel the self-confidence. Think yourself into the role until the act becomes the fact.

But, whatever you do, WRITE. Write for fun, write nonsense. Don’t worry about publication; take the pressure off yourself. Tell yourself it doesn’t matter if it’s any good, just scribble something down. You can always go back and edit it later. But for now, just write whatever comes into your head. Learn to enjoy it again.

Keep calm. Sit down. And write.

 

A simple trick to keep your creativity flowing

If you’re writing a novel, there’s a little trick I’ve found useful.

Today, I came to the end of chapter four, which coincided with the end of my writing time. I felt pretty pleased with how it had gone, and felt I’d achieved something by finishing the chapter. I could have saved the document there and then, and gone off to do all the other things I do with my time when I’m not writing. But I didn’t. Instead, I forced myself to write the first sentence of chapter five before I closed Word down for the day.

Why?

Because I find that, rather than starting a new scene from cold, it’s easier to come back to a piece that’s already in progress. If I’d left the manuscript at the end of chapter four, then tomorrow, I’d be facing the empty white page of chapter five, and have to come up with an opening sentence before I could dive into the action. And for some reason that’s far more daunting than simply continuing a chapter that’s already in progress.

I might not know exactly what’s going to happen in chapter five, but I do know that I can dive straight into it tomorrow without worrying where or how to start – because I’ve done that today.

Not leaving the book until I’ve written the first sentence of the next scene or chapter makes it easier for me to pick up next time – a simple trick, but one that keeps the work flowing from day to day.

Space Monkey

patti_smith_-_horses_-_front_1024x1024I discovered Patti Smith while at school, in the late 1980s. I’d been into the Velvet Underground for a couple of years, and I was just discovering and getting into all these cool American bands, like the Ramones and The Doors. I picked up a vinyl copy of her first album, Horses (1975), at a record store in Bristol, at the top of Park Street, opposite the museum. It was produced by John Cale, whose early albums I really liked, and Smith looked amazing on the sleeve, like some sort of hip androgynous alien, with this fuck-you attitude. I looked at it all the way home on the bus, turning it over and over in my hands. When I finally got it back to my room and put it on the turntable, it blew me away. It was arty and passionate and perfect, and it took no prisoners. It mixed reggae and rock with this spectacularly demented poetry; and Smith had this incredible voice that sounded beautiful and ugly all at the same time. I was 17 years old, and I played it over and over again.

“Space Monkey” is the second track on Smith’s slightly patchier (but more commercially successful) third album, Easter (1978), and it’s a prowling, swaggering chant of a song, buoyed up by cheery organ and driving bass. Without the vocals, it might almost sound like something by Talking Heads; but here, Smith dominates the music. She alternates spoken word passages with Jim Morrison growls, until the whole thing degenerates into panting and monkey screams.

(This article originally appeared on the Sci-fi Songs Blog).

3 Things To Remember When Writing Action Scenes

When writing action scenes, it can become easy to get bogged down in extraneous detail at the expense of pacing. Ack-Ack Macaque (and its two sequels) featured a lot of fights, from fisticuffs to full-blown battles. There was even a dogfight between a WWII Spitfire and a modern Predator drone. When I sat down to write those scenes, I kept the following in mind:

1). Choose the best point of view. Your reader will be viewing the conflict through the eyes of your characters. Therefore it’s vital to choose the right characters. It’s no good choosing someone who gets knocked out in the first fifteen seconds, or who spends the entire scene wandering around staring at their feet. Work out what it is you want to show, and then choose the character best placed to witness it – and ideally the character with potentially the most to lose from the ordeal.

For example, in Ack-Ack Macaque, I wanted to show the monkey cutting a swathe through a squad of marines. So I chose Victoria’s point of view. Frightened and expecting to be shot at any moment, she looks up to see the marines being torn asunder by… something. The adrenalin in her bloodstream slows her perception, and she sees the machete whirling, the gun firing, and we get to share her sense of horrified admiration as Ack-Ack rips through the soldiers.

2). The fog of war. I’ve been in one or two semi-serious fights in my life. I’ve also taken part in several paintball matches – enough to know that when you’re on the ground, trying to shoot the guy in front of you before he shoots you, you don’t have much of a sense of what’s happening around you. Everything moves too fast for you to get a strategic overview of the battle. Rather, you get a heightened awareness of your immediate surroundings. You feel your heart in your chest, the air in your lungs. The smell of the earth and the plants around you. The pap pap pap of pellets passing through the undergrowth. Your enemies are flickering figures some distance away through the trees, never clearly glimpsed.

Concentrate on what your character sees and hears and feels. Let the epic sweep of the battle take care of itself. Nine times out of ten, they won’t even know if their side’s won until it’s over. The best way to immerse your reader in the fight is to focus entirely on the specific impressions of your viewpoint character.

3). Keep it simple, stupid. Unless the peculiarities of your protagonist’s gun have a specific affect on the outcome of the battle, don’t bother going into them now (and if they do, you probably should have embedded that information in an earlier scene, to prime us). There’s no place here for digressions; we’re writing action here.

Similarly, don’t burden the character with a verbose internal dialogue. If they really have to remember their childhood on a peaceful dairy farm up in the mountains, better they do it before or after the fight. Believe me, when the fists start flying at your face, there isn’t time to think of anything else. We’ve read comics where superheroes have time to trade insults and plot explanations between punches, but in reality, that’s not so likely. Keep the chatter to a minimum. Keep the description focused on what is actually happening, and use short, crisp sentences to keep the action moving.

As an illustration of the above points, this example is taken from my short story, ‘The New Ships’, which appeared in the anthology Further Conflicts from NewCon Press (2011).

Bullets zipped past her. She hit the car and slid across the bonnet, landing in a heap on the far side of the crash barrier. Bullets spanged off the old Ford’s bodywork. A window shattered.

“Get out of there, Max.”

“The door’s stuck!”

“Use the window.”

She fumbled a second magazine into her gun and got to her knees. She sent a couple of shots in the direction of each chopper. Masked troops were spilling out of both machines. She hit at least one of them, and the others dropped to the ground. Max’s head and shoulders appeared through the car window. She grabbed the collar of his plaid shirt and pulled, and they both fell sprawling into the gravel between the crash barrier and the concrete bridge support.

“Keep down,” she hissed.

She blinked up her Lens’s IM function and sent a pre-prepared SOS to an anonymous orbital inbox.

Max had cut his hands on broken glass. His palms were bleeding.

“They’re shooting at us!”

“Help’s coming.”

She fired a couple more shots. The soldiers were working their way to cover behind the barrier on the central reservation between the carriageways. The car sagged as their answering fire took out its tyres and shattered the remaining windows.

Max had his arms wrapped over his head. Blood dripped from the tips of his fingers.

“They want you alive,” Ann said.

He looked up, eyebrows raised. His glasses were scratched. “They do?”

There, I hope you’ve found that helpful. If you have other tips for writing fast-paced scenes, feel free to share them in the comments.

Burn Your Notebooks

In order to write well, you first have to write badly. You have to learn your craft. It’s like learning to drive a car – you can’t compete in the Monte Carlo grand prix the first time you sit behind a wheel; you have to make all the embarrassing mistakes, the awkward stalls and occasional prangs – and the same’s true for writing.

During the three years I spent at university, I kept a series of hardbacked, cloth-bound notebooks, which I filled with scraps of fiction, poetry and diary entries. The A4 pages had train tickets, flyers, articles and photographs stuck and stapled to them. I wrote in them every day (this was in the early Nineties, before blogs and social media), and I must have written upwards of 250 poems in them. For three years, those books were the most precious things I owned. They held all my thoughts and drafts. I even included photocopies of them as an appendix in my dissertation.

But after university, the books felt like a dead weight around my neck. They contained too much angst, and too many bad poems. Writing in them felt like a duty instead of a pleasure. If I wanted to move forward as a writer, I knew I’d have to unburden myself of them.

And so I burned them.

You have to write a lot of crap before you start to get good. You have to get a lot of rubbish out of your system.

And burn it.

How to write a novel outline

Gareth Lyn PowellYesterday, after I mentioned on Twitter that I’d just finished writing a 4,000 word outline for a new novel, several people contacted me to ask how I’d done it. They were hoping for some tips. The trouble is, outlines are tricky things, and what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.

Let me explain what I mean.

Some authors like to plot out the entire book in advance, so they know exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter before they start writing. Others prefer to wing it, to let the characters guide the story, and make it up as they go along.

There are pros and cons to each approach.

The former can be useful if you need to write your novel quickly, as you know you won’t get stuck because you have it all worked out in advance.

Paul Cornell, author of the Shadow Police series, says the outline he’s working on for his next book currently stands at 15,000 words, and it’s still not finished. “Basically,” he jokes, “I just need to add ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

“I exaggerate,” he continues. “It’s 100 numbers, with a paragraph of described action for each. It’s going to take a bit more work to fill in 1000 words of prose for each of them!”

Author and comic writer, Cavan Scott takes a similar approach. “It all starts with my trusty journal,” he says, “scribbling down notes, and more importantly questions: ‘Why does the hero do this?’, ‘What would happen if that spaceship explodes?’ and so on. These usually morph into mind-maps with ideas spiderwebbing everywhere and sometimes even doodles.

“When I’ve worked out the general direction of the plot, I break everything down into scenes, using index cards. This used to be physical cards but now, more often than not, I use the virtual index cards in Scrivener on my mac, or an Index Card app on my iPad. These get swapped around and sorted into the order that the story will run until I have an outline I can work from.”

The downside of writing a detailed outline like this is that such a meticulous structure can feel constraining, with no room for creative digression. And if you take it too far, you can exhaust the storytelling impulse before you’ve actually started writing, leaving the book itself as an uninspiring exercise in joining-the-dots. For instance, an editor I know remembers the time an author handed in a 70,000 word outline for a 90,000 word book, and then had to somehow turn it into a novel!

Perhaps with this in mind, Stephen King recommends the latter approach in his book, On Writing. He likens stories to fossils that you have to unearth one painstaking sentence at a time. This gives the author total creative freedom to follow the story in whichever direction it wants to go, which can be great for writers who like to let their characters guide the flow of events, but it can lead to problems (and major rewrites) if you don’t stay aware of pacing and dramatic structure.

For some people, a Post-it note will suffice. For others, half a dozen handwritten pages. Some plot each scene on an index card, so they can shuffle them around (something you can do electronically with software such as Scrivener), or just scribble the basic plot points on a napkin or cigarette packet.

Personally, I’ve written outlines in notebooks and Word documents, on scrap pieces of paper, and even once on the inside of an opened-out takeaway pizza box.

With my ‘Macaque’ novels, my outlines were two or three pages outlining the basic events of the novel. “They go to the parallel world, grab the Zeppelin and return.”

For this latest outline, I’ve gone into more detail. The book I want to write is a thriller taking place in a confined space (sort of like the movies Speed or Phone Booth), and so the plot needs to be worked out before I start. I need to know how the main character is going to survive and fight back before I start, otherwise there’s the danger I might accidentally paint him (and myself) into an inescapably tight corner.

In order to do this, I started with an Excel spreadsheet. I created two columns. In the first, I wrote the numbers 1 to 50. These were my chapter numbers. In the second column, I wrote a paragraph about each chapter,  describing the significant events. I told myself the story, starting at chapter one and working my way through to the end, jotting down these notes as I went.

Once I had it all written down, I began to see the structure. Certain events made more dramatic sense if they happened before others, and so I was able to switch the cells around until I had everything in the right place. It felt like editing a movie or TV show, swapping the order of the scenes around in order to build suspense. Then, when I was done, I cut and pasted the whole thing into Word.

What I’ve ended up with is a numbered list of 50 paragraphs, which between them break down my story into significant events. And if I write 2,000 words for each of these fifty chapters, I’ll end up with a book 100,000 words long.

I know I won’t stick to this outline with total rigidity. New ideas will occur as I’m writing, and characters will go off in unexpected directions. But this document will form the foundation on which the rest of the book can be built.

If you want an analogy, I see outlining as akin to planning a journey using a satellite photo. You can see the major landmarks and the general lie of the land, so you won’t get lost. But, when you actually start walking, there’s still plenty of scope to discover new and exciting details along the way.

And when I’m ready to submit the finished novel to my agent or publisher, that outline can (with some tinkering) form the basis of the synopsis I’ll need to include with the manuscript.

The main thing to remember is that different authors prefer different approaches. Some like to plot in advance, others like to fly by the seat of their pants. It depends on the individual, and sometimes on the type of book they’re trying to write, and it may take some experimenting before you discover which method works best for you.

Where Do You Get Your Crazy Ideas?

It’s a question all writers get asked, but few can honestly answer. We tend to use humour to dodge the issue. For instance, science fiction author Eric Brown swears there’s a little old lady from Leeds who will, if you send her five pounds, mail you an idea by return of post. Neil Gaiman has spoken of a “little ideas shop in Bognor Regis.” And, when readers ask how I came up with the idea to write a trilogy about a Spitfire-flying, cigar-smoking monkey, I tend to jokingly place the blame on alcohol and lack of sleep.

The truth though, as you’ve probably already realised, is a lot more complicated.

Ideas, you see, are rarely the problem. You can sit down with a sheet of A4 paper and jot down half a dozen while having your morning cup of tea. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve just done. Here are my six ideas from this morning’s cuppa:

  1. What would happen if everybody in the world suddenly forgot how to speak?
  2. Romeo & Juliet set in modern day China.
  3. The last woman on Earth writes a letter to her Martian daughter.
  4. An ordinary housewife decides to become a super-villain.
  5. A sentient comet composes haikus while falling towards the sun.
  6. The world heavyweight-boxing champion turns out to be an android in disguise.

Now, I’m not claiming any of those are particularly good or original ideas, but each could certainly provide the seed for a longer story, and that entire list only took me three or four minutes to compose. Generating ideas is the easy part. The difficulty we face as writers is in finding the one particular notion that inspires us to take up our pens and start to write.

And often, it’s not simply one idea. Sometimes, you need to smash two or more concepts together in order to generate a creative reaction. Look at John Wyndham’s Day Of The Triffids, for example. In that story, he has the idea of the mobile, stinging plants. Unfortunately, by themselves they’re not too scary. They are slow and vulnerable. But when he brings in his second idea, and introduces a cosmic meteor shower that blinds everybody on the planet, suddenly those plants become much more threatening, and that story becomes way more interesting.

In my experience, ideas for novels rarely arrive fully formed and ready to write. More often than not, the elements accrete over time like the ingredients of stars, slowly coalescing until they achieve a critical mass and spark into life.

These elements tend to surface while I’m in the shower or taking a walk. Sometimes they appear in that liminal haze between sleeping and waking, when the brain’s still whirring away and you’re not entirely sure whether or not you’re still dreaming…

But where do these elements come from? That’s what readers and aspiring writers want to know when they enquire as to where we get our ideas. They keep asking the question as if hoping we’ll tell them that there’s a special incantation or rite they can use to summon inspiration from the ether. But the fact of the matter is, these ideas come from everywhere.

When I was a child, my father had a shed, which he filled with things he found. There were green glass fishing net floats, lengths of rope, and pieces of driftwood found washed up on the beach; old fashioned ceramic bottles and pieces of pottery dug from the allotment; fossils; off-cuts of wood; old tools; a roof rack for a car we no longer owned; pots of paint; old doors and window frames; old metal signs… He liked collecting interesting bits of old junk because he thought they just might, one day, come in useful.

For me, my notebook is my shed. If I come across an interesting idea or unusual nugget of information, I’ll jot it down and file it away. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it stimulates my imagination, it gets saved somewhere.

For instance, way back in 2007, I stumbled across an article in The Guardian, revealing how Great Britain and France had almost formed a political union in the 1950s. At the time, I had no immediate use for that piece of information, but it caught my imagination and so I filed it away. I knew it would come in useful and sure enough, five years later, while I was searching for an alternate world in which to set the book that became Ack-Ack Macaque, it did. As did snippets I found about the remains of a great river delta that once lay under what is now the English Channel, and a TV documentary about a strip of once-inhabited land that now lies submerged beneath the North Sea.

The spaceship in the book I’m writing at the moment owes its distinctive shape to an old bullet I once saw in a dim and dusty military antiques shop, and its interior décor to a Royal Naval ship I once toured as a child.

Stories often arise from the collision of two unrelated ideas. Keeping a file of them, and looking back through it in search of inspiration, can suggest interesting juxtapositions and connections I might not otherwise have considered.

The same goes for old story ideas, snatches of conversation, and quick, two-or-three line observations of people, places and objects. They all go in the mixing pot because, as my father said, you never know when something might come in handy. What looks like trivia today might one day turn out to be exactly the inspiration you need. But, until that day, it’ll bide its time quite happily in your notebook, disguised as useless old junk, just waiting for its moment to strike.

You’ll be swimming lengths of the local pool, or walking the dog down by the canal, and lightning will strike. Your brain will make a new and unexpected connection between two hitherto unrelated concepts, and ask itself a question it’s never asked before.

For John Wyndham, that moment came when he saw a bramble bush blowing in the wind, and wondered what would happen if plants could move by themselves. For me, it came when I realised the best way to explore my questions about what makes us human would be through the eyes of an artificially sentient monkey.

It’s difficult to force these sudden insights, but you can encourage them. In order to give your unconsciousness time to process all the cool oddments you’ve squirrelled away, you can distract yourself by taking a walk or a long, hot bath. And you can increase your chances of making new connections by providing your brain with as much raw material as possible.

  • Open yourself to new experiences.
  • Watch dramas and documentaries on all sorts of subjects.
  • Read widely, both with and beyond the confines of your chosen genre.
  • Learn new things, and meet lots of new people.

Try to live a life worth writing about, and the ideas will take care of themselves.

Ten Tips For Novelists

8 Steps To Becoming A Published Writer.

I’ve had several aspiring writers ask me for tips recently. So, I thought I’d make my answer to them available as a blog post, in the hope it would help others.

How To Be A Writer:

I’m assuming you already know how to string a sentence together, so I’ll skip the nitty gritty. (If you’re not sure, there are plenty of good books on the subject. I recommend the Oxford Style Manual, or The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, but there are many others).

You may be slightly disappointed to learn that there are no shortcuts. Becoming a published writer is hard work – but if writing is what you love doing, then that hard work will be enjoyable in and of itself.

So, here and without any further ado, are my 8 Steps To Becoming A Published Writer.

1. Write. It doesn’t matter when you write or how much you write, as long as you write. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer, the same way a skier who sits at home all day dreaming about the mountains instead of strapping a pair of skis to his feet isn’t a skier.

2. Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read good books and bad books, and try to figure out what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad. Look at the way dialogue is used to create character. Figure out what stories have already been told, and look for new ones – or at least, new spins on old themes.

3. Observe. Watch people. Listen to the way they talk and interact. Notice their mannerisms. Learn to pick out salient details. Nothing kills a story faster than flat, two-dimensional characters; so tune your ears to the way real people speak, and how they reveal themselves through their words and gestures.

4. Finish. Whatever you’re writing, finish it. There are no two ways around this, no short cuts. Just as a carpenter can’t sell a chair without legs, so you can’t sell a half-written story. Sometimes, people ask what the secret is, and it is this: finish. Having a finished book is what distinguishes the writers from the wannabes. Loads of people want to write a novel, relatively few ever get to the end. But if you “want to be a writer”, this is what you have to do.

5. Accept that the first draft will be rough. But that’s okay. That’s what first drafts are for. They give you a place to start. Don’t get disheartened, but also, don’t show anyone what you’ve got yet. First you have to…

6. Edit. Rewrite. Revise. Keep going back through your story, tightening up the plot and fixing the bits that simply don’t work. Then, when you think you’re done, ask a couple of trusted friends to read it. If they give you honest feedback, maybe you’ll need to go back and do some more revision. The key thing is, you shouldn’t send it out into the world until it is the very best that you can make it.

7. Find an agent. If you’ve written a novel, you’ll need to find an agent. Do some research; find an agent who deals with the kind of story you’ve written and find out what their submissions policy is. Find authors you admire and find out who their agent is. Then submit your work. Keep repeating this stage until you find an agent willing to represent you, and who you’re happy to have represent you. With luck, they’ll sell your book for you.

Or…

7 a. Self publish. With the advent of ebooks, it’s now possible to self publish your work online. This is fine, and some self-published authors have gone on to make a name for themselves. Equally, there are thousands, possibly millions who’ve remained in obscurity. If you publish your own work, you have to be prepared to publicise it yourself; to get out there and let people know about it.

8. Write something else. Whatever happens, you have to start work on the next story. Remember what I said at the beginning? A writer writes. So, good luck, and keep writing!

I hope that’s helpful. I’ve written other articles on different aspects of the writing process, from writer’s block to balancing writing with your day job, and you can find them all here.