Ten Tips For Novelists

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

Getting started: the video

So, it turns out I had more to say about starting a novel than I put in my previous post on the subject. Here’s a video with me elaborating. I hope you find it useful.

Internalise the identity

I dislike the term “aspiring writer”. You see it a lot in people’s social media profiles, but to me it seems noncommittal. Either you write, or you don’t. And if you do, please have the guts to say so. If you want to be a writer, don’t wait to be asked. Nobody’s going to say, “Hey kid, would you like to be a writer?”. You have to become one all by yourself. Start thinking and acting like one. Say to yourself, “I will look at the world the way a writer looks at the world. I will react to things the way a writer would react. When people ask me what I do, I will tell them I’m a writer. And when it is time to write, I will write like a writer.” Life’s too short to fuck about wasting time. Internalise the identity. Don’t be a person with a job who writes in their spare time; be a writer who has a job to pay the bills while they learn their craft.

Next, convince yourself you can write, and then be confident enough to get some words on paper. And if your first attempts suck (and they probably will), have the balls to stick with it: keep learning, keep refining, keep improving. There are no short cuts; you have to sit down and do the work. You have to have the confidence to produce a finished manuscript, and the humility to take criticism from readers, agents and editors. You have to be arrogant enough to believe that the world wants to hear what you have to say; but if you’re too arrogant, nobody will want to work with you. Believe in yourself, but not to the exclusion of all else. Believe that you are a professional writer, and act like one. And what do professional writers do? They write. They put the work in. They strive to improve, to make every story they write better than the one they wrote before.

Aspiring writer? I’m an aspiring millionaire, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be one. Take yourself seriously. You might be unpublished, but if you believe in your heart that you’re a writer, say so. Declare to the world that that is what you are, and act like it. Don’t wait to be asked. Find your calling. Find a way to make it work. You won’t get a second chance.

5 lessons writers can learn from athletes

Love it or loathe it, the headlines are currently dominated by sport. But while the careers of your average writer and average athlete may seem to have little in common, there are some lessons writers can learn from the way athletes approach their sports.

1. Get Fit:

Whatever their event, athletes maintain a general level of fitness that ensures their bodies are at the peak of health and performance. Similarly, as a writer, you need to take care of yourself on a physical level. Spending all day in a chair, hunched over a keyboard, can be desperately bad for your long-term health. In order to perform to the best of your abilities, you have to make time for a little exercise, even if it’s just a stroll around the block. You have to reconnect to the physical world, because it does you good to get out and about; it gives your mind time away from your work-in-progress, and it can use that time to replenish its imaginative energy. Personally, I find inspiration often strikes while I’m swimming or walking. Plus, exercise always puts me in a better mood. I find it alleviates anxiety, depression and stress, which can only be a good thing. If you want to do your best work, you have to be healthy in both mind and body.

[As a side note: at the turn of the Millennium, I gave up both caffeine and nicotine, and my productivity soared. I don’t want to get all preachy about your favourite vices (after all, I still enjoy a drink); but I think it’s worth noting that you can get a lot more done when you’re not preoccupied with watching the clock, waiting for your next hit.]

2. Set goals:

Decide what you want to do and focus on your goal. Visualise the finishing line, whether it’s the end of a short story, a novel, or the end of a trilogy, and keep that prize in mind. Don’t get distracted by other projects. Focus your energy and attention on reaching your goal.

3.Prepare:

Just as you can’t expect to be able to run a marathon without having trained for it, you also can’t expect to sit down and hammer out a masterpiece without having done some of the groundwork beforehand. Writing takes mental preparation. You have to know how to structure sentences and paragraphs; how to pace your story; and how to write engagingly. You have to practice every day to hone your abilities, and you have to read a lot. You have to read widely, and also within your chosen genre. In training, athletes subject their own performance, and the performances of their competitors, to careful, critical study. You need to do the same with everything you read and write.

4. Think globally:

Whether it’s football, athletics or swimming, most sports take place on a global stage, with players from all countries and faiths competing. We live in a diverse, globally-connected society, and there seems to be no sign of that trend diminishing in the future. Science fiction that revolves purely around white, middle class Americans in space seems dated and parochial now. It’s no longer enough to write comfortable Western-centric yarns of American manifest destiny writ large. The world has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. The models that served us in the 1960s and 1970s no longer apply. I’m not suggesting that you should resort to using characters of other faiths and nationalities as “tokens” in your writing; just that if you want to reflect the world as it is, you should think very carefully before restricting yourself.

5. Go hard or go home:

If you’re not writing to the best of your abilities, you’re wasting your time. Every story you write should be better than the one before. Be ambitious. Dare to fail. Push yourself to the ragged edge of your abilities and see how far and how fast you can go. Because, if you won’t give it all you’ve got, what’s the point of doing it at all?

At the end of the day (to use a sporting cliche), you have selected your arena, and it’s up to you to give the best performance you possibly can. And in order to do so, you need to prepare and work at it.

Feel The Fear

I have written a guest post about THE FEAR for Guardian columnist Damien G. Walter’s blog.

THE FEAR will plant questions and doubts in your head. It will tell you that everything you’ve ever written is crap. It will tell you that you’re not a real writer, and that you should quit now before people find out what a talentless hack you really are and expose you as a fraud.

You can read the full article here.

Five Essential Rules For Writing Better Fiction

Writing is an activity with many rules. Some are imposed upon the writer by the conventions of spelling and grammar; others are self-imposed, and arise from observation and experience. The rules below fall into this latter category, and I try to keep them in mind whenever I’m working on a new composition.

1) Write as clearly as you can. Don’t give your readers a hard time with obscure or unpronounceable words, vague descriptions and convoluted sentences. Say what you mean to say, and give the readers enough information for them to picture the scene and follow the action.

2) Write first, edit later. The important thing is to tell the story. If you spend all your time trying to perfect the first scene or the first line, you’ll never get the thing finished. Accept that the first draft will be rough, and press on. You can fix it up later.

3) Show, don’t tell. This rule wins no prizes for originality; it’s one of the most common pieces of advice given to new writers; and yet, it’s still one of the most vital. Too many explanatory sentences can leave a scene flat. Encoding the information in action and dialogue allows the readers to infer it for themselves. For instance, in this scene taken from my short story The Bigger The Star, The Faster It Burns, Natalie is worried about her friend Ed, and Alejandro is becoming impatient with her, but rather than state either of those facts outright, I communicate them through the things characters say and do:

“I feel kind of bad about Ed,” she says. “I shouldn’t have left him like that.”

Alejandro rubs a sleepy palm across his face. Although bare-chested, he’s still wearing his jeans, and his hair’s flattened on one side, damp with sweat.

“You don’t have to worry about him anymore,” he says. “You have me now.” He lights a cigarette from the pack on the bedside table. Natalie sits up and hugs her knees.

“Do you think he’ll be all right?” There are steel drums playing in the street. She gets up and pulls back the net curtain, looks down at the crowd. She says: “It was just a stupid argument.”

Her shoes are lying on the floor by the door. In the orange half-light, Alejandro holds the cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger. He takes a small, tight drag and curses in Portuguese.

“Come to bed,” he says.

4) Use small details to suggest the bigger picture. Describing each and every character and setting in meticulous detail isn’t always possible, or desirable, and to do so will severely hamper the pace of the story you are trying to tell. Better to pick a few telling details which suggest the rest – as in this example, also taken from The Bigger The Star, The Faster It Burns, in which we first meet Natalie and I use half a dozen small details to give you the sense of her as a whole person.

Ed stops at a lonely roadside café on a hot autumn night. He drums his fingers on the counter.

“Hey, how about a coffee?” he says. It’s late and he’s the only customer. The waitress comes over. She’s eighteen or nineteen, with long hair and black eyeliner.

“I’m waiting for the water to heat up,” she says. She’s got a black t-shirt and there’s a biro behind her right ear. She looks over Ed’s shoulder. “Is that your car?”

He turns in his seat. He’s left the Dodge across two handicapped spaces in the empty car park.

“Isn’t it a beauty?” he says.

She looks at the sweeping tailfins and scratches her chin. There’s dried egg on her sleeve.

“It looks old,” she says. “Is it American?”

5) Make use of all five senses. Our senses have a powerful connection to our memories and imaginations, and invoking them can really bring a scene to life in the reader’s mind. In this following excerpt, where Ed is taking photographs of a crashed spaceship, I have put the sensory descriptions in bold:

It’s midnight. Ed opens his door and climbs out, camera in hand. He can smell the heather. He walks over to the nearest fragment. The metal’s smooth and warm to the touch. With a dry mouth and sweaty palms, he starts snapping; knowing the pictures he’s taking will make his reputation.

Back in the car, Natalie lights a cigarette. She puts her feet up on the dashboard and lets her long hair fall over the back of the seat. She knows there are armed helicopters patrolling the main crash site to the north. But here in the valley, all she can hear is the click of Ed’s camera in the hot night air.

Of course, there are exceptions to all these rules. What do you think? Do you have any hard and fast writing rules? Please feel free to join the discussion.

3 Ways to Breathe Life Into Your Fiction

New writers are often given the following piece of advice: “Write what you know”. In other words, concentrate on the things you’ve observed and the things you understand about the world around you. If you’re a former journalist wanting to write a mystery, make your main character a journalist; if you’re a coal miner, write about the dangers and camaraderie of life down the pit.

Such first-hand experience can add verisimilitude to your fiction; but what happens if you’re trying to write genre fiction? What if you’re trying to write about a future society so far removed in time that they barely remember the present day? What if you’re trying to write about a supernatural horror preying on a group of cave divers, or a lone warrior on a quest across a mythic fantasy kingdom? In science fiction, fantasy and horror, characters are routinely put in situations in which it would be impossible for the writer to gain any direct experience. How then can you convincingly fill in these scenes using only your imagination?

Continue reading “3 Ways to Breathe Life Into Your Fiction”