‘Santa ist tot’ – Friedrich Nietzsche
Hi World. I hope you all had a great Christmas. Please forgive the long silence. Like the stale peanuts, the suspicious bottle of wine, and Noddy bloody Holder, I’m still here. Rest assured that I remain committed, and have a lot more to say about the business of writing. So, as another year slips away like an egg sliding off a skillet, I thought it might be useful to summarise where we’ve got to in the last few months in anticipation of all those New Year’s resolutions to finally write that novel. Nothing too heavy – just a few basic tips to get you started and keep you writing…
- A writer writes. Don’t just aim to write every day – want to write every day, to the extent that you become quite out of sorts if something stops you. If you put off this task in the same way, for example, that many of us never quite get around to going to the gym, or if it’s a chore you have to force yourself to do, like practising for those music lessons your mother made you take as a kid, then re-think your literary ambitions. You have to love the written word with a junkie’s passion. Develop a writing routine that works for you, and then stick to it. OK, you can be a little bit flexible sometimes (Christmas, family birthdays, medical emergencies, jail), but no more so than you would take time off from work for any of these contingencies. Writing is a job, penny plain and simple. Sometimes it flows, and sometimes it’s a slog, but either way set yourself a target and hit it – somewhere between 500 and 1000 new words a day should be achievable. Don’t worry if they’re rough words – that’s the point of re-drafting. If your schedule really is so packed on a particular day that you can’t get any serious writing done, find the time to add a couple of lines to the project first thing in the morning or last thing at night just so you never break the chain. (If you’ve been working on and off on a project for years, you’ll no doubt have noticed that all that stopping and starting has made it impossible for you to hold the story and its characters in your head, that the style keeps changing, and, of course, that you never finish it.) In order to facilitate this routine, try to find a private space in your home to write. Ideally, you need a door between your creative space and the rest of the world, and don’t work with a phone in the room either if you can avoid it. (People did use to live without being constantly connected via digital networks. It’s also worth remembering that smartphones was how the Cybermen got started.) Make family and friends understand – you can work around them, but they have to work around you, too.
- A writer reads. Reading is just as important as writing so make the time. Alongside regular writing, there is equally no substitute for study – which is what reading is for the serious writer, just as much as it is an essential pleasure. You will learn a lot about the craft from good books, and even more from bad ones. And as with writing, you have to make room in your life to read, preferably for at least a couple of hours a day. Much of life involves just waiting around, so fill those lacuna of inactivity on buses, trains, queues, empty offices and waiting rooms with a couple of chapters of a good thriller, or whatever else floats your boat. (I never go anywhere without an anthology of ghost stories about my person.) If you have young kids don’t be shy about reading in those sacred moments of solitude you grab in the bathroom, and if your job involves a lot of driving turn off that inane radio station and invest in a pile of talking books. At home, start by switching off the TV and the Internet. Carry a book or a digital reader everywhere, and if using the latter type of device ignore Facebook, instant messaging, email, celebrity news, and funny apps and just read a damn book. (No-one on his or her deathbed is likely to wish that they’d spent more time tweeting.) There is always time to read, even around demanding jobs and even more demanding families. Keep a time diary for a week and you’ll see what I mean. Be honest: how many hours a week do you spend surfing, playing computer games, posting to Facebook, and watching TV? You also have to understand the rush of being captivated and surprised by a novel in order to do this to a reader with your own work. Wide reading will also help you identify and avoid clichés and common errors. If you don’t have time to read, you certainly won’t have time to write either.
- Carry a notebook. Well, carry some sort of device to record anything you see, read or think of that might be the bones of a story. This can happen at any time, and often through the alchemical conjunction of radically different and spontaneous thoughts, experiences and memories that are entirely unique to you. Professional writers hate it when asked at signings and interviews, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ This is a standard question, and every bit as farcical as the one TV reporters are always asking sportsmen and women about what was going through their mind when they scored that goal, made the grand slam, knocked it out of the park or whatever. They don’t know! It just happened! To be honest, the Genesis of a good story is often the same. It’s a bit like having a kid. Most of the time you don’t see it coming and it certainly isn’t planned. You’ll be doing one thing and thinking about something else, maybe talking to someone, working, driving, reading, or watching TV and it’ll happen: disparate elements will momentarily collide and suddenly there’s a scenario, a character, a premise, a first line, or perhaps just a single, striking image. Write this down. Think about it. Write some more. You are where the ideas come from.
- Start writing sooner than you think you should. Don’t get too hung up in the first instance on plotting. Just get on with it and see what happens. Stephen King is very good on this in his seminal guide to the craft, On Writing. King eschews the kind of detailed plotting generally recommended by creative writing courses in favour of something much more intuitive, which he describes not as a ‘story’ but a ‘situation’:
I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down. The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind I begin to narrate. (Stephen King, On Writing)
‘The most interesting situations,’ says King, ‘can usually be expressed as a What-if question.’ Try it with some of your favourite novels and see what you think, for example:
- What if an alcoholic and failed writer spent a winter with his family in an empty and isolated hotel?
- What if a great white shark staked a claim to a popular seaside resort and didn’t leave?
- What if an unhappy orphan discovered he was a wizard?
- What if a radical Swedish journalist met a brilliant but deeply troubled computer hacker?
- What if there really were superheroes?
- What if the daughter of a successful actress was demonically possessed?
- What if the Holy Grail was not a physical chalice, but Mary Magdalene?
- What if a young student journalist went to interview a sexually magnetic millionaire?
- What if an incarcerated psychopath became obsessed with a trainee FBI agent?
- What if somebody built a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs?
You get the general idea. Personally, I favour a bit of plotting. I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going in order to know when I’ve arrived, but King offers a very convincing argument in favour of writerly instinct, noting that the author of a book is also its first reader and should thus be kept ‘in a state of page-turning anxiety.’ He can do this though, because he has been writing compulsively since he was a kid, and can carry all this material in his head. We can’t all be prolific bestsellers, but as far as getting started goes this insight is as brilliant as it is simple, which is often the way with true genius. I rate On Writing over every academic creative writing guide I have ever read (and as you can imagine, I’ve read quite a few).
- Decide on the central dramatic incident of your story and write that first. Let’s say you do have a pretty clear idea of your plot, however contingent and provisional (they always change with the telling, which I think is part of Stephen King’s point), or at least some idea of some key scenes and plot points. If you’re not sure yet how you’re going to link all these narrative co-ordinates together and this is a barrier to getting started, then try writing up a key scene just to see how it reads. Aim for about 5000 words. This will give you the whole novel in microcosm, showcasing premise, central characters, action, setting, and narrative voice. As the first version of the novel’s climax, this scene will also give you something to work towards, while also providing a startling opening to your novel in medias res (from the Latin ‘in the midst of things’), hopefully hooking your reader by starting the story from the midpoint, rather than the chronological beginning. As Horace wrote of the ideal epic poet: ‘Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg/but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.’ Visualise the scene, and then write it up. Sleep on it, visualise the scene again, and then re-write it in more depth. Repeat for all subsequent scenes. In three to six months – a year tops – you will have a complete first draft.
- Remember the essential components of narrative. Improvisation is all very well, but you need to know what you’re doing for it to actually pay off in any sort of meaningful way. Point of view, dramatic pacing, setting, character, and dialogue are the tools of your trade. Different tools suit different jobs, so be precise in your selection and application. Work on your characters. Let them grow in the writing or plan them out methodically in advance – whatever works for you – but aim always for emotional depth and complexity. Good stories come out of good characters and good characters come out of good stories. As Henry James famously put it in The Art of Fiction: ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’
Remember that you are not writing a movie, so don’t flood your text with pages of selectively tagged dialogue. Blend dialogue with action and description, weaving reported speech into the narrative not the other way around. Keep speech tags plain and adverb free: ‘said’ is all you need, and a literary convention so firmly established in that readers do not even notice. Remember, too, that sex scenes, like car chases, work better in the movies than on the printed page.
- Cut out everything that isn’t the story. As Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark rightly advise in How Not to Write a Novel, ‘Know what the chase is, and cut to it’:
Typically, the plot of a good novel begins by introducing a sympathetic character who wrestles with a thorny problem. As the plot thickens, the character strains every resource to solve the problem, while shocking developments and startling new information help or hinder her on the way … The plot of a typical unpublished novel introduces a protagonist, then introduces her mother, father, three brothers, and her cat, giving each a long scene in which they exhibit their typical behaviours one after another. This is followed by scenes in which they interact with each other in different combinations, meanwhile driving restlessly to restaurants, bars, and each other’s homes, all of which is described in detail. (Newman & Mittelmark, How Not to Write a Novel)
If you find yourself getting bogged down, get out the blue pencil or start hitting ‘delete’ and remove every detail – however fascinating – that does not reveal the essence of a character or move the plot forward. You cannot recreate the world. All your reader wants is enough information and atmosphere to visualise the scenario, and then the dramatic action, which is exactly what agents and publishers want as well (preferably in fewer than 100,000 words).
- Be true to yourself. Avoid self-censorship. Do not worry that friends, family or colleagues are going to recognise themselves in your narrative or, for that matter, identify you. Similarly, don’t avoid love and sex because you think it might make your partner jealous. This is a story, not real life. If you have a necessary and dramatically valid character that is racist, sexist, politically extreme and/or swears like a dockyard bunter, then let them speak honestly. (Imagine a politically correct Trainspotting. Would you bother reading? No, me neither.) These are dramatic dialogues, not your personal opinions, and anyone who does not understand that (and, alas, their name is Legion) is an idiot, and you are not addressing your work to them. Accept that when you make a piece of writing public, not everyone is going to like it or get it. Worse, with 600,000-odd new books appearing in English alone every year now, courtesy of the self-publishing revolution, you may not be read at all, so prepare yourself for that contingency as well and carry on writing.
Be true to what you know as well. Use your imagination, obviously, but don’t write about people or places you do not understand. Research is just as important to good fiction as it is good non-fiction. And if you’re writing across gender, get a friend of that sex to copy-edit.
Don’t get too hung up on ‘originality’ either. Read Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. There are only so many story archetypes, for example: the ‘Quest,’ the ‘Voyage and Return,’ the ‘Rebirth,’ ‘Overcoming the Monster,’ ‘Rags to Riches,’ ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy.’ You can sub-divide if you like (as did Georges Polti in his ‘36 Dramatic Situations’), but these are mostly nuances of plot. The point is that these archetypes can be applied to any time and place, any character, and any type of scenario. There’s a huge difference, for example, between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. We will never run out of ways to tell the same stories. There are so many potential characters, settings, and events that the combinations thereof should be pretty close to infinite. When you strip it right down, there are only seven musical notes as well.
- Editing is everything. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve seen many promising early-career authors fail because they confuse the production of the first draft with the entire process of making a novel. They thus rush out unfinished work, either by sending it prematurely to agents or self-publishing. Alongside the intoxicated wordsmith, there also has to be some sort of secretarial self organising and processing all this raw text. As Linda Anderson of the Open University has described it, in editing and re-drafting the writer must move:
- From spontaneity to care.
- From effervescence to craft.
- From creativity to shaping.
- From feeling to skill.
(Linda Anderson, Creative Writing)
You should also be correcting technical errors; so pay attention to layout, grammar, spelling, and punctuation alongside structure, content, style, and word choice.
When you begin to revise, you’ll find that the early stages involve the most major and comprehensive alterations. Eventually the narrative will begin to stabilise as a reasonably solid novel, after which it’s all down to the fine tuning. Hopefully, you will also have discovered that just about everything you wanted and needed was already present within the first draft, like a statue contained within a block of marble, but in a rougher, more ghostly form than the final version. Try to read like a reader as well. Printing out and reading aloud often helps you to discover your own text. Expect to re-draft many times. Only you can decide when you’ve finished, and you must, at the end of the day, resist the temptation to endlessly strive to improve every line. The next post is going to be devoted to editing your own work, but for now a good rule is to leave it alone when you find yourself changing your changes back to an earlier version. And then still proofread until your eyes bleed.
- Forget about fame and fortune. If you’re writing with these goals in mind, you’re likely to be disappointed. Selling a book and writing a book is not the same thing; selling a book is much harder. Don’t set out to write commercially, as you’ll most likely just inhibit your own narrative flow or turn your text into something flat and generic. If you want to have a fighting chance in what is a positively Darwinian marketplace, then a good start would be Harry Bingham’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published. In approaching agents and publishers always make your work the best it can be, present it impeccably, thoroughly research your intended recipient in advance, and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. To be honest though, it’s all largely a matter of luck. Despite what all those creative writing courses and guides might tell you, in my professional experience the odds of an unknown author getting representation would make the most reckless gambler laugh. As far as I can figure it, after many years in the business, about one in a hundred unsolicited manuscripts get past basic quality control at literary agencies (bearing in mind that most credible agents receive about 200 of these things a week). By this I mean only that the manuscripts are not instantly rejected, and are considered (at a glance) by the agent’s assistant to be competently written, with an interesting and potentially saleable premise. And of the manuscripts that do get a second look, only an infinitesimal amount of the authors will get picked up by an agent. Most agents are more than busy with their current clients, and only keep their lists notionally open in case the next big thing falls into their lap. And if you succeed in getting an agent, you still have to sell your book. This is not cynicism but realism, so before you start this process just be aware, as far as mainstream publication is concerned, that many are called but few are chosen, and that success stories tend to stand out because they are so rare. Chances are – however high the quality of your writing – your most likely route to publication in the current market is to go it alone. (More on this later.) There’s a publishing revolution going on out there right now, so why not be part of it!
And on that note, I shall conclude. Here’s wishing you all a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year, anyway! Thank you, as ever, for reading. I shall look forward to catching up after the holidays.
Have a Better One…