Writing Tips - scraps from numerous emails I've sent to writers asking for advice
Advice sent Sept 2018:
Never underestimate the learning potential of rebuilding a Volkswagen Beetle. I was stripping down motorcyles in my bedroom and rebuilding a gearbox when I was fourteen - the 'how hard can it be?' approach to any problem is something that has stuck by me throughout my career. It's about not being frightened to get one's hands dirty or to make mistakes. And that is as important with writing as it is with, yes, attempting to repair a Sturmey Archer three-speed hub, something that ranks as one of my bigger boy-engineer failures. I undid the circlip, lifted off the sprocket and PING!! ballbearings shot off in all directions. Within five minutes I had about a billion parts all no bigger than an ant. I gave up eventually and bought a new one.
But I did go in, and wasn't afraid.
There is one sure-fire way to get published, sell a shitload of books and be covered in prizes and plaudits, fawned over by your peers and public and eventually end up in a corner of Westminster Abbey. It's very very simple and here it is:
Write something good.
Actually, that answer is the answer to all possible questions you might ask in publishing:
How do I get published?
How do I increase my readership?
How do I earn more from my writing?
How do I get a lucrative film contract?
How do I get buried in Westminster Abbey? (no wait, I think we've covered that)
'Yes', you say, teeth clenched, 'all well and good, smart-alec, but how?'
Well, the tried and tested method undertaken by all great writers ... is to write something shit to begin with. 70,000 words of utter poop.
But after you've written that, and you look at it and say: 'Well, that was a piece of poop' you then say to yourself: 'but ... I see now where I might be able to improve it.'
And you write something that still stinks, but not quite as much as the first one.
And you do that again.
And so on.
Professional writers generally agree that ten years and seven novels is often the average before publications. It's learning the craft that takes the time, putting in the keyboard hours, the perspiration. If that's not for you, then writing might not be for you. This is my litmus test for a potential writer:
'Do you think you can begin your sixth novel after your fifth has just been rejected with no loss of enthusiasm?'
If answer 'Hell, yes' = Potential writer.
If answer 'No fucking way' = Probably not potential writer.
The thing is, you have to love writing to be a writer, and love words, and love storytelling. Because Love endures , and will keep you on track when the whole writing thang starts looking bleak and unproductive, which it will, sooner or later. But it won't stay that way for ever, you'll break the ice covering the keyboard, and work through to the words beyond. It's a hard journey, but it's a worthwhile one.
I'll never be a great writer, but I think I might, in time, become a capable one.
And that's an important insight, because if you are in love with your own prose, then you might suddenly think you have magic fingers and anything that drips from your typewriter is Great Art. Warning Bells. It helps to retain a sense that you're really not that good - because it is the fire to the furnace that pushes you to do a little bit better next time. Those feelings of low self esteem that were/are such a drag? Turn the tables and make those f***ers work for you.
Sent Oct 2016:
Thoughts on how I figure what word goes where:
What is your creative process of planning a story?
I tend to start with an idea or a principle in the vaguest outline, then start at the first page with a quite ordinary character, and start to write. As I do so, ideas start to drift in as to the way the plot should develop, how the person should be, and what ancillary plots and ideas should also belong in the story, and how they interact as a whole. I look at a story as a sort of obstacle course for my characters, who have to get from point A to point B (although they might not know it) and it's my job to put as many difficulties in their path. Quite what those difficulties are, I have no clear idea when I start, but generally ideas collect and accrete during the writing process. Planning, I am afraid to say, is not a technique I'm fantastically good at. My mind tends to fire off better 'on the hoof'.
What are some of your own experiences with your creative process?
In my 'Thursday Next' series, my heroine, Thursday, has a pet dodo named Pickwick who was 'reengineered from extinction when those sort of things were fashionable.' I liked this idea, and although Pickwick has not an atom of relevance in the story, it gave flesh to Thursday, and also explained something about the world that Thursday lived in: how home genetic experiments were straightforward, but now a bit boring. I took this idea and developed it to include reengineering mammoths (problems during migrations) and then on to reengineered Neanderthals, which opened up a very strong theme within the books that questioned all sorts of notions of self-ownership, self-determination, and how our strand of human might have won the evolutionary race by simply being greedy, and selfish. But the idea started with dodos. This 'developmental' method of writing is really about running logical 'what ifs' from a single idea, and seeing where it goes.
If you can describe your creative process, do you think you could teach your creative process to someone else?
The process can be explained and the actual nuts and bolts revealed, but writing itself is a strange, dark art that needs practice to do really well. Most writers have written several books before they are published, unless they come from a writing background, such as journalism, and even journalists are not always natural novelists. Like all creative processes, it's very difficult to put your finger on what makes a story or a picture or a song or a play 'right'. It just IS, in a very subtle and difficult to explain way. Sure I can teach the process, but being able to write, and being able to write well, is something about understanding what it is to be human, what it is to react and contribute to other humans, and to understand the difference between how things are, and how they are meant to be. It is all about humour, and emotion, and mystery, and suspense. And all these have to work together, in balance, and symphony. As I said, it's a dark art.
June 2002: Bullet points often sent out to writers:
REWRITING. Prose is like hair and improves with combing, I regard the rewriting process as similar to the editing process in film-making; it never gets any worse, and can only get better. Even if you spend a week trying to improve something and make a complete dog's dinner of it, you can always return to last week's script and it's not got any worse. Don't be afraid to rewrite huge chunks of the book to accommodate a good new idea, and if you have a curious feeling that something doesn't work, then you are probably right. If a section of writing seems tiresome then ask yourself whether the audience really needs to know what you are saying, or if it is 'essential information' to the plot, then try and figure out some way to disguise the exposition. I hate expositional writing, which goes some way to explain the purely expositional chapter headings I have in 'The Eyre Affair'. Combing takes a long time but is essential. A typical 'combing' for me on a 100,000 word script is about a week of solid work - and that doesn't count the procrastinating I have to go through first!
FRIENDS READING STUFF. I find that friends can manage one clean reading and that will be it. Subtle changes are lost on people who will try to remember what happened last time, and fail. If you really want a friend to read your book a second time, ask them to do it in a single sitting or not to bother. I suggest that you pass the book around to a select few, get some feedback, then pass it on to others. No matter how much a friend promises to 'make it their first priority', they will as likely as not take three weeks to read it, and any useful criticism will thus be diluted over time. Good 'readers' are as valuable as good ideas, and should be wined and dined accordingly. There are professional readers (usually out-of-work editors) who will read your opus for about £10 per 10,000 words and give you a long critique at the end of it, but this is, at best, a haphazard situation as the reader that you send your SF/Gay/Western to may have spent her entire career in Chicklit and judge the book (which may actually be quite excellent) within the framework of twenty-somethings with no boyfriends worrying about their weight. So do your homework. A military friend of mine once said that the best piece of advice he ever heard was: 'time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.' All too true.
ON PAID EDITORS: You can pay people to edit your book for you but this sounds particularly chilling in my view as they will not have the passion for the book that you do, and when they have finished it won't really be your book anymore. And it is very, very, expensive.
TIPS ON FINDING A PUBLISHER The 'Writers Handbook' (UK publication) is full of agents and lists what they do and how they should be approached. Since any one of us could be the next Rowling, agents and publishers will generally look at everything that gets sent. They may not look at it very closely, but it WILL be looked at. Presentation and salesmanship are everything. Make your first chapter a zinger. Make your first paragraph a zinger. Make your first line a zinger. Work long and hard on the plot precis and your covering letter. And if all this doesn't work, then write another book and try again. Don't waste months staring at the letterbox or the telephone - use the energy more wisely by writing another book. This keeps you from going nuts, makes you a better writer, and shows the agent/publisher that you are keen and in for the long haul. Publishers are in the business for making money, and they will be most conducive to a writer who can be good with the press junkets, write popular books and then do the same a year later - and the year after that - and the one after that, too.
LENGTH OF MANUSCRIPT: I don't think there is any length that is right for a book - 'Lord of the Rings' is a mammoth work of at least 400,000 words and 'The Little Prince' has barely 30,000 - but both are excellent novels. The question you must ask yourself is: 'Are all these words necessary?' If you can take a paragraph, jiggle the words around and say the same thing with less words, then there is a good chance the book is a little long-winded, and you run the risk of losing the pace and rhythm - and also your reader's attention. If you want to see economy of writing, take a look at one of Winston Churchill's books. He uses very few extraneous words.
HAVING YOUR BOOK READ: What I suggest is that you try to form a 'writer's club' where you all read each other's works and discuss plot devices, characters, things like that. It is invaluable to throw ideas around with other people and see how they react. Other than that, the best thing to be is your own editor. Be critical of yourself and get used to asking yourself awkward questions: 'What is happening? Will a reader remember what a character did three chapters ago? Does the story make sense? What if a reader puts the book down for two weeks - will the plot be lost? Can I say what I am trying to say in easier terms? Is the book boring? Am I making myself understood? Am I putting two many questions in a sentence? Did I mean 'too' instead of 'two' just then?
No-one will ever read your book as much as you; as you rewrite and reinvent, change and polish, YOU are the person who are best placed to see what needs to be done. Make good use of it!
While I'm in front of the keyboard, there are a couple of other points that you should bare in mind. Don't expect to make any money from being a novelist. Most people don't. That's not what noveling is all about. If you follow the journey with this in mind, it will help you figure out why it is you are writing, and also give you a useful umbrella against the inevitable rejections. Write for yourself, because you enjoy it. This is important so I'm going to repeat it: Write for yourself, because you enjoy it. Writers write because they can't stop themselves. They might make up lines in their heads, listen to what people say to use later, doodle with plots, keep journals, correspond frequently or even play around with rhyming couplets, limericks and jingles. If you can do any of this, or some of this, and THEN write six books without even the sniff of a publication (as I did) then you are obviously doing it for the right reason. Find your own voice, and write what interests YOU. If you try and write what you think a mass audience will find appealing, then there is a very good chance the book will fail, as a writer's respect for his or her own book is clearly visible in the end product. If you don't like your own book, then neither will your potential audience.
2009: On writing Skills:
There are perhaps two skills to writing novels:
Skill 1: to be able to coherently arrange words on a page in order to best convey an entertaining story into the mind of your reader.
Skill 2: To be able to sit in front of a keyboard for hundreds of hours.
Skill 1 is useless without Skill 2.
Skill 1 will ALWAYS follow Skill 2, if practiced enough.
Skill 2 is the hardest.
Simply put, being a writer takes work, application and focus - lots of it. I wrote seven books in twelve years before I was published, and that's not just plain frustrating or annoying - it was me learning my craft. It's a long game, and the reason you will make it is because you kept going when all the others fell by the wayside!
There is only one real rule for writing - make it readable. But a response to this might be 'how do I make it readable?' so here are ten random hints and tips in no particular order that might help your as you learn your craft:
(This was a list I took to schools when talking about writing. It was frequently given as a handout.)
Writing is a creative endeavour that requires practice to get right. Luckily, it is very easy to change, delete and rewrite, and writing always improves with editing. If you are writing on paper, leave large spaces between the lines so you can add corrections later, and when the page looks messy, rewrite the whole page, again with large spaces between the lines. If you write a hundred words on each sheet of paper, rewriting a page will not take so long.
2: DON'T RUSH IT
Take your time to get it right. There is no hurry. A well thought out piece written and rewritten over several days will always shine brighter than a hastily written story dashed off in five minutes.
3: READ IT ALOUD
Always read it aloud to yourself, or have a friend read it to you. If it sounds odd and jerky to the ear and doesn't 'flow', then rewrite it until it does.
4: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
This is what your readers should be asking themselves as they read your story, either because your scenario is interesting or your characters are engaging. What will happen to your characters? Where will the scenario lead?
5: SHOW, DON'T TELL
'Exposition' is information you need to get across to your reader in order to better understand what is going on. Instead of: "It was night, and had been raining hard. A man opened the front door and stepped into the room. He stopped and looked around." You might instead say: "The door swung open to reveal a man silhouetted in the streetlights. He shook the rain from his coat as his eyes scanned the room." It's shorter and to the point, and we know it is night and has been raining because of the streetlights and the rain he shakes from his coat. 'Looking around a room' might be wondering if there's a toilet. 'Eyes scanning the room' means he's looking for someone. And think of the atmosphere generated by the silhouette.
6: LESS IS OFTEN MORE
Drama does not have to involve murder and mayhem. Drama can be about the simplest thing, such as a broken promise or a betrayal. You don't need to shock to shock. A skilled writer can convey the horror of missing an important train.
7: BE BOLD
Don't be worried about taking risks with your writing. Listen to your inner voice. If you think an unusual descriptive device or line of dialogue looks right, it probably is. If it feels wrong, again, it probably is. The best authors are the ones who are merciless critics of their own work.
8: DON'T WASTE WORDS
"There were three cars driving along the road, and we were in the one in the middle" (18 words)
"We were in the middle of a three car motorcade" (10 words)
Use as few words as possible to describe what you want to say. If you can see a repeated word, it should probably come out. Make every word count, and not waste wordage on unnecessary waffle.
I'm putting this in again because it's so important.
10: IF IT WORKS IT WORKS.
I've put this at the very bottom, because all these rules (and many others) can be safely ignored so long as your piece works, and is engaging. The most original works are ones that circumvent the rules in new and inventive ways.
- All collated May 2020