I’m often teach creative writing in schools and libraries and I’m often asked for tips. There are many books out there about creative writing, but novel writing is one of those professions where you really do learn on the job. You only really get to know how to write a novel by actually writing one. And then, annoyingly, quite often, you get to the end and you’ve learnt so much through the process that you wish you could start again and do it a different way. But that’s the nature of the beast. Here are a few of my tips that have helped me so far on my writing journey:
You are free to write the worst junk in the world. Very often you can become your own worst critic, to the point where you’re afraid to write anything at all. Shut up your inner critic, by letting yourself off the hook. Just the act of writing fast and without censorship often does the trick. Even if you write banana, banana, banana over and over again, you’ll get to the good stuff. This comes from Natalie Goldberg’s brilliant book, ‘Writing Down The Bones’ which I first read when I started out. She has fabulous ‘writing practise’ rules.
Trust your subconscious. Your brain is a giant compost heap, each experience adding to the rich mix so there’s plenty of material there. And it’s all unique to you. Only you have experienced life in the way you have. You have a take on the world that is different to everyone else’s. If you want to write, chances are that your subconscious is already writing your story for you. Jump into your writing at the easiest point, even if it doesn’t seem the most obvious place to start. If you feel yourself wanting to have a mini nap when writing, then do. Sometimes this happens, when your brain is working it all out. When you wake up, you’ll be on fire.
It’s all smoke and mirrors. Life is always stranger than fiction, so when it comes to writing, don’t be afraid to make it up. Don’t get too hung up on research or everything having to be absolutely accurate. You do need to check your facts at the end, but you can create a perfectly plausible beach scene in Rio, or night scene in Paris when you’re sitting at home in your jogging bottoms. I know. I do it all the time. What’s important is the emotional journey of your characters from the start to the end.
Show not tell. I run a small novel editing business, http://www.noveleditors.com where I take manuscripts (mainly from agents) and work with the author to lick their script into shape. The number one thing that people always do wrong is telling the action, rather than showing it – and there’s a big difference. Reporting how a character feels or what they did isn’t dramatic. You have to show us a character in action in order to show how they feel. For action to be engaging it has to be ‘live’ on the page. Think about how it would be on the TV or in the cinema if your scene was being depicted. Write it that way.
It’s all in the detail Use your senses. Show us what your character can see, smell, touch, hear, taste. This is how you create atmosphere on the page. Always use specific details to create dramatic impact and to bring your characters to life. The blonde girl wearing a stiletto with a broken heel, is much more interesting than just ‘the girl’. Get your characters first and the plot will fall naturally into place.
Invariably your first chapter will go in the edit. And if not your first chapter, then certainly your first page. When starting a novel, it’s an important part of the process to write your way into your characters. For me characters and great characterisation are key. When you start a novel, you read, edit, re-read and re-edit your first pages hundreds of times and there’ll always be a typo in the first page you haven’t spotted, even though you’ve read it one trillion times. Don’t be afraid to slash and burn the beginning of your book when you get to the end. It’s usually the most tired writing. And in these days when readers get to read the first chapters to see whether they want to buy the book, your opening chapters are key.
Don’t get distracted. Writing is about bums on seats. There’s no getting around it. You actually have to sit down and make time to write and it takes hours of sitting in front of a screen, waiting for the good stuff to come out of your brain. Some days will be brilliant, some days, you’ll want to beat your head on the desk. That’s how it is. What is really bad is getting distracted – particularly by social media. It plays an important part, of course, but responding to tweets or Facebook messages is very damaging to the creative process. Set boundaries for yourself and don’t look at the internet when you write. I have recently found the ‘Focus’ setting in ‘View’ on ‘Word’. This blanks out the rest of the screen and shows only my page. It seriously takes away the temptation to get distracted. Try it.
Environment doesn’t matter. People fuss a lot about their writing environment, but it’s all part of procrastination. Environment doesn’t matter. Write where you feel comfortable. It doesn’t have to be special. I find that the messier my desk is, the easier it is to work. This picture below is a tidied up version of my writing desk, which I took for the ‘My Writing Room’ piece on http://www.novelicious.com.