Today is World Book Day. To mark the occasion I thought I’d repost this blog from my old site. I think there’s plenty here to think about for anyone who loves books, loves writing — and for anyone thinking of trying to write a novel. I’d love to hear your comments:
How do I get started writing?
I could write chapters and chapters, probably a whole book about writing. But I’m going to try and break it down into FAQs for you. If I haven’t answered your question, then please drop me a line. But these are my best answers to the questions I’m often asked. Also, I’m not just a published writer who ‘has it easy’ (‘What does she know about rejections?’) I’m also married to a trying-to-be-published writer. So I know about the process from many angles.
You sit down and you start. There we go. You don’t put it off until you ‘have the time’ or ‘feel in the mood’. You just apply your behind to the chair and get on with it. Because all that time you are wasting thinking about writing your amazing novel, I’m actually at my computer writing.
If we were runners, you would be thinking about taking up running and I would be training six days a week, so come the race – who has the best chance of finishing?!
Writing is a complex art. Expressing your ideas, characters and story in words is a skill which takes a lifetime to master. I’ve been writing fiction for 14 years now and I’m only beginning to get the hang of it. Just because you can read novels does not mean you can write them. Just because a book is easy to read does not mean it is easy to write.
Plus, it’s a very competitive business. There are so many fantastic writers already out there, if you want to join them, you’re going to have to get very, very good.
I feel it’s best to give you tough love. If you want to write novels – long, gripping novels people are going to give up hours and hours of their precious lives to read, you’re going to have to start training for the ultra-marathon!
What will help with my writing?
Reading will help enormously. Read all kinds of books. Find the kind of writing that you love; the kind of book you could pick up again and again. Is it horror? Is it rom com? Is it sci-fi? Is it historical fiction? What inspires you? What kind of book would you love to write?
Then write! Write and write some more. Write little chunks: blogs, diary entries, short pages. Hone your skills. Try a poem, then a short story. Try out chapter one. Try out the final chapter. Play with words. Describe the people you see on the train. Invent a background for them. Practise dialogue. Turn a news story into a short story. Write, write, write. Train your brain and your fingers to turn your thoughts into great sentences, then your sentences into stories.
Don’t expect to be a genius immediately. It takes time to get good. I was writing stories, essays and diaries all the time I was growing up. I spent my early 20s being a newspaper journalist. I must have written millions of words before I got started on chapter one. My first book attempt was in the bin by chapter four and I began again.
Think of JK Rowling, she’d been working on that first Harry Potter manuscript for YEARS before she showed it to anyone and even then all the big publishers turned her down! Her enormous success had nothing to do with luck: it was because she had a huge story to tell, sheer persistence and worked bloody hard.
Are any books helpful?
I’m helped by reading and re-reading all the writers I love: Nancy Mitford, Anne Tyler, Agatha Christie, John Irving, JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Candace Bushnell and many more.
I’ve also found these books very inspirational and packed with great advice: Robert McKee’s Story, Stephen King’s On Writing, Michelle Wallerstein’s Mind Your Business.
Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan always get my romantic comedy juices flowing, along with every film written by Nora Ephron.
Should I join a writing group?
I’ve never joined a writing group. This is because I am such a loner and solitary animal. Also, I didn’t think I could bear the criticism! You have to be tough to write and keep on writing, but oh my goodness writing makes you vulnerable. As soon as you’ve written something, you’ve created a work that people can criticise. And believe me, everybody has an opinion. You just need to go onto Amazon to see that.
But writing groups can be hugely helpful. They help people to focus on what they want to write, they help people make contacts, plus they inspire you to get the work done. Only you can know if a group is a good idea for you. You could always try one and see. You could even advertise and set one up in your area.
Where do I get ideas from?
EVERYWHERE!! As Paul Smith the fashion designer wrote: ’Inspiration is everywhere, if at first you don’t see it, look again!’ Open your mind to ideas. They really are everywhere. I used to worry about having enough things to write about, now I worry about finding the time to write about all my ideas. What sort of things have happened to you? What’s happened to your friend? Could it be re-worked? Could it be made much more exciting? What’s in the news? What’s in National Geographic? See reality as your springboard into the swimming pool of story.
You need to have a story. A really intriguing, interesting tale. You need to have great, memorable, fully-fleshed characters. If you are writing rom-com, you need to have some really hilariously funny scenes; some heart-meltingly tender scenes and you need a love story where something is always in the way of the happy couple.
Dig deeply into all your wide experience of life. How do your own relationships work? What makes you fall in love? What makes you angry? Sad? Confused? Despairing?
Should I do research?
ABSOLUTELY!! Go to the places you are writing about. Interview people who’ve done something like your heroine. You will get one million more great ideas doing this than you can ever dream of at your desk.
Should I have a plan?
YOU’D BE MAD NOT TO!
Readers are viewers. They are used to more plot in a half an hour sit-com than they ever got in a full Dickens novel. You must plot your baby to death. You must keep your reader nailed to the chair. You will never manage this without a detailed plan. I work on my plans for weeks. I don’t write a word until I have every chapter outlined and the whole story completely outlined. Even then, it still changes, improves, gets messed around.
Should I listen to criticism?
Only if it’s from someone you really trust. Writing something that makes your Mum beam with pride is not hard. Writing something that will move and engage perfect strangers is much more tricky. When you have a first draft you are really happy with, tell your story to a couple of friends who have been briefed to be firm but fair. Don’t make them read the whole thing. Try out the outline of your story on them. Does it excite them? Interest them? Do their eyes glaze over? Where are the problems?
Should I re-write?
Re-writing is the number one skill. It separates the amateurs from the professionals. About 50% of my time, maybe more is spent re-writing my work. I get to the end of my first draft in a hurry. I’m making sure the story works and I’m getting to know my characters. Then I start re-writing and the really hard work follows. But this is the sweat and tears that makes stories good.
How do I get an agent?
I have no idea!! You need an agent, because hardly any publishers look at manuscripts which don’t come from agents (check their websites to find out). But agents are like fairy dust. Agents are very, very busy looking after those super important clients who earn them vast amounts of money. With your unpublished manuscript, you are so far down the pecking order, your precious work will be handed to the work experience girl if you are lucky. But remind yourself, big deals with brand new authors are made all the time. Agents and publishers continue to need new writers.
Do your research, find agents who represent your kind of work. Submit exactly as it says on the website. Send only your very polished, very best work. Write a covering letter of genius, brilliantly written about your brilliant story. Get them hooked. Make yours the manuscript at the top of the pile.
I’ve been rejected, now what?
If you’ve sent your best work to many reputable agents or publishers and they’ve all said no thanks, you have to dust yourself down and think hard about what to do next. You could find more people to send it to… you could self-publish. You could put your work in a drawer and work on your next idea. You could stop and rest for a while… or go on a course, read books about writing, train your writing muscles to get better and stronger. No decision is right or wrong here. You have to decide what’s best for you. But I can promise the more you read, write and re-write, the better you will get.
I’ve published one book, how do I keep going?
Your book is published, the world did not stop turning, Hollywood did not call, you are not as rich as Dan Brown. Welcome to the club. Look very hard at what worked; look even harder at what didn’t work. Don’t blame yourself for everything, but don’t accept no blame. Maybe you need to get much better. Think up a much stronger story. Do more research. Maybe you need to flex your PR muscles on your next time out.
Take your new career seriously. Find an amazing new story, fresh avenues for your work. Make lots more contacts in all sorts of connected fields.
All authors need these quotations pinned up above their desk:
‘Try again, fail again, fail better.’ Samuel Beckett.
‘Never, never, never, NEVER, give up.’ Sir Winston Churchill.
Do I self-publish on the internet?
Previously, I would always have said no, it’s a waste of time and money and you won’t make a penny. But the game has changed. Some writers are now fabulous e-book successes. In ten years time we may all be self-published on the internet. Do your research, don’t get ripped off and don’t put anything out there that isn’t your absolutely best work. Expect to do a lot of self-promoting. Success on the internet is just like success with a publisher, it’s all about talent and hard work. We are all only as good as the last thing we’ve written and the next big thing we’re writing.
Will writing make me rich?
Let’s be realistic here. One in hundreds of thousands of writers will become rich: maybe through genius, epic hard work or sheer good luck. Just like one in hundreds of thousands of actors, painters and all kinds of creative people. The rest of us will range from making a great living to struggling on penniless. Love your work, devote yourself to your work and hope that the money will follow. If you have success, be like several wise old actors I know and save your money hard because success may not come around again immediately. Yachts and villas on the Med are for gas barons and internet billionaires not, usually, novelists.
Will writing make me happy?
I love to write. I love the hours when I am so in the flow, so in my made-up world that I forget about everything else. But I spend all day, most days, withimaginary people and many head-doctors would consider this a worrying condition!
Creative people often struggle with mental health issues – we get depressed, we fret, we drink or smoke, take drugs, or comfort eat or all of the above. Maybe we were like this when we began; maybe the nature of our work makes us more like this. I do believe that writing makes you vulnerable. Plus it can become obsessive. Writing can take up all the time you have, no manuscript is ever ‘finished’, and you can use writing as a way of opting out of everything else life has to offer.
You need balance!
You need to look after the other areas of life too: friends, family and your health. You need regular breaks from writing, reading other writing and thinking about writing – hard, I know! But there must be room for relaxation, laughter and holidays. If I am turning into a basket case, I shut everything down and hang out with my children. Sometimes you just have to go away and come back to the keyboard with fresh perspective.
Should I give up my day job?
I have mixed feelings about this. Basically I did give up my day job and the terror got me writing like a dervish. Happily, I landed a two-book deal which gave me enough money to take another year off to write more. For several years I combined fiction writing with freelance journalism, now I write fiction full-time but I know I have journalism skills if I need to go back to them.
I’m not sure I would advise an 18 year old to study creative writing at college and nothing else. But sometimes, you have to walk the wire without the safety net because if you put your heart and soul into writing it might work much better than if you potter about at the weekends only.
Giving up the day job to write is scary and stressful. Please approach it very, very carefully, fully consulting your nearest and dearest and burn no bridges. Bear in mind that many, many well known writers combine writing with other jobs and careers which reliably pay the bills.
I really hope this has helped. Very, very best of luck out there. May your story be the next huge thing the world didn’t even know it was waiting for! And if it isn’t – please love the ride. Writing is fantastic – like dreaming with the lights on. Work hard, master the art, bring your dreams to life and WRITE ON!!