We are all different (fortunately) and every author needs to find their own way of writing, however incomprehensible it is to the rest of us. So this list is in no way prescriptive, it’s just a compilation of what happens to work for me. But I hope that some of it is useful. Even if it only gives you something to argue about….
1) Don’t try to write perfect sentences straight off: you’ll only want to change them tomorrow. Just type (or scribble) words, phrases, descriptions, people speaking, anything relevant. Don’t bother with grammar, certainly don’t punctuate or spell check. Just get words down. When you’re stuck, write “something happens here” and carry on to the next bit. Then, when you’re ready, fill in the gaps and edit. And then edit again.
2) Learn about “voice“. Once you understand it, you will write more…cohesively. Your words will flow. Periodically you will forget and need (want, I hope) to rewrite because of it. Do it, because it’s crucial. Your voice is what makes people want to listen to your story, and rush to buy your next book. It, more than anything else, is the difference between an amateur and a pro.
3) Sort out your Point of View (POV) early on. Inconsistency here can be time consuming to correct later on and getting it right from the start will help you get to know your characters. Remember that you can zoom in and out from any POV, just like in a film. Wide angles and panning shots become broad descriptions. The long lens detail with the blurry background is your tiny pinpoint detail before you launch into the scene. Think of films you’ve seen where the balance is right…and follow it when you write.
4) Remember the triangle: Characters, Plot, Style. Think of them as sides of a triangle. If you ignore (or overdo) any one, your book will be lopsided. I used to agonise over style (as a kid I’d correct the English on the cornflakes packet), at the expense of the plot. Then, when I realised, I went so overboard on plot that even my characters couldn’t understand it. Then, finally, I sorted out the characters…and the plot fell into place.
5) So start with the characters (like I didn’t). Spend time with the hero and the villain. Know far more about them than will ever appear in the book (it will all be there, but you won’t realise it). When you get them right, they will write the book for you. If they’re false, they will stall (and you will know it, however much you kid yourself).
Know what your hero wants. Their ambition drives them, make them take risks, do crazy things that make everything worse. Your job as a writer is to chase the hero up a tree and then throw rocks at them. A lot of rocks.
Their ambition can be anything. It can even be a wish to die, as long as they want it badly enough. The only thing that doesn’t work is an indifferent hero. If they don’t care…then neither does the reader. One well known writer (who should have known better) once produced a time-travel novel where the hero, clinically depressed, didn’t care whether he lived or died. He drifted through the entire 350 pages. And so, when I read it, did I.
In “Counting the Clouds” Neil wants to be a photographer, and ends up doing just that at a wedding. I picked wedding photography for my hero because I used to do it myself and had a number of amusing incidents to draw on. It also fitted well with the theme of the novel, that the protagonist thought in pictures, because he didn’t know any words. And the girl he falls in love with is a model (which I was also when much, much younger). So use your own experience, as much as possible: even the most unlikely incidents will ring true if they actually happened (Did I mention the time I jumped, fully (and smartly) clothed into a swimming pool to get the right angle on a bride?)
6) When you’ve got a chapter you’re happy with, put it away in a drawer (a digital drawer?). Don’t look at it for as long as you can bear. Don’t even think about it. Try to forget it. To assess pace, balance of description with events, fluidity of dialogue, all the things that get past us when we’re writing, we need to see it afresh and that only happens when we’ve forgotten it. It gets easier as you get older… I took a couple of creative writing courses at UAE, run in conjunction with the Writer’s Centre Norwich and hosted by an extremely good writer and tutor, Sarah Bower. She calls this process “distancing yourself from your work” which sums it up perfectly.
7) Your critics are gold dust. Treat them accordingly. Listen to what they say, and what they don’t. Never, ever argue with them. You’ve asked for their opinion and they’ve given it. They may not have done it very well-many people aren’t good at giving constructive criticism- but don’t take it personally. Become better at taking it than they are at giving it. Be the professional.
8) Have a hook. Whatever you write, crime, mystery, fantasy… make your protagonist different. Otherwise you’ll sink. There are millions of books out there. But a romance with a deaf hero (or dumb, or blind, take your pick), is a memorable sound bite and makes for an interesting character to write about. And, remembering that in all the best books the hero is on an emotional journey (as well as everything else that they are struggling with), a disability gives you lots of scope: does he (or she) finally come to terms with it, learn how to overcome it…etc?
Act like a writer
9) You’re not going to like this one. Act like a pro, right from the start. Fake it till you make it. Start marketing yourself. Write short stories, publish them on Kindle, enter competitions, promote yourself on the Internet. It takes a long time to build up a presence: you can’t just join Facebook one week and have a following the next. Success here is made up of a very large number of very small actions over a long period of time. So start NOW. Don’t wait till you’ve finished your book: that’s just putting it off. Your first novel is a huge undertaking: accept that it’s unlikely to be a best-seller. (Stop ignoring me!) Consider putting it out as a serial, to start finding your audience. When people do read it, you’ll get a huge buzz…and want to write more. Then you’ll have an audience waiting for your second.
10) Don’t do it on your own. Join a writing group, enrol on a writing course, share with other writers. Steel yourself for their criticism. They, more than others, will be blunt. Listen when they tell you what is wrong with your book (some of them may be correct). When, being writers, they then tell you how to fix it, keep your interested face on and ignore them. It’s your book, not theirs.
10a) You’re not going to like this one either. Make it hurt…sometimes. Do the bits you don’t want to…like marketing, like endless editing, like finding new contacts, like practising your elevator pitch in front of the mirror until it’s perfect.
Because, in the end, you have to do all of it to succeed.