Advice to Beginning Writers

When people discover that I teach Creative Writing, one of the most common responses is “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Do you have any advice for a novice writer?”

My answer depends on my mood. Sometimes I give them my most grizzled look and beg them to turn back now, while they still have a soul. Sometimes I laugh maniacally, then break down in tears. Sometimes I pretend that I have suddenly lost the ability to speak English. ¿qué le dijiste? On rare occasions, I give a coherent and mature answer. Today is one of those days…

1. Read often

Read as many books as you can. And read them actively. This means paying attention to plot and character development. Study the dialogue. Note the style of writing, the tone, and how the author uses grammar and syntax to construct sentences.

Don’t just read books in your favourite genre – read everything you can. And read older books too, particularly from the nineteenth century. That was when the short story was invented and refined. And the novel underwent drastic changes. You can see whole genres evolve out of the nineteenth century – it was a fascinating time for literature.

2. Write often

Yes, you’ll have to write often too. Look at this way: professional athletes train every day. They build their muscles and hone their skills. Writing is no different. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.

I’ve heard a few people say that you should treat writing like a job. And this is certainly true. If you’ve decided to commit two hours every day to your writing, then make sure you spend that time working on your story. If you’ve got writer’s block, then spend your two hours working on your notes or doing research. Or write something else – practice your poetry or write a blog. Keep your mind active, keep it focused on writing.

3. Plan ahead

This one isn’t going to apply for everyone, but…

By the time I sit down to write, I have already written several thousand words of notes for whatever story I am working on. For my PhD novel, I wrote over 10,000 words in notes before even writing the first sentence. I like to plan everything in advance – the plot, the character arcs, the chapters, even the timeline of events. If I ever feel lost in the narrative, I can turn back to my notes and remember where I’m supposed to be. Your notes are your guide.

4. Do your research!

No matter what type of story you’re writing – whether it’s science fiction or a historical novel, each story must feel authentic. If it lacks verisimilitude, readers will lose interest. And this comes down to good research.

If you’re writing a SF story, take a look at how technology evolves and how it impacts on society. Investigate robotics. Quantum mechanics. Orbital mechanics. Read up on the other planets in our solar system. What anxieties lie just beneath the surface of our society?

If you’re writing a historical novel, find out how people existed in your chosen time period. What clothes did they wear? How was society structured? What did they do for entertainment? How were the laws different?

If you’re writing a horror story, go and spend a night in a haunted house. Scare yourself. Experience the uncanny!

If you’re writing a crime novel, rob a bank. Go to jail. Listen to your lawyer and pay attention during your trial.

If you’re writing erotic fiction, have sex. Easy.

5. Prepare for hard work

I’m going to be quite blunt: writing a novel is not an easy task. Even if you write for a few hours every day, chances are it will take you a few months to finish a novel. Creating and sustaining a complex narrative over that duration is no easy task. It can be quite hard to keep track of each character’s development. And maintaining your own unique style throughout the novel is also quite a challenge, especially for beginning writers.

You’re going to have periods where you are completely lacking in inspiration. Keep working! Inspiration is only 10% 0f the novel – the remaining 90% is hard work.

There is something magical about a blank page.
Look at me, being all left-handed.

6. Write about what you love

Beginning writers will often hear that tired piece of advice, “write about what you know.”

Forget that! Write about what you love.

Writing is a laborious and often unrewarding task. It’s difficult to maintain interest in a project that will take months or possibly years of your time.  Write the sort of stories that you would be interested to read. Don’t write something just because you think it will be popular. Write about your passion – it’s the only way you’ll be able to persevere through 80,000 words.

The purpose behind that hoary old advice “write about what you know” is to encourage writers to base their stories on their own experiences, so they can flesh them out with details that they can remember. Boring! If you love hearing about space travel, write about it. If you love ghosts or vampires, write about it. Serial killers? Angry robots? Nazi zombies? Write about it!! The key, of course, is research. But if you write about something that truly interests you, the research will become fun.

7. Use your own voice

Style is everything. Even the greatest story will lose readers if it’s written poorly. And even the most boring story will hold people’s attention if it’s written with style.

Developing your own style can take years of practice. My advice is to write in your own voice. Don’t aim for complicated sentences with complex adjectives. That often sounds forced. Listen to your own thoughts, your own patterns of speech. Writing in your own voice will allow the narrative to sound natural. Part of Hemingway’s appeal is in the simplicity of his language. You don’t need to sound like an academic or a poet every time you pick up a pen. Be yourself.

8. Make friends with other writers

Writing is a lonely, narcissistic task. There’s been proven links between writers and mental illness. After all, it takes a peculiar type of mentality to isolate oneself from the world to commit one’s thoughts to paper and assume that people are interested to read it. Cody Delistraty has written a fantastic article about the neurological links between writers and depression – check it out here.

One way of helping with the isolation is to make friends with other writers and form a writing group. I’ve been meeting my writing group every Tuesday night since January 2007. And on those rare occasions when we get off YouTube long enough to actually talk about writing, it’s incredibly helpful.

A writing group can be great form of peer support. Not only can you bounce ideas off each other, but you can proof-read each other’s work and offer suggestions. Most importantly, you can steal ideas from them! Precious, precious ideas.

An extra tip: find people who like to write in the same genre as you.

9. Learn to edit (and work with editors!)

You may have heard this one before – the secret to good writing is good editing.

It’s certainly true. The editing process exists so that you can look at your manuscript and identify the things that work and the things that don’t work. When you find something that just isn’t working, analyse what’s wrong. Is it the dialogue, the tone, the pacing, the point of view, the setting? Only then can you start to fix your mistakes.

Don’t be too hard on yourself with your first draft. But don’t stop editing your manuscript until you’re thoroughly satisfied. If you’re not happy, then a professional editor won’t be happy either.

Similarly, learn to accept criticism and make changes. Although your manuscript may feel like your baby – and it is! – criticism is not a personal attack. Editors are there to make your book as successful as possible – they want to sell as many copies as you do. So take their advice on board.

10. Find habits that work for you

The advice I’ve given isn’t going to work for everyone. Each person has different writing habits. The key is to find habits that work for you. Do you feel more comfortable writing in the morning or the evening? Do you plan your stories in advance, or let them come out of you as your fingers flit across the keyboard? Do you prefer a desktop computer, or laptop? Do you work best with music playing in background? How many cups of coffee or glasses of whiskey do you need before you’re productive?

 

Feel free to add your own advice – I’m always looking out for ways to become a more effective writer. On those days when I’m not bitter about this whole thing, I actually kind of like being a writer.

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