Writing for beginners… a few thoughts

Lots of people out there are trying their hand at writing books at the moment. Or so I gather. My first thought… isn’t life tough enough already?

You see… writing’s hard. Even if, like me, you’ve more than thirty books under your belt. If it feels it isn’t then it’s probably not working. Success doesn’t lie in making the process easier. It’s achieved by doing your best to make it less hard.

So here are my top ten tips for getting on with a story instead of sitting there banging your head against the wall sobbing over your lack of progress.

  1. Don’t fall for the idea software will do the job for you. Far too many beginners think, ‘I’m getting nowhere with Word… all I need is something else.’ And then find themselves struggling to learn a new app instead of setting a story down. If you’re a Mac user I like Ulysses (seen above) which is pretty easy to understand (and I have a cheap book on Amazon to help if you need it). But really if you’re just trying for the first time and you have something like Word stick with that to begin with. Software does not ‘unlock your creativity’.
  2. Have something to say. There are lots and lots of books about writing theory out there, many of them with pretty much the same advice. But if a story doesn’t have something to say — something that fires you, maybe makes you mad or makes you want to say how much you love it — then it’s going to be a bit flat.
  3. Listen to your characters. They are not your marionettes. They should feel like living creatures. The moment one of them tells you they don’t plan to do what you want because they’re not like that is the moment you know you’ve given them life. The relationship of a writer to his or her characters is that of a god to his or her creations — unless they have free will they’re not quite real. Characters shouldn’t just drive the story they should drive its writing too.
  4. Dispense with the need to write in a linear fashion. If you’re on scene thirteen and suddenly come up with a great idea for scene thirty go and write it. Don’t think you have to go through all the bits in between first. Yes, you may have to amend it when you get there. But the golden rule is if something keeps nagging you to write it then do so. Even if it’s not the next thing in the book.
  5. Don’t think that writing is only accomplished while sitting at a computer tapping out words. It’s also when you’re lying in bed at three a.m. going over the story in your head. When you take a walk and do the same. When — especially when — you look at what you’re written, realise it’s not good enough and go in to fix it. I once reduced a 30K opening setup to 20K and a friend of mine said, ‘Oh. Shame.’ It wasn’t a shame at all. It was what was needed. It was progress.
  6. Think strategically. Some people outline in detail. Some people launch in and see what happens. Most of us are halfway between the two. Whichever approach you take, bear in mind that conventional narratives invariable have a structure, like a piece of music. Beginning, middle eight, vamp, return to theme, close… that kind of thing. The building block of most mainstream fiction is the scene — a piece of story involving the same people, often in the same place, usually seen through the same point of view. Focus on starting and finishing one scene each day, usually of no more than two thousand words, and you should see your story building in front of your eyes. These aren’t rules — I don’t believe in rules for writing. But it’s how things generally work because it’s how readers have come to recognise the story form.
  7. Keep notes. Create a separate document in which you write down character names, locations, thoughts, and maybe keep a tally of word counts. Not that you should bother much about word counts. I hate the ‘if I write 2000 words a day for eight weeks I’ll have a book’ idea. It rarely works like that.
  8. Read your work away from the computer. There’s a lot that could be said about the crucial task of revision but my primary piece of advice is this: you can’t do it and write at the same time. So yes, make one pass of your manuscript correcting obvious mistakes. After that get it into something like an iPad as a pdf or email your Word file to Kindle so it appears like a book. Read it there and just highlight bits that need working. You’ll spot a lot more and you’ll see it from the point of view of a reader.
  9. Be wary of asking opinions. When I used to teach writing I was a regular at the wonderful annual mystery conference run by the great Book Passage store outside San Francisco. There were lots of keen students there, some great talent too. But I couldn’t help notice that a good few were part of writing groups where work in progress was shared around for an opinion. If this works for you… fine. But bear in mind it slows the process and those opinions aren’t going to be those of a professional editor (and they will vary too). Me… I’d just get on and finish the thing and then ask around if you must.
  10. Finally… never, ever give up. As someone once said the only difference between an amateur writer and a professional is the professional finally got published.