Saturday, 18 January 2014

Things I wish I knew before starting to write.

Now that I've got Flare out there and Shooting Star is coming along nicely I thought I'd write a few pieces for the blog about things I wish I knew before I started to write a novel. I didn't really have a lot of experience with creative writing before I began Flare, I did the small amount required in school and then, once the decision was made that I wanted to give writing a try, I attended a number of creative writing courses and workshops. Some of these helped, some didn’t.

In short, I was wholly unprepared for the hell I was about to unleash on myself. Most writing courses seem to focus on writing style and so on but don’t seem to address the nuts and bolts of motivation to write, story-lining or character development.

This complete lack of preparation meant that writing Flare included a lot more work than it should have been. Now that I'm two years wiser and managed to get Shooting Star in readable shape in less than half the time of my first try I figured I'd spread the word about how others can learn from my numerous mistakes. This week I'll go through ten tips about tackling a novel that will make your life easier. Ready? Let's begin!

  1. Write what you love. People always say “write what you know”. They're often correct but with fiction if you stick to writing about what you've directly experienced then things will get boring for both writer and reader. If I only wrote about “what I know” then most of my writing would be about sandwiches, about which I am an expert. Also, the science fiction and fantasy genres wouldn't exist as no one has ever travelled to another planet or fought a dragon in real life. So, a writer has to lie and write about things they don't know about. It's more interesting. When you decide to write, whether a poem, short story, comic book, screenplay or novel, you need to pick a topic that compels you. It needs to be something that you're not going to get bored by over the length of time it takes to write the story, see it published and promote it. That can be anywhere from two to ten years. That's a significant amount of time, so choose wisely and make sure you're writing something you would like to read or the motivation to tackle an 80,000 word time sucker like a novel will disappear fast.
  2. Plan. I found it to be impossible to just start writing from page one of a word document. The white space of that first page just stares at you and turns your mind to mush. Plot holes and inconsistencies will abound unless you’ve taken the time to figure as much as possible out in advance. Not everything needs to be planned to perfection; that will spoil the fun that spontaneously creating an unplanned character or scene can bring. You do need to outline the main plot of the novel in terms of "A then B then C then D then ending." I found that this saved me from running out of steam half way through the book and stopped writers block from occurring. If you know what the ending is then you'll always at least be able to write that! I'll go into greater detail about plot outlines and character building in coming weeks.
  3. Write for the edit. Get the first draft written. That’s it. Don't worry about formatting or spelling or even if chunks of character development are missing. Just get the main plot fleshed out as completely as possible for your first draft. You need something you can edit. This first draft will represent the most difficult part of the process, and most likely the longest period of writing time so get it done in a basic format. You can work on making it pretty later.
  4. Take a break. Leave your first draft in a drawer, go watch some movies and maybe even go on holiday. Rest a little, you've earned it. Then you can come back for the second draft refreshed and with your mind ready for the next bit.
  5. Draft, then redraft. Read your first draft again. By the end you'll have spotted a million things you need to fix: characterisation, plot holes, dialogue. These are going to be the things you need to fix. Once it's done repeat as necessary. How often? More than one book on writing I’ve read recommends seven drafts. Flare got eight by the time I felt it was good enough to be let free into the world. It still isn’t a perfect novel by any means but it’s my first, I’ll get better. The only writer to do a perfect first novel was Harper Lee, I’m no Harper Lee.
  6. Listen to what's going on around you. Don't just lock yourself in an office and write all the time. Get out into the world and pay attention to what's going on. Listen to how people talk and interact, it'll improve your dialogue and character interplay in later drafts.
  7. Be specific. If your planned story allows you to, use real world examples in your novel. It helps relate the world your character lives in to the world we know. Use real street names, places, events and flora and fauna to make your world a real place. I'm assuming the book is set on Earth.  A flock of birds shouldn’t just be a flock of birds; it's a flock of sparrows or seagulls. These extra little bits of description help the reader get a feel for the fictional world, which is what you want if you’re hoping they stick around until the end.
  8. If you love it, let it go. Sometimes there'll be a piece of dialogue or particular sequence that you adore that just doesn't fit the story. Maybe a character says something that doesn't gel or the scene doesn't serve a narrative purpose, you have to be brave enough to cut these out and save them for another time and place. Every writer has a box marked "for later use" containing their discarded ideas. Don't panic if something you like doesn't belong anywhere, someday it will.
  9. Spelling and grammar. Once the story and character arcs are good and you're happy to have someone else read it, have another pass and fix all the spelling and grammar errors. You won't catch them all but it'll help everyone else. An agent or publisher will throw manuscripts with poor spelling in the bin without reading them. They've got plenty of adequately written books to read to spend time hoping to find a gem amongst all the scripts with incorrect spelling. This applies double if you're planning to self-publish. This is your work, there's no one else to blame if there are errors. Editing text is boring but extremely important. The most exciting story telling in the world won't mean Jack if it's an unreadable mess.
  10. Get another reader or two. Once your manuscript is in legible condition and you're happy with the idea of others reading it then proceed to find a friend to give it a look. Ideally, your friend will have at least a passing interest in the topic of the book, they'll have read similar works or pieces in the genre and will be familiar with the conventions etc. Once your clued in friend has prepared notes, work on those as your next draft. Then find another reader who isn't a fan of the genre, they'll spot things the previous reader missed and will force you to work to explain items that maybe the casual reader will need explained. Again, use their notes as the basis of another draft.
That's it for this week; hopefully my limited experience will help make you think about what you could do to make your work better. If anyone has a topic to suggest please do so via Facebook: or Twitter @paddylennon1

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