JWTSB: Part 1 – there are no rules

JWTSB is the abbreviated version of my single favourite piece of writing advice – ‘Just write the sodding book.’ I’ve essentially built a career as a writing tutor on that gem of wisdom and happily spend weekends shouting it at poor innocent developing writers. When they start to look a tad jaded I do occasionally mix things up with a jaunty cry of ‘Stuff has to happen’ or ‘Editing is fun!’ But, fundamentally, ‘just write the sodding book’ sums up most of what I tell new writers about how to write a novel. You can spend a lot of time and energy building your social media platform and attending writing conferences, and it will all be for nothing if you omit to attach bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and get the damn thing written.

That doesn’t mean that writers, at any stage of their career, can’t benefit from courses and advice and critique. That’s all part of developing your skills and honing your craft. So this is my new monthly* writing advice column. Please feel welcome to add your requests for topics you’d like to see covered down in the comments. I’ve already had requests for avoiding the dreaded info-dump, writing a synopsis, handling dialogue and how to make nice guy heroes super-sexy. Please do add your requests to the list.

This month though I’m starting by laying out my stall with the second piece of advice I want all my students to internalise, hold dear and understand. It’s beaten only by ‘just write the sodding book’ in the hierarchy of essential novel-writing advice. And it is simply this:

There are no rules

When it comes to writing a novel, there are no hard and fast rules. In my own writing I’ve been told with absolute certainty that you can’t have multiple points of view or multiple timelines in a novella; that you can’t start a novel with a character waking up; that you can’t start a novel with a dream; that you shouldn’t write first person; and that you shouldn’t write present tense. I’ve done all of those in books that were published, some of which went on to be award nominated.

There are things you can do that will make your novel more or less likely to find a traditional publisher, but taking creative risks doesn’t break any rules. For every ‘rule’ that says you can’t have too many point of view characters, there’s a Game of Thrones. For every declaration that boarding school books are out of fashion, there’s a Harry Potter. For every earnest edict that a novel can’t be to short or too long, there’s an Agatha Raisin or a Pillars of the Earth.

In novel writing it’s very rarely a hard and fast line of ‘you can’t do that.’ So it’s good to take advice, it’s good to understand the market you’re writing for, and then it’s up to you, the writer, to make whatever it is you’re trying to do work.

So that’s the ethos of these JWTSB advice posts – there are no rules. There is just the question of how on earth you’re going to make your crazy, unruly, disorganised mass of a half-formed novel into something that works.

For more advice for writers including courses and one-to-one critique and mentoring services click here.

*I mean I’m aiming for monthly. Last Thursday of the month, but y’know, it might just be sort of when I feel like it.

In which I go to ChipLitFest and think about The Fear

This weekend was the annual ChipLitFest which is the popular name for Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and not a litfest that mainly focuses on chips. Although chips are great. Someone should do that. Books and chips. Mmmm… lovely.

Sorry. What was I saying? Oh yes. ChipLitFest is a really fun festival to go along to – it seems to hit the balance between events for writers and events for readers really nicely, and it always seems to have a very friendly buzzy atmosphere. I went to three events this year – Pitch the Agent with Carole Blake, The Richard & Judy Book Club, unsurprisingly with Richard, and indeed also Judy, and The Art of the Rewrite with Julie Cohen and her many many post it notes.

All three events were interesting and well presented. Julie Cohen did interviewer duty for Richard and Judy and did a really good job of getting a pair of professional interviewers to sit back and answer the questions. Julie’s session on rewriting was also excellent, even though she could clearly have waxed lyrical on the wonders of prettily coloured stationery for much longer than the measly hour she was allowed. And listening to Carole Blake’s considered responses to five very different novels was fascinating. It also demonstrated how subjective books and reading ultimately are. The one novel where Carole Blake questioned the storyline – where a young woman disguises herself as a man to enlist in WW1 – was the one that I thought sounded awesome. Assuming the piece was well-written and structured I’d be championing that book without hesitation if I was a literary agent. Unfortunately for the author I’m not. Sorry.

The other attraction of events like ChipLitFest is the social element. This was the first year that I’ve gone along on my lonesome, but fortunately there were a lot of RNA and local writer chums around to hang out with which was lovely. One topic that came up a lot in the social chat, and during the formal sessions, and which I hear about a lot from writing students, was the issue of who sees your work before you submit or publish it. My answer is generally pretty simple – nobody. Occasionally I’ll put one or two chapters in front of a workshop session or critique group, and occasionally I’ll ask a specific person a specific question about a short passage or story idea, but essentially no one reads my drafts. I don’t use beta readers anymore – although I did have one for my very first book, and I would consider it if I was making a substantial shift in terms of genre or writing style. I don’t have a critique partner. My friends and family don’t read my drafts.

When I tell people that, it’s often mistaken for a sign of Great Confidence, which is definitely isn’t. I don’t think I’ve met a writer who possesses Great Confidence in their work. We have moments of feeling like a piece might be slightly less rubbish than we feared, and moments where a short section flows from our typing fingers with such grace and ease that we momentarily think it might be sort of nearly acceptable, but that’s pretty much as good as it gets. The reason nobody reads my drafts is because my belief in those drafts is delicate and tenuous – one poorly-worded or ill thought out critique comment can break that tenuous belief.

I also think that if you seek too many opinions on a piece you can end up editing out your own voice, your own unique take on the world. You can lose that elusive thing that made the story a story that only you could tell. That doesn’t mean that no one else looks at my books until they’re published. I write for Choc Lit, and everything they publish goes through a Tasting Panel of readers before it’s accepted. My novels and novella are then read by my editor, who pulls together the feedback from the tasting panel (so I don’t see that feedback in its ‘raw’ form) along with her own thoughts, into a revision report that I use to guide me through one, two, three, or more rounds of edits until we get to a book that we’re both happy with. If I was with an agent, then they’d read my work pre-publication, probably pre-submission to publisher, as well and possibly suggest revisions too.

Editors and agents though, I would hope, are reading from the point of view of ‘How can we bring out the best of this author’s voice, or the best of this story/character idea?’ If you’re looking for a critique partner or beta reader, I would suggest that you need to find someone with that same outlook. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be universally positive, but criticisms need to be constructive. And never forget that it’s your book, not theirs. The person who needs to believe in it ultimately is you. Years ago I went to a talk by Miranda Dickinson, who gave out postcards and stickers with motivational sayings for writers on them. At the time I remember rolling my eyes in a cynical Northern girl sort of way, but I still kept the sticker that says ‘Be your novel’s biggest fan.’ It may be cheesey but it’s also absolutely necessary. Don’t put on rose-tinted glasses so you’re unable to see and fix your novel’s flaws, but be wary of anything that makes your belief in your story falter. That belief can be delicate, and is absolutely precious. Hold onto it, and be wary of anyone who makes that belief falter or crack.

And here endeth the lesson.

Don’t forget that if you want an awesome weekend to focus on your own writing – including some positive constructive belief-building critique – then Janet Gover and I are offering just that this October. Details here