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.
I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.
I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.
However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*
I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.
There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.
* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.
Yesterday I was reminded, via a twitter conversation with the very awesome Joanna Cannon, of an exercise from a Julie Cohen writing course Joanna and I attended years ago. The exercise was simply this: ‘Tell me what your novel is about in one word.’ To which the response is inevitably, ‘Well, er, there’s sort of this woman.. and she meets this… well actually, no, but sort of and then….’ And which point Julie makes her special displeased face and repeats, ‘In one word.’ And the student goes, ‘Errrr…’ which is at least one word, but isn’t terribly descriptive of what the book is about.
But it’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. I still try to think about what the book I’m working on is about IN ONE WORD, and I generally manage to work it out. The Christmas Kisses series are all about Identity in one way or another. Sweet Nothing is about Romance, which might sound obvious because it’s a romantic-comedy, but I don’t just mean that the book is a romance; I mean that’s it actually about Romance. It’s about whether romance is the same as love, and whether you can have one without the other, and what romance actually is or should be. Midsummer Dreams is about Fear. It’s about fear of being alone, fear of letting people down, fear of taking a risk, fear of trying to be a better person, and the way that all of those fears can paralyze people and whether/how they can be overcome.
And I think that knowing that is really useful. It’s invaluable when you come to edit and revise a book. Knowing what your story’s theme is, gives you a point around which to focus your character arcs and plots and sub-plots. If you have a thread that feels disjointed from the whole you can ask yourself how it relates to that theme, and if it doesn’t, you might well have discovered the source of your problem.
But for me, a theme isn’t something that I consciously choose. It’s something that emerges from the process of writing the book. My current novel-in-progress has been my current novel-in-progress for about three years. There are reasons that it’s taken so long, and they are twofold. Firstly, the book isn’t a rom-com, and I’d just started writing it just before I signed my first contract with Choc Lit. Having signed a contract for a rom-com the onus was on me to write something else in the same genre, and so over the three years that this book has been on the go, I’ve also written another full-length novel and three novellas. That’s really bound to slow your progress a little bit.
The second reason the novel-in-progress has been in progress for so long was that I did a stupid stupid thing. I decided what it was about (in one word) before I started. And I got it wrong. Cue two and a half years of trying to bend a story to a theme that wasn’t right. When I eventually stepped back and realised, ‘Oh this isn’t about loss. It’s about parenthood’ I also realised that I now knew how to finish the book. I ssuddenly saw the point of a character that my heart was telling me to keep, but had nothing to do with the theme I thought was writing about. I saw how the sub-plots could be strengthened and linked back to my main character’s arc. The novel that’s been about two months off being finished for about a year and a half, might now genuinely be about two months off being finished.
And there you go – those are my thoughts on ‘theme.’ It’s definitely helpful to know what yours is, but I think it’s something you discover rather than something you consciously invent.
So here endeth the lesson. If you like me wittering about about How To Do Writing then you might be interested in the workshops I have coming up where I will be helping people sort out their novels-in-progress in all manner of interesting and creative ways.
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.
So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.
One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.
And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.
So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.
So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.