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.
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.
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.
Ahoy dear blog readers and welcome. I say welcome. What I actually mean this week is more along the lines of ‘The key’s under the mat. Let yourself in,’ because despite appearances to the contrary I am not here. I am actually writing this three days ago, because this week (by which I mean the week you are currently really in as you read this, which from my time-travelling blogger point of view is actually next week) I am officially a hermit.
There are reasons for the hermitage, and happily they don’t involve the concealment of any sort of embarrassing facial growth. Indeed, if I were possessed of a facial growth I would probably be posting pictures of it and asking for your best internet-informed medical opinions on how to proceed. Actually going to the doctor is so terribly time-consuming don’t you find? Anyway, the hermitage is for reasons of writerlyness. Not reasons that involve a deep yearning in my soul to retreat into a quiet and reflective artistic space and commune with my muse. That would not be practical. That last time I saw my muse he was sitting on the kitchen floor weeping and eating Philadelphia with his finger directly from the tub. He’s a terrible muse. I’m thinking of returning him to the seller – that is, I suppose, just what you get for buying a secondhand muse on ebay.
Anyway, the writerly hermitage is being undertaken for reasons of simple pressing need to just get the next book written already. There is a point in the gestation of most books where the writer decides the idea is awful, the writing completed so far is unmitigatedly terrible, the plot is unbelievable, and there is no imaginable way to fix these problems. Generally speaking, at this point, the writer will also believe that this is absolutely the first time that they’ve felt like this, and that it is definitely not ‘just a phase.’ I am in that ‘phase’ (well I say phase, it’s really really not a phase this time…) at the moment.
When I talk to other writers who are in that phase (because, obviously, when it happens to other people it is just a phase), I tell them, quite bossily, to stop being a moaning-minny and jolly well buck up and carry on writing. This is harsh but entirely good advice. I know it’s good advice because it’s been given to me by other much wiser and cleverer writers. And this week (also known from my current point of view as next week) is when I put that into practice. I’ve created myself a little writing retreat at home. Engineer Boy has been banished.* Groceries have been pre-ordered. All the good telly has been set to record. This blog post was written some time in the past. I have absolutely no excuse not to get my bum on my chair, my fingers on my keyboard and bang out some words. My target is 25,000 words in 5 days, which is ambitious but doable. That will get me to well over 60,000 words of novel which is probably about two-thirds of the whole. Hopefully that will be enough to get me past this hump and onto the home straight. Wish me luck.
* Not actually banished. Just on a course to learn to be a Better Engineer Boy.
Well, you can wait for months for a writing-related blog post around here, and then two come along at once. So after getting all researchy for my novel in progress last week (thanks to everyone who offered their own memories of being a 1960s teenager in the comments), today I’m thinking about writing shorter stuff.
I used, way back in the mists of time when I was fresh-faced young creative writing student, to write quite a lot of shorter pieces. I dabbled with both poetry and short stories, with fairly limited success. When I decided, back in 2009, that I wanted to Do Novels, I pretty much stopped writing short things. More recently I’ve started again, mainly with short stories – I am so definitely not a poet – and I’m trying to work out the best approach.
There are gazillions of places that writers can submit or showcase short stories and poetry. There are big competitions, little competitions, print magazines (although sections of that market are shrinking rapidly), e-zines, writing blogs and spoken word events. So what’s the best line of attack? Should one just write stuff that you think is good and interesting and then look for a outlet for the piece? Or is it best to target specific competitions or publications?
One story that I did have success with, winning a lovely shiny little cup, was written specifically for that competition, but that was a competition with a specified theme. Others are more open, so perhaps have less requirement for the writer to write something specifically for that competition.
Another big potential outlet for short pieces of writing is Spoken Word events. These seem to have got more and more popular over the last couple of years, to the point where I, at least, can barely leave the house without someone shouting their poetic offering at me. I find spoken word events tricky though. For me, there’s a big difference between a piece of writing that works well for an individual reading it off the page, and a piece that works as a verbal performance.
Attending Spoken Word evenings I’ve sat through plenty of pieces that might have been just fine to read quietly to oneself, but which all but died on their author’s poor tired feet in performance. So, for me, Spoken Word events are something that, if I choose to do them, I have to write something particular for.
So, how best to target one’s writing resources? Is it better to keep one’s eyes on a single goal – for me that would be novel writing – and exclusively focus on that? Or is it better to pick out and target specific short story competitions to build experience and profile (and if you’re lucky get some prize money)? Or should writing be a purely creative endeavour where we write what we love and look for somewhere to submit/publish it later? What do you think world?