10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

Everyone wants to tell you how you should write your story, book, memoir or comic-book series. We’re all experts. Apparently. You will get a lot of well-meaning advice when you start out writing (like this post!) but you’re the one sitting at the desk grinding out the words. Here’s my take on the 10 worst tips for new writers that I’ve heard over the years. Some of them may be just the ticket to get you on your way. If so, great!

Write what you know

I don’t want to write what I know. I already know it. Well, sort of. One of the magical things about books and story is that you don’t have to be in your own everyday life. I understand the point of this advice – that by writing from our own world we can share a unique perspective and build an authentic experience for other people. For me, however, writing is quite a selfish pursuit and I want to write as much for myself as for anyone else. Which means I don’t always want to write ‘what I know’. I want to find out about something else. I think is a limiting perspective.

Plot

Aha! I hear you say. You said this was one of the best tips in your best tip list.

I did. I also said I didn’t like it that much. I get bored and lack the patience to plot out a story. I don’t stick to them anyway. My point is, plotting is fine. Not plotting is fine. The important thing is that the story makes it to the page through whatever path helps you get there.

Write the book you want to read

No! I’m nowhere near clever enough to write the book I want to read. That’s for actual artists. The ones I envy. More to the point, I don’t know what I want to read until I find it. I didn’t know I would enjoy a book about a sad woman with a social media addiction until I read Kate Jane Unsworth’s Adults. Why did I pick it? Because I liked the cover and the title – same as everyone else.

I prefer to write the story that’s tickling my imagination. If my brain is doing me the courtesy of plopping a story on my lap, who am I to say: Oh, sorry. I really fancy reading a space-opera romance right now, so your spy thriller will have to wait while I write the book I want to read propped up in bed.

I might be over-playing this a little, but I think this kind of overthinking is dangerous.

Build character profiles/do a character interview

For me (and this may be a trick that works for you), this seems forced. I end up with a stack of profiles I have filled in myself and overlay with a few unimaginative ‘quirks’ to make them seem interesting. Characters must have a life of their own, a voice of their own and (for me) be allowed to develop organically.

Write at the same time every day/build a routine

This is another one that makes it on to most lists. It isn’t poor advice, but it can go badly for you if you invest too much in it. It’s that same mentality as when you’re on a diet and you fall off the wagon and say, ‘stuff it, I’ll eat all the biscuits then’. The feeling that you have missed your quota, or ‘failed’ to turn up at the desk today can have a negative feedback effect. Create a routine (I like to write first thing in the morning) but don’t get stressed if you don’t make it every day. Life happens and the work will be there tomorrow – just make sure you get back to it.

Know your audience

Again, this isn’t necessarily terrible advice, it just depends on why and what you’re writing. If you’re a romance author contracted to Harlequin, then yeah, you need to know your audience. For most of us, trying to write a book you think other people will want is impossible. Write your story. Make it the best it can be and someone will love it.

Workshop it/join a writers group

You may thrive on this. I love hearing about other people’s work. I love the buzz of seeing someone else’s creative spark and knowing they have a great story on their hands. Equally, there is nothing worse that putting your precious, fragile idea out there before it’s fully formed and having it rejected. Nothing kills a story idea quicker than early criticism.

So, join a group, they have a lot to offer but think about the critique you give. Remember, it isn’t your story and other people don’t have to write it your way.

Be imaginative

What? Really? Silly me, I’d planned an entire book with the sole intention of being as drab as possible. This one doesn’t deserve any further explanation.

Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut. This is one that makes it into every list of tips for new writers. It’s true that allowing a story to unfold before the reader rather than telling them what is happening provides a more pleasurable and engaging experience. But ‘show, don’t tell’ has its limitations. It can lead to tedious over-description or worse, a confused reader who’s missing the information they need to reach their own conclusion. As a general rule, ‘show, don’t tell’ is important, but taken to it to its extreme and you will ruin your story.

Be unique

Good luck with that one. Trying to make your story unique is a sure-fire way to strangle it to death. That doesn’t mean you be deliberately derivative, use cliché or don’t strive for a unique perspective, but story structures repeat for a reason. We return to the same genre for a reason. We like familiarity as much as we like the unexpected. Just the act of you writing the story will make it unique, you don’t need to try. The same story told by five different people will end up as five different stories. We love authors because of their voice, their small insights, their worldview. Most of the time, it’s not because they have created something completely unique.

So, there you have it. Some wonderfully unhelpful tips on writing. Maybe 10 worst tips for new writers is a tad misleading because these may be the tips that you needed to get started. But that’s the thing; we’re all different and there is no set of rules for how you should create. 

If you want some useful tips, here are a few I can recommend:

The mystery of the cleaning lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience by Sue Woolf

On writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Writing excuses (Podcast)

There are so many more but you’ll develop your preferences as you refine your writing style and process.

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10 writing tips for new authors

10 writing tips for new authors

10 Writing Tips for New Writers

The internet abounds with writing tips for new writers and everyone has a take on how you “should” write your book. Always plot. Never plot. Write at the same time everyday. Don’t wait for inspiration. Grind it out. There are thousands of them. In this post, I’ve narrowed down my favourite writing tips for new authors. But, take them with a pinch of salt because your process may be different.

My biggest tip? Don’t let other people’s ideas of how you should write get in the way of your writing. Build your process to suit the way you like to work. However, if (like me) you like to dive into other people’s processess or need a gentle nudge, read on.

The first draft is where you tell yourself the story; the second is where you tell it to other people

Thanks Neil Gaiman.

If you’re struggling through your first draft, this tip will change your life. When you approach your writing with this mindset, it becomes easy to reconcile the bumps, inconsistencies, and banality of those first efforts. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that your character’s name changes halfway through, or a new antagonist seizes the reigns at 50,000 words. It’s your story, run with it.

The second draft is where it’s at for actually crafting your work. And the third. And the fourth…

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” — Richard Bach

This is a fundamental truth of writing (and everything else). New writers are rarely told that writing, more than anything else, is an exercise in dogged determination. It’s a willingness to fix what you hadn’t seen as broken and change what you thought was perfect.

Your first draft isn’t ready to send out to a publisher, and it’s likely your second won’t be either. And while it’s tempting to send your shiny new story out into the world, you’ll be grateful you persevered through a round or two (or three) more of edits.

Don’t edit while you write

Don’t. You’ll go round and round in circles making a few pages perfect that you’ll end up cutting out later. See tip #1.
Over time, you’ll find that the quality of your early drafts will improve. You’ll subconsciously edit your work as you go and make fewer obvious mistakes. Let this kind of self-editing develop naturally.

Plot your story

This is a surprise addition to the list because I’m a pantser from way back. As a new writer, I never plotted. I hate plotting. It gets in the way of writing. Whenever I start, I get excited about the story and can’t resist diving into the writing way before I’ve worked out any of the details that a traditional plotter would be across. However, lately I’ve found that pants/plot hybrid works well for me (you might be different). I don’t need to delay gratification for too long, but I don’t stumble around blind for months on end either.

Life is about compromise, right?

I’ve also done a few time-based, subject-restricted writing competitions and found plotting invaluable when there’s a tight deadline, a word count limit, and a set of parameters that have to be met.

Kill Your Darlings

You’ll hear this piece of advice from every writer you’ve ever met and as a new writer it can be a near impossible feat.

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”—William Faulkner

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”—Stephen King.

Your darlings are those beautiful bits of prose that came to you in a moment of inspiration and made you feel special. They flow and flutter, dip and dive across the page in a flurry of whimsy and playfulness. Kill them. Do it. They’re dragging you down. Lock them away like Bertha Rochester if you must, but they’ll burn your house down if you don’t (oh wait… she did that anyway didn’t she?). See advice #2.

Be a reader; you can’t write in a vacuum

One of the best writing tip for new writers isn’t to write at all, but read. Reading other people’s work is the best way to educate yourself about writing. You know a well-written book when you see one, the next trick is to figure out how they did it. This means that you need to read as a writer. Look at language, structure, voice, plotting, setting, characterisation—all the ‘ations’. Many new writers worry that their work will be derivative or that they need to ‘be original’. Your words are always original and every piece of work is derivative, so put that fear aside and get reading.
And, who doesn’t enjoy reading?

Never trust anyone who does not bring a book with them. Quote by Lemony Snickett

Aim for rejection

This may seem an odd tip for successful writers because who wants to expereince that sinking, disappointing feeling over and over? But aiming for rejections means you’re writing. The more the better. After all, a rejection is a ‘not here right now’ response rather than a ‘this is no good’ response.

Write

You can’t fix it if you haven’t written it, and like anything, writing takes practice. Not only does your writing improve the more you do (who’d have thought?), but you build a body of work that shows you what kind of writer you are. Plus, publishers like writers who have a publication history (a real Catch-22, thanks Joseph).

This tip is also a variation on the ‘don’t edit while you write,’ and ‘the first draft is where you tell yourself the story’ tips above.

Hang out with other writers

Seriously, they’re the only ones that get it. That doesn’t mean you have to join a writing group if that’s not your thing, but just being able to talk to someone who understands the ups and downs is incredibly helpful.

Use less words

This is one of those tips for new writers that isn’t true for everyone. Some people love flowery, poetic language. I prefer simple, straight-forward language with details expressed in as few words as possible. This is as much a reflection of personality and preferences than a steadfast rule. However, as a reader, I often skim the sections of description and jump to the action and dialogue. I know I’ve found a gem when I gush at the beauty of a simple sentence that still portrays the complexity of place and emotion.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, these tips will help you get stuck into your writing. Take out of them what works for you and throw away anything that doesn’t. Writing is a mix of black magic, stubbornness and luck, and you never know what tip or trick will be the one that gets you through your next piece of work.

Looking for more inspiration?

The internet is a veritable rabbit-hole of ‘how to’s’ and ‘rules’, and ‘tips’ for new writers. Here are a few I think are useful.
Louise Allan’s ‘How to write a book’ series.

The Guardian’s ‘Ten Rules for Writing Fiction‘.

The Write Life is a great general resource.

Writers’ HQ have heaps of resources to support your writing journey.

And if you want a laugh, Writers Write post loads of memes and charts that capture the enigmatic world of words.

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Preptober Declaration: NaNoWriMo 2020

Preptober Declaration: NaNoWriMo 2020

For the last four years in a row, October rolls around and I make a commitment to undertake NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a worldwide phenomenon where writers pledge to write 50,000 new words during the month of November. It’s a kick starter for your novel. If you hit 50,000 words, you ‘win’ and there are prizes like discount writing software. Sounds amazing, right?

Many published books have started out as a NaNoWriMo project.

NaNoWriMo is a not-for-profit group that supports writers through online writing prompts, writing sprints on twitter, in-person writing sessions all over the world. You just sign and suddenly people in your area are willing to hang out with you while you write that book you’ve been meaning to write for the past ten years (I know you have one in you). They also provide a wealth of support material leading into November (Preptober) like plot development sessions, life-writing workshops, stickers, calendars and merchandise you can purchase to spur you on.

Sign up for you own NaNoWriMo adventure on their website.

So why have I failed NaNoWriMo for the past four years?

This is the thing about writing. It’s hard. It takes time, discipline and mental energy. Gamifying the writing process is one of the most tired and true methods of making progress. All love to see that word count go up, that progress bar fill and change colours. NaNoWriMo takes it to the next level and best of all you aren’t alone (unless you want to be).

My problem has been that my timing has been out for each year I’ve signed up. For the first couple of times I tried, I was still studying and had university deadlines and theoretical content to produce. I simply didn’t have the energy left to find another 1,666.67 words per day of new material. Then I didn’t take it seriously, I flopped about and gave up after a week. Then I was editing a novel. I had a project in mind but I couldn’t get into the headspace of a completely new and vastly different piece of work while I was in the final push to get my book to publication.

The all sound like great excuses, right? They were. I know that if I’d wanted it enough, I would have found a way.

This is year I am determined that my NaNoWriMo attempt will be a success. I have prepped hard. I have a fully fledged story idea. I have a mind-maps and index cards and a goddammed spreadsheet. That’s right. Excel and I have a hate-hate relationship and yet I bent that sucker to my will and whipped up character sheets, plot outlines, setting maps, character arcs and timelines. I have donned my writing geek mantle and am ready for the intense burst of creativity that November is offering. I am going to win.

Of course, you can write a novel without NaNoWriMo. But writing a novel is a commitment to years of work, even for a fast writer. Drafting, redrafting, editing, submitting, editing, editing, editing. This all takes time. Things like writing groups, writing courses and NaNoWriMo segment the process into palatable junks. They make you connected to a community and validate work that no one will see for a long time.

The business of being a writer is solitary and mostly about determination and stamina. NaNoWriMo is a turbo boost to push you through to the end of the year and give you a chunk of work to show for it. This year, I particular, it feels more important than ever to salvage some productivity. To be able to say, this is how I got through 2020.

Best of luck to my fellow NaNoWriMoers. Hopefully we can all report success as we sail into December.

All the best, 

Suzy

I have started a Pinterest page for my NaNoWriMo project, so if you are at all interested you can link through to it here.

Otherwise I will be updating my WIP page on my website as well.

 

Anatomy of a Novel Part II – When Characters Won’t Shut Up

Anatomy of a Novel Part II – When Characters Won’t Shut Up

In my last post, I talked about how the initial spark of The Place Between came to be. You might remember that it developed from a snippet of overheard conversation at Perth airport. A woman in her sixties was complaining that her daughter never made her pudding when they went over to her house for dinner.

This isn’t much to work with. Let’s be honest, it isn’t much of anything. People complain about their family all the time. But it was a conversation I couldn’t get out of my head. It played out with fercoity and in much greater detail in my thoughts as my imagination pitted mother against daughter. Because to me, (and therefore to the two fictional characters who were born from the phrase ‘she never even makes us pudding’) this glimpse into someone else’s life created an instant snapshot of who these people were. I could ‘see’ Sarah and Beryl. Worse, I could ‘hear’ them.

When I write, I often begin with dialogue as the scaffold for the story. This is because more than story, setting or theme, characters are the first thing I imagine when I’m writing something new.  Character voices start to whisper to me. Their way of speaking and—dare I admit it—their complaints. Perhaps that’s why this conversation sang to me in a way that someone whinging over something so trivial shouldn’t.

I lay awake at night, listening to Sarah and Beryl duke it out over all the things they didn’t like about each other. All the ways they had disappointed each other.

The first rounds of drafting were a bitter battle between mother and daughter. Early feedback went along the lines of “Why is Sarah so mean?” and “Why is Beryl such b#$%h?” Of course, that was only part of the story.  Almost as if these two women (and they are real people to me) had to get it all out on the page before they would let me ease it back shape into a more pleasing, whole and less antagonistic version of events.

Their voices eventually quietened down, but they weren’t completely gone. Even now.

Sarah and Beryl’s internal dialogue and conversation helped me build a framework for their story as I went about the process of trying to understand why these women felt the way they did about each other. How had their internalised constructions of identity—for themselves and for each other—shaped their relationship? What would happen if those expectations were voiced, explicit and quantifiable? My characters whined… but why? What had unsettled them, what was really at the heart of their dissatisfaction with each other because it just couldn’t be as simply as a missing dessert.

For Sarah and Beryl, each had their own version of who the other should be. But there is no one, no right or true identity. Both were doomed to fail in the other’s eyes.

Ten years is a long time to have a running conversation between two invented characters in your head. Hopefully, the next set of characters won’t be such long-term tenants.

Anatomy of a Novel: Part I – The Idea

Anatomy of a Novel: Part I – The Idea

Part I: The Idea

Over the coming series of posts, I’d like to take you thought the stages of how I wrote The Place Between. What was involved, what it takes to write a book and the kinds of decisions that need to be made along the way.

We all have sat watching a movie or reading a book and thought: ‘Why did they do that?’ or ‘Why didn’t they do this?’ If you are anything like me these niggling thoughts are rapidly followed by the deadly and all too easy: ‘I would have done it this way’ or ‘I could write that in my sleep.’

As a person who has sat and criticised the work of others for perhaps not thinking through their plot points or creating work that is derivative, it is interesting to reflect on the process from the other side.

I want to begin with this. Writing a book isn’t easy. It’s not (for the vast majority at least) a matter of coming up with an idea and then writing it. Well it is. But let’s say, its’s not a straight forward matter of coming up with an idea and writing it. Have you every seen the swamp in The Never Ending Story? You know, the one where the horse dies? It’s like that. You enter into it imaging a great adventure and find yourself stuck in a sucking pit of mud that you have to get out of (because not finishing isn’t an option) but it’s claggy and sticky and could overwhelm you at any minute. At least it was for me.

Over the next set of posts, I’m going to take you through MY process for writing THIS book, rather than a ‘how to’ for writing in general.  I don’t quite know yet if this is my process for writing all books but I have an inkling that the general vibe will be the same, with each book having its own specific trajectory.

I am going to try and be as linear as I can as I walk you through from the spark of an idea, to the moment I held the physical book in my hands. Bear with me. There was a twelve-year gap between those two things and I may get a little muddled along the way.

I want to share with you some of the changes and the sacrifices (writing wise) I’ve made to get to the end. And also, to give you an insight into ‘Why I did that’ as best I can. I will show you some small sections of early drafts and some sections of late drafts that were changed right at the end of the process so you can see that the idea was the same but the execution and the structure changed significantly.

I might even bore you (suckers) with some snippets from my thesis that helps quantify and discuss what I was trying to achieve in writing this book.

I committed to doing a PhD in creative writing before I had an idea for the book that would one day form the creative practice element of my thesis. I spent the first few months (while pregnant) searching for an idea. I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike, or toying with many different projects to see which one settled. I had to find a story and once I’d find it, ideally, I had to stick with it.

I know without a doubt that if I hadn’t had the pressure of deadlines and milestones at University this book would not exist.

The Idea

The idea for The Place Between began as a small kernel centred around character. Specifically, the protagonist, Sarah and her mother Beryl. It grew from a single conversation overheard at Perth airport between a couple in their sixties. The woman (who later became Beryl) was complaining to her husband (who became Bruce) that their daughter (who became Sarah) never made them pudding when they went to visit.

That’s it.

That’s the entire basis of The Place Between.

This is something I think we all do. We all hear conversations or see a scene play out around us and our minds explain and contextualise what we are seeing through the lens of our own experiences and viewpoints.

In my next post I will talk about how this single snippet of daily life grew from an observed snapshot of strangers to become a set of constantly nattering menaces in my head for the next ten years.

Checking In

Checking In

I can’t write. At least not anything serious. I keep prodding and pressing at a piece of fiction that has been brewing in my head for that past six months and in impenetrable. Last week I took a day out from the family and sat down with a notebook to work out what I can write.

I did an old-fashioned brainstorm, listing the pros and cons of each project and where my head was at with them.

Then I realised it doesn’t actually matter whether I am writing (for one), but also it doesn’t actually matter what I’m writing. I fixed on an old, old idea that I came up with when the kids were little and rejuvenated it.

Now I can think of little else. I was in the shower two days ago (I do wash every day, never fear) and the ideas were pouring out (sorry).

Amidst the worry and constant scrolling through the news, I had found something light-hearted, fun and energising. It didn’t feel like work. I felt like I was cheating somehow as around me kids trudge through their school work and my husband dashes from video meeting to online seminar.

How lucky I am.

To be allowed to sit at a desk and be silly. To scribble joke cartoons in a notebook. To make up words, make up new physical laws and everyone else thinks I’m working.

Writing isn’t always this way. A great deal of the time you tear your hair out trying to find the right word, or make sure that some insignificant detail is factually correct because readers hate it when you get the name of their favourite childhood chocolate bar incorrect (I know this because I once read a very good book and the only thing I can remember about it is that they either didn’t know or allowed autocorrect to get the name Freddo the Frog wrong—blasphemy).

Are there things in your job that make you feel like you are cheating somehow? That it’s too fun or too satisfying to be part of work? I hope so. I hope your Spotify list is full of uplifting tunes and the mailman is leaving exciting parcels on your doorstep.

I’m keeping this short today because we are all tired, we are all busy and we are all fed up.

I hope you are okay. I hope you are finding small gleeful moments in your day.