Posts Tagged beginners
‘My friend Lucy has always loved writing but recently she’s lost confidence. I’ve just bought her your book Nail Your Novel for her birthday, but I wondered if you’d have time to write something in it to give her a little encouragement? Yours, Diane
I had this lovely email a few weeks ago. I started to scribble a few lines and it turned into a bit of a campaign. So I asked Lucy and Diane for permission to reproduce it here
Diane tells me you’ve found yourself writing a novel. Somehow writing sneaks up on a lot of us like that. A bit of typing here, an hour or two musing about characters and a story, and before we know it we have a regular appointment with the page.
She says you’re not always finding it easy. Well, I hope my book will hold your hand some of the way, but here are a few other things I’d say.
All writers doubt themselves
Will we have enough ideas? Will we be able to make the story work? Will our book live up to what we want it to be? And what is that anyway?
Writing a novel is a big job. You have a heck of a lot to get right. Plot, character, pace, theme, structure, description, logistics, language. If it’s your first novel, you’ve also got to learn the craft too. If you take it at all seriously (and thank goodness you clearly do), you’re bound to have wobbly times. Most professional novelists take at least 18 months to get a novel right – and they know what they’re doing.
Take your time and listen to your instincts. Ignore the relatives and friends who are making impatient noises about when it will be ready. They have no idea how much work is involved.
Your path won’t be the same as anyone else’s
… but reading about others’ helps. Writing is a self-directed quest, guided by the books you read and the book you want to do justice to. Plus, of course, whatever’s going on in your life – and that’s under nobody’s control at all. Enjoy your random, rambling learning process because it’s what will help you define your style, your way.
Sometimes it helps to look back at what you wrote a year ago – or two – and compare it with how you’d do it now. Even, ask yourself what you did to make the difference – then you’ll see how your haphazard experiments are taking you somewhere.
Your style and voice
Have you got a style yet? Is your voice strong enough? This develops with mileage. There are no shortcuts, but until you’ve got it, play. Find a writer whose voice you adore and try ‘being’ them for a while, at least on the page. Most probably you won’t keep it up, but you might keep a new trick or a way of having fun with words. One day, you’ll find you’re not writing like somebody else. You’ll have found the way to sound like you.
Top up the creative well
Read – and read actively. Not just craft books. Read fiction. Observe how other people make stories.
Read lots in your chosen genre, but go beyond that too – the techniques or traditions of another could give you fresh ideas.
Every time you read something that affects you, ask yourself why. Try to read the good stuff, of course, but occasionally find something with appalling reviews and read it to see what makes the difference.
Do you have an English literature degree? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t – most of them don’t teach you to write, or to read like a writer.
Notice the structure as well as the words
Novels are like machines. Under all the words, there is another force at work; the order of the events and the way you show them. Notice that as much as the pretty language.
Rewriting is completely normal
It takes time to get a novel right. We all have to look at what we’ve written and ask ourselves if it works. We all have to go through a scene multiple times in order to make it zing. We all have files full of stuff we’ve reluctantly deleted from our books because a nagging voice told us they didn’t fit.
Many people don’t get an agent or publisher – or aren’t ready to go public – with their first novel. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. It also doesn’t mean it has to be wasted. Sometimes, after you have a few more novels under your belt, you can return with fresh eyes and finally do justice to your beloved characters and story.
Find others who are like you
All writers have blind spots, no matter how long we’ve been writing. Find yourself people whose opinions you can trust and who understand the kind of novel you want to write. This is unlikely to be friends and family. You need people who will give you critiques that will make your work stronger, but have the maturity not to shoehorn you into places you don’t fit. A critique group who writes genre such as paranormal or thrillers could set you on totally the wrong path if what you want to write is literary fiction (and vice versa).
Early on we need our trusted critics to help us grasp the basics. Much later, we still need them – perhaps because we’ve been pushing our limits and trying to do something ambitious.
Even the famous authors whose names are on the spines of your favourite books need guidance. The other day I heard an editor from Bloomsbury saying that several of her biggest-name authors had turned in manuscripts with significant problems. Sometimes it took several more drafts, with plenty of feedback, before the book came right.
I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to publish this as a post on my writing blog. Because, as I hope you can see from this, all writers are bumping along in the same enormous, haphazard sea. And whether experienced or emerging, we all need reassurance sometimes.
Thanks for the cliff-jump pic Mr Chris Johnson
What would you tell Lucy? Share in the comments!
Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.
Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.
You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.
Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.
The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.
There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.
Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.
So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.
And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?
You might as well, um, query with it.
Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.
If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.
‘But every agent has different taste…’
Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?
‘But it takes time…’
You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.
‘But everyone’s publishing…’
I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.
But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.
Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?
Build the relationship first
Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.
Thanks for the pic, Scottnj
While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.
So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments
I am in the fortunate position of having got (after plenty of rejections, redrafts etc) an agent for the first novel I’ve written. Which is great. But while the idea of my book is strong, the manuscript needed shaping. With my agent’s help, I’ve been redrafting for the last 15 months, but I’m finding it hard to differentiate between what is solid advice from someone who knows and what are tastes/suggestions that might take my novel away from what I’m trying to do. The suggested changes all ring true in terms of what will make the novel work/sell, it’s a much better book, and I know that what’s being said is mostly good advice, but I want to keep a tight hold on the heart of why I wrote the novel.
I presume this is something all writers have to go through once they open the door to the world, but I’m hoping you have some tips for gaining clarity and creating the best possible version of a story while not losing anything that’s truly integral.
I do sympathise. You’ve edited the novel for so long you probably can’t see where it should go. When someone else is contributing suggestions, you can feel like everything is whirling out of your control. Especially if that person might have different aims from you.
There are two aspects to tackle here.
1. Do you know what you want your novel to be?
You mention you’re worried about losing the heart of the book. Yes, absolutely. But it sounds to me as though you may not be entirely sure what that is.
Often if we’re writing a novel that’s unusual we feel there’s nothing else like it. But there are probably a lot of books like it in certain aspects. If you know what those are, it is far easier to have a meaningful conversation with an editor or agent – and it might also help you get clarity yourself. You can think about the novels that may have given you crucial inspiration. Also, look up Amazon tags for the subjects your novel covers – you can find surprising parallels this way
As well as this, work out which of your agent’s suggestions are raising your artistic hackles. This is similar to the situation I posted about a few weeks ago, where a writer felt her critique group was derailing her novel. The principles are the same – identify what is working for you and what isn’t.
2. Art versus market
Do you fear you’re being steered to write something that is more saleable but less artistically fulfilling?
First of all, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want. I know writers who welcome a lot of direction from their paymasters and are truly happy to fit in with what the market needs. Others decide they have different priorities.
For instance, my novel My Memories of a Future Life was wooed by the senior editor at one of the Big Six, who wanted it to be a murder mystery. Another publisher hinted they would take it if it was reshaped as a conventional thriller. Both urged me to rewrite because their marketing departments would back me after my success as a ghostwriter. But I felt the idea deserved more unusual treatment. My agent liked the novel my way too – and took it out just as it was. But although editors enjoyed reading it, their marketing departments found it too risky.
So agents are not always trying to shoehorn you into a commercial space. And no one can make you change your book or write what you don’t want to. (And if you do try to aim more at the market there are no guarantees your book will sell or be successful enough to lead to a career.)
What do you do?
You mention that your agent has been working with you for 15 months. That’s a long-haul commitment to helping you nurture the book and shape yourself as a writer. This is a good relationship so far, so make the best of it.
It may be that, as I said above, the agent is unsure what you want and is making stabs in the dark. Give them a chance by begin clear about your vision for the book. Then have a frank discussion about how they are guiding you and where they see you in the market.
Best of luck.
Agree? Disagree? How would you advise a writer in this situation? Share in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
My Memories of a Future Life: episodes 1 and 2 available now. Episode 3 will be out on 12th September. The print edition will be available at the end of September. Do you like podcasts? You can listen to or download, free, the first 4 chapters
Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.
It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.
Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.
Establish a method
As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people
All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.
Make your muse work smarter
When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.
Ask yourself these questions
Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?
How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?
How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?
What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?
Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?
Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?
Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?
Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?
What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?
What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?
Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!
I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)
Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.
How to pep yourself up
Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?
Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.
But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.
But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.
This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.
Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?
Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.
I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?