Read our overview and then try some of the great links at the bottom of this page.
Being a writer means that you should always live with your eyes open wide to all the tiny details around you.
We’d love to be able to tell you that there are hard and fast rules for writing and that if you abide by them you’ll get published. Unfortunately, that’s not the case but we aim to give you the best possible opportunity of preparing your manuscript for publication.
If you’re just starting out there are some rules which you should know about, a very few simple things that will help you on your way.
Even experienced authors need to be reminded of The Rules when beginning a new work. Have you ever bought a second book by an author you admire and found it disappointing? If so, the writer probably needed to pause for a moment to ponder rules like these.
Discipline is the key to writing successfully. If you already have a day job -and most writers do – when they first start out – try to find a regular amount of time every day to work on your book. Think of the book as a pilot-light that you have to keep alight. Even half an hour will do. This will keep the book alive in your mind. Otherwise, if you leave it for several days, you will spend the valuable time you have set aside trying to coax the book back to life. Even if you only write a sentence or two a day, the book will burn away in your mind like a candle.
One Step At A Time
Writing a novel of, say, 80,000 words is an enormous task. However, the way to think about it is one step at a time. You might have a hazy idea of what you want to write about but you aren’t too clear; don’t worry. Go out and buy a notebook, sit down at your desk and start writing. A few sentences will do, just to get you going, like limbering up exercises at the gym. Remember the Nike slogan ‘Just Do It’? It’s a very good one for writers. Kingsley Amis famously said: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair.’ So off you go.
Finding Your Niche
‘Write about what you know.’ How often have you read that one? It is true, but like all rules it exists to be broken. Don’t be afraid of subjects you don’t know much about but are interested in. Do research. Use libraries, read books, scour the newspapers. There are stories everywhere. Something will come to your attention, something that interests you, a subject you may well become an expert in. “Writing is my excuse”, wrote Martha Gellhorn, “to go and find out about things.” Admittedly, she was a journalist, but it’s a good point. However, the most important thing to do at this stage is to read. If you’re writing a novel you have to read novels. If you like the work of one particular novelist, go through the book with a marker pen and try to work out how the author has done it. The American novelist Joan Didion told a story about her husband, the novelist and writer John Gregory Dunne, spending the whole of one summer in Hollywood standing up in the swimming pool reading Sophie’s Choice over and over again in order to see how William Styron had done it. John Gregory Dunne was already famous by this point, but he knew how to do his homework and wasn’t too grand to admit it.
Why Write A Novel?
Someone said of the piano that it was a hundred instruments rolled into one. Well, you could say the novel is the piano of the book world. Novels can contain all kinds of different writing: humour, poetry, passages of great descriptive beauty, emotional truth and all the drama and conflict that being human entails. In the film ‘Shadowlands’ C.S. Lewis says to a student that ‘you read to know you are not alone.’ A good novel is a lesson in human nature from which we can learn something, something that changes us.
Write as often as possible, not with the idea at once of getting into print, but as if you were learning an instrument.
Inspiration – Or Waiting For The Muse
If you write something every day, however little, read the newspapers for stories and read novels as a writer might – in order to see how they are constructed – inspiration will come to you because you’re doing all the right things to encourage it to do so. By the time you get to your desk or the kitchen table or wherever it is you have a corner, your muse will already be in action, ready to whisper in your ear. Picasso said: ‘Inspiration comes, but it has to find you working.’
Setting Aside Time To Write
There will always be something pressing to do in the house particularly, dare I say it, if you’re a woman. This is where being a deliberate slattern comes in. The garden will always need tidying, the dishwasher emptying and the thousand and one tasks of everyday life will be clamouring for attention as you climb the stairs to your office/bedroom or wherever it is you write. Ignore them. They can wait. Officially, because it’s not urgent, writing is something that can wait. Wrong. If you want to write you have to regard it as an urgent life task, something that you think about when you consider what you want to achieve in your life.
So forget the garden, the dishwasher, the dog hair on the stairs – they’ll all still be there next week and the one after – and you’ll find your novel starting to put out shoots, because you’ve sorted out your priorities.
The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.
Nuts And Bolts
The plot is the body of your story, the action that brings the characters to life. All plots are based on problems faced by the protagonist. He – or she – wants something that is difficult to obtain and his struggles and the successes and failures he encounters, compose the story. The American screenwriting guru Syd Field talks about what he refers to as ‘plot points’, events that ‘spin the action around’ and send it off in an entirely new direction, a direction from which there is no return. He advises three or so per script and although it might sound rather an arbitrary way of looking at the subject, you would do well to follow his advice. Have a ‘plot point’ one quarter, one half and three-quarters of the way through your book. You don’t have to stick to models but they help as ‘aide-memoires’.
The theme of the book is not the same as the plot. The theme is the subject of the novel – love, jealousy, revenge, betrayal and so forth – and can usually be expressed succinctly – for example War and Peace, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion.
Conflict is the grit, the bit that produces the pearl. Conflict is what makes things happen. In a thriller the conflict is usually external, but in another kind of novel it could be the inner difficulties of the protagonist that make for conflict; a change of heart, say. Without conflict of either kind you will not have a novel.
Point Of View
There are three basic types of narrative viewpoint:-
New writers sometimes find it easier to get started by writing in the first person because it is how one thinks anyway. There are drawbacks, however. Writing fiction is the act of investing characters with life, of holding them away from yourself, and for newcomers the ‘I’ voice may be uncomfortably close to the person you are. It also limits the point of view to what the narrator can see or infer himself unless he’s discovered a trunk of letters or some other device that lets him into the minds of others.
This point of view will make you focus on the world through the eyes of the character you’re writing about. The advantages are that you can use several characters’ viewpoints, thereby creating variety and tension.
Third Person Omniscient
This is the narrator as God, moving between his characters and tweaking their strings as puppet master. It was very popular in nineteenth century novels but is probably best left there when you’re first starting out. Later on, when you’re more accomplished, you can have fun playing around with this kind of point of view.
Characters & Character Development
There are various ways of developing your characters so that they rise from the page and develop into three dimensional characters as opposed to line drawings or cardboard cut-outs, but the best one I’ve ever discovered is to interview them. Make a list of questions you want to ask them about their personal lives, background and hopes for the future . Talk to them about their relationships, their parents, people who have influenced them and their beliefs. When you ask a character a question and he or she responds with, say, ‘I was always a bit scared of my father because….’ the ‘I’ in the answer removes you as the author from the equation. The characters begin to be ‘real’ people. This is one of the inexplicable alchemies of writing fiction.
However, during the interview (I usually do one character a week) you will find out about their ‘back story’, what has happened to them to date. Write a list of things you need to know such as physical description (age, hair colour, eyes, height, weight, emotional traits, physical characteristics and peculiarities). Then you can move onto background. This might be where were they born, who were their parents, how many siblings they have, their childhood relationships, their education and the strengths and weaknesses that have developed from family relationships. Once you know all this about your characters, you’ll be able to know with conviction what motivates them, for example love, greed, fear or revenge. By this time you will have strong feelings about them and they will take up residence in your mind. The substance of your novel will come from immersing your readers in your characters’ worlds. If the reader is involved, he will be hooked on the story.
Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.
To state the obvious, dialogue is conversation in written form that progresses the novel. If you find dialogue difficult to write, try saying it aloud. Does it sound clumsy or cumbersome or just plain ridiculous? If it does, don’t worry. You’re trying too hard. Take the rest of the day off and go out to a café or a restaurant or just hang around on public transport. Listen to how people talk to one another. When you’re listening to other people you realise that dialogue doesn’t come in chunks but in asides, jokes, half-formed thoughts, a kind of short-hand depending on whether you’re listening to lovers or friends or two old ladies discussing their ailments. People jump from one subject to another or don’t finish their sentences or sneeze. Some of it is half-conscious. It’s hardly ever perfectly formed. Write down the fragments you hear or discreetly record them. The more you really listen the better you’ll get.
When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.
Planning Your Novel – Creating The Storyline
Believe it or not, there is a pattern to this. Most successful novels share it in one form or another. It goes like this:
- You introduce your hero or heroine and he or she almost immediately gets into terrible trouble.
- An attempt is made to solve the problem which only makes it worse.
- The hero continues to try and solve his predicament but complications arise, each worse than the one before.
- One final, frightful and unthinkably ghastly complication occurs and all seems lost. Usually, the troubles the hero suffers from stem from his own bad judgment and mistakes he has made.
- Finally, the hero himself is changed by all he has suffered. He learns something crucial about himself and the world around him. Then he realises what he has to do to resolve his problems.
- The hero decides to sort out the situation and succeeds or fails. Usually, he succeeds and the book has a happy ending (preferred by readers).
I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter
There are some great sites on the web that also provide good, free advice for writers. One we like best is by Kate Mosse, the best-selling author of Labyrinth. Go to Kate’s advice page
Expert advice from some of our best writers in this article from The Guardian Ten rules for writing fiction
Also see Turkey City Lexicon This lexicon distills a huge amount of thinking about writing.