Writing my first novel - My top ten writing tips
Sorry, I know it’s been ages but this book and prepping a film has kept me busy, busy, busy!
So I have written and re-written the first tome of ‘Diamonds in the Sky’ and it has now gone to the proof reader before publishing (The first book still doesn’t have a subtitle at present – it was originally sub titled ‘Arrival’ as far back as 2015, I bet you can guess why that title got dropped!) For my next blog I thought it might be useful to do my top ten writing tips that I have learned during this challenging and arduous process. This is by no means a definitive list nor is it in any particular order of importance though I’ll have a vague stab at trying to keep them in a sequence that makes the most sense. Some of these were things I learnt during the process of putting this story to the page while others I found were just as relevant to writing a book as they have been for me when writing a screen or stage play. So with no further ado or as my good friend from Australia Matthew Holmes would say ‘Look, there’s a flock of Emu’s!’ (You had to see the video) let’s get to it – here’s my top ten tips for writing your first novel.
(This picture taken of me after watching my good friend David Schaal in the excellent play 'A Steady Rain' by Keith Huff - its not on my list but I have always found one of my key inspirations to write comes from watching or reading great work of other writers)
Always write your strongest idea first – The strongest idea in your novel isn’t always necessarily your opening page or even your opening chapter. It could even be your ending. Regardless of where it falls, the clearer it is in your mind the easier it is going to be for you to formulate on the page. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me they have started with page one and they stall there and then. Ideas for stories do not always start at the beginning. Sometimes you will get back there later. Once you get going with one idea you will find the others come thick in and fast.
Keep a character/universe bible of your work. You’ll hear the phrase ‘world building’ used by novelists who have accomplished far greater works than I, what I call ‘a character bible’ could easily be a sub heading of that. I made extensive notes for each character in my book as I wrote. I also kept a list of everything I had told the reader about our alien friends in the novel, the first being a world map of where all the ships had landed. For those creating entire fantasy worlds from the beginning your notes will probably need to be far more extensive. Even though my novel series is set in a contemporary earth setting I knew my story was going to be packed full of a wide range of culturally diverse characters. For a start Diamonds has narrative threads from seven different perspectives, of seven different characters from all over the world. Each of these characters would be interacting with several supporting characters some of whom would be vital to the various intertwining plots which form the core of the overall story. So it was important from the beginning to keep a detailed list of the major and minor supporting characters in each of the seven main protagonist’s story line and what I had told the reader about them. For example their age, their habits and any other details I had divulged over the course of the text. Each of these notes would not only build a gradual picture of the character but would serve as a frame of reference throughout the writing process, enabling me to maintain a sense of continuity throughout the story thus ensuring I didn’t contradict myself later on in the text. Some screen writers refer to these detailed break downs as character sheets. It doesn’t matter what you call it really but keep a record of extensive notes about each character after every chapter, especially if as in my book, there is a large number of supporting and minor characters who recur from chapter to chapter. For a book series I would suggest this is even more important than for a standalone novel. I’m going to do another blog about characters in the future.
Set achievable goals – Depending on what other commitments you have in your life you might be able to write 4 pages a day or only 4 pages a week. The bottom line is if you’re serious about writing your novel then you’re going to have to give it the biggest commitment you can. Having decided what that is, set an achievable goal and stick to it. At the beginning of the book I was struggling so I kept my goals small so that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I decided upon 4 pages per day but once I got in the flow of the book I did an average of 8 to 10, eventually peaking at 17 on really good days. (I think on one really good day I did 24 and had a much deserved bottle of Chenin Blanc afterwards) The important thing is I made sure my goals were within my own limits. Even if you only write a single page a day that means at the end of a year you will probably have a first draft (Depending on the size of your book of course!)
Always take a day off at least once per week – Yes, make sure you do that and if you have a partner, make sure you spend it with them.
Don’t constantly re-write at the beginning, complete the first draft, then begin the re-writing process. Many writers often complain they don’t complete their first novel because they get bogged down in making the first few chapters just perfect. I nearly fell into this trap myself. I offered to send out the first three chapters to various friends for feedback as soon as they were complete and found for a while I just kept re-writing those. Soon I realised it was better in the first instance to keep going until I got to the end. Why? Well, because it’s easier to re-write a novel that’s been finished that to continually re-write part of one you haven’t even completed yet. Loss of momentum is something you want to avoid at all costs, so when you're on a roll just keep going! Just accept that your first pass of your story is not going to be your best and this is simply part of the organic process of writing a novel. Reaching the end of the first draft even if it needs a great deal of work still is a tremendous achievement, give yourself a break for a few days, even a week if you can and then get back to it. You’ll do many drafts after that but getting to the end of the first one is always the biggest stumbling block for many.
Ask yourself how you can cut your story down by 20%, do it, then having done so do it again. This is basically a form of self-editing, you’ll hate it but trust me, it is well worth doing. This is something I would suggest doing after your second draft. If you’re really lazy and also rich (Neither of which are likely if you’re a first time novelist) you can pay for an experienced editor to edit down your book to size. However I would suggest you try and get into the habit of pro-active editing yourself. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting you don’t use an editor on your novel, using a good one is vital) It’s a good exercise and will get you into the habit of getting rid of your own waffle. It will be painful sometimes to come back to something that you so carefully constructed the first time around only to admit to yourself that its presence on the page is really not warranted, but if you can do it, you’re already half way there. I always knew the first Diamonds book was going to be a pretty meaty tome, I wanted it that way, because I wanted it to read, look and feel like an epic story, however it came in at nearly 600 pages on the first draft, almost 100 pages over my desired length. I applied a similar rule that have used in script writing before ‘If it isn’t needed or doesn’t tell us anything we need to know, get rid of it.’ It took two passes but it was soon down to just over 500 pages.
Get rid of every use of the word ‘suddenly’ – I read this one on someone else’s writing tips list and decided to apply it during one of my later drafts. As a first time writer I cannot tell you how many times I fell into the trap of using this word. Actions in a story should just happen, not be announced. If a reader has to re-read a passage because you caught them off guard, so much the better. I also noticed I used several other words very frequently (One of which was ‘clearly’) so I made a list and on the third draft I went through and made it my mission to remove as many of them as I could, though clearly some of them had to stay (See what I did there?)
Don’t over describe things we already know – Too much description in a book can make it drag and is often unnecessary. If your book is set entirely in a new universe or fantasy world, a certain level of visual detail is obviously important but there’s only so many ways to describe a sword or a ray gun so don’t go overboard. While it’s important to give enough detail to light the imagination of the reader you must allow them to also fill in some of the blanks. When doing your second draft this is something you can look at should you need to reduce your word count.
If something isn’t working get rid of it – As your story and characters develop organically you will have a fairly good idea of what is and isn’t working in your novel. In your story if something is taking too long to go anywhere then find a shorter route to get there. I’ve applied a principle in script writing which I found works equally well for a chapter in the novel. I call it ‘The Four W’ – Who, Where, What happens and Why. These are the four most important elements in any scene or chapter of any form of text. Who is in it, where is it set, what happens and why does it happen (And de facto how do these things drive the plot or the story forwards to the next chapter or scene) If your storyline, scene or plot strand isn’t connecting to the next one or doesn’t advance the movement of the characters then it may well not be needed in there at all. I would suggest still trying to complete a first draft before you make sweeping changes but if you apply these four rules when something feels like it’s not working the reasons for this will often become obvious and allow you to cut things out.
Above all write! – Sometimes writers can be the worst people when it comes to just sitting down and getting on with it. We do often find reasons not to write! It is something we can exceed at! You can even allocate yourself ten days aside for a writing project and you’ll get to day five and you still haven’t got anywhere. This is especially common if the work you’re embarking on is self-generated and you don’t have a Producer hounding you for your next pages (Which trust me is a great incentive to write fast if there ever was one!) One thing I have found useful just to get my writing juices flowing sometimes if I struggle to get going is I jump on to IMDB and write up a movie review of an old film. (Tripadvisor also works well in this regard) It can be anything, it doesn’t have to be something you saw last week. You can write your twenty lines about why you think ‘The Usual Suspects’ is one of the greatest films ever made to an invisible audience who probably don’t really care. But it will get you typing and before you know it you’ll be jumping from that review to your target for the day.