Saturday, 4 July 2015

5 Things I Wish I Knew about Novel Writing Twenty Years Ago

"Non, je ne regrette rien," sang French chanteuse and all-round stoic Edith Piaf. And while she made a good point, I bet even she succumbed to the odd facepalm now and then. It's only human to look back over your life and think "If I knew then what I know now..."

But until the time machine gets invented (and they sort out some way to deal with that pesky Grandfather Paradox) you can't nip back to greet your younger and more naive self and give them the almanac from the future. So all that's left is the next best alternative; to put what you wish you'd learned twenty years ago Out There for others to see, hoping to prevent them from taking twenty years to learn it as well.

It's not stuff about style, or language, or story construction or any of the mechanics of writing a novel. It's not about how to dream up the perfect story or how to get it published and become rich and famous. But it is stuff that, once you know it, makes all of the previous stuff more achievable. And yet you won't find it in most books about writing, or taught in most creative writing classes. So here is my Top Five. Do with them what you will...

1. - Finish What You Start. No REALLY. FINISH. IT.
Are you one of those people who starts a novel with megaton-bomb's-worth of enthusiasm, steaming through the first two or three chapters, and then slowing down a bit... and a bit more.... and then, about a third of the way in, deciding to 'put it aside for a bit' and work on something else instead? And over time, have you acquired a collection of part-written novels that still languish like embarrassing mad relatives in some dark and lonely attic (either physical or virtual?)

Yeah, I did that too. For years. I always had 'good' reasons for switching to a newer, shinier project in favour of the current one, of course - and I was never 'giving up on' a novel, nooo, I was just 'taking a break from it.' I was going to come back to it again in the future, of course I was, but... mmmyeahno, I never did.

That was a mistake, and one I repeated time after time. I shouldn't have given up so easily - and yes, if I'm honest that's what I was really doing. I gave up whenever the initial excitement of creating something new wore off as it became less and less new in my own head. But here's the thing; you can't achieve success at creating a thing until that thing is finished. How far would Mr Harley-Davidson have got if he'd said "Hey everybody, look at this cool bike I'm making here! Admittedly I haven't put the wheels on yet - or brakes - and yeah, I'm still sort of deciding how the engine's gonna work... aw, but trust me, when this baby's finished she's gonna freakin' rock!" He got where he got by finishing that bike we know and love - and probably after he'd already finished a few ropey prototypes that tanked.

So if you start something, finish it. Try it with short stories first, if finishing anything you start is a real problem, and then work your way up to full-on novels. But finish it. Because...

2 - You'll never learn how to write a novel properly until you COMPLETE (at least) your first novel.
You can read all the books on writing that ever existed. You can take a million writing classes. You can read the wise words of every successful author on the planet who's already been there and done it. None of those things will teach you even a tenth of what actually getting out there in the trenches and doing it will teach you. Even just completing a first draft of a novel will be a massive learning experience that no amount of tutoring and sage advice can offer.

Why? Because until you've got that far, all the lessons and lectures are just words; the equivalent of the instruction manual for flat-pack furniture. Sure, they'll take you through every step of building that wardrobe, but they won't tell you all the stuff you can only learn by doing - like how if you don't hammer those wooden pegs in pixel-perfect straight you're screwed, trying to build the thing in a room with furniture already in it is just asking for trouble and the Allen Key is the most stupid and infuriating invention in the world. (Yeah, IKEA don't stick those little gems in their cartoon-men diagrams, do they?)

Most of us would prefer to think surgeons at least had a practice on something before they embarked on hacking and slashing real patients for a career, and the principle is the same with novel-writing (albeit with less chance of actual death.) Once you've completed your first novel, you'll have a brand new set of tools that you now know how to use when you write your next one. At which point you'll discover there are even more tools, and you can have a practice with them while getting more proficient with the tools you picked up previously. Learning by doing. It's the best way.

3 - Set goals for yourself. And stick to them.
But not just any old, floaty-cloud goals; make them specific, measurable and realistic. "I am going to finish this goddamn novel," for example, is a great goal in terms of passion and drive, but it's not specific or measurable enough, which renders it unrealistic by default. It's also flippin' huge in terms of ambition; like the iceberg that sank the Titanic, ninety percent of it is sitting under the water where you can't see it. If you're going to nail this project, you need to break it down into smaller chunks. You'll need a way of tracking your progress too; I use an Excel Spreadsheet I made for the purpose, but you could just as easily use an old invoice book or draw tables on some squared paper - whatever works for you.

First off, start with time. Look at your week and decide how much time - realistically - you can devote to writing. If you have a day job that isn't writing, or your time is taken up with caring for other people, you'll probably have to snatch hours when and where you can. That's okay; pinpoint those precious hours and own them. No ifs or buts, claim them as your writing time, tell everyone who needs to know that those are your writing hours - hell, mark them down on a calendar or weekly planner so you can see them too. Make them official, like a real, proper appointment that you must show up to. Add them up, and that'll give you your minimum target of hours per week. (You can split up those hours any way you like; the same amount of hours spread over each day or big chunks on some days and small or no chunks on other days - it's the weekly total that matters.)

Later on, when you've got yourself into a regular routine of showing up for your target hours each week (and that can take a while, especially if you haven't done that before with your writing) you can start tracking your weekly word count as well. But don't set concrete targets for that until you've tracked it for at least a couple of months, so you can see what your average weekly output is and come up with a target that doesn't shoot ridiculously beyond that (because setting goals that are impossible to achieve is way worse than setting no goals at all.)

That's when things like deadlines and completion dates can become more concrete; the average novel is 100,000 words long, so if you can write 10,000 words a month, for example (which is only 2,500 words a week, which in turn is less than 355 words a day...) well, that's a full draft of an entire novel in ten months. So you see, even the smallest efforts done regularly can amount to great things in less time than you might think. But it's only by seeing it happen, right in front of your own eyes, that you can motivate yourself to keep at it.

4 - Writing a novel isn't fun all the time. And that's totally okay.
You're a writer because you love to write. It's the only thing you can imagine yourself actually wanting to do for a career rather than just having to do for, like, money and stuff. And because you feel this way, if something you're writing starts to feel like a grind, a miserable chore that makes the ironing look like a thrilling diversion, something must be so wrong with it that you should probably give up and start something else, right? Because writing's supposed to be fun - it makes you feel good and happy and creative...

Mmmmyeah, not always. Even with a novel you love like your own baby-child, there will be days when you hate its plot-stall-ed, wooden-character-ed, nonsense-dialogue-d guts. When the mere thought of sitting down and opening up that document - again - will fill you with an urge to weep and watch marathon sessions of Keeping Up with The Kardashians instead. Suddenly this baby isn't a joy anymore, it's a wailing, demanding poo factory that takes up your valuable time and energy. And it's starting to look pretty ugly as well.

So surely, if you carry on trying to write it when you're this 'uninspired,' won't the effort suck every last drop of creative fire from your veins like a vampire, leaving you jaded and unable to face writing anything else ever again? You cannot let that happen! It would be Creative Death! Writing is your mission, your life - writing should only ever be Fun Times...

Ask any published author on the planet, and they'll tell you there were days when sitting down and writing the next chapter of their novel was the last thing on earth they felt like doing. But they still did it anyway. Inspiration doesn't fall from the sky like rain, it's the sweat that comes from exercising those writing muscles. You don't exercise, you don't sweat. And sometimes you have to do a lot of dull and miserable exercising before that sweat appears.

So if the urge to write that next scene from your w-i-p isn't there, get your arse in front of that manuscript and write anyway. Remember those targets I talked about previously? It doesn't matter if all you end up with is a steaming pile of donkey-poo. Even donkey-poo can be shaped and sculpted into something amazing - but you need the donkey-poo to be there in the first place.

Of course there's nothing wrong with only writing what you want to and when you want to... if writing is just a fun little hobby and you have no desire whatsoever for anyone else to ever read your work. But if you're hoping to be published someday, you can't afford to sit around waiting for creative lightning to strike. Gotta make them sparks yourself, Chutney.

5 - Not all writing advice is helpful or useful.
No, I didn't stick this one at the end just to mess with your head. Well maybe a little bit...

The point is, what works for some writers won't work at all for others, no matter what. However, this doesn't mean you should stop looking and listening to advice and feedback on how to improve your writing chops. In fact, the more advice you seek out and absorb, the better you'll continue to get at knowing what to hold on to and what to drop like a deep-fried Mars Bar (a great idea in fantasy, a Crime Against Chocolate in reality.)

For example, by now I must have read the equivalent of a small forest and a PC hard-drive's worth of books and eBooks about writing, writing fiction and writing novels - and that's before you even start to include the blogs of other authors I follow. That's more advice than one person's brain can hold or needs in a lifetime. In the course of gathering all that information, I have discovered that, although I do have some plotting and organisational tendencies, overall as a writer I am a natural, red-blooded Pantser.

Now there are some fabulous writing how-to books that are perfect for all the Plotters out there - but I've discovered the hard way that, for me at least, they are Kryptonite in literary form. Anything that involves measuring the progress of your plot by dividing your entire story up into small fractions and making sure you hit a certain 'beat' by a particular percentage of pages written.... jeez, even reading that back makes me want to head-desk. My brain don't work like that, Professor! So I've learned to stop reading them in the first place now, because they just make me feel like a thicko (and it's not like I need that in my writing life as well...)

On the other hand, anything about the craft of writing - creating great characters, settings and dialogue and what I suppose you'd call 'making better use of language in your writing' - well, those are the kind of books that get my blood pumping and me desperate to sit at my keyboard and write my stubby little fingers off. So those are the books I seek out when I feel the need for a little Writing Espresso.

Not all writing advice is supposed to fill your heart with glee, obviously. Much of it is meant to instil in you just how much hard graft is needed to write a good novel, and that's as it should be. However, if any advice you get - whether from books, websites or even other authors - makes you feel like you have no hope of ever succeeding as a writer, because you just can't think that way or buy into that concept, then it's probably the wrong advice for you. Don't sweat it. You won't have to look very hard to find an alternative viewpoint from someone else who's had just as much success doing things the opposite way. And don't ever - ever - let anyone else tell you you'll never make it as a writer unless you subscribe to [insert Success Blueprint of the Moment.] There is no magic one-blueprint-fits-all. You are your own blueprint, made of whatever components of advice work for you.

So... over to you. What do YOU wish you'd known about writing a long, long time ago? What stuff do you think all writers should be told when they're just starting out? Why not drop it in the comments below, and maybe we can pass some nuggets of real-world wisdom around!

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