Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned from writing and editing. Find advice on your book's early stages, plot, character, genre, your first draft, and getting editorial help. If you're a non-fiction writer, you'll find useful links here too.
You have an idea for a book running around in your head – what next?
Firstly, note the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Some clients are genuinely unusure of this. Works of fiction are novels, which are basically long stories, which may include ‘real’ people (such as historical figures who genuinely lived) fleshed out and imagined into life. Works of non-fiction are factual pieces (which include memoir, or may be, for eg, books about the life and times of a historical figure). The main difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction can make things up, whereas non fiction doesn't. Still unsure? See this article for the key differences between fiction and non fiction.
Make notes – no matter how basic. They can be refined later. This is a process all writers start with. Many writers carry a little black book especially for this purpose, so that no idea is ever forgotten. Some stories begin life with a single phrase or image which stands out to the writer, which is then developed over the coming months; some writers start with the ending first. Whatever way you do it, there is no right or wrong. There’s just you, and your notepad, or laptop. You can be as wild and experimental as you like. The discipline of building a proper plot and realistic characters will come later. Find Angela Booth's checklist for starting your novel here. For help turning your notes into a novel, click here.
Sketch out some characters - and a few plot ideas - let them sit for a while, so that you can change your mind if you want. At this point, you don’t have to worry about genre or beginnings, middles and endings – you’re simply scribbling down your initial idea. This is a great time to chat to a ‘writing buddy’ or a significant other about what’s going through your head. You might bounce some ideas around, and pick up a few interesting suggestions. For help creating decent characters, click this link.
For a deep dive into genre and why it's important to understand where your work falls, read my Writing Tips article on Genre, here.
Recommended reading – great books to help with the early stages of your novel-in-planning, or with your non-fiction project.
The books below give a fascinating insight into plotting, characterisation and storytelling, and are very entertaining reads; Lodge and Prose are more complex, being suitable for writers who are comfortable with the basics. The final titles are specifically non-fiction guides.
|John Yorke, Into the Woods - an absolute essential for any writer battling with plot|
|Harry Bingham, How to Write a Novel - contains everything you need to know (and more!) about commercial aspects of the craft|
|Stephen King, On Writing - not a self-help guide as such, but a fascinating insight into the working life of a writer|
|Robert McKee, Story - a focus on screenwriting, but useful for novelists in terms of plot structure, too|
|David Lodge, The Art of Fiction - Lodge breaks down styles of fiction in this book, with examples taken from published prose|
|Louise Doughty, A Novel in A Year - A great guide for anybody putting pen to paper for the first time. Combines various exercises with useful nuggets of information about life as a full-time writer|
|John Hough, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Dialogue|
Mathew Sullivan & Alan Peat, The Ultimate Guide To Non-Fiction Writing
|William Zinsser, On Writing Well - the Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction|
|Jackie Sherman, Writing Non-Fiction That Sells|
|Joanna Penn, How to Write Non-Fiction|
|Lee Gutkind, You Can't Make This Stuff Up - The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between|
How long is a debut work expected to be? Read my Writing Tips article here.
Plot properly – once you’ve spent a while thinking about your characters and their motivations, it’s time to plot properly. Some writers plot for a solid six months without writing anything. Once they’re satisfied they’ve got a handle on everything which is going to happen in the novel, then they’ll start work. I could never do this. I prefer to start writing straight away while I work out the mechanics of my world. I’ll pick a key scene, or a character I’d like to work with, and I let a small corner of the story evolve. There is no right or wrong to this process. Everybody does it their own way. Find plotting resources for writers here.
The simplest way to plot is in three acts. This notion has been around since the days of Ancient Greek theatre, so it’s time-tested, and it works. To find out more, click here.
Act One is the first third of the novel, in rough wordcount terms. In a 90,000 word novel, each Act will be around 30,000 words long. Use this act to introduce all your characters (the significant ones, anyway), and to give them/the central hero or heroine a quest. Our main narrator must accept this quest either willingly or not, and set out on an adventure which leads us into Act Two.
Act Two is the middle section of the novel, again best gauged roughly in wordcount terms. In Act Two, the protagonist launches him or herself into the quest, is placed in danger, looks ready to fail, and then…
Act Three shows the turning point and the resolution, in which the quest is completed, and the story threads are neatly tied up and concluded. Our protagonist returns to his/her regular world a changed person. Useful tip: readers don’t like their main character to die. In certain genres you might get away with this (eg horror) but mostly, not.
You'll find variations on the above in different 'how to' guides, so it's a rule of thumb, but a useful one.
Why do novelists talk about ‘showing and telling’, and how can we get the best out of a show-tell balance? Read my Writing Tips article on showing and telling, here.
Finding Creative Ideas for your Fiction or Non-Fiction project:
Read as widely as possible within the area you want to write, particularly mainstream-published best-selling titles. This is the safest way to be sure you're being influenced by books which have been through an extended editorial process and have gained a publisher's official stamp of approval. Reading up-to-date work (no more than a few years old) also means you'll be current with fashions, trends and phases regarding what people are signing, buying and reading in today's market.
Plan your characters – keep your cast small. Have a reasonable idea about each of your character’s motivations. I’ve blogged on why character-boards are a bad idea, here. You aren’t writing an inventory. You’re writing people, so they have to ‘feel’ human. Avoid full-on hero types (your reader loves characters with flaws) but remember that equally, your reader needs to respect the lead character and his/her decision-making. So, you can’t make your hero too puffed-up and infallible, but your reader won’t enjoy the hero being portrayed as a nasty piece of work, either. The dislikeable narrator isn't debut novelist territory, because it's so difficult to get right. You can read articles about the cast-size of your novel here, and here.
Plan your chapters – it really is as simple as saying: ‘OK, I’m going to write 80,000 words divided into 21 chapters. 80,000 divided by 21 = 3,800 words per chapter.’ Sketch yourself a few lines of instruction for what must happen in every chapter, and then set off on your journey. Your story will evolve and change, your characters will misbehave and try to derail your original ideas, but the most important thing to remember is that this is all perfectly normal! Just keep writing. Find help planning your chapters, and read more here.
The First Draft – some people write quickly, others take many years to achieve a first draft. There is nothing wrong with either. What really works, though, is to lay down your manuscript (even if it isn’t finished) so that you become distanced from it. A few days isn’t enough. You need 3-6 months plus away from it. Then you can revisit what you’ve written with fresh eyes. Get ideas for the next stage here.
Editing – you can change your plot or your characters at any point. This is your story. You’re in charge. So, if you realise your heroine isn’t sassy enough or your love-interest doesn’t bounce off the page, sketch out a few notes for improving things. Do some reading, re-jig your plot, talk it over in your writing group, anything – but don’t give up, because this is a perfectly normal part of writing a long manuscript. Read my blog on the power of line-editing (and see an example) here.
Manuscript assessment - I’ve blogged on how editorial assessment and help is invaluable, here. Even best selling authors have a regular editor, precisely because the writer is so close to the MS that outside help is always (without exception) required on a book, even one written by a seasoned professional. Manuscript assessment (in the form of a reader’s report, sometimes known as a structural edit) will explain in detail which parts of your novel work, and which need some revision. Ongoing coaching will help you to produce a better finished product by shaping your work on-the-go. Ongoing coaching is great for undertaking revisions to a MS you previously completed, or equally, on a new project you’ve just started.
Writer’s block – every writer experiences block at some point. You sit down to write, and nothing comes. My own trigger is not having a properly-thought-out plot. I grind to a halt if there’s anything wrong with the rationale behind my story, even if I tell myself there isn’t. Basically, writer’s block is my first warning that something isn’t working out, so stopping to re-plan the plot works. But, all writers have different triggers. Sometimes losing focus can be down to your insecurities… perhaps you don’t think that your project is worth finishing – but it is! You just have to stick with it. Try this link for suggestions on what to do if you have writer’s block.
Software for Writers - if you're a bit of a tech-head and traditional pen-and-paper, or a plain old Word file on a laptop, aren't for you then these resources are great for planning your book, saving different drafts, and keeping everything in order - Plottr; Scrivener; MasterWriter. What's interesting is that there are still professional writers out there (including best selling authors) who write longhand, then employ a copy typist. I'm happy with Word documents, although I have friends who swear by Scrivener. It's whatever suits you best. With regards to proofreading software, try PerfectIt (which works equally well for non-fiction/academic essays/blog posts/fiction). You can train on-line with Hilary Cadman Training.
Non-fiction - non-fiction includes everything from biography and self-help to cookery, practical crafts and academic essays. Non-fiction manuscripts rely on structure and other technical essentials such as grammar in exactly the same way that fiction does. Specialist editors tend to focus on specific subjects (eg cookery), although manuscripts which have general appeal are often edited by fiction editors. For example, I've edited academic essays, music history projects, self-help guides, local history pamphlets and Christian material, but I wouldn't take a medical handbook or a cookbook because these are outside my scope. Subject-specific non-fiction editors advertise their specialist fields, making it easier to connect with them via the internet or social media.
Resources for non-fiction writers can be found here; advice on avoiding non-fiction mistakes can be found here; top tips for writing non-fiction can be found here and here; inspiration can be found here; and a fantastic article about women who write non-fiction can be found here.
Memoir - memoir is non-fiction with a focus on the life of the writer (you). Memoir is written in first-person. To read a blog which explains the difference between memoir, autobiography and biography, click here. If you want to write a memoir, here are some links which might help: this Guardian article; this how-to guide; and this blog with six useful tips.
Ongoing Writing Coaching - ongoing coaching was the major factor in transforming me from an aspiring author into a mainstream published novelist, which is why I'm so keen to recommend it for others. Many years ago, it wasn't possible to find on-line tutors who'd provide this kind of service for private clients. Today, you can book as little as two hours tuition at a time, on a pay-as-you-go basis. Tutors work on what you want to achieve, in a way best suited to you - it could be set tasks which will improve your prose and plotting, feedback on individual chapters, advice on line editing, or any combination of these things. Back in 2011, unable to find this kind of help without enrolling for a formal qualification, I chose MA/PhD study. If you're interested in exploring these for yourself, I've blogged on how the MA and PhD can transform your approach to writing, here. Today's new breed of writers are incredibly lucky to have options which weren't available to aspiring novelists back then.
Which point of view will you use in your novel? Read my Writing Tips article on Point of View, here.
1 Make sure you’re thoroughly conversant with punctuation, including what’s needed for speech. It’s surprising how many people use full stops where commas should be, even in a MS which is otherwise well set out. Your MS will be put aside by a literary agent if you haven’t yet mastered the basics. If you self-publish a MS full of mistakes, your on-line reviewers will let other potential readers know, which is embarrassing.
2 Don’t panic if everything takes three times longer than you hoped it would. This is normal when you’re writing a long manuscript. Read what other writers have to say about this here.
3 Lay down your finished MS for a minimum of three months. You can always start plotting something new during this time. You've now reached the point where you need to distance yourself from your work. Read what other writers say about the editing process here.
4 Don’t plan a series, or even a trilogy. Over the years it takes you to write several novels, fashions in fiction will change, and your aspirations will evolve. Writing a series will entrap you within one story-world and will consign you to make the same mistakes over and again, under the mistaken belief that a publishing house will sign you for several novels. This isn’t the way it works. Read why it isn't a good idea to start with a series, here.
5 Make your debut novel simple in terms of concept. Have few characters, a great motivation for the main character's journey, and a secure conclusion which doesn’t involve killing off a narrator who the reader has grown to love. Read tips from a debut author here.
6 Understand genre. I’ve blogged here why genre is important to an unfolding story, because conflicting elements may pull against each other if a writer isn't confident with how genre works. I extended the genre blog here, to look more deeply into its mechanics.
7 If you're unsure about whether to write in first person ('I...') or third person ('S/he...'), check out these articles, which explain the advantages and pitfalls of each: - POV, writing in first person; writing in third person; the omniscient viewpoint.
8 Voice, and finding the right one for your main narrator - what does it mean? This article explains and gives examples.
Finally, good luck – you’re about to join a busy community of aspiring writers who are all trying to achieve the same. Reach out if you need help. Find out more here. If you're a non-fiction specialist, then this link will connect you with writing groups which have forums for non-fiction genres.
Are you curious about how enjoying TV and film may affect the way you as a writer put a story onto a page? If you want to know what to avoid, see my Writing Tips artice on the influence of visual fiction on prose, here.
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If you're in Victoria and you want to join Writers Victoria, click here for more details.