Monday, February 1, 2010

Giving Something Back

Some Writing Tips (from a novice)

Many new writers don't have a clue where to start finding things out; everything from how to get started writing a book; how to keep going when all you want to do is trash the thing you've spent months creating, who to turn to for help, finances, resources, blah-blah-blah. I thought I'd try to help, because I've had so much help from others in the industry. I'm no expert, believe me, but I do have a passion for writing. Knock yourselves out with this, and good luck with your writing. By the way, this is Australian-centric, since that's where I live :)


* Forget about getting rich quick. That's unlikely to happen. It might, but it's unlikely. But if it does, good for you. Uh, spare some change?

* Read self-help books (see list below for my favourites) and find out what makes a good book (and a reader) tick.

* Attend courses on writing technique, as many as you can afford

* Meet up with other writers, join on-line forums, blogs, etc - don't work in isolation.

* Know your subject.

* Sit down and write!

* Put your work aside, let it stew for at least a month. (get rid of the dead goldfish that's been staring at you for the last month, bond with the kids (or are they now young adults?), try your hardest to remember your wife's name...assuming she hasn't divorced you)

* The serious editing stage. Edit for everything you can think of. Aim to put out the best work you can. Polish, polish and polish some more!!

* Make the decision: do you want to try getting it published? Or is your manuscript destined for the bottom drawer?

* Sit down with a bottle of your choice and pat yourself on the back (no one else will do it for you) and think about how you'll reward yourself for your hard work.


Let's be honest, it's not likely to happen, is it? Most novelists in Australia earn less than the minimum wage each year, so the chances are you won't be able to rely on your literary skills to pay the rates bill. There are those who make a lot of money, of course. The headline-grabbing book deals are what get our attention, after all. But for every rich writer there are a thousand on the breadline. There are many reasons why publishers, editors and agents say 'Don't give up your day job!' and that's one of them.


Like any trade, few people are born with the writing skills and industry knowledge necessary to create a competitive product that publishers will feel comfortable taking a gamble on. I started by reading the 'Idiot's Guide', and worked my way through textbooks on plot, dialogue, character and viewpoint. Here's a list of my favourites, but some may be out of print:

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creative Writing / Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. / Alpha / ISBN:1-59257-206-5 (excellent starting point)

The Everything Guide to Writing a Novel / Joyce and Jim Lavene / Adams Media / ISBN: 1-59337-132-2 (again, a good starter)

Novel Writing / Evan Marshall / A&C Black / ISBN: 0-7136-6852-0 (this is my bible, and you can't fail to get your novel finished using Marshall's method)

Plot and Structure / James Scott Bell / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN (13): 978-1-58297-294-7 (planning a novel? Read this...)

Twenty Master Plots / Ronald B. Tobias / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN: 1-58279-239-7 (twenty? There's really just forda and forza!)

Creating Unforgettable Characters / Linda Seger / Owl Books / ISBN: 0-8050-1171-4 (everything from paradoxes to dialogue and stereotyping)

Characters and Viewpoint / Orson Scott Card / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN (13): 978-0-89879-927-9 (great in-depth study guide)

The Author's Toolkit (a step-by-step guide...) / Mary Embree / Seaview Publishing / ISBN: 0-9700682-0-4 (how to get started, avoid the pitfalls, etc)

The Art of Dramatic Writing / Lajos Egri / Touchstone S&S / ISBN: 0-671-21332-6 (the daddy of them all, although biased towards the playwright)

The First Five Pages / Noah Lukeman / Fireside / ISBN (13): 978-0-684-85743-5 (how to avoid the rejection pile by presenting your most professional work)

Give 'Em What They Want / Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook / Writer's Digest Book / ISBN: 1-58297-330-X (enter the lion's den of publishers and agents...and keep your head)

The Oxford Style Manual / R.M. Ritter/ Oxford Uni. Press / ISBN: 0-19-8605641 (grammar, style,'s all here)

The Oxford English Dictionary / Catherine Soanes / Oxford Uni. Press / ISBN (13): 978-0-19-860454-9 (good enough for me, but try the web if you want the biggest)

Roget's Thesaurus / Susan M. Lloyd / Longman / ISBN: 0-582-55635-X (you'll never be stuck with a weak noun or verb again)


Various writer's centres and course providers can help you here. I recommend the Queensland Writers Centre as an excellent resource, and Varuna has a great reputation, too. In addition, some manuscript appraisal agencies will offer mentorships. Flood Manuscripts in particular offers a service which I consider to be second to none.

Many universities offer full-time courses on creative writing, and some offer part-time or distance learning options. Browse the web for the most up-to-date offerings.


How can you write a story about people (the crux of all tales, after all), if you shut yourself away from the rest of the world? Answer: you cannot. This is another of the reasons a publisher or agent will say 'Don't give up your day job.' Get out and about. Meet people. Watch how your friends and colleagues interact. Pay attention to the detail of their speech patterns, hand movements, eye movements, and anything else you can stare at without getting yourself arrested. It's called 'observation', and without good skills in this department you'll miss a lot as a writer and your writing will suffer for it. Even if you think you have those skills - and who am I to argue? - if you have nothing to observe, your writing will suffer.

Join a writers' group. Join a blog. Contribute, make friends and be sociable. The side-effect of that is this: you'll probably find other writers who are of the same experience level as you; they may well be keen to critique your work in return for your critique of theirs. A search of the web should trawl up some great writer's blogs.


Research is something that can be your friend, and your worst enemy. When you've done your research, you can write with authority, write with more passion,and more confidence. Your writing takes on a believable feel to it and every reader will appreciate it.

When research takes over your project, however, it's your worst enemy. Background research can become an excuse not to write anything for days or months on end, because 'I'm researching at the moment...' Yeah, right. Many writers do just enough background research to get them started on their stories. As they write they leave 'stubs', little marks on the page (I use three question marks in square brackets - [???]) to tell them they need to do some follow-up research on some small detail, also known as 'spot research'. When you start writing your draft, do not stop. If you need to check something out, do it later, if you can, and leave yourself a note on the page that you need to follow up.


The tautologists among you will be tisking and tutting - sit down and write...Okay, so lesson 1 is: keep your writing tight! But whatever you do, before you've got anything to edit, get it down on paper first. And that takes a hard slog. Most fiction comes in somewhere between 50,000 to 300,000 words (drat those fantasy bricks), but even 50,000 words takes a bit of doing. I write crime thrillers, so I'm aiming at the 90,000-110,000 word market.

One thing's for sure: if you don't get yourself in front of your computer (please, don't use a typewriter...or a chisel and sandstone, it's so passé) you'll never get anything written.

I know it's hard sometimes. Hard to get started. Hard to keep going. Hard to stop, for some folk. I get round those problems by working to a plan. It's an organic plan that changes a little as my story matures, but it's still a map of where I'm going. In builder speak, 'I need to know roughly where to erect my trusses'), Usually, I aim at a specific milestone. I don't have to achieve that milestone in a day, or any particular time frame, but I make myself sit at my computer for a given amount of time each day. You can do the same. If nothing comes, go over something you've already written - it'll probably spur you to write something else.

Another thing I do is get something under my belt before I have breakfast - even if it's only 350 words (about a page). It helps me because I see that I've already started on my day, and my goal is that little bit closer. Someone I read once, called it the 'nifty three-fifty'. That works for me.

On a good day I aim to write 1,500-1,700 words. Sometimes it's more, sometimes it's less. If I complete those words (let's take the average i.e. 1,600) in, say, eight hours, it will take me about an hour to write 200 words (this is drafting). At that speed, it'll take me 550 hours to complete the discovery draft (first draft) of a 110,000-word novel. That's a long time. It's a long time to be looking forward to having a completed draft that I can start to polish. It takes resolve, commitment, patience. But if I can do it, you can do it. WRITE!


Note: it's called the 'discovery draft' because this is where you discover all your plot holes, weak characters, poor dialogue, etc

Sort the obvious spelling mistakes - running spell checker as you write the draft just doesn't work for me because it slows me down, gets in my way.
Sort the obvious grammar mistakes - again, grammar checking now will help.
Think about your chapter breaks - you'll want to prompt your readers into reading on to your next chapter, so start thinking about how you can heighten the tension.


Now, put the thing away and have a break from it. Get some distance between you and your characters, your plot, your writing style. Go to Corfu. Visit the Himalayas. Take some chocolate to the guards outside Buckingham Palace. Whatever you do, take your mind off your novel and have a break. For at least a month.


Like it or not, editing is essential if you're to send out your best work. And why would anyone send out anything less than the best? Printouts work best for me at this stage. I need to see what's on the page from a reader's perspective. Print it double-spaced, so that you can annotate without being too cramped. This editing procedure is iterative. I may take you ten edits, it may take you forty. Don't give up. It's all about sending out your best work - either to publishers and agents, or to your friends and relatives. Whoever you intend showing your work to, surely it's also you that's on show. Don't be scruffy.

My first edits are usually for plot holes - the ones that can't be fluffed around and shouldn't be there in the first place. I rework from there, add anything that expands the story or clarifies anything that's confusing to read.

It's up to you how you edit, of course, but I go on to look at the quality of my writing: tautology; sentence structure; paragraph and chapter structure; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; wild and wonderful metaphors and similes that just don't work (my personal downfall); showing, telling, and showing and telling; dialogue that's ordinary, hard to follow or too informative. The list is almost endless for this edit. If you're writing suspense, your hook, intensity and prompts (how you hook the reader into your sentence or paragraph or chapter; how your scenes increase in intensity from beginning to end; and how you leave the reader wanting to read more - either another sentence, another paragraph or another chapter).

Once I think I'm happy enough o have someone else read my work, it's over to my good mate, Steve. I'm lucky that I have someone who I can call on to give frank, honest and knowledgeable feedback. If there's no one in your circle of friends who can (or is willing to) do that for you, it's time to check the web and get yourself into a writer's circle.


It's a nerve-jangling moment, the first time you let your work out of arm's reach. I know some writers who are content to create a 90,000-word novel and let only family and friends read it. That's up to them.

I want people to read my stories. It's a personal choice for each of us. And only you can make it.


The slog is over. Or is it? Depends on whether you want to try getting your work published or not. Most writers work alone (notwithstanding what I said above about getting out and about). Few non-writers recognise the hard labour involved in creating a novel - from concept to research to planning to drafting to editing to guaranteed rejection from agents and publishers who are so over-worked they don't even have time to write a polite acknowledgement of your existence (they're not all like that, of course.)

So, sit back and pat yourself on the back. You've finished a novel. You're happy with it. You've done something that few people have done.


That's a very rough and ready overview of how I write, and the sub-text of it tells you why I write. You'll find ways to improve on my methodology, no doubt, so don't be afraid to do what comes naturally to you. Write the way that works best for you.

If you decide to sit and write a novel (or stand and write's up to you), or a book of non-fiction - good luck. Stick with it, knuckle down and it'll be finished in no time. And the chances are you'll have something you can be proud of.

Go write it. And good luck!

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