I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Guardian’s compendium of writing advice from various novelists (via The Loop), not just for the content but also because it allowed me to procrastinate from writing for half an hour or so.
As with any such list, the tips are strictly personal to each author; I loved some of them, and absolutely hate and utterly disagree with others. You’ll have a similar reaction, particularly if you write fiction too. Do take the time to read through both parts, and decide which writers are brimming with wisdom and which are pretentious arseholes.
Inevitably, I’m now going to offer a few of my own thoughts on the subject of writing long-form fiction, endorsing some of the advice from those other writers as I go.
Write to be read
If it’s engaging to read, your work is done. All other rules can be discarded. Rose Tremain said:
Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.
That’s great advice. Make it interesting. This is more about presentation and style than actual narrative. If it’s interesting to you, then it’s interesting. If it’s not interesting to you, throw it away immediately and write something else.
The main tool you need to check a piece of writing is your ear. Check the rhythm of the prose, particularly how the sentences flow together. There should be an irregular but discernible beat to it, neither too staccato nor too bogged-down.
I’d take Diana Athill’s advice:
Read it aloud to yourself because that's the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.
Try it, and see how effective it is. As a minimum, get your computer to read it to you.
This is the only great secret of how to write anything. Buckle up, because here it is: force yourself to sit down and put words together, for at least a minimum period of time on most days of the week. Eventually, you’ll have put a lot of words together. It gets easier as you go on. That’s it. Discipline is everything.
Motivation is your enemy, not time or talent. The first couple of paragraphs each day are killers. Helen Dunmore has a fantastic tip for this:
Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.
That way, you can probably blast out at least another paragraph with ease when you next sit down, and then you’re rolling. I have a habit of adding a bullet-point right after I stop, briefly outlining the very next thing that happens. The following day, I just transform it into a sentence or two, and I feel that I’ve at least started.
Don’t write with an active internet connection.
You don’t need it for research; you have no business doing research whilst you’re writing. Make a note or insert some kind of marker instead, and come back to it later once your actual writing for the day is done. Search the aforementioned Guardian articles for the number of times internet connections are mentioned.
I actually wrote about enhancing productivity by blocking distractions recently, so you may also want to read that piece. I can highly recommend SelfControl for your Mac.
Be chemically stable
You’ll write differently when you have different substances in your body. Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine are the three most common ones. Find whatever combination or absence of those works best for you, and try to write in the same state each time. I won’t judge you either way; by all means get drunk if it genuinely helps you get the words out.
Richard Ford also has a great piece of advice:
Don't have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.
We’ll of course change that to partner or significant other, rather than “wife”. Arguments either make me angry and preoccupied, or sad and emotionally deactivated. Neither state is good for writing.
If you’ve just had a bit of a squabble and you want to get some writing done, go and apologise first, even if it wasn’t your fault.
Don’t worry about style
Don’t sweat about overuse (or any use at all) of this or that particular type of word or part of speech. Those rules are bullshit. Anything goes, subject to readability and enjoyment.
Adverbs1 are fine, as long as your sentences are still readable and have some life to them. Similes and metaphors are fine. Using “then” instead of “and” is fine, and (probably) so is using nothing but “and” for paragraphs on end. Split infinitives are… honestly, that’s the kind of irrelevant high school nonsense that only worries people who have never really written to be read.
If someone advises you to avoid this or that part of speech as a whole, ignore them. They invariably just want you to know that they know some linguistic trivia, and have a strong opinion on the subject.
Just write something, then read it to yourself. If it sounds OK and doesn’t get in the way of the story, it’s fine.
Neil Gaiman touches on this in his two-for-one tip:
When people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
So, trust yourself on the minutiae of language, and at least listen to feedback on the broad strokes. Word choice is actually a lot more important than the dressing. Having an enormous vocabulary is wonderful if you want to feel superior to others. We all want to feel that way, so: great. The issue is that not everyone shares your vocabulary, and so most of the really delicious words aren’t in common usage.
So, for the most part, they’re off limits for storytellers, because they’re neither readable in prose nor authentic in dialogue. Instead, use words that everyone understands. Most people do.
If you want to write, you’re almost certainly a regular reader, so this advice is unnecessary. I’ll say it anyway.
It’s helpful to consider the ‘finished’ form of what you’re trying to create, both to gradually give yourself a sense of dramatic arcs and narrative techniques, and also just to see specific examples of style. So try to read fiction on a fairly regular basis.
Be discerning, though. Some people act like it’s a badge of honour to finish every book they start, no matter how little they enjoy it. Those people are broken. There are plenty of other books out there. Take note of the reason you’re not enjoying what you’re reading (so you can learn from it), then move on to another book.
Have some books around for reference when you’re writing, too2. If I’m unsure which stylistic convention to use in a particular situation, I tend to just grab a book and flick through until I see an example of how that author did it (then I assess whether it works for me).
Just don’t read when you’re supposed to be writing. That’s another kind of procrastination, and you know it.
Get yourself into the right frame of mind as a writer. If you ask someone who has never put their words in front of an audience whether their writing is any good, they’ll probably say “Well, it’s maybe OK”.
If you ask a professional writer, though, their response will instead be “This is the worst thing ever written by anyone, ever. My world is shame. I am so, so sorry.”
The only sensible attitude for writing is “I’ll make this as good as I can, but I will finish it regardless”. No matter how difficult it is, and how embarrassingly awful the result seems to be. You have to be bloody-minded. Think of your book (or article, or whatever) as your current folly.
If you’re going to be a football player, you’d better get comfortable with running around on grass. If you’re going to be a writer, get comfortable with hating your work but carrying on anyway. You’re a shit-shoveller, and that stuff is your own. Now make it into sandcastles.
Don’t plan too much
Planning is essential, if you’re scaling Everest. Don’t worry about planning a piece of writing. You really needn’t have much of an idea what you’re going to write about. It’s absolutely, utterly fine to just start with a single disconnected scene that you want to explore, and see where it leads. It’s a lot of fun to do that, in fact. If it doesn’t pan out, call it an exercise and try another.
It’s equally fine to go the other way, and construct an entire scene-skeleton for your novel, then go about writing on top of it. I think you’ll find it to be a very valuable learning experience, as it morphs and changes beneath you, making you realise the futility of precise planning.
Just trust yourself. Something will emerge. Unplanned structure. Recurrent themes you had absolutely no involvement in. Foreshadowing that you’ll only notice when you read through your completed first draft. That’s how fiction-writing works. There’s a very clever, artful, meticulous intelligence putting all this stuff together and weaving it through the prose as you go, but it’s not really ‘you’. It’s perhaps some subconscious part of your brain, and/or random serendipity. Either way, it’ll be your name on the cover. Just come to peace with this reality now, and take whatever plaudits may come.
Having said all that, you will naturally form a stronger sense of where you’re going once you’ve got a few tens of thousands of words down. At that point, talk your ideas out with someone. I cautiously recommend your spouse. Accept all input gracefully, especially the stuff you don’t agree with. That’s more of a marriage tip than a writing one.
Wait for the edit
Don’t change anything while writing your first draft. Only start editing after the whole thing is done. Don’t put a partial copy on the Kindle, or print it out, or re-read it from the start. Just write more words instead. This is deep wisdom, and incredibly hard to do.
When you’re ready to edit, go back and do a read-through. I’d advise a full read-through before even starting revisions, but you probably won’t do that.
Editing will take the following form:
- Read a bit. A page is good, then go back and inspect each paragraph.
- About 1% of the time, you’ll smirk and congratulate yourself on a magnificent paragraph. In those situations, get rid of some of the waffly bits. Don’t be so clever.
- Maybe another 19% of the time, the prose will be fine. See if you can tighten it up a little, but don’t worry too much. You can leave it as-is.
- The other 80% of the time, you’ll slap your forehead at the obvious, mortifying deficiencies that scream at you from the page. You’ll probably get up and go to the window, looking out in despair for a while. A few minutes later, you’ll imagine a scenario where you tell your husband/wife/mum/interviewer about this moment, in mock humility, and you’ll seem very urbane. After a few minutes of that, you’ll sit back down, stare helplessly at the screen, then finally realise you can fix the problem pretty quickly. So fix it.
- Repeat the above until physically unable to continue.
- Continue regardless, until the second draft is ready.
- Repeat the entire process, to prepare a third draft. Maybe even a fourth.
- If you’ve done everything correctly, you’ll now feel exhausted, ashamed, and depressed - but all of those feelings will be eclipsed by sheer terror at the idea of releasing this tawdry, meritless drivel to wider scrutiny.
Congratulations; you’re ready for feedback from others. Pat yourself on the back, for reasons which are unclear, and which will remain so.
Ignore advice, and write
Lastly, don’t accept advice on any specific things to read, eat, drink, include or exclude. Your problem isn’t that you haven’t read Keats’ letters (sheesh), or that you don’t drink the right coffee, or that your tale lacked a sudden reversal of fortune.
Your problem is that, well, you’re reading a fucking list of writing tips instead of actually writing. We talked about this. That’s your issue, genius.
Look at me, though. I’m actually writing the list. So you could be a lot worse. Now get the hell back to work, and let me get back to mine.