Whenever I am asked to give writing advice, I always hesitate. I have written and published five novels now, so you might think I feel like I’ve some wisdom to impart, but I still feel unqualified to give writing ‘advice’ and I think this is because writing – for me anyway – is almost always difficult.
Take heart, however, there are grades to this difficulty! Sometimes it feels impossible, I can’t deny it, like threading a needle whilst wearing ski gloves; most of the time, it’s hard, but there’s satisfaction to be found in that challenge. Occasionally, (very occasionally) the writing unfolds like magic and when that happens, you better savour it, because in my experience it’s a once in a book-time experience!
However hard it is, one thing’s for sure I know that two peoples’ writing experiences are never the same. There is no wrong or right way to write a novel and what helps one writer, will mean nothing to another. What I can offer, however, is my shared experience of how it is for me. So, for what it’s worth, here is are the four things that have helped me the most in a decade of writing fiction. I really hope they help you too!
1) Just try and tell the truth
Whenever I’ve been stuck – which as I’ve said, is often! – I’ve reminded myself of this and it has helped. Sometimes, we are so busy trying to craft a beautiful sentence, or getting ourselves in knots with a section of dialogue, that we don’t stop to consider if what we’re writing rings true. But readers are canny, they can sniff out inauthenticity in a millisecond (I know I can) and the effect is almost like being woken from a beautiful dream – the spell is broken and we lose interest, we put the book down.
If we feel what we’re reading is true, however, then we can relate and if we relate, we care, and if we care about the characters and what happens to them, chances are we will carry on reading. (And it will be much more fun to write for sure….)
So, whether you’re describing how your heroine reacts when a stranger approaches her to tell her she’s got her dress on inside out (didn’t happen to me this morning at all), or you’re describing a sunset, or the way it feels to be told that you have three months to live, or the moment you discover your husband ‘Ollie’ has decided to become Olivia, just search deep inside of yourself, read stories online, whatever it takes; the most important thing is to ask yourself, am I telling the truth as I see it?
2) Find out what your characters want more than anything
and make it as hard as possible for them to get it. This is really the basis of any novel, any film, any story, which makes it sound very simple, when guess what? It really is not. Nailing your characters’ desires, however, and then the obstacles you’ll put in place to stop them getting achieving those desires, is what keeps us rooting for the characters, wondering what happens, turning those pages. So, whether it be redemption they desire, or the boy next door, or to escape their boring life, or become Olivia ……you’d be sensible to spend a lot of time working this out.
Also, I’ve discovered, that it’s good if there’s what I call a surface want but then a deeper one below it, which really drives the character. For example, your hero might want more to swim the English channel, (their surface want) but his deeper want might be to win back the woman he loves. After all, when someone slathers themselves in Vaseline and braves jellyfish and possible sharks for you, you might just start to believe that they’re sorry.
3) Read lots and lots!
Some writers hate to read when they’re writing a novel, because it puts them off, but to me, it’s essential. We’re not talking plagiarism of lines or characters here though – it’s about inspiring yourself. Also, sometimes reading other writers’ work, taking note of technique – how they tackle flashback, or writing in diary form; how they inject humour into dark scenes, or how they structure a book, can unlock something in you and solve problems you’re having with your own manuscript. It’s not just fiction that I read when I’m writing either, reading non-fiction – be that journalism, autobiographies or things relevant to your novel (for example, on my desk right now are at least eight books about birdwatching) – can go a long way to enriching and informing your writing, making it easier and more enjoyable.
4) A little note on dialogue
This is a technique thing that I learned a while ago and which I’ve employed ever since. Generally – and especially when writing dialogue – avoid fancy verbs or adverbs. So, you can write ‘she giggled hysterically’ or ‘she bellowed’ or ‘he retorted, arrogantly’ but I find that ‘he said / she said’ usually suffices, is much more elegant and allows the prose to flow more smoothly.
Try it. It was a revelation for me!