Friday, 25 May 2012

Keep writing!

There are many completed novels in bottom drawers and on hard drives. Many are unpublishable. Many might be publishable if the author was lucky enough to approach the right agent or publisher at the right time.

There are even more unfinished novels. The novelist Emma Darwin says that many writers stall at about thirty thousand words.

Why do so many novels remain unfinished?

Since I began to write seriously, I’ve only deliberately decided to abandon one piece of work (well before I‘d reached thirty thousand words). I decided I didn’t like either of the two main characters. They were a pair of humourless prigs. If I didn’t like them, how could I expect readers to like them?

Some novels are never finished because the writer’s circumstances change and he or she no longer has the time or inspiration to write. A new baby, a serious illness, family difficulties, are all reasons why the novel might be put on one side indefinitely.

A piece of writing might be abandoned because it becomes clear that the plot isn’t substantial enough for a full length novel. That’s not a problem in the digital age. A story that wouldn’t make a hundred thousand word novel might do very well as a fifty thousand word novella on Kindle, or even as a freebie on the writer’s own website. So don’t abandon it - keep writing!

A writer who (like me) doesn’t plan in detail before beginning to write may reach a point where he or she doesn’t know what happens next. The solution can be to skip ahead to a point where you do know what happens, or to a scene you’ve been looking forward to writing. Or write a scene in which your characters talk about what they think they should do next to get themselves out of the difficulties you’ve put them in. Or think of the most dramatic thing your main character could do in the situation you’ve created, and have him or her do that.

Whichever solution you choose, keep writing!

Perhaps a piece of research or new information comes to light which means your plot won’t work in the way you planned. If you can work the new information into the story, it might be all the stronger for it. You might present your characters with an even greater challenge to overcome. Keep writing!

You might be held up because you can’t find a specific piece of information you think you need in order to move the story forward. Research can be never-ending if you let it. You might be focussing  too much on minor details which don’t affect the overall plot. Find a way to work around the missing piece of information and keep writing!

For new (and old!) writers, the stopping point might come when the first rush of enthusiasm is over and it begins to be hard work. (And it is hard work.) You reach the point where you are convinced that your plot is nonsense, your writing is pedestrian, and no-one will ever want to read it.

But the only way to be a novelist is to write a novel, and the only way to do that is to keep putting words on paper. The finished novel might not be  anywhere near as good as you hoped. It might not be publishable. But at the end of it you will have learned a lot about the process of writing a novel, and about yourself as a writer. 

If you have written thirty thousand words, you have written a third of a full length novel. Why give up when you have come that far? Keep writing!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Advice to writers

There is an enormous number of 'how to' books for witers. There is an infinite number of online discussion forums, blogs and writers' websites which give advice to writers. One could spend all one's time reading these and never get any actual writing done.

The only piece of advice that no writer should ignore is to pay attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation. Most of the rest may be used as a basis for experimentation, to help each writer discover what works best for him or her.

Much of the advice given to writers is conflicting. To plan or not to plan; to approach an agent first, or a publisher. Some seems to be unrealistic. Authors who self  publish are told that they will need to spend two full days a week on promoting their work forever, not just at publication.

Self published authors, whether in print or on Kindle, do need to work hard to get their work noticed, as Roz Southey  has recently blogged. But anyone who can spend two full days a week on promotion and still find time to write must have no day job, no family responsibilities, no house or garden to look after, no shopping, cooking, washing or ironing to do, no other hobbies or interests to pursue and no friendships to nurture.

One piece of advice often given to writers is to ignore the phone, not look at e-mail and refuse invitations. Friends will still be there when the writing is done, it's said.

Obviously if a writer has a deadline approaching, then the social life needs to be put on hold. And any aspiring writer who is out pubbing and clubbing every night and so has no time to write should perhaps re-examine his or her priorities.

But writers can become isolated, especially those who do not have other jobs that take them out of their homes. Writing a novel in particular can be a long hard slog. We do need to take a break, get out, talk to other people (in real life, not via e-mail or Facebook or Twitter) and refresh and restock our imaginations.

Human nature is our business, after all, and we can't study it while huddled over our keyboards in our studies. We need to get out, engage in people watching, strike up conversations.

A walk is good. It provides fresh air and exercise and a chance to think about the next scene or chapter. But it  perhaps lacks opportunities for interaction with other people.

Buses are good for writers. From the top deck (where there are double deckers) one can see unfamiliar views. (The view from the top deck of a bus was a plot point in at least one crime novel.) If the bus is quiet one can think about one's plot while enjoying the ride.

If the bus is busy, there will be plenty of opportunity to gather material. The conversation going on in the seats behind might provide an idea for a short story. The elderly lady next to you might tell you her fascinating life story, or what your town was like sixty or seventy years ago.

So my advice to writers this week is - go for a bus ride!