My 10 Best Pieces Of Writing Advice For 2019
Every year teaches me something new about the writing trade. I feel guilty that I have few discernible skills other than being a writer and being able to draw a bit (I’ve tried learning everything from windsurfing to piano and failed) but here at least I can offer a few words of advice to writers who are setting to work in the coming year.
Let’s start with the single most important piece of advice I can give you.
1. If you’re not writing, you won’t write.
Like an athlete or a dancer, a day without practice is a day further away from excellence, and you need to exercise your writing muscles constantly. I’ve been writing all my life and am still only at base camp on this mountain, trying to reach the next level, so I need all the practice I can get. So do you.
2. An idea is not a book.
Don’t be over-ambitious just because you have a lot of ideas. A friend of mine swears he’ll write one day soon, and when he starts his debut novel will be ‘a seven book cycle I can knock out quickly’. I have another friend who swears she’s about to write her book but is ‘waiting for voice recognition software to improve’ because she doesn’t like the idea of typing. These people like the idea of writing but not the work, and are unable to focus on a single saleable story, so they keep backing away. Having an idea is only the first part of approaching a book.
3. When you start, keep going.
…All the way to the end of the book without looking back. You’ll fix some of the errors in the next draft, and more in the draft after. The idea is to get a good number of words onto the page and turn them from clay into a pot. How you do it doesn’t matter. Ignore ‘How To’ books (although there’s a lot to admire in the Faber writing course) and develop the system that works for you. Crime writer Lee Child writes one draft only but constantly goes back to revise the previous section. There are a surprising number of writers who work longhand. I do four drafts on a laptop. If the words work there’s no wrong way to do it.
4. Use real people and real emotions
When you’re looking to breathe life into the characters, look at people you personally know first. One person can be strange, paradoxical, annoying, adorable and horrible in the space of ten minutes. Your material is available at first hand without you trying to invent new lives for everyone.
5. Listen to critics sometimes.
If critics or readers all dislike the same part of what you’ve written, heed them. If they all dislike different parts of what you’ve written, ignore them.
6. Plot means nothing without character.
Consider this sentence; ‘A bus driver came back from the dead to haunt one of his passengers’. Change it to; ‘A sarcastic bus driver came back from the dead to haunt one of his kindest passengers’. You find the plot once you have character traits in place.
7. Crime writing has its own rules.
This may destroy every whodunnit for you, but as a general rule of thumb the murderer is the person you know the most about after the detective. It’s not always the case; Agatha Christie still managed to pull the rug over readers’ eyes. But you can’t invest emotionally in a villain who’s nobody to you. See elsewhere on this site for the crime writing rules.
8. There will be projects lost along the way.
There will also be lost drafts full of good things. Before I got to the finished version of ‘Little Boy Found’ there were five completely different previous versions with other titles, any one of which could have made a good story. At this point you are at the mercy of the editor, who can lift or destroy a manuscript by asking for major changes. Book sales are up in the UK, but as the stakes are raised the risk of interference rises.
9. When you can’t go any further, go further.
I’ve said this before but even I forget it from time to time. Stories are staircases; they can take you far away from the original place, to the point where you wonder how you got here from there. Have you ever been in a situation where you’re forced to ask yourself ‘How on earth did I get myself into this?’ Heroes do it all the time. Pushing them deeper into an impossible situation challenges the reader…and challenges you.
10. When you’re stuck, find a friend you can tell your story to.
Conversation yesterday in Barcelona:
ME: Where is Jo?
FRIEND: She says she’s in a street that looks like Shaftesbury Avenue but she doesn’t know what it’s called.
ME: Where’s a street here that’s wide and long and full of theatres? I know, she’s in Parallel.’
Saying it aloud brings out something previously unspoken. When you describe the plot and characters and story arc and set pieces, or any part of a story, you are forced to put your house in order. You create coherence.
Every year brings new lessons. It’s a never-ending process of refinement. And although it never gets easier, it’s the most fun you can have.