‘Writing a novel is a feat of endurance. It takes persistence, energy and bloody-mindedness’
Are you an aspiring author who is struggling to put pen to paper? We’ve got just what you’re looking for.
In a very special article Victoria Scott, author of The Women Who Wouldn’t Leave, Grace and LoveReading Debut of the Month Patience, shares her five top tips for budding authors looking to kick-start their writing careers.
When I was writing my debut novel, Patience, I read every scrap of advice I could find. I devoured Stephen King’s On Writing, took a six-month course with Faber and read countless posts which offered genuinely useful tips like: write what you know; send your characters on a journey; and show, don’t tell.
And yet, three novels in, I reflect regularly on something I heard once and have never forgotten. And that is that the only difference between a novelist and a non-novelist is that the novelist sat down and wrote the bloody thing.
Frankly you can spend as much money as you like on courses and books to teach you the craft, but unless you actually get on with it, it’s all pretty pointless. And as any author will tell you, every first draft (and that’s what your manuscript will be, when you finish it) is rough. Some might actually say messy. No author’s first draft, no matter how talented they are, is published without considerable editing and re-writing.
Make no mistake, completing a manuscript is no mean feat. The average thriller is about 85,000 words, and the average historical or fantasy novel considerably longer. Writing a novel is a feat of endurance. It takes persistence, energy and bloody-mindedness.
So I thought it might be useful to share my tips – not about craft, but about how to make yourself start and, crucially, finish the first draft of your novel. Because without a first draft, you have nothing to improve upon.
Here are my five tips for actually getting on with it:
1. Actually start writing
This sounds deceptively simple but it’s actually rather hard to do. A novel is such an enormous task, it’s hard to work out where to start. You might feel you need to plan everything out meticulously beforehand, or that you need to do lots of research first, or you might feel frozen with fear, endlessly deleting and rewording your first sentence, desperate to get it right, to make it memorable. My advice is not to overthink it. Like a good coffee, a good novel takes time to percolate. Just start writing and see what comes. I often don’t really get into the nitty gritty of planning until I’ve written three of four chapters. This also gives me to time to figure out the voice and where the characters might lead me.
2. Keep writing
This is probably the hardest of the five steps. The beginning of a novel can seem shiny and exciting, but as you start to enter the main body of it, it can begin to feel dull. You feel like nothing is happening. You can’t imagine ever getting to the end. You get tempted by a glittering new idea and think about starting that instead. My tip here is to write in bursts, ideally using something like Google Docs where you can write your novel from anything with an internet connection. That means you can write fifty words on your phone while you’re waiting for a coffee, a few hundred on your laptop in your lunch break and can read your day’s efforts while you’re in the bath. It all adds up. Also, I keep a spreadsheet with what happens in each chapter on its own row, and when I finish one I colour the whole row green. There’s something immensely satisfying about that.
3. Finish it
So you’ve written your exciting opening and you’ve waded your way through your soggy middle, but the final mile has yet to be run. There’s a very strong temptation to just race to the end without paying much attention to the scenery on the way, and I advise you not to give into it. Every reader wants a satisfying ending, where all the loose threads are knotted. You need to give it to them. And to yourself. So take your time, and if it helps, don’t plan the end too much. Then you might find yourself writing like a demon, desperate to find out what happens. I know this sounds insane but this is how my brain works, and it’s possible that yours might work this way, too.
4. Give yourself a break
You will feel euphoric when you eventually get to write THE END. (Annoyingly, those words are never actually included in published books, but authors always write them anyway, because damn it, we all deserve to write them after all of those months or years we’ve given over to the bloody thing.) It can be tempting to send your manuscript off at this stage to agents or publishers, but I beg you not to. You might think it’s ready, but I promise you it’s not. Put it away in a metaphorical drawer for at least a few days, to give your brain time to recover before you attempt the final step in my five point plan…
5. Go back and do it all again
Yes, that’s right. In some cases, you might re-read your novel and realise it needs a huge rewrite. If you do, don’t panic. No writing effort is wasted, and in my experience, editing can be immensely satisfying. And even if it doesn’t need major work, there will be lots of typos, grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies in your manuscript. It’s also a good idea to ask a trusted, bookish friend to read it at this stage, provided they know they need to give you honest feedback. When they give it, try to smile even though your heart may actually be breaking, and take it on board. After all, they might be right. And even if they’re not – if you want to be an author, it’s not a bad idea to get used to people telling you exactly what they think of your writing. It happens to us all of the time, and you really do need to try to develop a thick skin about it (every author reading this is now nodding madly.)
So that’s it – my well-earned wisdom on the art of starting, writing and finishing a novel.
It’s undoubtedly a difficult thing to do, but in my experience, the sense of achievement is immense. And honestly, if I can do it – and I’m a very skilled procrastinator – so can you.
All the best with your writing,