Some General Advice on Writing

So, what do you do first? Well, if you want to write, then, dammit, write! Start with something achievable, perhaps a short story, and start with a genre and a subject that you’re familiar with. Don’t write science fiction if you’ve only ever read one science fiction story in your life. Don’t write romance because you somewhat depreciatingly think it’s easy. Pick a genre and a subject you:

  • admire;
  • know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
  • feel a real enthusiasm for.

In the early 1990s I stupidly thought I’d make a killing writing light romance. Easy, I thought. No matter that I thought light romance was stuff for fools. No matter that I hadn’t read a light romance since I was fourteen. What happened? I failed miserably. It was bloody hard. I wrote some three novels in the light romance vein, and they are all laughable. That’s not the genre’s fault, it’s mine. Light romance is as difficult or as easy to write as adventure or science fiction; what makes the difference is the author’s attitude and experience, and I failed on both counts.

So don’t pick something because you think it will be easy. Pick something because you like it and are familiar with it.

You must accept that most of what you first write won’t be any good (this is the hardest thing to accept). Perhaps most of what you write for months or even years won’t be much good. That’s okay. The important thing is that you are writing, and you are learning as you go. You will become more familiar and more comfortable with the pacing of plots, with the intricacies of dialogue and with the development of characters the more you do it. I wrote close to six or seven novels, all of which are unpublishable, before I had learned enough to write something that was publishable (although I also completely changed the genre I was writing in as well, and that helped). Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I needed the experience of those novels behind me to eventually write something that worked … and that I could sell.

Short stories I can give no advice on at all, because I’ve only just begun to write short stories. I cut my teeth on novel writing, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

Establishing a Discipline of Writing

Writing must be one of the most disciplined professions on earth: it has to be, because without discipline nothing will ever get done. As I explain on my page on discipline in the bath (you have to read that page to understand the title!), I find writing very hard, and literally have to force myself to do it. Getting that first draft down is very, very difficult. Personally I find that the only way I can write is to discipline myself into a routine, and I think most writers have their own discipline and routine. You have to find your own routine, but once you find one that works for you, then you have to discipline yourself to keep to it, and not to waver and wander. If you set aside Saturday to write, then write on Saturday, don’t keep running out to do the shopping, or going off for a few hours to watch the kids’ football. If you set aside one day a week to write, then be totally selfish – that is your day to write, and nothing comes between you and your writing.

You not only have to be disciplined in setting aside time (and then being selfish enough to insist on keeping that time to yourself and your writing), but you must be disciplined in ensuring you are constantly moving forward in your writing. Don’t waste yourself in constant revising and rewriting until you have a first draft done. As I mention elsewhere, I’ve watched friends constantly revise the first half of a novel for year after year, and they won’t accept that they will never finish that novel. I’ve been in the same position. You write a bit, then you succumb to the temptation to go back and revise it. Just a bit. It won’t take long.

A decade later (I jest not) you realise you’ve squandered every chance you may ever have had to actually write a book. All you have is ten years’ worth of revisions to the first three chapters (or whatever).

MOVE FORWARD. PUT THOSE DAMN WORDS DOWN ON PAPER. Write, and keep writing until an entire draft is done. Then you can (and, indeed, you must) revise it. Steeling yourself to constantly move forward is something you must do.

The First Novel

The hardest lesson to learn is that your first novel will undoubtedly be dreadful. You must be prepared to let your first novel go. Face the fact that one day you’re going to have to turn off the life support systems.

This is hard. Planning, writing and completing a novel is an achievement in itself, and the first-time novelist is generally so emotionally attached to his or her creation they are incapable of seeing it with objective eyes. I have a friend who has been reworking her first novel for the past 7 years … she won’t let go, she won’t accept that she must move on, and she can’t see that she has virtually ruined any chance she has of ever succeeding in actually completing a publishable work. No-one amateur painter expects his or her first work to be a masterpiece (and keep reworking the same canvas for year after year) … so why do amateur writers?

Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea, or who can’t accept, how bad they are.

It took me some five years to realise that my first novel was so bad it would never be published. Its worth lay not in whether it would or would not be published, but in what it taught me. Once I accepted the fact that it would be easier (and better) to start a new project than continue to try to resuscitate the First Novel, I took the first great big step towards success.

The second attempt at a novel was easier to let go – and that made it easier for me to view it objectively and learn from its mistakes.

By the third novel I knew what I was doing, and I think by that stage I’d accepted that I was in a learning mode rather than in a ‘get-rich-and-famous-quick’ mode. I think I typed in the final fullstop, then closed the file without a single emotional twinge, and instantly began work on the fourth novel.

I was on a roll. I’d managed to remove myself enough from my writing to be able to view it objectively, to recognise instantly when something wasn’t working, and by this stage I had enough experience to know what to do to correct it.

I was still writing romance, but I knew that this genre was not for me. The excitement was building, because I knew I was close to a breakthrough.

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough for me was finding the perfect genre for my style of writing and for the peculiar and often dark shape of my mind. Fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years, but it’s certainly not my favourite genre (what is my favourite? Military adventure fantasy – Tom Clancy, for example, or mystery and crime). The day I thought, “Why not try fantasy?” it felt so right that I instinctively knew this was going to be my best chance at success.

From the moment I wrote the first chapter of BattleAxe I thought it had a really good chance … my practice runs gave me the experience I needed to recognise saleable worth when I wrote it.

But there was something else about BattleAxe that made it different. This one I wrote almost exclusively for myself, whereas all the other novels I did with an ‘audience’ in mind. BattleAxe I LOVED writing. I lived that book, and it lived for me. Consequently it lives for most (not all, she grins, remembering the odd review) of my readers. So if it works for you, then it may well work for others … but again, you’ve got to balance involvement with objectivity.

What To Do With It Now?

So you’ve finished the piece that you think may see you through into book signings and pleasant conversations with your bank manager. What to do with it now?

First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two, or even six, months. Then take it out, view it with a fresh eye, and revise it ferociously. Make yourself see all the bits that don’t work, and force yourself to change them. Authors always find it hard to change a single word of their masterpiece, but, believe me, masterpieces can always be improved (if you can’t find much wrong with your manuscript, then it’s probably so awful it should be burnt). The more improved your manuscript is, and the more professional (and professionally presented) it is, the greater chance you will have of being published. It’s a hectic world out there, peopled by agents and editors who are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that catches their eyes is professionalism. They don’t have time for anything but.

If you want some more hints of constructing prose, then you have a look at How to Write the Perfect History Essay, something I wrote for my university students way back when. Although it concentrates on academic writing, what it says about organisation and clarity of prose goes for whatever kind of writing you are engaged in.

You can also have a look at the many books available on the market on how to write.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

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