For a change of pace as we enter Christmas week, I thought I would post the first of two pieces on tips for writing fiction by numerous top selling authors. You don’t have to be a writer to enjoy them, they offer lots of good advice to everyone as well as illustrating an insight into how the mind of an author works, or not as the case may be.
I find it interesting that several of the authors contradict themselves so things seem to boil down to a few key theories that are best to adhere to if at all possible and then to find a way to do what works for you which is probably a good way of living whatever your profession.
I’m in no way shape or form a top writer, at least not in terms of sales though I enjoy the sheer creativity that comes with one project being entirely different to the one I’ve just finished and the one I’ll work on next.
I’m quite lucky as I have never suffered from any form of writers block. I just don’t get stuck and constantly have more books in my head than I can ever hope to write and once I decide on one to write then there is a never ending flow of ideas to work with. The constraints on my writing are only those of time, energy and the need to pay bills some times more immediately than royalties can assist with.
A few weeks I was giving a tour of Stonehenge and unexpectedly I met with the unofficial Shaman for the site. The Shaman was a very interesting person to talk too and was there to remind people that Stonehenge is a religious and spiritual site and not just a historic and archaeological one. I spent around 15 minutes chatting away and I even experienced a vision which was one of the most remarkable things I have ever lived through and which i might write upon later.
Having decided that I was a writer, she then said to me “May I ask you a personal question?” I replied that this was fine. She asked ‘Do you ever have problems with ideas when I write?” I informed her that of all the problems I have, that was never a concern.
She then told me that is because I have an unusually strong link to The Earth and whilst some have to think up their stories, I somehow channel them directly from the planet and the life-forces directly onto the page. She said that when she had a similar conversation and vision quest with Terry Pratchett, he too wrote with a similar gift, at least until he sadly became afflicted with Alzheimers.
I’m still remember that conversation now, 3 weeks later, though any comparison at all with Terry Pratchett even in such a fashion is good enough for me. So whilst I have no problems with writers block, I do have problems with writing something worth reading but it seems that so do many of the big names below. Write until the end of the book and worry about quality of it later on when you have a first draft copy rather than waste energy perfecting each sentence and paragraph so that you never, ever finish anything.
Before I get to the professionals, here are my tips for writing…. for all the good they will do you!
- Always write what you like and don’t care what others say. However if you do that be prepared not to sell very much except to a hardcore of very enthusiastic readers.
2. Try and find a niche. So many people write romantic fiction or the like and it’s so hard to stand out from the crowd. I’m not saying everyone should write something unique like my 101 Most Horrible Tortures in History but it is unique, stands out and differentiates me from the crowd. That’s half the job of marketing and advertising already done!
3. Writing is like any other art form. It takes a lot of practice to achieve anything like perfection but just a little bit of application can show great rewards.
4. Try and write every day. If you are stuck on your writing, do something related like mapping out your characters, motives and story arcs. Anything to keep things moving forward!
5. Always finishing your writing for the day with a half completed sentence or paragraph… perhaps with a few key words after wards. This ensures that when you come back to your writing you can instantly get back into the flow.
6. I always find that what ever I write most recently is totally awful. I don’t worry about it as the next day I write new material which is totally awful. By the third day having become more separated from what I wrote earlier, the day one material is looking really marvellous and I wish I could write that today.
7. Don’t spend lots of money on writing. It really doesn’t have to cost a penny. I see so many blogs, schemes and scams encouraging people to spend a lot of money on editing, marketing, artwork but with a bit of perseverance, hard work and if possible a network of friends then you absolutely do not need to spend a penny. If you’re writing for more than just pleasure then you’re goal is to make money and spending the better part of £1,000 or $1,000 before you even publish your book means you have to make a lot of sales. Are you going to get 700 sales to even cover the costs of that editor? My best selling book How To Get Rich Using Airbnb I wrote in around 2 hours and got it published myself in another 2 hours. I didn’t spend a penny but is often ranked number 1 in 3 categories on Amazon sites and also very highly on iBooks around the world and it gives me royalties!
8. Don’t get hung up about getting published by a publisher or self-publishing. I’ve done both and aside from ego there isn’t that much between the two. Also don’t listen to all those who endlessly hype their works on blogs, twitter or the like and consider not doing so yourself as it only bores lots of people. I’ve seen some behind the scenes figures and many authors hype doesn’t match their actual sales, not by a long, long way. In fact just like the days at school when the loudest kids mouthed off in class whilst the more capable students put their heads down to do work, I’d say the same is the case with authors.
9. Always be ready to note down your inspiration. Many of mine come in dreams, sitting on the toilet, stuck in the London traffic or just have an inspiration brainwave or conversation at a random moment. I had one for The Timeless Trilogy whilst under a banana tree on Elephantine Island on the Nile! Do always have a pen and paper around or at least send yourself a text message on your phone as lightening doesn’t always strike twice.
10. Only take on advice if you think it is helpful and that goes for the professional advice below. If you ask for advice or feedback, prepare for bad news and don’t pay too much attention to reviews for good or for bad.
11. Related to the hype point in number 8. Don’t let your work only be sold on one source. Put a little time and effort in to making sure your work is available in every format and every online and physical store. Anything else is just needlessly limiting your potential. I make as many sales elsewhere as on Amazon and many in paper formats too. Sure, only a handful from some smaller outlets but if you have half a dozen smaller outlets then it more than equals that one big seller. Also smaller formats have very dedicated devotees and it is much easier to climb the rankings too which becomes a very good circle to get trapped in. If someone wants to limit your book to one outlet… maybe it is because they know they are onto a good thing at your expense.
The following pieces of advice are extracts of an article first published in The Guardian newspaper over 5 years ago so I hope they won’t mind me posting it here! I have often looked at them over the years and hope they might help fellow writers and be of interest to readers generally.
Elmore Leonard: Using adverbs is a mortal sin
1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”
3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.
9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
1 Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).
2 Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.
3 You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)
1 Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
2 Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph –
3 Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
4 Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
5 Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
6 Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
7 Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
8 Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
9 Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven’t written yet.
10 Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.
1 Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue.
2 Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don’t yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.
3 Read Keats’s letters.
4 Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.
5 Learn poems by heart.
6 Join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.
7 A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
8 If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.
9 Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.
1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”
2 Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.
3 Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.
4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great autocorrect files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes ”photography” and so on. Genius!
5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.
6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.
7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.
8 Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.
9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.
10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to perseverance. But writing is all about perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.
1 The first 12 years are the worst.
2 The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
3 Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
4 Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
5 Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn’t matter how “real” your story is, or how “made up”: what matters is its necessity.
6 Try to be accurate about stuff.
7 Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.
8 You can also do all that with whiskey.
9 Have fun.
10 Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.
1 Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
2 Don’t have children.
3 Don’t read your reviews.
4 Don’t write reviews. (Your judgment’s always tainted.)
5 Don’t have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.
6 Don’t drink and write at the same time.
7 Don’t write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)
8 Don’t wish ill on your colleagues.
9 Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
10 Don’t take any shit if you can possibly help it.
1 The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
2 Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
3 Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.
4 Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
5 When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
6 The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.
7 You see more sitting still than chasing after.
8 It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
9 Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
10 You have to love before you can be relentless.
1 Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.
2 A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn’t spin a bit of magic, it’s missing something.
3 Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.
4 Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.
5 Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.
6 Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
7 Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.
2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3 Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7 Laugh at your own jokes.
8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
1 Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.
2 Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.
3 Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
4 Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
5 Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
1 Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.
2 Have more humility. Remember you don’t know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.
3 Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.
4 Defend your work. Organisations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn’t matter that much.
5 Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.
6 Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.
7 Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won’t need to take notes.
8 Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you’ll get is silence.
9 Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.
10 Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.