Over the last few months I’ve done a lot of events, and I always get asked for my top writing tips. I don’t really believe in “writing” tips, because as long as a story is compelling, you can break any rule and it’ll work (there is nothing wrong with adverbs, for example).
Most of the time writing tips can just succeed in scaring new authors, because they’ll be too nervous to actually do any writing in case they do it “wrong”. You can’t learn to write by reading handbooks and writer’s guides and interview after interview of writing tips from your favourite authors (however much we like writing them…) You learn to write by writing.
Outlining is an example of the danger of writing tips. Every time I read an interview with an author, the answer to whether you need to plan everything in advance changes. Some people say that you should plan every chapter, others say that you should just know the beginning, others the beginning and end….basically everyone does this differently. There’s no right answer.
If you don’t know what happens all the way through, I would just start writing it anyway. Your brain is going to be working away thinking about the plot all the time, so you might find that by the time you get there you’ll have the answer without having to do any work.
That’s what I usually do, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of night with the answer, but other times I end up having to postpone writing for a few days while I wrestle with a plothole, even one that I knew that was coming.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all part of writing. Just write, and you’ll get there in the end.
So, since writing works differently for everyone (and sometimes even differently for the same person, when writing different books), these are more rules to just help you get to a place where you can start writing your story. You can write the actual story however you want.
i. Always write about zombie cats.
By which I mean: write the book that only you can write. Don’t chase trends, because by the time you finish, edit, get a book deal, edit again, and finally publish your version of the next dystopian bestseller, the market will be oversaturated with them.
You can’t write with the intention of making money. You won’t enjoy writing the book as much, and you can’t predict what will become a bestseller anyway. Nobody can.
Instead of trying to play the market, just write the quirky, unique idea that only YOU can write, regardless of whether you think it will sell or not. Don’t worry about getting it published. Just write the book you love, and someone else will love it as much as you do. You want to find the editor and agent who loves zombie cats just as much as you do.
Write the book that you can’t sleep for thinking about; the story you want to share with everyone you meet, the one you want to keep just for yourself. Your love for your story will shine through, and that is what publishers are looking for.
ii. Don’t get bogged down in detail. Just get it done.
The most life-changing thing I’ve ever read about writing was the concept of the [TK] note: that instead of stopping writing to fact-check something on google, just leave yourself a [TK] note in the middle of the sentence and come back to it in the next draft, whenever that may be. It doesn’t matter. It will wait. The story is more important than the individual scene.
That changed the entire way I think about first drafts. When you first write a story, you have one goal. It doesn’t have to have perfect grammar, or be completely fact-checked. It doesn’t even have to have every scene or detail. All it has to do is exist. Everything else comes afterwards.
There’s no point spending months editing and re-editing the first two chapters until it’s perfect if you never write the rest of the book. In the second draft, you might decide the book would be better if it started at a different scene, and all of your perfect sentences and months of work will have been wasted. You simply can’t start editing a book until it’s done; until you can see it as a whole, and analyse it.
Just write the book. Leave it full of [TK]s and fix them in three months time. Give yourself permission not to be perfect. You wouldn’t expect yourself to run a marathon perfectly the first time you practised. Why would you expect yourself to be able to write a book? Take breaks to catch your breath. You’ll do better next time around the circuit.
iii. Read your genre. Read other people’s genres. Read every genre.
As a writer, you have to accept that everything has been done before. Many, many times before. There are no original ideas. At least, not if you stick to one genre. Everything that can been done in a detective novel has been done, hundreds of times before. There are no new twists.
If you mix genres, though – if you write about a detective on a spaceship, for example – there are endless things which have never been done before. Old, used tropes suddenly seem familiar and comforting in a new genre.
Read everything and anything. Mix and match. Inspiration strikes in the oddest of places.
iv. Engage critically with what you read.
The best training to learn how to write is not to pay for a Creative Writing course. The best way to learn is to read as much, and as widely, as possible. Think about your favourite books – what do you enjoy about them? What works? What doesn’t? Which sections do you find yourself skipping? Which scenes leave you breathless, unable to stop reading? See what works in books, and use it in your writing. Learn from the best.
v. Don’t live your life at a desk. Then you’ll have nothing to write about except writing.
There’s a reason that literary novels are mocked for always being about middle-aged English professors having affairs. It’s because people tend to write what they know, and what they’ve experienced themselves. So make sure your experiences aren’t all about sitting at a desk, struggling to write.
If you want to be a writer, maybe consider studying something other than English at university. I studied Physics and Chemistry, and it was the best possible thing I could have done to prepare me to become a writer. I learn about things other than books and reading. I spent a year abroad. I became a rounded person, with things to put in books. Your laptop will always be waiting. Go on adventures too.
vi. Finished your story? Hide it away. Leave it there….until you can’t remember how it felt to write it.
Do not start editing a book as soon as you finish writing it. Do not! It will not work! You’ll find yourself knit-picking commas and adverbs instead of looking at the story objectively as a whole. Leave it until you can read it with a bit of perspective. You need to be detached enough to be able to cut out scenes without it hurting. Otherwise it’ll just grow and grow forever without getting any better.
Finally, good luck! I believe in you. Go and write about your zombie cats.
If you liked this post then you might also want to check out my list of excuses for not writing, and why they are nonsense.
You can find a rebloggable version of this post here.