The Number 1 Writing Mistake

It’s the 1 September tomorrow. I love this time of year – there’s something seductive about new beginnings, a new school or university year coming up, ditching summer clothes for cosy jumpers and writing inside a warm flat. If you’ve been wanting to start a writing project, now is a good time. It’s pouring, it’s a new month, and the publishing industry is starting to wake up after summer. Do it! Start this week!

I’ve been reading a lot of other people’s work at the moment, and as I give feedback I’ve noticed I often say the same thing. People routinely make the same mistake, over and over, when they’re starting out. It’s not the misuse of commas (though as a punctuation tyrant I can tell you that one is also RIFE) or random tense shifts (also far too common – check your work before you send it out!). No, it’s this: giving away too much.

This can be difficult to get your head around as a new author. You have to tell the readers something, right? They’d like to know who they’re reading about, and where and when they are, and what colour hair the character has, and what sort of childhood they had, and what music they’ve got on their Spotify playlist, and their feelings about Marmite? Right?

Well, no. I think the reader wants to know two things when they start a book.

  1. Roughly who/what/where/when is this all about then?
  2. What’s this story going to be eh? Why should I read this damn thing? ENTERTAIN ME.

I’m assuming all readers are as impatient as me here. Bottom line is- you’ve got to hook them in. And you have very little time to do this. Think of the reader as a sniffy judge on a reality TV show, with their finger hovering over the ‘no’ button. And so you need to use that brief stage-time really wisely. Give them tension, suspense, action, dialogue, a story that kicks off. Cut out everything that doesn’t need to be there or can come later – backstory, character information, their childhood trauma, what they look like, world-building, how they got to the place where the scene is taking place.

There’s another reason for keeping things back. If it’s juicy – a big dramatic fact, a secret, or something that could be a surprise reveal – then you’re doing yourself out of essential suspense. Keep the reader turning the pages because they want to find out things. It’s that simple. If you tell them things straight up, they won’t need to read on. Master this simple fact and your writing will instantly be better. Good luck!

Next weekend I’m at the York Festival of Writing, where I’ll be talking about similar things and also giving one-to-one advice. If you see me there, do say hi.

The Joy of Jump Cuts

In the first term of the writing MA I teach, we set the students an exercise in writing time. Both moment by moment time, and long periods of time passing. Invariably people find the second one harder – and I admit I do myself. Think about it – showing the passage of time usually involves telling not showing, a lack of dialogue and action, and summarising rather than dramatising. All things which lead to a reduced pace and bored, disengaged readers.

Screenwriters have the advantage here. They can show passing time via leaves falling, seasons shifting, or even a trusty montage. Typically, scripts will also cover less time than novels (because you’d have to age the actors up otherwise). A novel is distilled time. It can take three hours to read (OK YES I SKIM READ) but may cover months, years, decades. Luckily, there is a way to do this without the great Pace Killer which is recounted time. And it’s this: the jump cut.

Or in other words, the joy of just leaving things out. If you need to move the action of your book on an hour, or a day, or even twenty years, just do it. End one chapter or section, start another in the new time period. This will also create a nice sense of suspense, as the reader scrambles to work out what’s happened in the intervening time. If you think they’ll need an anchor, you can add a phrase like ‘it was the day after’ or ‘in the ten years since the accident, things had changed’. Don’t feel you need to show how we get from A to B or even A to F. Readers are smart; they will work it out. This also goes for ‘filler’ scenes of people in cars, greeting new arrivals to a scene, or showering. Consider cutting them. Think about starting the scene much later – with dialogue for example-and ending sooner. Sharon Bolton, who writes some of the paciest thrillers that ever kept you up till 3am, once told me that during editing she ‘top and tails’ each scene as much as possible.

So give it a try if you ever find yourself writing a phrase like ‘a year went by’. It’s almost always better to dramatise than summarise. Learn the joy of jump cuts, and give yourself permission to simply leave things out.

Some more about story

I’ve previously talked about the elements a story needs to have. I could say a lot about this  – in fact I do a three-hour lecture on it at City Uni, where I teach in London. It’s the first lecture the students have, and I think this is good, because when most people start writing, they have some of the elements a book needs- characters they love, nice writing (because most people writing novels seem to come to it from a love of the words rather than story), an important setting or theme they want to talk about – but fewer have an amazing story.

How do you get this?

You need a person – a dynamic character we can root for. How to create this is a whole topic in itself, but I would say that you may as well give the character as many internal conflicts as possible to start with, especially if you’re writing a series. Don’t limit your story possibilities. And make sure they take action rather than be passively engulfed by the story. They should make the story, really.

You need a goal or problem – they want something. They’re threatened with something. They must act in some way to achieve or escape this thing. I think that last point is really important so let me repeat: they must act. Low stakes, or the ‘so what’ factor, are a major weakness of most debut novels.

You need ongoing conflict and obstacles – otherwise your problem is solved in chapter three and you’ve got a very short book on your hands. Keep raising the stakes. The key is that characters must react to the plot and make choices as events occur. They must drive it rather than be swept along. I’ve highlighted those, as again passive characters can be a major issue for debuts (and not just debuts!)

Then you need a resolution – in other words, things must be different at the end of the story than they are at the start. Otherwise, arguably, there is no story. I’m not talking about having to wrap up all the loose ends – that’s a separate issue and is very tied in with genre – I’m just saying something must have changed. That’s another key question you should be able to answer about your novel. What will have changed by the end? Change be internal or external or both, but it must be there.

There’s some great information on this system in this post which I urge you to read. It’s possible to have an amazing instinct for story and not be so hot on prose, and it’s possible to write lovely prose in which nothing much happens. I think marry them up and you’ve got a winner. I also think we all have an instinctive understanding of how stories work, because, as Ursula Le Guin said, ‘The story is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding.’ Sometimes you just need to tap into this, and forget everything you learned in school about writing clear, logical, dull prose.

I’m off to Edinburgh today but will be back soon to talk more about creating stories, and the difference between story and plot. I’ll be there to scoop up inspiration from the Fringe (and steal some jokes to put in my new rom com). If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to answer on this blog, just let me know here or on Twitter.

Writing when you have no time

As writers we don't need all this stuff - so do it anywhere! Me, reflected in Barbara Hepworth's (very tidy) studio.
As writers we don’t need all this stuff – so do it anywhere! Me, reflected in Barbara Hepworth’s (very tidy) studio.

Summer can be a fractured time for work. There are always festivals, holidays, weekends away, residencies. All good things, but which take me from my desk and my routine. Not that I have much of a routine. Which is sort of what this post is about. One of the questions I get asked a lot is ‘How many words do you write per day?’

I do not like this question.

Mostly because it makes me break out in itchy guilt-hives that I haven’t done enough (because you can never do enough, not really) and want to knock the asker aside so I can dash to my laptop. But also because it doesn’t really work like that. Not for me, anyway. Some days I’ll write 1,000 – that’s what I aim for when I’m in a writing phase, trying to build up my word count. Some days, if I’m on holiday and have nothing else to do, I might write 4,000. I think once I did 7,000 and it was glorious – similar to the feeling of staying in bed all day when you first fall in love with someone and only want to be with them. Only, you know, less sticky.

But other days I write zero words. Or I actually lose words, delete them and chuck them away. Some days I spend a lot of time putting in tabs and quote marks. Some days I just stare at the damn thing and it seems to get no better. I think this is OK. There are building phases of a book, and there are sculpting phases, and there are trimming phases, and there are smoothing phases. The important thing is to know where you’re at, and be sure that you’re making progress according to your own milestones. Be stern with yourself and ask if you’re moving forward, or just circling round the beginning again and again.

Last week I was away a lot, swimming in rivers, walking, eating so much clotted cream I probably now have clotted arteries. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough work – mainly because I have a book that’s so close do being finished it is painful. I feel as if I got nothing done, but in truth I did about 10,000 words. It was very rough – tapped out on an ipad mini while in bed or on the train, snatching half an hour here and there, ignoring the other people in the room, sticking down some typo-ridden text, scribbling ideas and lines in a notebook. Nothing at all like smooth, ordered writing.  A total mess, basically. But it exists. And the book has moved forward, and I hope to finish it this week (86,000 words and counting!)

So my tip for the week is this – don’t feel you need a routine. It would be lovely, of course to be one of those writers who can answer the dreaded question with, ‘Well I rise at six and do yoga and have a wheatgrass smoothie. Then I work in my turret from seven to ten, when I stop for an espresso and a biscotti made with edible gold. Manuel, my butler, comes to take away the cup’ and so on. Life gets in the way. There are dentist appointments and phone calls and laptop problems and other people with their inconvenient needs and fun and loveliness. Just get some words down, however rubbish they are, and try not to beat yourself up. Also, if you figure out how to do this, please let me know? Happy summer everyone.

Openings – the one thing you need before you start

This week I’ve been reading the submissions for our bursary competition on the Crime Thriller MA I run at City University. We asked for the first 1,000 words only, because in theory a great crime novel should have grabbed the reader by then. Easy, right? Or is it? It got me thinking about what really matters in an opening. What’s the most important skill you have to demonstrate? What matters most in that moment when a busy agent clicks open your Word doc, or when a reader flicks through a book in a shop?  I believe it’s one thing and one thing only. Do you want to know what that is?

Are you sure?

If this was a TV show, it’s at this point you’d hear the credits or we’d cut to the ad break. Because I’m talking about suspense – the art of keeping things hanging, or making people ask ‘where is this going?’ or ‘what happens next?’ or ‘what on earth is going on?’ I think that if you get this right in your book opening, you can get everything else wrong and it won’t matter. Yes, I mean everything. Shaky characterisation, cheesy writing, blurred sense of place and time, even bad formatting and poor spelling and grammar (but don’t tell anyone I said that, OK? I have to defend my reputation as the Scourge of Rogue Commas).

Of course, I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. A reader won’t get very far into your book if those aren’t in place too. I’m just saying that unless someone wants to read on, there’s no point in anything else. It’s Game Over. So your number one job when starting your novel is to hook the reader and pull them in.

How do you do this? It’s a long topic, and one I tend to bang on about a lot. There are many ways to create suspense, and lots of tools you need in your metaphorical writing box. I will cover these over the next few weeks, but I think above all else, when starting out you need to get your story right. It’s amazing how many new writers don’t even have a story. They have a character portrait, or a series of linked anecdotes, or some torturously beautiful descriptions of the mountains or the young boy’s feelings as the bullies flush his head down the loo. All of which may be very important and lovely, but it’s not a story.

Here’s a way to check if you have a story. Answer this question: what is your book (or script or play or whatever) about?

Look at your answer now.

Have you written a theme? (eg whaling). A character? (eg a teenage girl). A location or time? (seventeenth-century India) None of these things are story. Simply put, a story involves something happening. And for something to happen, we need things to change. To move. So your answer should involve an active verb of some kind. It should follow this kind of (very very) rough guide: ‘It’s about (character) who needs/wants (a big goal or a big problem), and so X happens (consequences, conflict, choices)’. In other words, choices are made. Problems arise and are reacted to. Things shift. Things probably go horribly wrong and maybe horribly right again. But if nothing is happening, there is no story.

Next time I’ll go into story elements in more details, but in the meantime I’d suggest having a read of this book if you have time. If not I’ll mention the key aspects next week. Try the exercise now! Any questions just message me or tweet me at @inkstainsclaire.

Starting out- events

One piece of advice I often give to aspiring writers is: go to events. When you’re on the outside, publishing can seem like an ivory-towered citadel that’s doing its best to keep out the unpublished rabble. In truth, it’s a business that’s looking for new product – it’s just that the product is your very hopes and dreams, so it can all get a bit emosh. If you start going to events, you will see that publishers and editors are human beings, and they would not be at the event in the first place if they didn’t want to find new writers.

When I say events, I’m talking about book festivals, writing festivals, author panels, writing conferences and classes. Some will cost money, but some are totally free (check out universities and book shops for these). There are lots of book festivals, and a couple of ones just for writers – this year I will be at the York Festival of Writing and also Get Writing in Watford. At these events you will find agents, and included in your entry fee you might get one-on-one time with them. You might even get chatting to them in the bar or at lunchtime. Then you can mention your book (in a cool interesting way, of course, not in a ‘I’ve followed you into the ladies’ way). (It happens). Then they might ask to see it….and you send it…and a beautiful friendship may begin!

Being known has other benefits. Writers, editors, and agents are always chatting between themselves (the industry is fuelled by 95% gossip, 4% booze. 1% cake probably), and it makes sense to mention talented new writers you’ve come across. This is also a reason doing a course is a good idea. You can of course go the traditional route- get the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook and laboriously contact all the agents in it – and this works the same, and your book will get read at some point, but why not get a foot in the door, and jump yourself up the pile? Also I think the events are really good value for the information and contacts you get. I wish I’d gone to them sooner! Lists of agents get out of date really fast and there’s no way to tell who has closed to submissions and who is new and really keen to take on more writers. I cannot overstate how vital it is to pick an agent who is actively looking for new authors and likes the type of book you write.

The normal rules of socialising apply – be polite, be interesting if possible, don’t monopolise or badger. Don’t call out agents who turned you down. Pick your moment – after a panel it’s probably fine to approach the agent, but if they’re nose to nose in the bar with a pal and dripping gin and tonic down their front at 3am then maybe give them some space. Oh and get business cards and have a website where they can contact you and find out about your work. You’re on Twitter, yes? (If not WHY NOT?) You are networking now, darling. Follow people (on Twitter NOT INTO LADIES were you not listening) and again be polite, interesting, friendly.

Not unconnectedly, I have just come back from the Theakston’s Old Peculier festival in Harrogate, which I strongly recommend you go to if you write crime (also go to Crimefest in Bristol). You will be mingling with most of crime publishing and the great and good of crime writing – Lee Child is a regular and often about the hotel. Everyone is very friendly and it’s such an amazing chance to meet people. If you only any money to spend at all on your writing, I would say spend it on an event. The WAAYB also offer day courses if a weekend is too much. I had a great time in Harrogate catching up with all my reprobate writing pals – but just four years ago I rocked up to my first one, knowing nobody, armed with only my wits and my impressive capacity for wine. This could be YOU. (Only don’t drink as much wine as me. Save it for when you’re published and everyone expects you to be a slightly mad writer). See you there?

I was also inspired by this post on how one writer kept going, year after year, to eventually find big success. These things don’t happen in an instant – and even once you’ve ‘made it’ it could be a long slog.

More about starting

I have a few more things to say about getting started (what?? it’s almost like I’m procrastinating). I talked last time about taking yourself seriously. But how do you actually do this? Here are five easy ways to start becoming a writer.

-Create space in your life for writing. For some people this may be as extreme as quitting the day job, for others it will mean carving out time before or after work, at lunchtime, or on the commute. It might mean making childcare arrangements for a set amount of time. It could mean going on a retreat for a few days. Whatever it takes to get some time and space in your life. You can also try methods like the Pomodoro technique to get things done in even very short periods of time – fifteen minutes is enough!

-Make a public intention of what you want to do. Secret dreams have a way of remaining secret- forever. So think about signing up for a class, or a writers’ group, or even just going to one-off panels and events. There are lots of these (try bookshops for a start) and many are free. Start telling yourself and others that you want to be a writer and you might be surprised at how things begin to gather momentum.

-Start getting to know the industry. Go to events where agents are speaking (the York Festival of Writing, Get Writing, or another writing conference for example), follow people on Twitter, try your best to learn how things work in publishing, and above all READ. Lots of prospective writers don’t read anything recently published, but you really must if you want to understand what’s selling at the moment. Luckily, this means that kicking back with a book is a totally legitimate use of your time.

-Put some effort into it. Get a decent desk set up. Do you need a laptop stand, mouse, external keyboard? Don’t do what I did and work at the kitchen table for years (my trapezium muscles will never forgive me). Invest in a decent laptop and/or a nice notebook and pen. You will save a lot of time if you’re not messing about with an ancient computer that crashes all the time. When you have limited time, you need to be able to open the laptop and go.

-Treat it like a business, even if you’ve not made any money from it. start backing your work up as a matter of course- don’t find out the hard way how easy it is to lose things. Most writers have some kind of horror story about leaving work on the tube, or on laptops that get stolen or blow up, or on USB sticks that go through the wash. I use Dropbox, but you could also email it to yourself regularly and use an external hard drive. You really can’t be too careful! Save yourself the 3am waking-up-in-a-cold-sweat. Also, boring as it may seem, it’s not too soon to think about taxes. At the very least start saving the receipts from any work-related expenditure. And if you enjoy such things, go wild with the organising files and stationery.

Congratulations, you’re now a writer who means business. Now all you have to do is write the actual book! Easy, right?? If you don’t think so, follow this blog, where I’ll be taking you through the steps of writing a novel.