Do you have a half-finished manuscript saved in the bowels of your computer? Do you dream of starting/finishing a novel, but always procrastinate? Are you your own worst enemy?
All writing advice should come with a pinch of salt. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another (‘write every day or give up’ I’m looking at you!). But sometimes you come across a piece of advice that resonates, that lets you move on, that helps you write. Here are my top five tips to help you write, plus a gothic bonus tip for the gleefully morbid among us. I hope they help.
Tip 1: read some crap
In the past, I’d read over my fledgling first draft and think: “This is nothing like <insert favourite author here>. I’ve failed because I haven’t written <insert favourite book here>. I must be shit”. Then I’d stop writing.
Don’t compare yourself to the greats. Learn from them. Read them over and over. But don’t let their awesomeness paralyse you.
Instead, read some crap. Buy a book that gets terrible reader reviews on Amazon. Go to a charity shop and pick the trashiest trash you can; I recommend movie spinoff books, or those kid’s books that are really advertising for toy brands. Notice what makes these books unsatisfying. You could do better, right?
Join a writing group or critique circle and read other people’s first drafts. You’ll notice their mistakes and learn from them. You’ll realise most first drafts are pretty patchy.
We get so used to reading finished, edited, polished works that we forget the process. So read some crap and feel encouraged.
Tip 2: use a Jedi mind trick
If you’re scared of failure, you might not be taking yourself seriously enough to do the things that writers do.
Back in my doubting days I’d stand in the stationery shop and this would happen:
Me: If I got this notebook I could write down plot and character ideas as they occur to me. I might have new ideas. Then I could start writing the book.
My evil twin: You’ll never write a book, so what’s the point? Notebooks costs money. Bloody hell, it’s $7.99! For something that’ll gather dust! Don’t you dare buy it!
Me: *sighs, puts notebook back*
So although I needed a notebook, I didn’t buy one. Although I might read a particular book that was sort of ‘research’ I wouldn’t take notes. I didn’t let myself do the things that writers do.
Then I learned a Jedi mind trick; if I told myself ‘it’s just an experiment’ that took the pressure off. It let me fool myself.
Me: The notebook is an experiment. I’m going to see if it helps.
My evil twin: Not the real thing? Not part of writing a novel? Just an experiment? Oh, well, I guess you can do that. Whatever.
Me: *buys notebook grinning like a two-year-old, starts making notes*
If it’s ‘just an experiment’, it’s not so pressurised. Experiments are about trying stuff out and seeing what happens. You can make mistakes without giving up. You can have fun.
If even experimenting freaks you out, set a time limit. Tell yourself; ‘writing this book is a three year experiment. I’ll give it my all, but if I hate it in three years, I’ll stop’. That helps, because you don’t feel trapped into some endless, pointless toil. And pretty soon something will go right. You’ll get some positive feedback, you’ll write a good line, figure out a solution to a plot issue, and then you’re away again.
Tip 3: write some crap
Is your best idea a bit crappy? Yes? Now here’s the thing: write it anyway. I’ve put that in bold so you know I mean it.
I came up with a few ideas in the nice shiny notebook I’d finally let myself buy. I liked one or two of them. Others were a bit rubbish. Stuff it, I said. It’s an experiment; I’m doing it anyway. And I sat down and started to write.
And here’s the thing about ideas: they can get better. The act of writing helps you develop them.
And even if they’re still a bit rubbish, the act of writing has focused your mind. And next time you’re in the shower, a better idea pops into your mind. It really does. Like magic. And so you delete the pages of crap and write your wonderful new idea into your story.
Tip 3a: crap in disguise (NB – this is a good thing): Sometimes an idea you thought was pretty clever suddenly turns bogus when you try to write it. Janine simply will NOT steal the letter out of Paul’s letterbox. You try to make her, but principled bloody honest Janine damn well refuses to do it.
When you’re new to writing and something’s vital to the plot, it’s easy to get stuck at this point. But in fact, this is the magic starting. Because Janine is coming alive. She’s asserting herself on the page. So be encouraged, and go away and have another idea about how she can get that letter. Yes, you can have another idea. And even if that idea’s a bit rubbish too, never mind. Write it out. See how it goes. Believe me, writing stuff out changes it. Your brain will help you in ways you never expected.
If you get terminally stuck with a plot issue, talk to a friend about it. And if you haven’t got any friends who’ll discuss your story like it matters, then join that writing group. And if you’re scared they’ll all be better than you, use the Jedi mind trick and think ‘never mind, it’s all an experiment’ and do it anyway.
Tip 4: write what you want
We don’t often get to do exactly what we want in life. There are always compromises and duties and bills to pay. But in your story you can do exactly what you want. Isn’t that awesome? Doesn’t it make the control freak in you long to start writing?
Ignore advice from agents, ignore advice from friends, ignore the Booker prize winner, ignore what’s fashionable or popular. Don’t write what you think you ought to be writing. Write what you want. This is about you finishing a novel. You can always bow to what the agents think for the second one, or the third one. Right now, you need to go for your own weird, personal gold.
This doesn’t mean you let yourself get away with a sloppy plot or allow the characters to be dumb. It also doesn’t mean you ignore your readers when they tell you things don’t work. But it means you can get behind your story in a really fundamental way. You will want to write it, because it’s got talking spaceships in it. Or people who morph into octopi when they have sex. Whatever it is that really excites and interests you. It will be hard (writing is always hard) but it won’t be a chore because you will be desperate to give those vampire horses their happy ending.
Tip 5: Stop writing that thing
If your novel is going really, really badly, then stop. Write something else instead. I went for short stories, because they’re short. They’re no easier to write, but they’re easier to finish. It’ll give you a taste of what it’s like to finish something. Then you can show a finished story to someone and get feedback and that’s a good thing. All the practice will make you a better writer and it’ll give you some distance from your novel. When you go back to the novel you’ll be able to see more clearly why it’s not working.
Bonus tip: Contemplate death
*Cackle* the goth in me loves this one.
But it’s true. If everything above fails, imagine yourself dying without having really tried.
Imagine lying on your deathbed thinking ‘I always wanted to write, but I never did’. Isn’t that unconscionable? Isn’t that too sad to bear? Didn’t a unicorn just expire?
Do you want to write? Then go for it. Write. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit shit. You’ll get better. Write some more.
Even if you never publish anything; you can die happy, knowing you gave it everything. You didn’t let fear get in your way. You wrote.
What helps you slay the monster of self-doubt? What helps you put fingertips to keyboard and bash out the next thousand words? (Comments are moderated, so there may be a short delay, but I love to hear from you and will always respond).