Friday, 24 June 2016

DOs and DON'Ts for First Time Novelists

Recently, I clicked on a post on Twitter entitled '21 tips for new writers'.  It was on a writing blog, not a marketing one, but I was appalled to see that the first 15 tips were about establishing your social media presence, your author 'brand', choosing a great cover and blogging about your book as you write it, to create interest for when it's published.  Only at the end were a few sentences about making sure you can actually write in the first place, as though the blogger had remembered to say a few words about the content of the book itself, as an afterthought.

Here's my advice.
I don't mention your author 'brand' once.  
Because it's about writing the novel.  



Dos and don’ts for first time novelists

Twenty-four years ago I thought “I wonder if I could write a novel?”  This article is for those who’ve recently had the same thought, random pieces of advice for those who are putting finger to laptop key to blank word document, for the first time, taken from my own experience and observation of others’.  I hope it helps!

  • DO read a lot, and when you do so, take notice of why certain passages appeal to you, or bore you.  Be aware of the structure of the story as a whole, and what it is that makes you keep turning the pages…
  • …but DON’T try to write like your favourite authors.  Those whose work you love reading are successful because they have their own ‘voice’, and you need to find yours, too.  In the future, when your novel is published, some readers might say that your style reminds them of so-and-so’s, but this should be a happy accident, not something you seek to achieve.
  • DO plan your novel first.  It needn’t be 50 pages of in depth character studies and scene setting; I often start a novel with just a few pages of notes about the first few chapters, but you need to know where those chapters are going.  I don’t make character studies; I carry the personalities in my head and think about them a lot (I imagine unwritten scenes, sometimes!); I think if you write a character via a list of personality traits it can become a bit 'writing by numbers'.  However, you might want to make lists of the practical details, like his date of birth, name of the company he works for, etc.  For the story arc alone, it's a good idea to have at least a basic plan, because….
  • …. everything you write should be relevant to the plot, so that you DON’T dive off at tangents and then realise that the great scene at the skating rink is going nowhere.  And it helps with time continuity.  I have pages of A4 blu-tacked all over the wall in front of my desk, to which I constantly refer.
  • DO show your first attempts (the first few chapters, maybe) to someone who will give you an honest opinion – ie, not a family member or friend who may tell you only what you want to hear.  It’s really hard doing this, I know.  I felt sick with nerves when I gave my first novel to someone else to take a look at!  Of course it’s not for me or anyone else to say that someone shouldn’t do something they enjoy, but it helps to have realistic expectations if you’re hoping for any sort of success in getting published/finding a readership, and it can help you iron out your weak points; you might ramble too much, for instance, or include far too much backstory (one of my downfalls!)
  • … and DON’T be in too much of a hurry to publish on Amazon, if that is the route you want to go down.  Make sure this is the novel you want to see as YOUR DEBUT.  If you’re submitting to agents/publishers, that’s different, because they’re the only people who’ll see it and won’t remember your name for more than five seconds, but once you self-publish, this is the novel by which your writing abilities will be judged.  I knew my first three weren’t good enough, so I didn’t even send them to agents (I wrote them in the days before Amazon Kindle).  You learn with each one you write. Yes, yes, yes – I’m aware that some super-talented people become bestsellers with the very first one they write; you may well number among those, and I bow with respect if you do, but many authors you admire have a few unpublished ones hidden away, or at least a novella and a pile of rather crap short stories!  Okay, let’s have a cliché here – most overnight successes have been at it for years.  (Article about clichés coming soon!)
  • DO think about what you like to read.  You know those long, descriptive narratives you skip-read in books?  Don’t write them.  Mostly, people don’t much care what the sideboard was made of.  Ditto how much your character paid the taxi driver and how much change she was given, unless of importance to the plot.  Cut the bits that aren’t interesting.
  • DON’T look at hugely successful books you think are rubbish and think, well, if that can become a bestseller, anything can.  A book that has been slammed for its literary merit has probably struck a chord with the public by hitting on a gap in the market, or dealing with a subject that interests many people, or simply by having a very efficient publicity machine behind it.
  • DO remember that those ‘I can’t write, I’m useless’ moments pass.  We ALL have them, honestly.  If you’re reading something you’ve just written and think it’s a heap of garbage, leave it alone, go and do something completely different, or have a moan to a writing buddy about it.  You might find that the the next time you look at it, it seems better – or that you can find a way to improve it. 
  • Talking of skip-reading, DON’T use your novel as an opportunity to show off your knowledge about something.  Yes, many of us write about what we know, and indeed use our experiences in our novels (it doesn’t half save time on research if you already know what you’re talking about!), but it should always be PLOT RELEVANT.  If you’re desperate to display to the world your in depth knowledge about the architecture of Prague, don't slip all the information into your romance novel unless it's a romance novel about two architects/artists in Prague. Ditto chunks of info taken from your research notes.
  • DO get your work professionally proofread before publishing it on Amazon or sending it to an agent or publisher.  Don’t just go with the first proofreader you come across; ask around (ask me!), look at their websites, see if they feature any testimonials from other writers.  Since self-publishing on Amazon began, loads of people are setting themselves up as proofreaders and editors, and some don’t know what they’re doing or are deliberately out to make money, not caring about the service they provide - there is no such thing as accurate proofreading software.  Let me tell you about a short story I was asked to read a while back.  The first page alone had so many errors that I suggested it was withdrawn and professionally proofread.  The poor guy told me that he loved to tell stories but was hopeless at grammar and punctuation, so had paid someone to proofread for him….. beware of the charlatans!
  • BUT……DON’T make the mistake of thinking that your editor (if you choose to use one) and/or proofreader will turn your rambling scribblings into a polished best-seller.  You need to revise and re-write until your novel is as good as it can possibly be, BEFORE it goes to the (editor and the) proofreader.  I know one of the latter who found over FIVE THOUSAND errors in one book she worked on.  Aside from these errors, it read liked a badly written first draft.  When the ‘author’ published it on Amazon, she got some very bad reviews and tried to pin the blame on the proofreader, asking for her money back.  Proofreaders are there to correct your typos, grammar and punctuations errors, not wave magic wands!
  • On that subject, maybe DON’T plunge into writing a novel if your grammar and punctuation is lousy.  If your written English is very weak, it’s best to learn how to improve it, first.  You could write blog posts or short stories, so you get used to writing.
  • DO try reading the dialogue aloud, to see if it sounds realistic.  And if you’re not sure what language a Liverpudlian teenager or a Cornish Victorian housemaid would use, find out before you write it!
  • DO leave your novel for at least a week between re-drafting.  Classic advice, but it really, really works.  I’m writing a novel of roughly 125,000 words at the moment and by the time I get to the end of one draft and go back to the beginning again, it’s been an average of a fortnight since I looked at the first few chapters, so I can see them with fresh eyes.  If you keep going over and over the same pages, despairing over them, you’ll drive yourself nuts.  You can’t see for looking!  However, if you leave it for a few weeks, you often find that the bits you thought were crap are actually fine – and you see exactly how to re-write that bit that just wasn’t working. 
  • DON’T try to be clever.  Don’t use your novel to show off your vocabulary.  Keep it simple.  Don’t use ten words where four will do.
  • DO be aware who you’re writing the novel for, at the same time as writing from the heart.  Is this story just to get all your angst out?  Okay, then it’s fine to use it as a way of exorcising your feelings towards your ex boyfriend.  Go for it.  If you’re writing it as a way of finding a readership, for this and future works, though, it’s worth reminding yourself that this catharsis should be entertaining, first and foremost.  One of the best pieces of advice I ever saw was 'write as a reader'.
  • DON’T get TOO caught up in social media.  Yes, I know you have to build your online presence, and use social networking sites to let the world know about your books, etc etc etc and blah blah blah, but while you’re joining in with a jolly four-way discussion on a Facebook writers group about how hard it is to motivate yourself/find time to write, you could actually be WRITING.  Don’t feel you HAVE to join Facebook groups and Goodreads forums, etc etc.  They’re great for networking and the exchange of ideas, but often it’s just chat (or worse, oneupmanship) and won’t get the next chapter written.    Having said that…
  • …. DO be moderately active on Twitter – it’s a wonderful site for networking, ideas, finding articles for advice on blogging, marketing, and the practical side of publishing your book.  You can also ‘meet’ so many interesting, amusing and helpful people – for this, it’s by far my favourite social networking site.  
  • One last word about Twitter – be there IN PERSON, at least some of the time.  DON’T think you can do all your future marketing via the software available, those ones that churn out tweets and retweets 24 hours a day without you having to look on the site.  Interaction is all.
  • DO make sure any practical stuff in your novel is properly researched.  Few things scream ‘amateur’ more than getting your facts wrong.
  • DON’T tell everyone you know that you’re writing a novel.  The vast majority of people don’t understand the publishing industry (and why would they?), and their first question after ‘what’s it about?’ will be ‘are you getting it published?’.  If it’s not an immediate best seller, many will presume it’s no good. 


Good luck!


30 comments:

  1. All useful stuff. Thanks, Terry.

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    1. You could do one about travel memoirs!!! x

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  2. I'll be RTing this often, it's great advice.

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  3. Fabulous post - should be required reading for every aspiring novelist!

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  4. Fabulous advice (wish I'd read it before I'd written the novel!) a lot of this is relevant to writing magazine stories too - you have to find your own voice. If you try to write in the style of someone who has success with a particular magazine it won't necessarily go in your favour as they already have 'that person, with that voice'. Be true to yourself - whatever writing you are doing.

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    1. Absolutely! Thanks for reading, Wendy x

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  5. Thanks for this, Terry. This is all such great advice. May I copy and print it out for my students? jx

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    1. Of course, and thank you! x

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    2. No!! Thank you, I have a couple of students who are insisting they are ready to publish and I've kept saying 'you have only one first book'. I'm hoping your words will resonate with them. And it's a great post to share with all the classes. jx

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    3. Oh yes, I know... so few people understand that you have to learn how to write a novel... only a very few are able to produce something really good at first shot! There's another one I wrote about debut novelist errors, too; you've probably read it, but here it is anyway:

      http://terrytyler59.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/ten-debut-novelist-danger-areas.html

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    4. Nope, hadn't seen this one. have printed this off as well, thanks Terry. if I could trundle you down here I'd ask you to be a guest speaker. What's that I hear? Ah , yes, you running (er, hobbling?) in the opposite direction screaming noooooooooooooooo.....

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    5. Yep, that's me!!! I could answer questions, but not do a talk :)

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  6. brilliant post, so helpful...

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  7. Such great advice, Terry. Thank you!

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  8. Excellent post, Terry. Thank you for sharing the editing/proofreading advice with new authors. Much appreciated. :)

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    1. It needs saying, Wendy! Hate seeing people getting scammed out of their money by people who do little more than put it through a spell check.

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  9. Kind of needs to be pasted somewhere so all aspirants (and many already published) can read at intervals and go 'ah...that's where I went wrong'.

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  10. All excellent advice! I've read a lot of first novels in various writers' groups, and I wish -- oh, how I wish -- some of the authors had followed your advice (especially the ones about getting the basics of grammar and punctuation down first and not rushing to self-publish). Now I'm starting to think about writing a novel, after writing nonfiction for many years, and these guidelines will be good to keep in mind.

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    1. Oh, Nan, tell me about it - I think some people just think of a story, type it up and publish it, without even reading it through; they don't realise that being able to think of a basic story is not the same as writing a publishable novel. I've seen some horrors in my time too!

      Thanks, glad to be of help - I remind myself of the relevant pieces of advice in here, still! Hope it goes well :)

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  11. Thanks Terry.. this is so useful.

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  12. Agree on being real on social media - I see `best selling' selfpub writers on Twitter scheduling the same dull `buy my book' post, plus a link to a five star review, almost every day - and precious little else. It's great to learn a few things on social, chat openly and honestly, not just broadcast ;-)

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    1. I know what you mean, Alastair, though you do have to advertise your books to sell them, it's just that it's best to vary the tweets. What I was getting at more, though, is the tendency to get so involved in social media that you don't have time to write. Some try to get round it by using those ghastly auto RTing apps, which means that all they do is thump out 200 book promo RTs a day. I prefer to RT lots of different things, as I am sure you do; it isn't all about your books, is it?! It's easy to get lazy, though, and think 'when I tweet that, the book always sells, so I'll tweet it again'... and before you know it you have, as you said, put the same tweet out every day for a fortnight!

      I like your inverted commas around 'best selling' - indeed, few who claim to be really ARE!

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  13. All very sound advice, Terry. I find, now that all writing is done on computers etc, that it helps to print drafts out before reading and correcting. It's expensive, even on Fast Draft, but I find it's worth it. Also, even though it's a great idea to show drafts to people for their opinion, one shouldn't take those opinions as gospel. If these people are very literate, or even writers themselves, they may be actually saying 'If I were writing this book, I'd do it THIS way' - which isn't really what you want. While guarding against the danger of just being defensive, I think one has to be quite critical of their opinions and selective about what one accepts.

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    1. Ah, that's something I don't do. Not just because of the expense, but also because then you tend to stick at one amendment, whereas if you can get into correcting on screen mode you can play about with it, go back and forth. I went from writing on a typewriter and doing hundreds of retypes, to a wordprocessor and printing off, etc, but then I trained myself to be able to read on the screen the same as I would on paper. I find it helps to format it and read it on Kindle yourself before publishing, though - I always made a few changes at the last minute.

      Absolutely agree re the opinions - I was thinking, though, for the first time novelist, it helps re finding out if you actually CAN write, not so much for more detailed critiques, because not everyone who wants to write necessarily has any talent, in the same way that not everyone who auditions for the X Factor, etc, can actually sing. Nowadays, I just have two test readers, who I know are intelligent enough to be able to tell me if a book WORKS, whether they like different aspects of it or not; ie, their criticism is not just personal opinion. Can't remember if that is subjective or objective, always get those two mixed up!!!

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