There’s a lot of writing advice out there, so when I first thought about writing a post giving writing advice, I thought, “is there really anything I can say that isn’t just regurgitating things I’ve read elsewhere?”.
At first, I thought the answer to that question was no. But as I’ve been editing my novel The Secrets The Dead Keep, I’ve kept thinking of things I should’ve done differently that would’ve made editing so much easier, or things that I do to make writing easier that I don’t think I’ve read in any other writing advice.
So although I don’t yet feel qualified to advise other writers on things like how to make their writing sound better, or how to improve their characterisation or plot, I do have a few points that might help in the actual act of getting that novel written.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice I see being given is to “write, write, write”. Obviously, this is because practice is the only way you’ll get better at writing, but I think it could do with some clarification.
Sure, it’s good to improve your ability to form pretty sentences and evoke nice imagery, but writing beautifully is far from the only thing you need for an enjoyable book. You also need good story structure and character development, which you won’t know if you’ve achieved if you write a first draft then leave it and move onto the next first draft. And if you practice writing by writing short stories, they’re not going to give you the patience and perseverance you need to keep working on a novel until you’re happy with it, not to mention that short stories require different structures to novels.
The most important thing here is looking over your work once you’ve gotten to the end of that first draft – this is where you have the most to learn. And while editing will help you work out the weaknesses in your writing, the most helpful thing you’ll learn is what you could’ve done better to make writing a book quicker, easier, and more enjoyable for you.
What I mean by this is that you can identify what you should’ve planned better or differently, so that you can find the writing process that works best for you. This should hopefully give you a better end product too, which may allow you to do less editing later on.
And of course you have the usual benefits of editing – spotting the words and phrases you need to stop repeating so much and other style-related weaknesses, as well as more structural problems like bad descriptions, dialogue, or characterisation. This will allow you to focus on these areas in future projects and bring them up to standard.
So you need to go further that just writing: you need to work out your preferred method of planning a novel by reading back through your work to identify your mistakes. Practicing editing also can’t hurt, since if you decide to publish, agents and editors will require that you make changes to your work.
Don’t edit, just write
This one’s specifically for when you’re working on your first draft, and it’s also a fairly common piece of advice. The first draft is for getting the story down, not making it sound good. So don’t sweat over word choices and sentence structure, and most certainly do not go back to edit. If you do that, you’ll spend forever improving scenes, and you’ll never actually get to finishing the story. So every time you get the urge to edit in the middle of writing, remind yourself that you can do it later. Editing is what second, third, and fourth drafts are for.
Make notes of what you want to change
Bearing that last point in mind, there are going to be times when you want to go back and edit not because you think it needs to sound better, but because you’ve decided to change an aspect of the story. But even in cases like these, I would recommend ignoring the urge to edit and instead continuing to build that forward momentum towards the end of your story.
That doesn’t mean you have to do nothing about that plot change you wish you’d made, though! Write it down before you forget (especially if it’s something really small), then keep writing as if you did make that change. You can go back and make that change in the second draft, when you’re editing everything else. Writing as if you did make that change will mean you’ll only have to apply the change to some of the story, as you’ll have already applied it to the rest.
A good idea would be to keep a notebook next to you – or another document on your computer open – as you write, so that you can keep all your notes of changes to make together in one place so that you don’t lose them.
Summarise every scene
I know some of you will be screaming at me that but I don’t work well with outlines! Planning ruins my creativity! or something along those lines, but I don’t mean to do this before you begin – I mean to do it after you’ve finished. If you did outline your novel before you started, then you might have varied from that plan while writing, and you’ll need to keep track of anything that’s different. If you didn’t outline, then you’ll want to keep track of all your plot points, big and small, so that you know exactly what you already have before you start changing it.
So, once you’ve finished the first draft, read it through and make notes on everything that’s even remotely important in each scene. Things like: this character mentions this, that character decides that, this thing is explained to the reader. This way, you’ll have a concise version of your plot that should make it easier to spot plotholes. Plus, you won’t have to read through your entire book again to find out when this event happened or when that character was introduced!
I think this is the most helpful when you have multiple subplots, or when your character has a puzzle or a mystery to solve, and you need to know exactly what they know at which points in the story. It’s a good idea to note down when you foreshadow something, too, as it might help you spot whether your foreshadowing is too subtle or too obvious.
Ask for feedback, and value it
While you are under no obligation to listen to other people’s opinions on your work (hey, it’s yours and you’re the one who gets to call the shots on it), you definitely should. After all, if you’re hoping to someday publish your book, then you need to make sure that readers are actually going to enjoy it.
Time for a reality check.
Your book is not perfect, and you are not perfect either. You are going to need help from other writers to help improve your novel, and you are going to need outside opinions from readers to make sure that what you’re trying to get across is coming across properly. Suggestions for changing it are not an insult; they’re an attempt to help. Listen to them.
Now, time for a clarification.
I don’t mean that you need to implement every change suggested to you, or that you need to please every reader you show your work to. For one thing, it’s impossible to please everyone. For another thing, not everyone is always right. A suggested change may not necessarily be the best thing for your book, but you should definitely consider it well before making that decision.
Basically, what I’m saying is this: don’t dismiss all criticism of your work as wrong, or an insult. Just because you don’t like getting criticised (I mean, who does? Really?), doesn’t mean the criticism isn’t justified or valuable. Take some time to think about it, and judge whether or not to heed the advice on a case-by-case basis.
I’ll give you an example. For my English Language A Level, I had to write a monologue. I was incredibly happy with the first draft of my piece (it was beautiful! it was wonderful!) when I handed it in to my teacher, but when she gave it back, she’d covered it in red pen.
Naturally, I was pretty annoyed that she hadn’t seen what I had seen in it.
But I took her suggestions in, and started making changes. At first, I had planned to only add in a few bits, and maybe change a few bits – just enough to satisfy her requests. But once I started editing, I started seeing other bits that I wanted to change too. I think I ended up rewriting a fair chunk of it. And I was much happier with this version than the first version.
A couple more rounds of edits later, I handed in my final piece, feeling more certain than ever that this version was the very best I had to offer. Looking back at that first draft, I realise it wasn’t actually that good after all.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about writing a novel? What advice would you give to other novelists? Let me know in the comments!
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