Good advices – tips on writing a first novel

Front cover of 'Being Someone'Writing a novel is easy. You just need a bit of time, an idea and considerable curiosity. Re-writing a novel, now that’s the hard part. On the eve of the publication of Being Someone, I thought it was time to reflect on how I got here, about what I wish I’d known then that I do now.

I finished the first draft of my debut novel about two and a half years ago. In naive satisfaction, I posted here about the sense of achievement that completion brought me. Of course, I recognised that it was just the end of the beginning; except, in reality, I recognised no such thing. In short, I had no idea how much more there was to do: sure, I knew that there was a re-drafting process to go through, but how onerous could that be, after the triumph of the first draft?

It took two years of re-working to get the manuscript into a state fit enough to be seen out on its own. It also took a huge amount of advice. Much of this was specific and I owe a great deal to the various readers and editors who have, ever so politely, pointed out quite where I’d gone wrong. It was seldom comfortable, but it was always helpful.

Beyond the comments on Lainey’s limitations and the psychosis of James (someone even psychoanalysed my narrator, and concluded on a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder) there are three general pieces of advice that I got that might be useful to you, should you be embarking on what, for me, is one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written

Writer’s block is, unsurprisingly, a fear of failure. Committing words to paper, by which I might be judged, was at first terrifying. After all, they might not be the right words. Only when I realised that no-one had to see those words until I was happy with them, at some distant future point, did I discover ‘flow’: a frankly sublime state of fluency, within which words, sentences, and paragraphs appear unbidden, cascading in the most almighty torrent of bliss. I had set myself a net word target of 1000 per day of writing; pretty soon I had upped this to 1500, slightly ashamed at my initially paltry ambition. Even then, I surpassed my target with gratifying regularity; I came up short maybe three times.

2. It’s laying pipe

But it’s not simply getting the words down, beautiful or otherwise. The process of writing a novel (or at least re-writing one) is a window on the mechanical elements of others’ fiction. From the formulaic to the avant garde, the fiction that works is that which takes you, the reader, from point A to point B; each paragraph pushing the narrative and character development on. There is very little room for verbal passengers. So the first step in writing Being Someone involved not paragraphs, either crafted or scrambled, but an A3 sheet of paper. It was pencil-scratched over with arrows and boxes, linking plot incidents in forward-backwards loops; characters, unnamed, ill-formed, bumped into each other along the way, all just junctions in the pipe work. My greatest satisfaction on completing the first draft was that the end product was, by and large, faithful to this original sketch-map. I still have it, and will keep it long after the drafts and redrafts have been returned to wood pulp.

  1. Kill your darlings

This is perhaps the most cited piece of writing advice of the last hundred years, but its glibness belies its brutality in action. A phrase, an image, a scene of which you are immensely proud does not advance the pipeline of narrative or character: no matter how fondly it is held, it must be put to the sword. You can kid yourself that you’ll store it away for future use, but unless your filing system allows for remarkable cross-referencing, it will in fact go the way of countless beloved words from my manuscript: forgotten and lost forever. And you can’t allow that to bother you. How to make it easier to smother your pearly genius? I refer you to the first piece of advice – don’t get too attached in the first place. They’re only words, after all…

My debut novel, Being Someone, was published by Urbane Publications in May 2014.

Note: the title of this piece is a nod to the REM song of the same name, not a typographical error…

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