1. Don’t Bore Yourself
When I’m starting a writing class, I usually emphasise that the most important thing in a first draft isn’t the idea, it isn’t the atmosphere, and it certainly isn’t the individual sentences.
The most important thing in the first draft is excitement.
If you write what you know are in-between bits, they will read as in-between bits.
You need to be excited by what you’re writing, so that the reader gets excited by it.
This isn’t dependent on genre. For a romance writer, they can be romantically thrilled; for an experimental writer, they can be experimentally stoked.
If you write something that’s flat to begin with, pumping it up will just leave you something obviously hollow.
When faced with a choice in plotting, you need to overdo, overcomplicate and overwhelm yourself with possibilities, rather than timidly get something down you know you can safely finish.
Leave tidying up for December. (And that includes the desk.)
2. Don’t Isolate Your Main Character
This is one of the commonest mistakes beginning writers make. They write a main character who, for reasons that aren’t hard to fathom, is very much like a writer – stays indoors, thinks a lot, feels that other people are having better lives.
In avoiding this, you need to make sure your main character is very early on forced out into the world where they can talk to people. Say, page 2 at the latest.
Your main character needs to exist through their interactions with other characters.
There is one very simple way to do this:
Have your novel centre around two main characters rather than one.
And have your two characters be quite different from one another.
(Three characters are also allowed.)
3. Don’t Let Your Main Character Stay Silent
‘Dialogue – I have to write some dialogue’ – when you think about it this way, it can be scary and/or annoying.
Dialogue can be hard to fit with the rest of your prose. So, instead, just think of it as getting your character to talk to other characters.
If you’ve taken the previous piece of advice, your two main characters can bumble or charge through the world talking to one another.
If you still have a solo central character, make sure they talk to other characters who have an equally valid point of view. It’s very dangerous if your main character is the only person in the novel who is close to the truth.
4. Don’t Go Too Slow
5. Don’t Go Too Fast
Lee Child (reported in Reacher Said Nothing by Andrew Martin) has a good rule of thumb: Child writes the slow action fast and the fast action slow.
I think this works for all kinds of fiction.
You need to be able to look back over a page and feel that something of significance has happened. A moment of chance, a moment of change or a moment of the chance of change (even if nothing did, in fact, change).
Try to do each character description or place description in a single sentence. This may be too extreme, and you might need three or four to bring out all their delightfulness or get into all the cupboards and crannies, but at least it’ll force you to justify your descriptive passages to yourself.
6. Don’t Write Descriptive Passages
In fact, never do one thing at once. If you’re describing a room, you’re not doing it as an objective witness to that room. You have to stop yourself trying to do the best description you can possibly muster. What you need is the most useful description. You’re telling part of a story. You’re characterising the person who lives in or works in that room. You’re foreshadowing what’s going to happen there or, conversely, you’re misleading about what’s going to happen there – so the reader is even more shocked when it does happen.
Never have a sentence that achieves only one thing. If you find one, cut it – you’ll see that the job it was attempting to do has been done elsewhere.
Okay, let’s revise this:
6. Don’t Do One Thing At Once
7. Don’t Write in the Present Tense or the Second Person
Why not? Lots of very successful novels are narrated this way. Yes, and they are mostly written by writers who have put a lot of thought into how to carry off these virtuoso POVs.
(Subsection Don’t: Don’t centre your opening around something like The Reaping in the Hunger Games. It’s out there already – and Shirley Jackson and others knew that. Do something different.)
The Second Person is very likely to become wearisome within a few pages. It’s hard to vary sentence structure, to avoid that obtrusive ‘You’ appearing at the start of four out of five sentences.
The Present Tense seems very immediate but, similarly to the Second Person, it is likely to become monotonous. Technically, you’ll find it hard to include past moments or general thoughts. A character who is narrated in the Present Tense is likely to seem, paradoxically, very passive – because they are reacting all the time to sensations. I felt this so I thought this. If they exist in a laxer tense, they have more free time in which to be themselves rather than themselves just having jumped from a first floor window.
If you combine the Present Tense and the Second Person, you will find yourself in a very constrained moment (the NOW NOW NOW) that it’s very hard for you to escape from.
My general advice, if you want to get this damn novel written by the end of the month, is to go for third person, past tense – if only to lay out the territory. When you find that you keep needing to catch up on what the main character’s enemies or boyfriend is doing, in separate sections, you’ll know that third person was a good idea.
If you really objected to that last piece of advice, go for the first person, past tense.
(Subsection Don’t: Don’t mix first and third person narrators. (Too complicated to explain here.))
8. Don’t Write Posh
When choosing a tone in which to write, you’re more likely to hit on one that’s secure, and that you can maintain for 70,000 words, if it’s close to your speaking voice.
I’m not saying you’re not posh – but lots of writers feel that, in addressing the reader, they suddenly need to get up behind a lectern and tell them lots of stuff they didn’t know, in really well-formed sentences, including words that the thesaurus whispered to them in the night.
This is likely to make your novel seem old-fashioned. (Unless (of course unless) it’s a pastiche in the first place – and a pastiche of correctly speaking or writing Victorian or Edwardian.)
Write as if your reader knows more of the world in general than you do, but just doesn’t know the particular story you’re going to tell. Avoid wearying or annoying them.
9. Don’t Write Emotionally Neutral
I’m returning you to the first piece of advice here: Don’t Bore Yourself.
The longer I go on teaching, the more I value writing that gets through to me – because it clearly means something to the writer. This is a long way above or below literary theory.
I don’t mean that you need to be weeping at your laptop (sometimes it doesn’t hurt), but you need to construct scene after scene, section after section so that they mean something, emotionally.
Really good writers seem to do this without effort. But it’s something they’ve learned.
A good novel is very often made up of a chain of scenes each of which seems to be caused by earlier scenes and to be the cause of later scenes. Try to make each link as strong as possible.
You have to feel the necessity of everything that happens. It may not be possible to plot it during November, but you need to feel it before the month is out.
Writing a novel is an extremely difficult thing to do, and even harder to do with grace and delight. Behind all the Don’ts here is a fairly simple wish to save you from writing something that people won’t want to read.
Lots of what I’ve said may be completely irrelevant to what you’re attempting. If so, I hope that at least one sentence here helps you out in – say – twenty eight days.