You might be a seasoned journalist, copywriter or blogger – but crafting a novel demands a whole new way of expressing yourself. Here, one writer tells how she is getting to grips with becoming a fiction novelist and offers some top tips…
WRITING FICTION – HOW TO WRITE IN A NEW STYLE
by JENNY SIMPSON
If you’re trying to write a novel after years of writing non-fiction, but finding it a difficult task, you’re not alone…
“I can do this,” she said, frowning at her reflection, “I’ve been writing all my adult life, surely if anyone can write a novel, it’s me!”
She moved away from the mirror, returned to the laptop and began typing “Chapter One”. Just as long as I can work out the damned punctuation for speeches and internal observations, she thought. Should I have put this bit into speech marks? Oh well, I’ll just carry on and worry about the punctuation later.
The laptop screen, blank except for the words “I am going to tell you a story” stared back at her. Did she imagine it winking at her? She gulped at the challenge ahead of her.
Yes, this is the badly punctuated start of my journey into fiction. Writing fiction is so utterly different to what I’ve done before! I trained in Journalism and now work as a freelance writer, working to word counts throughout my career, so getting used to the sheer breadth of a novel (typically 60,000-80,000 words) can be overwhelming, but it’s pretty exhilarating too. It’s like moving into Buckingham Palace after living in a two-up-two-down, or like taking the wheels of a Ferrari without having any driving lessons (I’m still working on Novel Writing Style Tip #3 – Use Good Metaphors).
Tell me you want 500 words on the hidden charms of Paris, written in a friendly tone-of-voice – fine. It is twenty years since I went to Paris, but I’ll make you believe I was born there by the time I’ve finished. But, my self-imposed aim to tell the story about the small group of characters I’ve dreamt up is a different task. I might have created them, but making what they do, why they do it and how they do it come across clearly and believably on the page is a much greater challenge than describing the best and worst of the French capital (don’t bother with Pigalle, trendy Marais is good for nightlife).
I’m not alone, there are a lot of us out there flexing our writing muscles, trying to set that novel we’ve got in our heads free and out onto the page. This isn’t a guide to writing a novel, but some observations that I hope will be helpful to my fellow writers.
Most advice is rubbish!
You’ve probably already started tentatively searching for advice on writing a novel, well I hope that you are less depressed than I was by the shoddy and downright dismissive theories dressed up as writing advice that proliferate online.
Don’t bother, you’ll never get published, we don’t accept manuscripts, it’s really difficult. All negatives. Then there is the oft-repeated witticism “They say everyone’s got a book inside them…most of them should stay inside”, oh my sides have split.
Yes, if you’re aiming to make money from writing fiction, please do not give up the day job. But, don’t let that put you off. If you have a story to tell, do tell it.
A room of your own
The best advice from any writer is from the wonderful Virginia Woolf; she says every writer needs a room of their own. Somewhere to indulge in your daydreams, gesticulate wildly as you act out your character’s actions, talk out loud to get that word off the tip of your tongue. Don’t compromise in creating a comfortable workspace.
Emily Bronte spent hours pacing up and down the moors to dream up Heathcliff and Cathy, whereas Paul McCartney famously woke up having dreamt “Yesterday”. What is inspiring you?
It is so important if you are embarking on a long-term fictional writing project that you can keep a firm grasp on the flickering thoughts powering your fiction. They are gossamer threads, easily broken and even more easily distorted.
All sorts of things inspire us, at the moment I’m doing the following –
1. Keeping a notepad file with random words noted down whenever they popped into my head. This might be a passage from a book, a line from a poem, an instruction to myself, or a cryptic message “Lynmouth 1982 – Moonlight Shadow!” etc.
2. Collating images that build up a picture of my “hero” (he’s 75% George Harrison with Dominic West’s hair. My lead character is in love with him, it’s no hardship putting myself in her place).
3. Compiling a playlist of songs that fit certain moods, themes or actual events in my story. Sometimes just thinking of a particular song is enough to remind me of the atmosphere I’m trying to convey.
Finding your voice
It’s easy to let other influences bleed into your work. That can sometimes be a good thing and set you off on a better course, but you really risk screwing up what you initially set out to do. Personally, I can’t read other fiction while I’m trying to write fiction of my own – I’m still trying to find my own voice and there’s too much temptation to mimic the voices of the other writers I love.
Accentuate the positives
Okay, so I am approximately 60% through my estimated word count already, yes, I’m pretty pleased with that, but a small voice is telling me with increasing authority that most of what I’ve written will end up being deleted.
But this is a good thing, it is…it didn’t seem like it at first, but I can now see that I’ve taken an important step towards creating something that might actually turn out to be pretty good. Proof-reading and editing a 500 word article is a fairly straightforward process. Multiply that word count by 120 and you can see the task in hand.
It’s not as simple as changing a word here, adding a sentence in there. You can tweak as much as you like while you’re still writing, but you will only be able to make critical decisions when the whole damn thing (as I call it) is written – and then, you must be the harshest critic of your work you can possibly be. You will bin a lot of this work you’re so proud of. And that’s a good thing, I promise.
I would normally review an article three times after writing the first draft. At the moment I’m aiming for 10 reviews of my novel.
It’s unrealistic to think that you will produce great work, or anything of any value, every time you have some spare hours to write. I had a solid two weeks when I just couldn’t stop writing, the words just kept on tumbling out and it was pretty amazing (writing a novel isn’t all drudge, if that’s how it feels, stop and try writing a different story – seriously, you should feel the same kind of urgency as you write that your readers should feel when they read your book). Then I hit a brick wall, having stupidly skipped ahead to my closing chapter and then reading “advice” online put me off completely.
Luckily I had other work to focus on, so I have put the novel to one side – but it’s never far from my thoughts. I’m going to go back to it and fill in the gaps that I’ve left with some freestyle writing. Without worrying if what I’m writing will ever be used in the final version, I’m going to write diary entries, descriptions of characters and settings to get the thoughts clarifying again. It’s similar to what many actors do when they are trying to get under the skin of the character they’re playing (I’m a frustrated actress, most writers are).
And writing this article is also helping me to get perspective on what I’ve done so far and what I need to do…
Don’t get ahead of yourself
I’ve been a frustrated novelist all my adult life and have heaps of unfinished plots, incomplete passages and half-formed books in notebooks, on USB sticks and knocking around the recesses of my brain. This is the first time I’ve had a complete beginning, middle and end, as well as distinct, rounded characters who really do feel real in my mind. Hell, I’ve even got a spreadsheet for it!
So, I’ve indulged in a few daydreams about my future success, but that is dangerous. When I set out to do this, it was with no expectations; I just wanted to write down the story.
It might never get published, it’s unlikely to win awards or critical acclaim, but that doesn’t matter.
This is the most important advice I could give to any aspirant novelist – don’t consider any “real world” expectations, forget the wider possibilities. Just remember the most important thing – you’ve got a story to tell, so tell it, that’s the only thing that matters.
Author: Jenny Simpson SEO expert Jenny Simpson
After six years managing search content services at leading SEO agencies, Jenny is now working as a freelance writer covering arts & entertainment, digital matters and more on her personal blog http://sunshineonheath.wordpress.com or for more tips follow Jenny on Twitter: @jennysimpson
She is available to hire, for all your content needs – from SEO-friendly article production, through to creative digital campaign planning.