Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Writing advice part 2: Tips for writing

So tips for writing. Notice I didn’t say tricks. I’ve seen ‘tricks to writing’ a lot and I hate it. It covers everything from flow charts and graphs that supposedly show when you’re at your most productive or word patterns that apparently focus on the best words to use in a sentence or paragraph, words that will get the attention of an agent. Total rubbish. There are no tricks to writing. No magic formulas. No way you can predict what will sell or what will be the next big thing, and no point in aiming to write the next big thing. The only thing you can do, literally the only thing in your control, is write your book as well as you can, get feedback on it from people who know what they’re talking about and then see if their advice makes sense for your book.

Saying that, it can be very hard to sit down and write when you think the stuff you’re coming out with is no good or you get rejection after rejection from publishers and agents. Trust me. I know that. But like I said, nobody else is going to write your book for you. If you want any chance of others reading it and enjoying it, you have to write it. So the best ways I know how to do that, the ways that work for me:

If you’re writing on anything with an internet connection, turn the net off. It’s a very useful tool, but it can be a big, big distraction. Ten minutes on Facebook and you see a link to Youtube. You watch that and something else catches your eye. Then half an hour is gone. Unless you’ve got the luxury of writing full time, half an hour of your writing session can be a fair chunk of it. So turn the net off when you’re writing.

Have a writing area. Obviously we don’t all have a spare room or somewhere we can shut the door to everyone else in the house, so if not, have a spot in a room that’s for writing and nothing else. The corner of your bedroom, the kitchen table when everyone else is in the living room. Wherever it is, it needs to be your writing place and whoever you live with needs to appreciate that. You don’t want to get defensive or argumentative about it. You just need to let them know that while you’re writing, that area is yours. Of course, some people write in public. It’s a bit of a stereotype, but there is some truth to the image of a writer sitting in Starbucks with their laptop. That’s not for me at all. My wife and I are lucky enough to have a spare room and there’s no way I could write in public. Again, it’s one of those ‘if it works for you, it’s the best way’ things. As long as you’ve got a room or area that’s yours to write in, that's what matters.

Set yourself targets. For newer writers, I’d say give yourself a target of 500 words in a session. Now the length of your session will vary. We’ve got jobs and families and we sometimes even need to eat and sleep. But say you’ve got two hours spare. 500 words. 250 words in an hour. Once you’ve got that 500 words, take a break. Come back to it the next day for another 500 words. The more experinced you become and more comfortable with writing, up that 500 to a 1000. But don’t get bogged down in writing speeds with other writers. We all work at our own pace. If you know someone who does 1000 words to your 500 or 2000 to your 1000, it doesn’t matter.

Stay healthy. Let’s face it, writing isn’t the most active of jobs. You spend hours sitting down, moving occasionally to go to the loo or put the kettle on or have another biscuit. The same with anything you do, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself and not just think ‘oh, it doesn’t matter if I sit here for another hour without standing up.’ If you’re writing for a fair length of time, take a break even if it’s just for a few minutes. Stand up and have a stretch. If nothing else, it’ll get the blood flowing in your head and wake you up a bit.

Write regularly. I see a lot of writers saying you have to write everyday which I don’t agree with. If you can without exhausting yourself or affecting your family life or day to day job, then cool. Go for it. But you don’t have to. Personally, I write Monday and Tuesday nights, take Wednesday night off, write again Thursday and take Friday night off. Then I do most Saturdays and Sundays. I want to spend time with my wife and family and friends; I want to turn my brain off and I don’t want to get burned out so I take breaks. I’d advise you to, as well. As long as you’ve got times you know are writing times like you know the hours of your job, you’re fine.

As I said recently, be professional. You’re professional in your jobs or when dealing with people in a formal situation. Keep that in mind with writing because, if you want to really get anywhere with it, I’d advise you to treat it like another job. If you’re talking to other writers or someone in the publishing world – whether that’s in person or online – remember you’re giving total strangers an impression of yourself. You don’t want to come across as unprofessional or someone they don’t want to spend any time with. And I’d definitely remind you that when sending stuff to agents or publishers, treat it like preparing for a job interview. Read your emails and letters a couple of times before you send them. I say that because I’m the man who emailed an agent to say I appreciated how busy they were. Except I told them I appreciated how busty they were. As a for instance on being unprofessional, over at absolutewrite, there's a Share Your Work section where you can upload a sample of your work for feedback. I’d been there a few weeks and read the opening to a guy’s story. With the best will in the world, it was awful. Now he'd proved he had the discipline to write but he lacked focus and couldn’t be impartial about his own stuff. A lot of the feedback was along the lines of ‘must try harder’. This guy flipped. He told everyone they had no idea what they were talking about – and bear in mind there were hundreds of published writers as well as editors and agents on the site – and they’d missed the point of his story and they’d hear how famous he was in the future. Very embarrassing. It's best part of eight years since I read that and I still remember how unprofessional that guy was.

The last two are probably the most important. To me, anyway. We’ve gone through the importance of writing regularly – not necessarily everyday but regularly – but there’s another writing related thing it’s important to do on a regular basis. 

Reading. You know when people say ‘I don’t have time to read’? Well, that’s fair enough. We lead busy lives. Work, family, friends, stress, shopping, taking care of your homes. There’s a lot going on for everyone. But I bet when someone says they don’t have time to read, they’ve got time to go online or watch TV or do a lot of other things. If you don’t want to read, that’s another issue. It’s not the same as not having the spare time to do it. And I don’t believe for a second anyone can write fiction unless they read fiction. It’s like if I wanted to be a professional footballer – and believe me that’s never going to happen – I’d be expected to do a lot of football related stuff as well as playing it. Exercise, keep up to date with what’s happening in the business, know who’s who. All of that would help me be a better footballer. It’s the same with reading. Read regularly and I guarantee your writing will improve. 

In the same way we shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we don’t write everyday, don’t get stressed if you can’t read everyday. All I’ll say is always have a book on the go. Ask others what they’re reading, read book reviews or even wander around your local library and find a new author you’ve never heard of. If that book’s not your thing, then fair enough. There are a billion other books to choose from and reading often will do you a lot of good.

Last one. Having someone to talk to about writing. I know some writers don’t like to go into detail about what they’re writing while writing it. I’m one of them. But I know I can talk to my wife about the ups of down of writing. It’s a big help. Writing is obviously a solitary activity. You’re in your room or Starbucks or at the kitchen table and you’re by yourself. It can get a bit disheartening sometimes so letting that out is a good idea. Whether it’s a partner, a friend, have someone to talk to about your work.

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