Can’t get your novel started? Here are my 12 top tips

I’m lucky to belong to several writers’ groups, including a brilliant local one and an online advice and support group. Before that, my regular writers’ group consisted of a bunch of genius poets and artists back in Devon. Before that, I belonged to an MA writers’ class where everybody was superbly talented. The world is full of great writers.

One day, in the MA group, out tutor sent us away for an hour and told us to write a thousand words on something vaguely associated with what we’d been studying. I went away and bashed happily on a computer and in due course we all reassembled, most students carrying coffee cups from the bar, where they’d been for the last forty five minutes.

‘So,’ our tutor said. ‘Did anyone write over a thousand words?’ I shot up my hand and looked around the room. I was devastated. I was the only one.

‘How many words, Judy?’

I kept my voice low. ‘One thousand seven hundred and …’

The tutor glanced around the class. ‘Anyone else do a thousand?’ Heads went down. He tried again. ‘Over five hundred? No….? Over three hundred? No…?’

Someone had written a hundred. Two people had thrown a paragraph of forty words together. One of our most gifted writers had thrown his three lines in the bin. One student grumbled, ‘I don’t see the point in doing this.’

The point was, apparently, to be able to write on demand, to fulfil a deadline. The point was, the tutor suggested, that so many good writers can’t do it.

Then this morning, in an online group, someone asked for help. ‘I’ve got a great idea for a novel,’ he said with enthusiasm. ‘I’ve designed the front cover. I’ve written the blurb. I just can’t seem to get started on the writing. Please can anyone advise me?’

It seems to be a recurring problem amongst writers: getting started, writing the first words, sustaining the first few chapters, not running out of steam after 20,000 words, avoiding the sagging storyline by the middle of the novel. So here’s some advice in the form of twelve tips. They may not all apply to you, but I hope that they will at least help.

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Tip One: Be honest – know yourself. If you are a procrastinator, a person who loses interest quickly, a person who loses self-belief, factor that in to what will happen when you write, and prepare for it before it happens. You will need to know what you’re dealing with up front. It makes the next steps easier.

Tip Two: If you are happy planning in advance, and it certainly will help you with direction and continuity if you fall into the group above, then get ready to plan for all you’re worth. That means that you cover an entire wall with a huge sheet of paper and start plotting. Work out what will happen in your novel in five sections or acts. The first act sets the premise, tells the reader who the characters are and what they need to change. It throws problems or difficulty into the mix, conflict. The final act creates dénouement, resolution, answers questions from the first act or deliberately doesn’t answer them. The final act can be everything the reader doesn’t expect. Then you plan the acts in-between, what will happen, what will go wrong. At this stage keep it flexible, prepare to change anything and everything. as you go. If your instinct says something isn’t right, scrub it and rethink.

Tip Three: Do research up-front. Decide on your characters. Write your character’s background, time-line, wants and needs, fears and problems. Draw or find a picture of them if you need them to be clearly fixed in your imagination. Work out their foibles and idiosyncrasies, their strengths, their flaws and their Achilles heel. You’ll need all this for your novel. Develop your protagnist and from there, work out what your antagionist is like and why there is conflict. Who are the other characters? If they are bland or they don’t make you interested in them, scrap them and start again.

Tip Four: Use anything for inspiration to find out about your characters and plot in advance. But it’s important to clear your mind first. Rid yourself of any blocks, worries, hurdles, barriers. Go for a run. Discuss your ideas with a friend. Listen to music. Go on holiday. Then research. Impersonate. Inrterpret. Borrow. Whatever it takes.

Tip Five: Don’t worry if someone says ‘It’s been done before.’ I remember being told that Matt Haig’s wonderful novel How to Stop Time was the same story as The Highlander. Who cares? His novel is brilliant because of the way he tells it. The Highlander is a watchable film with a great sound track. Who says we can’t have both? There are only seven ideas anyway, apparently.

Tip Six: When you start to write, tell yourself that you will write for a specific limited time or bash out a limited number of words. Then do it. Two hours. A thousand words – whatever, but don’t stop to edit or read through. That can all come later. Get immersed and put it down on paper or screen.

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to walk away, take a few hours off off, but set yourself a strict time when you will come back. After a  reward – a cup of coffee, a walk, a trip to the gym, a visit to a friend, chocolate – all of these together, come back and make yourself write for another set time.

Tip Eight: If you are, like I am, a ‘pantser’, (some people prefer the phrase ‘an intuitive writer’) then forget the part about planning too carefully and just throw the first few chapters down as soon as the idea comes to you. We ‘pantsers’ are the ones who don’t seem to have a hard time getting started because we ‘fly by the seat of our pants.’ I never plan the whole novel before I start. I have an idea, a rough understanding of where I’ll be by the end, and I run with it. Once I realise where I’m going, I imagine a line graph – the rise of the tense parts of the story, conflict, new characters; the dip or contrast of comic moments, tragedies; more hardship, puzzles, unanswered questions, catalysts, more contrasts, more conflict. Then I use the graph to move the action forward and try to surprise myself at every turn. For me, the mental graph works brilliantly to keep the novel varied and balanced.

Tip Nine: I have a 20,000-40,000 word cut-off rule. If by that point, the characters aren’t lodged somewhere in my psyche and don’t keep me awake at night, invisible friends chattering and asking what will happen next, then I scrap the novel, or at least shelve it. If it’s ok at that point, I know I’ll finish it. Didn’t the Bee Gees say it perfectly? It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away. If it doesn’t affect you, as the writer, emotionally, then how will the reader ever become engrossed and moved?

Tip Ten: Keep the negative critics and thoughts away at this stage. There will be high points where you think, ‘I love my novel to bits.’ There will be low points too. ‘Is this working? Does it feel right? Is it total banal rubbish?’ As long as you’re on track with your idea and your protagonist still captivates you, work through the downbeat  moments by keeping on writing in the knowledge that you can edit later. It won’t be perfect. Not yet. Not ever. Even when it’s in print and on the shelves, you’ll think ‘I should have changed this part to…’ So keep the stamina, the energy and the impetus going. Avoid the voice that says ‘You can’t write. You’re no good. You’ll never make it.’ Leave all that to the one lonely person out there whose life-breath it is to give writers one-star reviews on Amazon. But remember that everyone else might like it or even love it: they might be entertained, moved, made to feel happy. They matter most. You will get there.

Tip Eleven: Don’t fret over the idea that J K Rowling’s Harry Potter was turned down lots of times before she found an agent and a publisher and tell yourself you’ve no chance. Focus on where she is now. Of course you’ll need resilience and determination. It will be an interesting journey. But you need to write the novel first. Believe. Give it a go. It’s only words.

Tip Twelve: There will be hard times, times where you need to walk away, take a breath, work things out, come back. A novel is like any other close relationship. You fall in love. You fall out over something silly. You work hard to get things right. You come back together again and then it’s even better. Don’t give up. Don’t ever stop trying. Plan. Don’t plan. Edit as you go, don’t edit as you go. Find the way that suits your personality. But don’t ever stop trying. Keep the words flowing across the screen. Write every day, write most days, and write a lot. Be kind to yourself but strict with your characters and the flow of your novel.

Give it your best shot – nothing is ever perfect, but it can be special. And good luck to you. You’ll get there. Don’t doubt yourself. Believe and it can happen. And you never know – you might even enjoy the journey.

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My Top Tips for Writers’ Block…

I have heard a lot about writers’ block. I’m not entirely sure what it is but I think it means that writers can’t write because something is holding them back – they experience a temporary lack of inspiration or fluidity. The reason I’m not clear about what it means is because I don’t think I’ve ever had it. It might mean that a writer has no fresh ideas. ‘What shall I write my next novel about?’ It might mean that a writer is trying to devise a new episode. ‘My protagonist needs to meet her arch enemy but how am I going to contrive the meeting?’

It might suggest that there will be difficulty creating a solution. ‘Hyppolita is surrounded by zombies. How am I going to get her to safety?’

It might imply that an idea is not working, and may not appeal to the readers. ‘Oops, I shoudn’t have made Dulcie shoot the man of her dreams in chapter two. What shall I do now?’ It might be that the writer can’t get started at all. ‘Feisty, newly single, Imelda works in a newspaper office with six other women and one man. So what?’

For the  sake of this blog post, I’ll just assume that writers’ block could stem from any one or all of these problems. The writer doesn’t know what to write. She or he is ‘stuck.’

I’ve been asked by other writers about how to deal with the problem of writers’ block and I’ve given it some thought. I’m not sure why I have never had it, or whether I might get it at some point, but on reflection, here are five tips which I think might help, based on my own experience. Or my lack of it.

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  1. Don’t worry about writers’ block. Worrying can cause writers’ block or, certainly, make the problem worse. If you think you’re going to get it, you probably will. If you think you won’t be able to shake it off, you probably won’t. It’s just that, a block in your mind which stops creativity and it will fill all the empty space, sort of like concrete,  and stop ideas coming in. If possible, start believing that writers’ block  doesn’t exist. A bit like a ghost. If you don’t invest in it, then it’ll just remain a figment of a fertile imagination.
  2. Avoid sitting in front of a monitor or a blank page, staring at the screen or into the emptiness thinking ‘What shall I write?’ Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Thought Fox’ suggests that, when a writer stare at blankness, like a fox in snow, the prints start to come, but you might just simply get a headache. Walk away. Drink water. Go for a run. Sing and dance. Eat chocolate. Phone a friend. But don’t think about the emptiness and the lack of words. Move your thoughts to a better place.
  3. Read a good book or watch an exciting film. Fill your head with someone else’s words and images.  Play music. Let your mind drift. Then, when you least expect it, an idea will pop in. But you have to let go first. Really let go. Which is why I suggest a walk in the open spaces, the countryside, with the wind blowing through your ears, clearing  the dust which may have settled in the mind. Let new ideas in. Don’t keep the block locked inside – empty the space.
  4. Laugh, chat to friends, family, share a glass of wine, then say ‘I’m writing this novel but I am not sure quite how to enable Jessica to escape from a burning building by herself.’ Or ‘I’m writing a historical fantasy fiction which deals with the problems of loneliness. Any ideas?’ Then write all the suggestions down, walk away again, sleep on them. My ideas often wake me up at three in the morning and start chatting inside my head. New protagonists. Invisible friends…
  5.  Stop writing altogether. Take a week or two off completely and have some fun. Give your crowded thoughts time to become  a big empty space and keep your mind stress-free so that you aren’t worried about your creativity drying up. Be tough on old ideas which aren’t your best ones. Throw away anything which doesn’t really grab you. If it doesn’t excite you, it won’t excite your reader, because your struggle to make it almost work will show through. I filed 20,000 words of a novel away in the bin once because I wasn’t in love with my protagonists enough to justify keeping going. I need characters who will spur me on, make me laugh, keep me awake and make me think about them all the time, consciously or subconsciously. If they don’t do that, I have to shelve them because they aren’t good enough for my readers. So the deal is simple. Be inspired or start again. It’s tough love and relates exactly to Stephen King’s statement about killing your darlings.

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6. Then when you are ready, just write, just go for it. Scribble, bash out words. Be prolific and don’t stop to think too much – you can edit later. Let the ideas rampage over the screen. Enjoy it. Let the action take over. Let the characters riot. The important thing is to write and to believe in yourself as a writer. Hit the page running.

Occasional self-doubt is natural. We writers are tortured artists, creative souls and it’s normal to think ‘What if I can’t ever ..?’ or ‘What if my reader doesn’t like..?’ But don’t let doubt stand in the way for long. There will always need to be revisions, structural rewrites, edits. That’s natural and part of the process, and no reflection on a good writer. It’s how we strive to be the best we can be.

We can’t please everyone either. We should expect the odd negative review amid all the kindness and praise. Our writing is for a specific audience and there will be readers for whom our novels won’t ever work. I read a one-star review of a superb Jeanette Winterson book the other day. ‘My wife hated it…it didn’t make her laugh… ‘ I laughed, I’m afraid. The critic didn’t match the novel, couldn’t understand the genre.  We can’t aim to please everybody, just the people who will enjoy our books. For my part, when I read a novel which isn’t ‘for me’, I either stop reading and leave it for those for whom it’s been written, or put myself into the shoes and eyes  of readers who will like it and try to understand what makes it so successful…

So don’t stunt your creativity with doubt and worry, and especially don’t waste time fretting about writers’ block. Ideas will soon flood in. And if they don’t arrive straight away, nourish yourself with a positive and fulfilling activity which is not writing, but is something completely different. Yoga. Dancing on the beach. Fun and laughter. That way, the good stuff will have chance to flow back. It will come in time. You will  be energised again, enthused, prolific. A two-thousand- word chapter before morning coffee is just a warm-up for the day’s writing.

Unless of course you have looming deadlines, important and unavoidable ones which are bound to stop creativity as quickly as a scrum of screaming otters lining up in a narrow riverbank. Deadlines are something else, guaranteed to make the writer freeze with fear and suddenly become incapable of thinking of the next sentence. But top tips about how to handle deadlines will have to be the subject for another blog post.

For now, remember, fear not the block, for it is just a symptom of a creative brain which needs to stop, recharge and breathe…

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My novel is out today! But how should I celebrate?

In complete harmony with my rock and roll lifestyle, I’m keen to celebrate my novel coming out in paperback today. Available at Waterstones, Tesco, Amazon, at all good bookshops throughout the UK, ‘A Grand Old Time’ has finally hit the shelves.

I have been on book tours, had radio interviews, been featured in newspapers, on social media, done a talk at Loughborough university, and I’m ready to launch into party mode now. It is an exciting way to live and I believe in taking every opportunity to celebrate.

My novel ‘A Grand Old Time’ has had wonderful reviews. The response has been better than I could have imagined. Here are just a few excerpts from bloggers and readers’ thoughts from Amazon.

5☆ I Loved Evie… She has a Passion and Zest for life… I want to go travelling with her!

I loved this book cover to cover

I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant story. I laughed and cried in equal measure

Made me laugh & cry- lovely book!

A lovely book about an older person finding a new lease on life.

It is being sold abroad in many countries incuding Canada, Sweden, Croatia, India, Denmark, Italy, Japan. It is all so thrilling. I have book signings coming up;  it’s totally rock and roll.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is about an older woman, a widow, Evie Gallagher, who has moved to a care home in the hope that she will have some company, but Sheldon Lodge is not for her. She wanders into Dublin one day, talks to strangers and enters a betting shop. One thing leads to another and she takes a plane to Liverpool, a boat to France, buys a camper van and sets off on adventures.

Her son, Brendan, who is struggling with his marriage and his job as a Sports teacher, decides to bring her back home, believing she can’t cope independently. Brendan’s unhappy wife, Maura, insists on tagging along and their parallel adventures begin.

The novel is character-led. Evie is feisty, full of mischief. She pretends to be a porn star, drinks too much and collapses, lies to the police and sings on stage in an Irish Bar. She meets a French septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Meanwhile Brendan and Maura discover that their marriage is in real trouble and inevitably, changes need to be made to their lonely unfulfilled lives.

The audio book is read beautifully by Aoife McMahon, who brings the characters straight from the page to the heart.

So, back to the celebrations, the rock and roll. I wanted to have a huge party, a band playing in the garden, champagne, a barbecue, a hot tub. Dancing on tables, singing up at the stars until four in the morning. Guests wandering lost in the rose bushes, stragglers asleep in the fish pond at dawn.

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I thought I’d have a Prosecco breakfast in the morning, ask the neighbours round for buckwheat banana pancakes, sharing jokes and good craic on the patio. Then there will be an open house all day, in which people I don’t see often enough roll up, have a glass of punch and a big hug and we talk about old times. Friends will jet in, land on the helipad: people I haven’t seen for ages, from India, Italy, Ireland, France, London, Liverpool, Cornwall and Totnes will duck the whirling blades and rush into my arms, tears on their faces and a bottle of Moët clutched in their fists.

My agent, publisher, publicist, the whole lovely team will be there under the rose-clad pergola, holding martinis, looking cool, laughing and reminiscing, chatting to novelist celebreties nibbling canapés.

Then as the evening dwindles, the perfume of jasmine and night-scented stock warm on the air, I will leave the happy throng and slide away for quiet chat with my family and a smooch with my significant other to something romantic, like ‘Pretty Vacant’ by The Sex Pistols. Then it’s back to the party,  moshing beyond midnight.

Of course, that’s all in my imagination. What is more likely is that I’ll wake up with the cat, have a piece of toast and read the paper in my pyjamas. My neighbours might pop round for a cuppa and then I’ll work at the computer all day. In the evening, I might go out.

An ex-student of mine has kindly sent me a thank you present of a meal at a local restaurant. He is now embarking on a psychology degree and I know he will reach the stars. I’ll toast him and Evie when I sit quietly in Flavours with a glass of Romanian red and a plate of vegetable wellington.

Then I’ll start planning the special launch party, which will happen one day, however retrospective. It might be on the beach this summer, or in my camper van in France, or round the table at Christmas time when the crumbling walls have finally been plastered, or with breakfast at the top of The Shard as the sun rises in a winter sky. Why not? After all, it has to be Rock and Roll.

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