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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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

Like most writers, I started young, with a pen and any paper I could find to scribble on. I wrote my name on the kitchen walls when I was two and had a slap for my efforts. I penned poems on empty Corn Flakes boxes. I filled jotters with an assortment of stories. In my spare time, I composed some shocking song lyrics on the back of scraps of paper.

My teachers, the nice ones anyway, said they expected to read my work in print some day and I thought I’d achieved it when I had a non-fiction book published about Drama teaching.

Once I’d made the decision to write full-time, however, I concentrated on being published anywhere I could. Niche is good. I made money from having all sorts of short stories included in all sorts of publications. I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. I entered competitions, being placed in a few, including a second prize for a story about a hedgehog cake and a second place at The Winchester Festival for a piece about a woman searching for the same man throughout time. I liked the idea so much I wrote it into a 90,000 word novel last summer: it’s the only serious one I have ever written and I think it is both tragic and uplifting.

A year ago, I was a hopeful writer, with an ambition to be published. I had written my first novel, found a great agent and believed I could actually do what I had dreamed of for so long: I would see a work of fiction with my name on it for sale in a book shop.

It didn’t take long for my agent to find me a two-book deal with HarperCollins Avon, and I was on my way, hardly believing my luck. I had always intended to do it and I suppose I always believed that I would.

Being published has taught me so much. I didn’t realise how my thinking had changed until other writers handed me their work and asked for an opinion. I suddenly started hearing the voice of my editor and suggesting important details which would upgrade the readers’ enjoyment. There is much more to writing than interesting words and characters. I now think much more visually about what the readers will see in their imaginations. I’ve always been a bit of a cimematic writer  but now I focus totally on what images the reader will experience.

The same goes for feelings. I’d assumed if a character sighed, for example, every  empathic reader would automatically know how she felt and be able to understand her plight. Now I focus much more on inner dialogue and thoughts, what has led to emotions and how they manifest themselves.

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The most interesting part of the journey in many ways has been to do with my character’s impact on the reader. Evie Gallagher, the 75 year old role-model in ‘A Grand Old Time,’ is inspirational, as she takes off on a road trip in a camper van, having adventures. She learns a lot about the world and even more about herself, and develops her capacity for enjoying life independently.

Interviews and questions are part of writing a book. I have loved the opportunity to go on the radio, talk to newspaper reporters, complete questionnaires, write articles and guest blogs.

The question I’m asked the most is ‘why did you write about a 75 year old woman?’ This makes me smile. I wonder if Thomas Hardy was asked why he wrote about 16 year old Tess, or if Vladimir Nabokov ever explained about why he invented 12 year old ‘Lolita’? Age is a number. It defines my character less than traits like a sense of humour, altruism or a positive attitude. Yet repeatedly, people are fascinated by a 75 year old protagonist who defies stereotypes and has a tendency to behave badly.

I couldn’t be more delighted by the responses to my 75 year old role model as she takes off in a camper van and has crazy adventures. Reviews have said things like ‘I want to be Evie’ and ‘I want to go travelling with Evie.’ Someone else said they ‘laughed and cried in equal measure’ and, honestly, there can’t be better praise than that.

One woman wrote that her mother is 75 and has recently embarked on a jaunt to Amsterdam, just to behave like Evie. Another person said that her mother was delighted to read a book about an older person living life to the full and now had a role model.

However, I believe readers who will enjoy the novel won’t just belong to the category of women in their seventies and beyond, although I’m delighted that older people have a trail blazer in Evie. There aren’t enough stories about brilliant people enjoying their golden years.

I have farmed early versions of the novel out to friends, including  young men in their twenties, who’ve found Evie hilarious and upliftingly iconoclastic. They decided that the scene where she pretends to be a porn star is hilarious and, equally, when she sings karaoke, gets drunk and lies to the police officer, they loved her sense of mischief.

But there are tender and poignant moments in ‘A Grand Old Time.’ Evie finds love where she least expects it. As a widow, she’d had no thoughts of meeting her soul mate, but when she does, this part of the novel is both comic and touching.

Now I am a full-time writer, and published, with a real novel I can hold in my hands, I can reflect on the past year, going from aspiration to publication. Yet I’m still aspiring. That’s the point of a journey: you never get there. There is always so much to find out, to learn, to reconsider, to aim for and to try again.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is out in paperback on 3rd May. It’s already an ebook and an audio book, read gorgeously by the talented Aoife McMahon. I’ve written several other novels and the second one is currently at the editing stage, scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2019. I’m living a dream.

Like any journey, any dream, I have no idea where it is going, but as long as I’m in the driving seat with the wind in my hair I know it will be a blast. I have many people to thank for this first year: my agent, publisher, publicist, reviewers, all the loveliest of people. Kind and encouraging friends, the very best family. It is good to feel blessed and it is great to get up every day to do something you love doing. There may be many more novels out there. I hope so.

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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