I’m not all that keen on laying down rules about writing. You know the sort of thing: “Ten golden rules every author must follow.” Hmmm…rules, as Lenin almost said, are like pie-crusts, made to be broken.
When people ask me if I have any writing tips, I find it very flattering, but I must begin my reply with a warning. I haven’t (obviously!) found the secret of mega-success. I’d love to think I could simply follow a list of do’s and don’ts to produce sure-fire best-sellers, with film companies competing for my rights while I’m alive, and universities fighting over my manuscripts after I’m gone. Wouldn’t we all?
But I do know the kind of books I want to write, and I’ve accumulated some guidelines – I’ll put it no stronger – that help me give my best shot. They may help others, so here goes:
1. Write about what interests you. Don’t be tempted by something that doesn’t, even though other people tell you it’s commercial, fashionable, “a sure winner.” With luck it may turn out to be any or all of the above, but only if you are interested and can make it interesting for your readers. Writing a novel is hard work and it can take years from creation to publication. If you’re bored at the start you’ll be brain-dead by the finish. Your prose will probably be dead too.
2. Once you begin on a novel, write regularly. I’m not saying every day; that would be nice, but may simply not be feasible because that pesky factor known as Real Life gets in the way. Work on it more than once a week. If you don’t keep up the momentum, you may lose interest, however fired-up you were when you started.
3. Have some kind of a plan, don’t just launch yourself into the wide blue yonder without any idea where the book is heading. How detailed the plan is depends on you; there isn’t a right way for everyone, you’ll find the method that’s best for you. Some authors prepare very full chapter-by-chapter plot outlines and stick to them; others (like me) just write a skeletal framework, a note or two about the beginning and the end and a few key items in between. Then as I write, the details emerge gradually and I go with the flow…but I do know where I‘m flowing to. I call this the Colin Dexter method, because he claims it’s how he wrote his Inspector Morse books: he says it’s like driving from London to Edinburgh without a road map. You know the general direction, and you’ll find the exact route as you go.
4. Try and keep your writing fresh, with a newly-baked feeling about it; not stale or hackish. (My spell checker thinks I’ve invented a new word. But you know what I mean.) Steer clear of obvious pitfalls: avoid clichés like the plague…OK, an old joke, but nonetheless true. Don’t slow down the action with pages of laborious description. Again I’ll use the B-word; if you read over yesterday’s creative output and it’s boring, don’t let it stand. We all have off-days, but we needn’t inflict them on our readers. Delete it and do better.
5. Don’t give up. However hard it is, however long it takes, if you have a book to write, persevere till it’s done. Whether it eventually gets published, whether it sells millions, that’s harder to predict. But if you’ve completed a first draft, you’ve achieved something important, and you can be proud to call yourself a writer. So stick at it. That’s the only truly unbreakable rule.