I've been neglecting everything lately (blog, personal hygiene etc.) as I worked to finish 'Tesla vs The Martians', but as I'm due to talk at the Edge-Lit thingy in Derby tomorrow, I had to think about 'Getting Published'. The result is below.
ROD REES’S EIGHT RULES OF WRITING
Over the last nine months I’ve written the first of a new series of books (‘Tesla vs The Martians’, 123,000 words condensed down from 150,000) the fate of which is now in the lap of the god (aka ‘my Agent’), and with this trauma still fresh in my mind I guess now’s as good time as any to consider what I’ve learned about writing.
I set these rules down with a certain trepidation. I never thought I’d quote Noel Gallagher (Oasis was a shit band), but in an interview he gave to The Independent he said of Mario Balotelli that, ‘He’s like all naturally talented people: he’s not got a clue what he’s doing’. I think I could paraphrase this to read; ‘All published writers haven’t really got a clue what they’re doing’. Of course, the amount of verbiage written on the subject of ‘How to Write’ might appear to give the lie to that particular statement, but having read some of this, often contradictory, advice, I’ve a feeling that I’m right … or should that be write. I’ll give it a shot anyway.
One other thing before I begin: I write SciFi thrillers, which are, by definition, fast-paced and, well, pretty fantastic so if you’re an aspiring Dostoevsky or James Joyce then, perhaps, my rules ain’t for you.
A short preamble. I stumbled into writing. Five years ago I decided, on a whim, to write a book. I had no experience in writing (I’m an accountant by trade), never took a course on ‘How to Write’ and never, really, thought too much about the career I was about to embark on. I chose to write SciFi simply because I’d been a fan of it when I was young (Asimov, Herbert, Farmer, Wells et al) which was a loooooooooooooong time ago.
So it was a writer’s life for me and driven by naïve enthusiasm I hit the computer and wrote for one year. The result was my ‘re-imagining’ of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a story I called ‘Dark Charismatic’, a real beast of a book that weighed in at 220,000 words, which I trimmed back to 190,000. Perfect! So perfect it was rejected by everybody!
Hardly surprising. Consider: in a conversation with my agent (get me: ‘my agent’) he advised me that during his time in the business he’d received something north of six thousand submissions from would-be writers and as he’s currently got a stable (or should that be a pen) of forty-three authors that comes out at a newby having something like one chance in a hundred and fifty of securing an agent. It ain’t easy to get an agent and without an agent getting published is nigh-on impossible.
ROD’S RULE OF WRITING #1: If you ain’t got the hide of a rhinoceros, writing ain’t for you. Rejection and criticism is part and parcel of a writer’s life so if you can’t take it …
In fact my suspicion is that writing is a covert government-sponsored scheme to keep people with ideas off the streets. Better that they’re holed up in their bedroom/office/shed typing nonsense than they’re actually meshing with reality. Which brings me on to my next rule:
ROD’S RULE OF WRITING # 2: Unless you really, really believe you’ve got the talent to write a novel that will knock a reader for six then stop now. Right now! This instant! Do something more productive with your life, like taking up knitting or rat juggling.
Rule # 2 is important. I’ve sat in on numerous writers’ groups and generally found my fellow scribblers to be a rather nice bunch of people and nice people try not to hurt the feelings of others. So you’ll be seduced by expressions like ‘that was interesting’ and ‘I think with a little bit of work that could be really good,’ into believing that you are a talented writer. And if you ain’t, you’re wasting your time ... a lot of time.
Anyway … back to me.
After ‘Dark Charismatic’ I wrote for another year and came up with ‘Invent-10n’. Another 200,000 words. It was crap, so I rejected it (I had my reputation as a failed writer to think about, after all).
I wrote for another year slaving on ‘The Demi-Monde’. It sold! And now with the four books in the Demi-Monde series delivered to my publisher, I have exceeded the one million word mark which Ray Bradbury (RIP) believed was the benchmark for any writer. And being a fully paid-up member of the One Million Word Club I get to dish out advice of which the third instalment is:
ROD’S RULES OF WRITING # 3: If you wanna be a writer … write. Don’t take courses, don’t join writers’ groups, don’t read books – this is all busy work – just fucking write. Every day. One thousand words minimum. Anything else is just posing. Real writers write, ersatz writers think about writing.
I try to keep to a schedule where I write an average of 3,000 words per day (21,000 per week), which is then factored down to 1,000 words per day because for every day I spend writing I spend two days editing/reviewing/correcting/despairing.
On this basis, attending a weekend workshop on ‘How to Write’ is an expensive indulgence. A weekend spent talking about writing costs you 6,000 words or 5% of that book you’ve been trying to finish. Think about it, then go home and write.
So, let’s say you’ve convinced yourself that you possess both the drive and the talent to be a writer, the question is what should you write? What I hope isn’t the answer, is a short story. Writing short stories (unless your name happens to be Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King) is the literary equivalent of jerking off: fast, fun and a totally non-productive. Worse, short stories use up storylines, characters and (most, valuable of all) plot twists at an alarming rate. Ideas are the life essence of any writer so don’t squander them.
Ah, do I hear the protest which says, ‘short stories are a great way to get your name out there!’ Answer: bollocks … nobody reads short stories any more.
More, ‘it’s a great way of learning your craft’. Answer: er, bollocks². The editing of most short stories is cursory in the extreme so the feedback you’re going to get is superficial at best.
Yet more; ‘it’s a great way to earn as I learn’. Answer: bollocks³. I’ve had four shorts published in my brief career as a writer and I’ve earned precisely … £50!
ROD’S RULES OF WRITING # 4: Never, ever be tempted to write short stories. They are the literary world’s equivalent of travelling at speed down a cul-de-sac.
Now ignore Rule # 4, because my belief is that every chapter of your book should be a short story, having:
· A point: if the old adage ‘make every word count’ is important, then every chapter has to have a purpose. It might be introducing/developing a character, moving the plot forward, adding tension by stirring up a conflict, any number of things. But whatever a chapter’s role in life, it must – in my humble – be self-contained, which, once read, leaves the reader with a feeling of completeness.
· A killer opening line: there’s been a lot said about how important it is for a book to begin with a ‘the clock struck thirteen’, an oh-my-gosh-that’s-clever opening line, but if a chapter is a book in microcosm, doesn’t it deserve the same treatment?
· A denouement: just like any story a chapter should have a beginning, middle and an end (though not necessarily in that order) … especially an end. Why an end? Because it’s that which makes the reader eager to move on to the next chapter. Mini-cliff-hangers (hill-hangers?) are good.
· A zinger of a last line: promoting the ‘wow, I’ve just gotta read what happens next!’ syndrome.
ROD’S RULES OF WRITING # 5: Treat each chapter as a self-contained short story: it’ll discipline your writing and help keep your readers entertained.
Next up are characters. I invest a LOT of time developing/tweaking my characters and I do this for the simple reason that they are actors performing in the theatre of my mind (God, that sounds pompous!). And like all actors they are always jockeying to be in the spotlight. Encourage them … and if this requires a little over-acting on their part so be it: surely it’s better to have your story populated by characters who, though they were bloody annoying/offensive/disagreeable, are at least memorable. The reality is that the best characters transcend the story – think Long John Silver, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Flashman – all of these were just a touch OTT.
The true test of Hollywood star power is whether the actor can open a movie, and I believe that the ones who can (and there are only a handful) are touched by the pixie dust that makes them larger than life. Similarly, a great character is one who can get a reader to open a book … and it’s your job as a writer to be continually auditioning for the next fictional superstar.
In this regard, my approach is to develop characters who are flawed. A hero who is saintly, resolute, trustworthy and kind to animals is also bloody boring. It’s the dark psychosis that haunts Batman that makes him such a great character … just as it’s the absence of any inner conflict which has condemned Green Lantern to being an also-ran in the superhero stakes. No one remembers a nice guy.
The other problem with characterisation is what I call ‘character drifting’ … a character drifting through the story who doesn’t impose his or her personality/attitudes on what’s happening. He or she simply observes and makes bland comments. To my mind, it’s no good giving a character a back story unless that character’s actions are influenced by what happened to him/her.
ROD’S RULES OF WRITING # 6: Push your characters, always remembering that it’s their flaws rather than their virtues which will make them stick in the mind.
Okay, enough about characters. Let’s talk about editing … your editing. I generally find that if I’m aiming to write a book of, say, 100,000 words then I’ve got to write around 120,000 words. The reason for this is simple, the pace/rhythm of a book is determined as much by what you leave out as by what you leave in.
A lot of what I write in the first draft of a book isn’t for the reader’s benefit, it’s for mine. I need to know where the action is taking place, what time of day it is, what’s the weather like, that sort of stuff but when it comes to the final edit I realise that most of this is unnecessary verbiage, worse, it’s the descriptive dross that most readers will skip anyway. My policy is to only leave something in the book which, if it isn’t read, will somehow diminish the reader’s understanding of what is or, more often, what will be happening in the story.
Having said that, self-editing is a difficult process BUT, believe me, it’s better (and a damned sight less humiliating) for you to do it than your editor.
ROD’S RULE OF WRITING # 7: If a scene is there simply to describe a situation ask yourself whether it should be binned. With descriptive dross it’s far better that it’s you hitting the ‘delete’ button than for the publisher to hit the ‘reject’ button.
Okay, nearly done. The last thing I always do when I’ve finished a chapter is to read it aloud (preferably when you’re alone otherwise the neighbours start to talk). I pretend that I’m reading it out on the radio (sad really, but writing’s a lonely occupation and you tend to go a little stir crazed). Odd behaviour though this is, it’s also bloody useful in that it accomplishes three things:
· It’ll help you spot those irritating echoes that will have infected your writing. Use a word like ‘bored’ in one paragraph and the chances are that you’ll have used it in a subsequent paragraph. I also find it useful when deciding if a character’s dialogue stays in, er, character;
· It’ll give you a feel for the times when the story starts to drag. And if you’re bored (told you!) reading it, the chances are that your reader will too; and,
· Reading aloud gives you a sense of the rhythm of your writing (and here I’m gonna get all new-age), telling you whether it flows, man. When you’ve nailed it, Paragraph One will segue naturally and seamlessly into Paragraph Two and so on and son … you won’t notice the joins.
ROD’S RULE OF WRITING # 8: Read what you’ve written aloud. Not only will it tell you an awful lot about how good or bad your work is, but it’s very entertaining for your partner.
Well, that’s it folks. I hope you found this useful. Best of luck with your writing and don’t forget to take the pills … writing is, after all, an addictive disorder.