Sarah's top 20 tips for fiction writers
Want to write a book? Here are some tips about writing, most of which I’ve had banged into my brain over the years by people wiser than I am, including my editor and agent. If they sound dictatorial, please accept my apologies, I’m hoping to stop other people falling at hurdles I tumbled headlong over myself...
1. Show don’t tell. Rather than use lots of back story or description, create dramatic scenes to illustrate a theme or flesh out a character. It keeps the narrative moving, and credits readers with intelligence. So don’t overuse adverbs – ‘He said sullenly’, ‘She said grumpily’ etc. Instead let a character’s words and actions communicate their mood.
2. Avoid overstatement, because readers are cleverer than we think they are. My background is advertising – I used to be a copywriter – and overstating went with the territory, whereas in a novel I learnt it’s better to be subtle. When I recently revisited my first two novels, The Other Half and Getting Even, to update them for reissue, I found they were FULL of overblown writing. I cut 20,000 words from EACH book. Yet when they were published a decade ago, I thought they were perfect! Hindsight is a wonderful thing - it allows a writer to be more objective.
3. Don’t rush to say everything at the start. When I shifted from copywriting to fiction, I delivered everything too fast, whereas a good story doesn’t reveal all its secrets at once. That said, the opening does need to hook people in.
4. Talking of hooks, each book needs a unique selling point. Marketing books is like marketing any product, and it is vital to work out what is fresh and different about yours. Think of it as your 'elevator pitch' and when you write to agents, use it.
5. Plan. It’s important to know where a story is heading, otherwise it’s easy to get lost. You'll get muddled, and so will your readers. When I’ve had little idea of my plot, I’ve ended up floundering midway and having to stop and start again. Now I plan more carefully, and I do it by creating a mind map (see photo, opposite) because I see writing without any structure is like building a house without foundations. It might look okay initially, but at some point it’s extremely likely to fall down.
6. This might sound obvious, but every story needs a beginning, middle and end. It’s helpful to see it like an arrow flying from a bow. It should arch up, full of energy, then carry itself on through the middle section (which is often the hardest bit to write) before coming down to rest with an ending that feels ‘right’.
7. Start with short stories. Twenty years ago I was advised to do this by a published author and it taught me a lot about dialogue and structure. I had several short stories published by Woman’s Own before I attempted a full-length novel. Otherwise it’s like trying to run a marathon without ever having jogged a mile.
8. An author is usually best off writing something they know about, especially in a first book. It doesn’t need to be autobiographical, rather something you understand emotionally. Personally, I have to believe in what I’m writing. I don’t mean I have to make a political point, just focus on something that matters to me. It takes passion to sustain around 100,000 words and often this has to come from deep inside.
9. Make the reader care about the characters. To do this, I find I have to care about them myself, even the less likeable ones. If you imagine yourself inside a character’s head it helps.
10. Keep the reader turning the pages. Contrast scenes of levity and gravitas (Shakespeare does this brilliantly) and have chapters end on a cliff hanger just like TV soaps do.
11. Read other books. I’ve been in a book group for 13 years and read pretty diversely. I’m always coming across authors who write better than I can, and I try to learn from them – improving metaphors, sharpening up characterisation and so on.
12. Sort out grammar and spelling. An editor told me years ago typos ‘stop a reader trusting you’. Don’t show anything to a publishing professional without going through it with a toothcomb. Imagine they are in a shop buying clothes – why would they bother with an item with a broken zip? It is not easy to spot errors so ask other readers to help, and if there are typos in this I apologise - it only proves I still have lots to learn.
13. Redrafting is crucial. My editor says a lot of first-time writers are excited to get to the end because they consider their novel is finished, whereas that’s the start because 90% of writing is rewriting. Taking time between drafts helps objectivity, as does changing the font. It means you'll see it with a fresh eye.
14. Be tough on yourself. I get asked to read a lot of manuscripts – imagine how many agents and editors get – and a vast amount is lazily written. Words need honing. Try to avoid repetition and clichés. Keep viewpoints consistent, check tenses don’t jump about, and take a hatchet to superfluous passages. I recently discovered an online editing package called Autocrit. It's cheap and easy to use and can point out some of these glitches. However it can't write the novel for you!
15. Don’t rush to get submit something purely because you think it taps into the zeitgeist. Remember it takes at least a year for a publisher to get a book out there if you go the traditional route. My agent is adamant it’s more important to write something good than anything else.
16. When you write to an agent, make sure your letter is pithy and sells your book. Your letter is your calling card - it has to work very hard for you. I’d recommend buying The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which gives practical information about copyright and finance, submitting a manuscript and epublishing, as well as being a comprehensive up-to-date guide to literary agencies and the media. Check the agency accepts new material, and then write to someone who represents authors in your genre. Don't send an agent who represents crime novelists a romance, and find out if they prefer to see a couple of chapters and a synopsis or the whole novel. Format it in the way they want, too - they get dozens and dozens of manuscripts and will reject yours given the slightest excuse.
17. Don’t expect to make much money. That’s a myth. You need to sell an awful lotof books to make a living. Not long ago I read the average income for a published author in the UK is £10,000 a year. Even when I’d got a deal my agent said ‘don’t give up the day job’ as many authors on her list also do something else. Also, it's worth your agent keeping hold of your foreign rights. Selling translation rights and/or film, TV and audio rights can bolster an income substantially, and help with cash flow. Otherwise it can be very feast or famine. That said…
18. Make time to write. You either need to be very disciplined and carve out space in your schedule, or rethink the nature of how you earn a living in order to be an author. I found to create headspace for creativity I needed to cut back on copywriting, as the last thing I felt like doing after writing all day was doing it again at night, so I gave up a full-time job back in 1998. However until recently I kept working freelance in advertising - alternating spates of that with fiction writing - in order to pay the rent.
19. Learn to take criticism. In these days of the Internet, we authors have less of a buffer between us and online reviews, which can be tough, but to be an author you need to be able to take feedback from the off. I find I need to be in touch with my feelings to write – so initially I have to bury my inner critic – then I have to bring her out to help with my redrafts and feedback from my editor. 'Slay your darlings' is what they say, and it's good advice - it means don't be overly precious about your work. However, sometimes you don't need to follow what an editor suggests to the letter. It's more important to consider what she or he wants you to achieve in a broader sense, rather than amend your manuscript exactly the way they say. If they want you to cut a scene completely because it's slow, for instance, you may find it's worth completely rewriting it so it works a lot harder for your story. Both achieve same result - improving pace - in different ways.
20. Finally, the maxim ‘if at first you don’t succeed’ is pertinent to fiction writing. Publishing can be very ‘me too’ – look at all the 50 Shades of Grey imitations – so keep slogging. I know how hard this can be – One Moment One Morning was widely rejected by publishers and the feedback was consistent: ‘we like this, but we don’t know how to market it’. As four letters arrived the same morning, I went to bed for the rest of the day in a massive gloom. I felt it was marketable precisely because it was different, and happily, many months later, it was picked up by Picador. And remember, though it’s flattering to have a bidding war, a book only needs one publisher – and these days, as I'm discovering with the reissue of The Other Half (below), you can even do it on your own.
In short, keep at it.