Three things I wish I knew before I started writing, and three things I’m glad I didn’t.
Writing is a deceptively complicated business. I’d devoured books all my life and spent my life using words in one form or another. How hard could it be to put them in an order that resulted in a book? Yes, of course there are rules. Spelling, basic grammar, that kind of thing. But there can’t be much more to it. Could there? My first career had been as a screenwriter and director. I’d read all the books, knew what I should be doing. I even worked for a while as a script reader – I was the one who read the submitted scripts and wrote reports on them. I had a pretty clear grasp (or so I thought) of what made a story work. However, writing a screenplay is very different from writing a book. I would have saved a lot of time had I been taught some basics of the craft.
Here are the three things I wish I had known before I set sail in HMS Blissful Ignorance to write (and actually finish) my first full length story…
What is a Head Hop?
When my manuscript went out to beta readers, the universal comment back was ‘you shouldn’t head hop!’ I had no idea what this meant and when the penny finally dropped, it took months of work to fix.
A ‘head hop’ is where you go from one character’s point of view to another’s in the same section. For example:
Rory was furious. He could feel the anger bubbling up inside him, threatening to explode. But if Rory was angry, Zoe was spitting blood. How could he? she thought.
So we’ve gone straight from one perspective to the other, which is a total no-no. I have read some books that do this, but most don’t as it confuses readers. A romance novel written in the third person often moves from the perspective of one lead character to the other. I was so used to writing dialogue in screenplays that I didn’t think to stick to one voice and only change when it was a clear break or chapter. When writing from one person’s perspective, always consider that they can’t know what is going on inside another person’s head. They can only guess or infer by words and body language. The same rules apply when writing in the first person. Just because ‘I’ can see someone clenching their fists, doesn’t mean I actually know what they are thinking.
So to ‘head hop’ simply means to hop from the thoughts inside the head of one person to the thoughts inside the head of another.
The punctuation rules for writing, especially around dialogue.
Where do you put your punctuation? I went to primary school in the 1980s when they were going through a marvellously liberal phase. I bloody loved it. I was utterly precocious and was left to run creatively wild. I didn’t have to learn times tables or grammar, or bother with anything else that bored me. I still don’t know what a noun or an adverb are, and my mathematics ability stops at the five times table.
So, when it came to writing a book properly (my numerous false starts don’t count), I had no idea how to use “ or ‘, and definitely never in conjunction with a full stop or a comma. I still don’t. The eagle-eyed amongst you will no doubt spot tons of mistakes in these blog posts, as they don’t go through the hands of my editor. You may be thinking, so what? You’ve got an editor to fix that. However, if I’m writing and constantly worrying about how to punctuate then my mind is not fully on my writing.
Don’t dump information on the reader
In fairness, I wasn’t that bad at this, but it would have been better if it had been flagged up from the start. A really common mistake new authors make is to dump all the character’s backstory and motivation on the reader right at the beginning of the book. This is not only dull, but leaves you nowhere interesting to go.
You want to take your reader on a journey. Leave them guessing or confused as to why a character acts a certain way until you finally drop in the missing piece of the puzzle. ‘Aha!’ they cry. ‘So that’s why he walks with a limp and will never eat Chinese food on a Sunday.’ As an author, let the reader discover new things throughout the book. Give them a reason to keep reading.
On the flip side of this, there are three things I’m very glad I didn’t know when I started writing. If I had known them then I might have had second thoughts. If you’re an aspiring author then I suggest you move away from this blog after reading just one more sentence:
You’re amazing! You’ve got this! Your books are going to be incredible! You’re going to outsell and out-earn JK Rowling!
Now go away and start writing…
Have they gone yet?
Phew. Rightie-ho. Here we go.
The first things you write will always be shit.
Sorry. I know this hurts. Believe you me, I’ve lived this pain, and it cuts deep. You pour your heart and soul into your writing. You stand naked in public in a howling storm and scream your secrets to the world. Your heart is on your sleeve, your mind open for dissection. You are so happy with what you’ve written. Life is good! And then someone else reads it. Or you put it to one side and come back to it a year or a nanosecond later. And you realise with lurching, gut-wrenching horror, that what you have written is a massive crock of stinky shit.
Many, many years ago, I wrote a fictionalised account of my misadventures in the film industry. I thought it was fucking brilliant. I sent it to an author friend of mine. A traditionally published author. You know, one that has their books in actual shops and reviewed in The Guardian. Ugh… Even now, when I think of what must have gone through his mind when he read my gumf, another part of me dies. He was unfailingly polite in his response, and for many reasons I didn’t go any further with that book. But now, when I look back at it, I am horrified at how bad it is, compared to how good I thought it was at the time.
I am glad I didn’t know this when I started writing. If I had, then I would have thought twice. Or three times. Or just thought ‘fuck it’, that rule isn’t going to apply to me…
It’s really hard to finish a book
To be honest, I should really have known this one. After all, I’d been writing for decades and didn’t have very much to show for it… However my memory is fantastically defective when it wants to be. So I started writing again without full cognisance of exactly how hard it is to finish a book.
It’s not just the ‘how the fuck does this end’ bit, but having the mental strength to keep going when you are writing over eighty thousand words. At university, I wrote a two thousand word essay, and felt like I’d just rewritten the bloody Bible. Now, when I start a new book, it’s with a sense of real trepidation. I keep saying to myself ‘the longest journey starts with a single step’.
Writing is the easiest part of publishing a book
Back in ye olde days, you wrote a book. Then you embarked on the quest to find an agent and they got you a publisher. You handed off your manuscript and the publishing fairies did the rest. You just had to wave at your public once in a while and sign a few books.
Now things are very different…
Even if you have a traditional publishing deal, you will have to do a lot of the marketing and selling yourself. And, if you publish independently, then you have to do EVERYTHING. I genuinely did not appreciate just how much work is involved in this process. Writing is hard. But the logistics of getting your book in front of people is (to quote Charlie Hamilton) eleventy million times harder.
Writing is the easy part. Now you have to become an expert on business, marketing, web design, social media, SEO, advertising, graphic design, and all the other things that I still don’t understand. Because you can’t rely on anyone else to care about your book as much as you do. There are even some publishing companies that won’t even consider your manuscript unless you already have a website and social media presence. Eek!
So, after all that negativity, I do want to end on a positive. The information is out there on how to do this. And it’s, for the most part, free. Yes, it’s fucking scary having to learn new stuff. But if other people can do it, then so can you. You learnt how to walk, talk, wipe your bottom and drive a car. You’re amazing. You’ve got this.