If you’re struggling to produce prose, there are probably two main challenges to tackle:
- Technical mastery of language and extended discourse.
It’s best not to try and tackle both challenges at the same time. If you try and solve everything at once, you’ll get overwhelmed and panic – your writing will seem to get even worse than it was before – and then you’ll have a breakdown or, even worse, give up altogether. Isolate one area you wish to work on, choose a tactic to suit your working style and give it a go. If that tactic doesn’t work, don’t blame yourself or get demotivated – it’s simply that the tactic you’ve tried isn’t right for you. Just try another one. It’s essential to remember that there is no ‘correct’ or ‘prescribed’ way to be a good/successful writer. If there was, we’d all use it and we’d all be good/successful writers, wouldn’t we?
1. Ideas. One of the most frequent questions I get asked is where I get my ideas from. Well, I’m always reading some fantasy book or other. I often read something and think: ‘That’s not very good. I wouldn’t have written it like that. I’d have written it like this. Oo, that’s a good idea! Maybe I will write that.’ It’s not copying – it’s actually writing the opposite of what you’ve just read – it’s the exact opposite of copying then. It’s a photo-negative.
2. The blank page. Some people get a big idea but then struggle to express it or construct it. In some ways, their big idea becomes a straight-jacket to their natural flow and expression. They get a strange paralysis (‘writer’s block’). The trick is not to construct the narrative in a calculated fashion right from the very first word. Just throw down a first sentence that sounds intriguing and let it suggest a second sentence to you. I hardly ever plot out my books in advance. I just slap down an edgy line and see where it takes me, short-story style. Just to show you, I’m gonna make up an opening line right this instant… ‘I’m not sure demons exist.’ There you go. What might come next? How about ‘My mum says they do, but John at school laughed when I told him what mum had said.’ And then: ‘My mum now says John is probably a demon too! She’s going to tell the local priest. Oh no, I hope I haven’t got him in trouble.’ See. None of that was planned in advance – and yet we can already see a big, complicated, exciting plot coming.
3. Producing a good amount. Some people have ‘writer’s block’ once they are sat down with a piece of paper and pen, while other people struggle even to bring themselves to the piece of paper. They just never bring themselves to sit down and write. What I would suggest is blocking out an hour in your diary and telling everyone around you you won’t be available for that hour on Sunday (or whatever day you choose). Come the big day, you’ll find you end up completing every chore in the house (using up every excuse to avoid the writing), and then guiltily come to the piece of paper. Refer back to point 2 above, and the words will start. At the end of the hour, you’ll find you don’t really want to stop. It’s a great feeling. You’ll wonder what you were ever scared about. You might even smile. It’s a start.
4. Producing even more. Okay, you’ve done some writing here and there, but it’s still not that much. You’ve got bits of different things you’ve started and left. You’ve got quite a bit of a book you started last year, but somehow never got round to finishing. You’ve lost your way a bit. So what do you do? A methodology that’s now proving popular is to force yourself to write a thousand words each day, without any attempt at making it good. Just brainstorm or write garbage. You could actually set yourself the task of writing something as bad as you can make it – the results are hilarious. But at the end of the day, you will still have written 1000 words. If you then reread them, you will see that actually there are a few hundred that aren’t too bad after all that you want to keep and work on some more. And if you do it everyday, you’ll produce more and more. You’ll establish a healthy habit. Think of it this way: if you produce a page a day, and you do that every day, you’ll have a book at the end of just one year.
5. Don’t think you have to be entirely original. Fan fiction is an increasingly popular genre of literature. If you find you can’t seem to write anything but a tawdry copy of Twilight or Lord of the Rings, then don’t feel bad about it, celebrate it instead. There are plenty of online forums for fan fiction and you might find that you end up getting a huge following or readership that way. Examples? Have you seen the Golem fan movie? It’s good. Have you heard of the book called Pride, Prejudice and Zombies? It had good sales.
6. Getting feedback. Careful, careful. Some feedback might actually give you some new ideas and might help you technically. But if you get negative feedback, it can be very demotivating, even if you’re a hard-nut like me. It can make you want to give up writing entirely. Can you believe there are some people out there who don’t like Necromancer’s Gambit? Some of the things they’ve said have been really upsetting and I’ve started to wonder if I’m deluding myself. And then my ego says: ‘Hang on, don’t be too hasty to beat yourself up! You’ve taught the language for a decade, Adam, and you’ve read every fantasy novel out there. You know good from bad far better than those idiots.’ What we need to remember is that the philosophy that ‘the customer is always right’ is now out-of-date thinking from the 1980s. We now understand that there are different types of customers, and certain types will destroy a company or author if those customer types are listened to too much. The ONLY feedback you should pay attention to or respond to is feedback that is pretty much universal. If every single person is telling you something, you should listen. Otherwise, if it’s one or two negative voices, ignore them, even if they seem qualified to comment (professionals often comment in haste or suffer from parochialism and professional envy).
7. Good-but-flawed or technically-perfect-and-bland? Following on from the feedback point, you should now realise you need to trust your own judgement more. No one else is going to write the book for you. If you try to incorporate everyone’s advice concerning your book, you end up with management by committee and lose the authorial voice/editorial consistency in your work. It is authorial voice, style and distinctiveness that ultimately define an author and decide how successful he or she will be, so don’t let go of it! It is far, far better to produce a good-but-flawed book than a technically-perfect-and-bland book.
8. The first chapter. I don’t draft and redraft my work much at all. But I find I always struggle with the first chapter. I end up giving too much away or explaining too much. It’s so frustrating. With Necromancer’s Gambit, I ended up drafting the first chapter nine times, but every other chapter was ready in first draft. I even ended up rewriting the first chapter when I’d finished writing the rest of the book! I wrote the first chapter last. Do you know what, I now treat it as a fact of life. I always find the first chapter easiest when I’ve written everything else. So, now, I’m very casual about the first chapter and refuse to worry about it too much, knowing that I will come back to it at the end. I’ve heard of other authors with the same problem who finish the book and just delete the first chapter, so that the book starts with the second chapter.
9. Don’t explain. So the key to good writing is not to explain anything to the reader. The reader’s imagination is far more powerful than anything a small set of words can adequately explain. And any explanation you attempt will usually fall short of their imagination and irritate them. So don’t explain. Don’t spend ages describing characters either. Give them a few distinctive motifs (something they wear, something they always say, something about their bodies and something they always do), and that it enough. An example. ‘I met an old man waiting at the traffic lights, even though the signal was green for pedestrians. His face was so wrinkled and lined that it felt rude to look. His clothes were a bit tatty, and the hat he wore had a big hole in it. Fortunately, it wasn’t raining. I was in a hurry, though, and didn’t offer to help him across the road. After all, you never know these days, do you?’
10. Getting help from a ‘professional’. Careful, careful. There are a number of agents/editors out there who will ask you to pay them for their professional opinion of your work. You think they will give you some amazing piece of insight that will turn your work into an overnight best-seller, do you? No, of course you don’t. So why are you still thinking about paying them something? Oh, because you’re really buying into your own irresistible dream, aren’t you? Your ego’s tied up in your dream too, isn’t it? So you’d pay almost anything, wouldn’t you, even if it’s against your better judgement, eh? Come on, do yourself a favour and just remember that there’s plenty of free, professional advice out there too. There are writers’ forums with resident editors, there are associations that charge small annual subscriptions, etc. And then you can enter some writing competitions and get free feedback that way. If you’re really desperate, you can always contact me too – my email’s somewhere on this site.
11. Doing it on your own. So you might self-publish or go print-on-demand (POD) instead. If you do, be careful which company you choose. Some companies offer distribution deals – those are the ones you want if you ever want a wider readership. Otherwise, you can go ‘direct publishing’ and simply offer your work to customers through the Kindle platform. A lot of self-published authors then end up being their own literary agents. Some even go and set up their own publishing houses. Also not a bad idea. For further advice in this category, see the page on this site called ‘being an author’.