These are the four non-negotiables. Drop any one and you instantly reduce your chances of producing publishable work.
1. Read in the genre. If you’re writing children’s fiction but you haven’t read any children’s fiction for twenty years, you’re going to produce something that – at best – might have worked twenty years ago. You need to know what’s being published right now to understand current trends, current styles and current subject matter. This doesn’t mean that you slavishly copy what’s fashionable, but some element of what today’s young readers read must be present in your work. ‘But!’ you protest, ‘I’ve read the timeless classics, and they’re still read by children today, isn’t that enough?’
It’s not. The rules for first time authors are very different to those that apply to the icons of children’s fiction. The same goes for all other genre fiction. If you want to write mystery novels but have only read Agatha Christie, your writing will reflect that. Read what’s being read today. If you don’t enjoy reading books in the genre you want to write in, rethink it. It’s very hard to produce good work if you have no heroes among the writers of similar books.
2. Develop your craft. Do courses, read articles, read books. It’s not unusual for starting writers to resist this. They feel that if they engage with anything that tries to teach them about good writing, they will somehow inhibit their natural genius. The reality is that writing is a craft before it is an art. Knowing how others have created great characters, great dialogue, great plot can only help. You don’t need to stick to the recipe when you cook, but knowing what it says can only help. By joining writers’ groups, you’ll encounter people who have the same struggles as you, and who may well have come up with solutions that might work for you.
The other thing is that writing is a solitary business. Being able to talk to people about what you’re doing, being able to bounce ideas off other writers only adds value. Climb down from the ivory tower and join the conversation.
3. Get feedback. If you asked me to boil it all down to one thing, and one thing only, it would be feedback. Nothing will short-circuit your development as a writer like good feedback. Now, I know, getting good feedback is difficult for several reasons. First of all, we become emotionally connected to what we write, so exposing it to the eyes of others is not easy. We feel that we are inviting judgement, not just of our writing, but of ourselves. Secondly, finding the right people to provide feedback isn’t easy. It always needs to be someone who knows the genre, who knows what good writing is, and who has some experience of the market. Not friends and family, in other words. The good news is that there are many editorial report providers out there who will – for a fee – deliver excellent feedback. Some are better than others – drop me a line and I’ll tell you which ones I like best.
For me, getting feedback from people who knew what they were talking about turned out to be liberating. Because good feedback locks onto things you actually know on some level. So when someone points out that your middle section drags, or your villain’s actions are inconsistent, you slap your forehead and go yes! Of course! Now you see how you can improve things, and you dive back in – not with resentment, but with gusto.
You do have to develop a thick skin, you do have to engineer a little detachment from what you write, but remember what’s at stake here. You want to become better at writing. You want to stop yourself wasting time working on something that doesn’t work. Feedback facilitates that like nothing else. Do yourself a favour, take a deep breath and go get it.
4. Write everyday. I’m talking now about novels. A novel, unlike a short story, is vast ecosystem. In order to maintain momentum and get it finished, it’s very important to stay in touch with the world of the story, to stay alive to its rhythms and undercurrents. If you work sporadically, you may progress, but you’ll find that you’re continually re-reading what you’ve done in order to get yourself on track for the work ahead. That’s problematic for a number of reasons.
First of all, novel writing is all about momentum. The only way to get to the finish is to avoid the temptation to rewrite early sections before you get to the end. Just keep going. When you realise that you shouldn’t have killed off the protagonist’s cat in Chapter 2, DON’T go back and resurrect the cat. Leave a note and keep going. Keep moving forward. Then, once you get to the end, you can circle back and make all the changes that need to be made. You’ll find that rewriting is way easier than writing, because you’re no longer tussling with a blank page. You’ve something to work on. By all means revisit what you did the day before, but avoid the temptation to go any further back. And even if you’re horribly pressed for time, dip in every day, even if it’s only to add a sentence.