Tips to Help You Write a Novel

A recent post in The Writer’s Digest got me laughing. Titled 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (& How to Avoid Them), the article highlights, in a tongue-in-cheek style, some of the many reasons would-be writers fail to complete their masterpiece. Waiting for inspiration, self-doubt, resentment and giving up are some of the reasons stated and there are others. If you’re stuck in the novel-writing doldrums, here are some ideas to help.

Inspiration

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Waiting for inspiration to strike is a big obstacle for some. The problem is centred around the myth that good writing in only produced when the muse magically appears, or we’re ‘in the mood’ or something moves us to write. The fact is, successful writers treat writing like a job. They turn up on time and do their work, regardless of whether they are bursting with ideas or not. If you wait until a brilliant idea pops into your head, you may find you never manage to do very much writing at all. Often, ideas come after you start writing, not before.

Self-Doubt

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Worrying that your writing is bad is natural. We all have moments of self-doubt about our abilities, especially when it comes to something as subjective and unquantifiable as ‘good’ writing. If you manage to write a novel or other longer work, the self-doubt demon often raises its head about midway, after you’ve committed so much time and effort that it would be a serious setback to give up and start something new. You can sometimes temporarily overcome self-doubt through the support of family, friends and other writers, but the only effective long-term solution I’ve found is to accept that your writing may be bad, but to write anyway. Usually, when you look back you find it isn’t as terrible as you thought.

Resentment

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Taking offence at rejection or adverse comments on your writing is going to slow you down, if not put you off writing altogether. When you spend hours crafting a piece only for its ideal market to return it within days, or even hours, it hurts of course. And it can be hard to accept feedback that seems to point mostly to the faults of your writing while failing to see its merits. But the negative emotion of resentment is a drag on your energy and productivity. The best way to prevent resentment from interfering with your writing I’ve found is to put on your big girl knickers and move on, seriously.

Rejection

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Publishing is full of stories of classics that were rejected 50+ times, and in recent history there have been many instances of traditional publishers rejecting novels that went on to sell hundreds of thousands when self-published. What do all these stories have in common? The writers never gave up. The same is true of every book that appears for sale. Understand the pros and cons of giving up before you make that decision. Giving up isn’t the easy option, especially if you’re contemplating giving up writing entirely. It means living with regret and wondering what might have been. It’s easier to live with hope than without it.

Planning

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So much for what you shouldn’t do if you want to write a novel. What about the things you should do? One of the most important aspects of novel writing is to have a plan. Not necessarily a plan of the novel, but at the very least a plan of how you’re going to get the work done. If you do prefer to plan your writing – and many have found that outlining is the fastest route to completing a novel – I recommend Take Off Your Pants as a valuable guide to structuring your writing. If you prefer to pants it, planning how you’re going to write your novel helps you get it done. Whether it’s 1000 words a day, four hours a weekend or ten chapters a month, setting goals helps you achieve progress. Having no goals is a sure-fire way of allowing life to intrude on your ambitions.

Feedback

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When you have a sizeable piece of work, solicit feedback. This could be from online writers’ forums, writing groups or friends or family who are experienced readers. (Beware – the danger of approaching friends and family is that they’ll only tell you positive things about your work. Kind though this is, it isn’t helpful. Only honest feedback helps you improve as a writer.) As well as helping you improve, feedback can spur you to continue writing, providing you can avoid feeling resentment.

Submitting

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Submitting your novel may seem like the obvious end point of the novel-writing process, but writing and sending off that query letter or sample chapter is a high hurdle for some. Suddenly the novel becomes a real thing in the real world and the fear of rejection becomes insurmountable. One method for overcoming that fear is to view publishers’ responses not as the ultimate arbiters of your worth as a human being, but as a sign of their estimation of your novel’s likelihood of commercial success (because that’s what they actually are). Alternatively, when you’re sure your novel is the best it can be, and you have professional editing and a gorgeous cover, you can self-publish and find out for yourself your novel’s appeal to the masses.

Writing a novel is an ambition many have but few execute, and the reasons are often less to do with practical constraints than the inability to overcome the many obstacles our minds place in the way. If you’re really struggling to write, I recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Though the book strays uncomfortably far into spiritual territory for my tastes, it’s spot on when discussing the writer’s (and other artists’) struggle. Understanding why it’s so hard to complete your novel is the first step to defeating your writing demons. You CAN succeed.

 

 

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Peak Heat Launch

By Whitney Zahar

On January 16, 2016, I realized a lifelong dream. I held a book in my hands and stroked the velvety cover, filled with joy that between those pages, there was a story in there that I had written. Best of all, I had my 5-year-old son Preston by my side.

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Okay, he might be too young to fully appreciate the awesomeness of being published in a format other than on the web, but he was there to hear “Mommy’s story,” as well as those fantastic other tales by the Taipei Writers Group.

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The book launch was held in the new Red Room venue at Taipei Air Force Base. What a great place, where creativity and community are encouraged in equal measure! There was plenty of space to roam around. My son loved performing his version of kung fu dancing on the carpet before nestling into a pile of pillows. He was given the job of guarding Mommy’s Peak Heat poster.

Meanwhile, I loved exploring the display of books written by my fellow writers, as well as sampling some of the yummy treats prepared by Karen Farley of KP Kitchens and our own Bradley Verdell.

With our bellies and hearts full of good food, drink, and conversation, we were swept into the blazing world of Peak Heat a world heartbreakingly similar to our own. We were in good hands with our Master of Ceremonies C.K. Hugo Chung to guide us through a group of stories from all over the world. Each story had its own view of what life would be like after a massive global warming event. We met collectors, surfers, queens, hunters, lovers, zealots, children, and survivors, from all walks of life. For me, I absolutely had no idea until the last moment which part of my story I was going to read, let alone how I was going to introduce it. But what struck me was that I had read several of these stories many times, taking a red ink pen to them without trying to slice away the writers’ voices. It wasn’t until I actually heard them out loud, read by Katannya Jantzen, Brian Quentin WebbJ.J. Green, Bradley Verdell, L.L. Phelps, Pat Woods and C.K. Hugo Chung (sadly, Erisa Apantaku couldn’t make it), that I finally heard the voices of the characters. I finally heard the flow of these stories. I realized the importance of these book launches and these book talks, where writers and audience can step beyond the printed page together, and into a world of voices and conversation.

To top it all off, I had no idea Ted Pigott was there sketching us as we read. How glorious!

Even though I couldn’t stay past the first act, I was so happy I was able to come to the launch. I was able to reconnect and touch my friends, make some new friends, and I was happy my son was there to experience this event.

Now, onward to the next group of tales! Where will they take us next?

Shameless Self-Promotion for Authors

Whether traditional or indie published, writers these days need to get over their reluctance to self-promote. Sure, if you’re Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman you’re going to sell books regardless of whether or not you post on Facebook and Twitter, but for most authors, self-promotion is a necessary evil.

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Margaret Atwood@MargaretAtwood

 

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Neil Gaiman@neilhimself

A phenomenon tied up with the creation of art is the notion that if the work is good enough it will naturally find its audience. The evidence supporting this idea is a tautology: we judge that successful works are good because they’re successful; but in fact there are many highly successful novels that aren’t well-written, even when generously assessed. A more important factor in a book’s success is that readers are aware of it.

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Writers are notoriously introverted, and of all professions they’re one of the least likely to be found on social media. They’re also reluctant to use social media and other promotional tools to draw attention to their books. While such an attitude is understandable, it hinders writing careers.

 

The Reality of Book Promotion

Nowadays writers can take several routes to publication. They can submit to literary agents or directly to traditional publishing houses, pay a vanity publishing company to publish their book (an expensive and ill-advised method), or indie publish. Traditional publishers often handle promotion to a lesser or greater degree on behalf of the writer (though many smaller houses often rely on writers also promoting their work); vanity publishers may or may not include promotion as part of their service; but for indie writers, self-promotion is part and parcel of the work needed to sell books.

How to Promote Books

No one likes a braggart, and no one enjoys being spammed with endless Buy My Book ads, so how can indie writers draw attention to their work without being annoying? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of self-promotion methods:

  • Book Promotion Sites

A range of paid and free sites that advertise books have sprung up in recent years. Depending on the number of reviews and the book’s genre, some of these are worth the cost or effort required. Here‘s a list of useful sites.

  • Amazon Promotion Days

If a book is enrolled in Amazon Select, the author can reduce its price to 99 cents while retaining 70% royalties for seven days, or offer the book free for five days, per three-month enrolment period. When advertised at some of the promotion sites mentioned above, these can be useful methods for getting books to readers

  • Social Media

Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are some of the most controversial for selling books, mostly due to insensitive advertising and overuse, but they can be great resources for engaging and building a relationship with readers who are interested in your writing. Blanket, random advertising is unlikely to be effective, but as a way for readers to interact with writers and for targeted advertising, they’re invaluable. Mark Dawson offers excellent, free advice.

  • Book Review Blogs

Popular book review blogs can introduce a book to many readers, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for writers to get a slot because reviewers often have a backlog of books to read and review. It helps to pick a site that deals exclusively in the book’s genre and follow the submission details to the letter to increase the chances of the book being picked. It also helps to submit the book several weeks prior to publication so the reviewer can tout the novel as a new release.

Poor Book Promotion Advice

There’s a lot of poor promotion advice given to writers, often by traditionally published authors and others who have little or no experience of independently selling books, such as the above-mentioned notion that a good book will naturally sell well. Writers are also advised to write another book, thank their publishing team and be kind to their colleagues (I’m not joking) as methods for raising their profiles as authors. Such advice is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous, and leads to disappointment and a sense of failure when writers put their hearts and souls into writing excellent novels, only to find they don’t magically rise to bestseller status. I liken it to a child being told if they’re good Santa will bring them presents.

Indie Book Promotion in the Real World

The first step to becoming a full-time indie author is to tell a good story and avoid writing badly. This means good developmental editing and proofreading. The next step is to provide an excellent, eye-catching cover and engaging blurb that entice readers to find out more. When those goals are met, the writer needs eyes on the book, which means shameless self-promotion.

Traditional publishing doesn’t rely on the authors writing another book, thanking the publishing team or being kind to sell books. No, it spends great deal of effort and money on book promotion. An unknown indie writer has little choice but to do the same. Self-promotion is essential to recognition, and writers should understand that promoting their books, in a non-annoying or invasive way, isn’t shameful bragging, it’s taking their art seriously and behaving like a professional.

Image of Neil Gaiman courtesy of Wikicommons.

Image of Margaret Atwood courtesy of Wikicommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dabbling in Doyle

Some time in spring last year, I had a crack at writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. It was for a submissions call shared by Jenny Green from our writing group, and I decided to have a crack at it. So, I wrote the story. It didn’t get picked up, but six months down the line,  Jenny shared another submissions call for Holmes stories, so I sent it off again, and this time it made the cut. Rather than – all right, as well as – promote it (link at the end of this post), I’d like to share my thoughts on the process.

Why Sherlock Holmes? It’s one thing to write a detective story, or a murder mystery, but quite another to do it in the style of one of the biggest names in the genre, using one – or rather two – of the best-loved characters in fiction. I’d never really thought about writing either a murder mystery or a Holmes story, but it seemed like too good a chance to pass up. The fan in me won out.

I’ve seen, heard, and read a lot of different versions of Holmes. I like the classic Basil Rathbone movies, though I deplore the way that Watson is dumbed down (this is not a shot at Nigel Bruce, mind). I enjoy the Jeremy Brett TV series, and even get a kick out of the Guy Richie movies. I was a huge fan of Sherlock, though less impressed with the third series. I’ve watched a few episodes of Elementary, and I’ve read the whole canon of Doyle’s stories. Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk is excellent. But my first memory of Holmes & Watson and my most enduring connection to them, is the BBC’s radio dramatisation of the whole canon, and the only adaptation where the same actors (Clive Merrison and Michael Williams) play Holmes and Watson for every one of Doyle’s stories. More on that later.

The challenges of writing a pastiche are obvious. How can I match the style? How can I walk the line between following the conventions and creating a rehash of clichés? How do I keep it a pastiche rather than a parody? I’m not 100% convinced that I’ve done any of these things, but I’m pretty pleased with how it ended up.

On the other hand, a pastiche has several advantages. I don’t have to develop the characters, build a whole world, explain why and how Holmes is so clever, drop in any backstory, or anything like that. The work is done for me. I can just ignore it all and stick to the story – or in this case, the case.

This is where things got fun. The original submission call was for “The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” so I had to write the Great Detective with a difference. However, I wasn’t interested in having him meet Dracula, solve an extraterrestrial murder, or even be cryogenically frozen and appear in the future. I wanted to write a story that actually fit with the “known” facts of the canon. I don’t want to give away my solution for how I chose to do that.

That was the first step. Second was the crime. This was actually a lot harder to figure out, as I had to basically work backwards from the crime scene – in this case, my murder victim – and trying to leave clues and evidence as I went. Then stir the pot with a few false leads. The word limit of 7,000 was a help in this. In most of the short Holmes cases, you’re never in the dark for too long. There’s a case, some evidence gathering, and a solution. Doyle’s novels stretch out the middle stage (and, in two of the four stories, include many chapters of unrelated ‘romance’), but his short stories are tight. This worked to my advantage. My favourite Holmes cases are locked-room style ones with plenty of physical evidence for deductions, so that set me off on the path.

(Another convention I love is when Holmes looks over a client, observing and deducting. I actually wrote a whole scene of this, but sadly had to cut it due to length constraints, which is a shame)

So I had Idea One: The Paranormal Element, and Idea Two: The Crime. Crossing them was not really a problem, as the Idea One actually bookends Idea Two, creating two “mysteries” as it were, which I could deal with separately. But I knew there was something else I had to really get right, something more than plotting a decent crime or giving it a weird and wonderful twist.

Holmes and Watson.

For me, the stories have never been “Holmes” stories – they’re Holmes and Watson stories. Without the relationship, or without the right balance, it’s not quite the same. This is where those BBC dramatisations come in. Actually hearing the characters speak to one another really formed my opinion of them as a duo. Holmes may sometimes belittle Watson, run roughshod over him, and frequently deliberately mislead him, but he has a way of showing Watson just how much he means to him. Watson can be observant, and attempts deductions of his own. He often makes mistakes, but these are actually helpful. “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light,” is how Holmes puts it. In the BBC versions, the warmth, and the occasional sparks that fly, between the two friends is readily apparent. Trying to show this was even more important to me than making an interesting murder mystery.

I can’t say how well I succeeded, only to repeat that I’m pretty happy with it. My hope lies in Machiavelli:

“A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it.”

If nothing else, I think I had more fun writing this story than almost anything else I’ve written.

The story “The Adventure of the Etheric Projection” was published in the Sherlock Holmes Special Issue of Jersey Devil Press’s online magazine. Here’s the link for a free pdf download:

http://www.jerseydevilpress.com/?p=7011