I’m delighted to have the opportunity to write this guest blog on the subject of empowering successful writers. A lot of people starting out in writing come to me asking for advice, and I always say the same thing: follow my ten-point plan, work hard and hope for a giant slice of luck. That’s all I’ve ever done since the day I looked in the mirror, bared my teeth and said: ‘you are a writer’. I learned a valuable lesson that day – get your teeth whitened before you even think about doing publicity shots – and the same spirit of enterprise has guided me ever since.
First let me tell you a bit about myself. I’ve been a successful writer for five years now, but that success didn’t come easy. It was a bitter slog across a raging sea of blood, sweat and tears. The road to recognition is paved with rejection slips and maintained by some of the most petty-minded guttersnipes you could ever have the misfortune to meet. But keep going and learn to appreciate the value of hard-nosed perseverance over tangible riches. Today I have a thriving website, a Twitter account with more than 30,000 followers and a reputation as one of the rising stars of modern fiction, endorsed by such figures as Gordon Ramsay, Carol Vorderman and Lord Lloyd-Webber. If someone had told me five years ago that I’d achieve all that, I’d have looked at them like they were stupid.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve met writers who have a seed of talent but no idea how to make it grow. I want to show you how you can sow that seed in the right market, sprinkle it with some simple words of wisdom, layer on some organic fertiliser (or critical endorsement, as they call it in the publishing trade!) and watch your successful writing career flourish.
1) Write what you know. Yes, I know you’ve heard it before, but this really is the golden rule of successful writing. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that writing fiction is about making things up. But consider this: would you trust an airline pilot who decided on a whim where the mountains were? A good novel is like a guidebook to an unknown but beautiful country. Your task is to know your landscape right down to the tiniest speck of dirt and reproduce it faithfully on the page. Think about your characters in the round. What items do they keep in their fridge? Which celebrities might they have a secret crush on? What kind of car do they drive? What labels are in their suits? Details like this can help readers connect with them, but more importantly they will facilitate the creation of a powerful brand for your fiction product.
2) Go big on research. First-time writers often worry that they don’t know what to write about. They have to adjust to spending large parts of the day sitting in a room typing, either at a desk (if you’re the old-fashioned sort) or on the couch with the sports channel on in the background, which leaves little time for the all-important business of information gathering. And yet you’ll need every scrap of detail you can get your hands on if you’re to get the word count up to the kind of level publishers expect in the age of Dan Brown. The good news is that these days you can optimise your knowledge stream without leaving the house. Dickens and his kind had to spend months prowling the streets of Victorian London in disguise, speaking to beggars and prostitutes, risking tuberculosis and worse in order to create authentic and meaningful fiction materials. Zola spent months down a coal mine breathing in dust, which probably explains why Germinal is so terminally miserable. Thanks to wikipedia, such unpleasant acts of self-sacrifice are a thing of the past. It follows that you have no excuse for not knowing your subject inside out, and even less for not cramming your novel with authenticity-generating detail. Be glad you live in the age of Google, unlike the Marquis de Sade, who was so desperate for material he ended up committing a string of shocking offences. (Incidentally, publishers these days run a mile from that sort of thing, so make sure you clear your search history regularly.)
3) Create characters your readers can identify with. Most regular people like to think of themselves as sympathetic, so it’s no good writing unsympathetic characters and expecting readers to warm to them. A quick glance at French literature down the years will reveal countless examples of guys who failed to grasp this simple point, which is why hardly anybody reads them these days. The same applies to names. It’s vital you give your characters names that readers can remember as they navigate their way through the story. This is particularly important if you’re seeking to spice up your fiction experience with a couple of ethnic characters: names like Vikram and Aravinda may be beautiful and exotic, but if you want them to make an impression on your readers make sure they’ve at least got memorable nicknames like Vic and Harry. I remember reading one of those South American novels once where everyone’s called something like General Humbelino Thumbelina and giving up in exasperation after 20 pages. Basic errors like that have strangled many an otherwise promising novel at birth.
4) Know your target market and fire at it with abandon. Email has allowed writers to connect with agents, publishers, journalists and reading groups as never before. Get in the habit of writing short, snappy pitches with eye-catching headlines such as ‘Could Jane Eyre have found her Mr Rochester in a 25th-century offworld colony? You’re about to find out…’ Then send them out to at least 100 people a day. Even if one in 20 gets back to you, that’s 35 responses in a week. Successful writers don’t sit around waiting for the telephone to ring; they bombard the publishing industry with their genius. So get in the ballpark and start hitting.
5) Compose an ‘elevator pitch’ for your novel. Try to condense its plot, main characters, location, time period and central themes into a snappy precis no longer than one minute in duration. If you can’t outline the key elements in that space of time, go back and streamline your content. Strip out all those subplots, political references, philosophical asides, running metaphors, fictionalised ex-partners and references to classical mythology. They only get in the way of the plot, and few readers even notice them. You never know when you might bump into the publishing executive of your dreams, and nothing turns them off faster than a long and convoluted explanation of the significance of the small white dog on page 26. Take it from someone who knows.
6) Pimp your style! Nobody wants to read a sentence like ‘it was raining’. It’s bland and unengaging and too close to everyday life. If people want to see it raining, they can look out of the window. Your goal should be a tight, compelling style that straps your reader into a chair in the first sentence and refuses to let them go until they’ve swallowed the last full stop. Verbs are your friends, so be sure to wring every last drop of value from them: change passive verbs to active verbs, active verbs to hyperactive ones and junk the subjunctives. Instead of ‘it was raining’, write: ‘Rain screamed down from the cinder-black sky and visited piercing, indiscriminate wet fury on the shuddering trees and helpless pedestrians.’ Three-quarters of the battle is making the reader sit up and take notice, and nothing does that like a bayonet in the back.
7) Whatever you do, avoid any of the following notorious ‘amateur traps’: stories in first person present tense; stories in second person; stories with more than three points of view; stories that turn out to be a dream; stories where the narrator dies; stories where the narrator is an animal; stories where the narrator is a ghost; stories where the narrator is a dead animal; hoary old cliches; adjectives of more than three syllables; adverbs ending in -ly; foreign phrases; sentences longer than 20 words; sub-clauses; strings of hyphens; exclamation points; semi-colons; quotes within quotes; sick animals; Germans; paedophiles; lepers (too obvious a metaphor); blind people (ditto); morris dancers (just because); characters with STDs; characters with facial disfigurements (it’ll torpedo any chance of a movie adaptation); characters who drink Moet, Jacob’s Creek or Babycham; any plot development that endorses terrorism, smoking, trade unionism, the BNP or Keith Chegwin.
8 ) Don’t show your hand too early. Use plenty of plot twists to enhance the reading experience, the more unexpected and leftfield the better. A surprising number of traditional novels fail on this point: (spoiler alert!) once you’ve seen Anna Karenina hanging around at the train station in the early chapters, you’ve got to slog your way through 600 or so pages before she throws herself underneath it. Luckily for Tolstoy, he was writing at a time when alternative domestic entertainment choices were much more limited. Nowadays we might expect to see Anna bumped off by a serial killer, or kidnapped by the Moscow mafia and forced to earn her freedom by working as a prostitute in Antwerp before being tracked down and rescued by Count Nikolai just as she’s about to be dumped in a canal. Think of yourself as an undercover agent, offering your reader tantalising glimpses of a glamorous world that they feel they already know before steering them head-first into a concrete wall. They’ll never see that coming.
9) Never stop believing. If you don’t cultivate a deep-rooted, unshakeable belief in your ability, no-one else is going to do it for you. If you get a rejection letter, and believe me you’ll get hundreds, compose a courteous and detailed reply, pointing out all the nuances they overlooked and references they failed to understand. All great novelists brag of having a ring binder full of rejection letters, and you should do the same. Make sure you keep every rejection slip, laminate it and store it in your safe. Then, when your blockbuster is published to huge acclaim, you’ll have all the tools you need to make those people look stupid. People are envious of success. Milk that envy.
10) Never forget a face. When you’re starting out you’re grateful for any advice you can get that points you on the path to fame and fortune, but it’s amazing how quickly even modestly successful writers turn round and stamp in the faces of those who gave them a leg-up at the start. People deny the publishing industry is about who you know, but the reality is it’s nine-tenths of the law. Remember all those people who helped you on your climb to the top, because you can be sure you’ll meet them again coming down. I’ve lost count of the number of people (mentioning no names!) who were happy to take my advice and build a massively successful career on the back of it, but when I asked a small favour in return they pretended I didn’t exist. Let me assure those people that when I reach the top of the tree, I’m going to have a pretty big hacksaw with me and I’ll waste no time in sawing off the branches on which they’re sitting so pretty just now.
If you’ve reached the end of this blog post, give yourself a pat on the back, because you’ve learned another lesson: never give up. So just for you, I’ve included an 11th piece of advice. If you’ve gained in worth as a result these words, forward them on to at least 50 of your friends so they can benefit too. I heard of a man in Albuquerque who took my advice, failed to pass it on and was paralysed in a car crash the following week. He’s now a vegetable who will never pick up a pen in anger – or any other emotional state – ever again. The two events were probably completely unconnected, but why take that risk?
Good luck with your writing and be sure to share the love that comes your way, as I have shared mine with you.
Yours in writing,