1: The countdown is over to the biggest blunder.
Well here we are, nearly half a year as gone by! I feel we are like soldiers that have survived a war, survivor syndrome about to set in. Except we are not soldiers, we are the opposite of that; we are the hippies placing flowers in the gun barrels of military oppression, because that is what fiction writing is. Some might sneer, most won’t read us, but we know, you and me, we know what we are doing/about to do can make a difference, however small, that’s why we’ve made it to the end, to grow, to make others grow a little more, empathise and love, give them the hope they are not alone, just give them hope, not just entertain and inform−we can do that as well. We have made it this far because… enough for now.
Right, here it is, with the countdown (add your own background music or drumroll).
49 English vs American-English.
48 Contractions of words and hyphenated words.
47 Contractions in direct speech (and first person narration).
46 To capitalise or not?
45 It’s/its: A common mistake.
44 Chapter headings−giving the whole story away.
43 Not reading enough of the genre you are writing.
41 Mixing up of word meanings.
40 Not joining a writers’ group.
39 Possessive apostrophe.
38 Overuse of exclamation marks. (Dashes, hyphens, semicolons and ellipsis.)
37 Get as many opinions as you can.
36. Not producing a synopsis, treatment and blurb as soon as you have finished your book.
35 Lack of a sense of place.
34 Too much technical detail.
33 Information dump.
32 Motivation/Not writing enough.
31 Lack of variety within the book, vocabulary, sentences and style.
30 Lack of planning, rambling, not tight enough writing/planning.
29 Formulate characters and motivations beforehand.
27 Too many ‘ly’ adjectives and adverbs.
26 Movement in both time, place and pace.
25 Self-publishing is not a new innovation.
24 Social media.
23 Wrong tone, verisimilitude. Thin slicing. Gladwell.
22 Not making enough time – this is not the same as motivation. We are talking frustration here.
21 Write notes continually.
20 Too many similes and metaphors.
19 Not accepting criticism, thinking you know best−you are just starting out!
18 Too many adverbs (and adjectives) added to describe direct speech.
17 Tense mix up.
16 Too many clichés
15 Not enough empathy for your characters.
14 Active voice: not passive.
13 Dialogue: he said, she said.
12 POV choice.
11 Giving the plot away too easily, prolepsis, epiphany.
10 Revealing too much – exposition through action.
7 Not enough conflict.
6 Hook too slow to start with.
4 Impatience – we all can be.
3 Not employing a professional proofer/editor.
And, numero uno…
1Editing. You just told me to splash out on an editor, even if it meant selling my gold fillings or soft major organs in duplicate. We are talking two completely different things here; the editor is fine-tuning your ‘final’ manuscript. What we are talking specifically here is editing your own work, an essential part of the craft of being an accomplished writer, so you can get to a stage that you feel it is finished and you are prepared to show others. This believe it or not is incredibly hard, because as a fledgling, your tendency is not to write less−which would have been one of your major concerns when you started, it is to over-write, verbosity is not only your middle name−it could well be your first as well. By writing far too much, you are making life very hard for yourself. This is why I have banged on many times about planning everything in as much detail as possible before you start. This only comes with experience and with experience you will get better and better. Even if you have to edit a paragraph down because it contains repetition of ideas, even if is not repetition of the same word or phrase, if it is the reiteration of the same idea but in a different way that adds absolutely nothing to your novel, it needs to be edited out−never easy. Any dialogue that is long winded, that is taking too long to say something, that could/should be made in a more succinct way, any repetition in dialogue, unless it is there for dramatic purposes, needs to come out, this is much easier to do in the moment.
Then even harder, you have spent months, maybe years getting to the end of your first draft and you keep repeating the same idea, but again just in a differing way, you could possibly leave the one near the start and the one at the end, but the ones in between need cutting. Then there is the superfluous meanderings you had that slowed the pace down and had little to do with the linear narrative you set out to achieve, that needs to come out, but do you take it all out or do you just leave a couple of sentences in to show-off to the reader, this is where measure comes in. All authors are guilty of it, you can see them tapping away, their brains and imaginations on fire, and they just hitched a lift on a tangent. Some do it brilliantly, and we love them for it, such as Douglas Adams, but ask yourself: will it add anything to my book? If it will, get it in there, be brave, but make sure it will, or you will be spending a proportion of your life expunging it.
I will give you two examples. When I wrote my first ever book, I spent six chapters getting to the point where the book really started, where something actually happened above the mundane, I felt back then, it was important for the reader to know a few things in depth about the two main characters. Years later when I dragged it from an old three-and-a-half-inch floppy disc, (We had floppies in those days−don’t laugh at your elders yowts!), I edited the first six chapters into one punchy sentence: ‘Ok, I stole the money, there’s no other way of looking at it; one minute I didn’t have twenty-eight grand, the next, abracadabra, I did.’ It took me fifteen years to come to that decision, not every waking hour, and the ultimate reason it was so hard, was not because I thought the writing was great, it was I remembered the sacrifices I had to make to complete the novel with the swirl of life’s laundry about me.
Stephen King, when he started out used to write by day and edit by night, this is a guy that can knock books out with prolificacy. If an accomplished writer such as him, needed to edit his work continually, it is a safe bet you will have to as the same. I have told you before how I used to do it. Write-stop, come back the next time, whenever the next time was, then edit the previous work to kill two birds with one stone: the editing and getting back up to speed−at least hitting the ground walking. The more you do, the easier it becomes, you write more concisely, you learn measure, sparcity of words and the all-round craft of writing. The paradox is it gets easier and harder at the same time. The things you found hard at the beginning have evaporated into the ether, replaced by other aspects you thought you might find easier and things you did not even know existed when you set off.
So, do you still want to be a fiction writer? Really?
Because I did, I gave up my job. I had a good job, well paid – I was a High School Teacher – ‘madness’ I hear you say as you shake your head from side to side, like watching two fluorescently painted naked male tennis players in a heatwave. If that is you, taking risks like being a full time writer is not for you, and you have read far enough, probably too far. Your work here is done, and you may well sleep easier at night.
Surely you don’t just give your job up and expect to make a living from fiction writing? If you worked 55-60 hours every week and some of the holidays in a demanding job that you physically and emotionally gave your whole to–you sometimes have to take the plunge right into the deep end.
So a decision had to be made, do you wait until you get a massive chunk of time, because don’t kid yourself, that’s what you need. There is only ever going to be two big chunks of time; if you lose your job, and are not spending every waking hour finding a new one, or when you retire, and by then it’s too late. There are always exceptions to the rule − Frank McCourt is the only one I can think of. Someone said William Burroughs was really old, he was 40. You could argue the likes of George Elliot (40) and Marquis de Sade (47), were, because of the era they lived in, and the life expectancy at the time… So if you want to go for it, you need some ‘time’ to do it.
I gave myself a year to produce 4 completed novels! FOUR, not as crazy as it sounds. I had two not far off and one I had published under another name to re-edit and reissue, and then I was going to write another one from scratch. This is where the experience of ‘doing’ comes in. Everything, ‘absolutely everything’, takes at least twice as long as you think. A year drifted into over a year and a half. What have I managed, five. The very minimum number of drafts you will need is four, absolute minimum, (or 17 if you are as gifted as Geoffrey Archer!). So when people said, ‘Are just having a bit of a break?’ Until you’ve totally immersed yourself, and most never will, you really cannot fully appreciate what is involved. It is not as demandingly physical as my old job, but when you have a critical devil and creative angel constantly duelling behind your back, that often spills over into your brain − it is easy to see why Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. You just sit at your type-writer and bleed.” I never understood why some writers are soo tortured−I do now. Or another way of looking at it: ‘Here’s an empty book with 300 pages in – fill it with words, ideas, characters, devices, plot, dialogue, original similes and metaphors, read lots of novels, read lots about the craft, learn how to sell yourself, improved your grammar, find a proofer/editor/designer, improve your imagination, be dedicated to almost military scheduling and then produce a work of fiction that other people might want to read, and possibly buy! Do you still want to do it?
Still want to write a novel? Here’s another depressing one: To become good writer you need to write about one million words! Yes, one million, and I’m not talking the lines you did in detention in school, although you learnt something quite valuable that day. I used to think that was rubbish, and just rhetoric put about by older grizzled authors – one million is the bare minimum. I have finished two novels and thrown them away, just kept the main idea, Iris Murdoch was right when she said, “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”
Money: Don’t expect to make any, if you do, cartwheel through your City centre dressed as a superhero and have a party when you come to rest. (I have kept my first cheque − £1.87!) Ok, you’ve seen the exceptions to the rule; Rowling, King, a few chick-lit and thriller writers, but these are by far the exception. I set myself the goal of making the national average UK wage (£26.5K or $43.5K) after five years, following the bamboo rule, a few inches growth in the first four years, then massive growth in the fifth−still want to be a fiction writer? I have my hands pressed together, but am not expecting a miracle! Forget about minimum wage, that’s for conventional well-defined toilers, not for writers, or hardly anyone in the arts. The average fiction writer in America earns $5,000/year, that’s the average. In the UK the median wage for a professional fiction writer was £11,000 in the calendar year 2013; these are professional ‘full time’ writers I am talking about here. Someone I know has just retrained after writing five novels to be a nurse, because “there’s just no money in fiction writing!” Most professional writers do something else to make ends meet, and I’m not just talking the lesser known ones: Harper Lee was travel agent and Kurt Vonnegut ran car dealership.
Then there’s the emotional slog it can take on you.
Be prepared to feel the pain and elation of your characters. I was working on the final instalment in a trilogy of books, 350,000 words in, tears were running down my cheeks and my wife walked in, concerned for my mental health. (“Suffering is only intolerable if nobody cares!” – Cicely Saunder.)
“God, what’s wrong, has someone died?”
“Yeah, in my book!”
“Ohhh, right. I thought someone had really died!”
Imagine a book that has made you cry, maybe for the first time ever. Mine was: Unbearable Likeness of Being – Milan Kundera, when the dog dies − I don’t even like dogs that much. That is when a light goes on, and you think with greater clarity. I want to be able to do that! Well, now remember you have lived within a main character, walked in their shoes, thought like them, behaved like them, slept like them, eaten like them, had sex like them, totally immersed yourself within their characterisation. If you are brave enough, you have the power to kill them off, even though you want them to live desperately, you might even lay down your own life for them, because they are better people than you and I! When they die, you cry, but they have to die because in real life people we love die, and you are now not just a writer, you are a healer, you are showing other people they are not alone, if you so choose? You are no longer looking in at the words; you are looking out from the character.
But when you have based a character on someone dear to you that you loved and they die, your loved one dies again, not as bad as the first time (hopefully?), but you have not only written about it and cried, you have to go back and edit it, and you know with almost certainty you will cry again, even though you have told yourself otherwise! – can you deal with that? Can you really? Now you can start to see why some writers are so tortured and that’s before the critical devil arrives and starts sprinkling doubt!
So, why even bother to write? A lot of pain, for very little gain.
Quite simply: because you love it. If you don’t, give up now, no one will think any less of you, most won’t know and those you told about your ‘dream’ will have soon forgotten in the clatter of their busy lives’. If you have got this far, I am starting to worry for you. You need to ask yourself (yet again) why do I want to write? Here’s why I do it: I want to tell interesting stories that entertain, educate, heel, empathise and have soul. Which is the same as saying; writing books that I would love to read. You may have a different agenda; knowledge, make sense of the world, sharing, escape, self-help, leaving a legacy (in case they don’t name a day after you or build a statue – more the men this!) literary skill advancement – which may well, just be maintenance, rather than any advance. I could go on, everyone’s different, but it doesn’t matter what it is, make sure you have an answer, because someone will ask you.
George Orwell said one reason people write is for egotism, some definitely do, but maybe less these days, and again this is more a man-thing. Think about writers that you have heard bragging, nearly all men. So from that point of view Orwell was right. I write like a lot of others because I have something to say, or at least I think I do, and that is part of the belief and confidence you need.
Make sure you have something you want to say. And make sure that something excites you, that falls together at some point in the body of your writing and you feel a mini epiphany. If you don’t feel it, why should anyone else? If you don’t feel it, if you are never going to feel it, don’t bother, go shopping, watch a sports match, watch crappy tele, knit a jumper, ride a bike…
So do you still really want to be a fiction writer? Hold your novel in your hand, smell it, feel it next to your skin, go to bed with it, have it placed next to you in your coffin? …Well you’ve made this far, you might just have the dedication and drive, as well as the resilience to do it… might!
Ian M Pindar’s latest books, under his real name are: ‘Hoofing It’ and ‘Hoofed,’ the first and second novels in The Robert Knight Series and are on special offer http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Ian+M+Pindar He has another three novels out this year. Not including turning these ramblings into a short book: 50 mistakes of the fledgling Fiction writer.