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The acronym ‘STORY’ serves to remind us of the most important of the tips when writing. A novel is, after all, fundamentally a story.
Story comes first
Steven King says this in his wonderful book for aspiring novelists, On Writing. It was what enabled me to complete my first novel, Tideline. Story first. Not imagery, not lovely sparkling prose, not even that engaging character you can’t wait to explore. Yes, there are experimental post-modern novels in which story plays a subordinate role to language or form. But most novels, especially first novels, need a story.
What is your story? You may have to ask yourself this question repeatedly as you write. Summarising the nub of your story is an essential tool that will keep you on track and see you through to the end of the first draft of your novel.
‘When I have the time.’ We’ve all been there, said that, and used it as a reason to postpone what we really want to do. Or to give up on something we’ve begun. To write your novel, you have to give yourself time. This doesn’t mean leaving the day job – day jobs are useful resources for writers. But it does mean carving out regular time in which to write. And prioritising it. I know plenty of people who wrote their novels whilst bringing up children, working full-time, putting the bins out, caring for elderly relatives, or commuting for hours every day. The other roles in your life shouldn’t be viewed as barriers to writing, more as catalysts and as inspiration. But something might have to give. For me, it was the allotment. If you want to write a novel, you need to honour the wish by giving it time.
Be open to other people’s feedback. Writers tend to be private people, even secretive. Sharing our writing with others is exposing, if not downright terrifying. But a novel is not a novel without readers. At some point you will need to let others see your work. Or there’s not really any point in writing, is there? So better to get it over with now and let people you trust read your work. This is something that a course or group can provide, where other writers in the same boat as you will be sympathetic to your insecurity, but also offer useful criticism. You may hear from them that what your writing isn’t coming across clearly. Or that there are passages that are tedious. Letting other people read your work is the only way you’ll know.
Often, however, as soon as you know a real person is about to read your work, you’ll have the urge to sharpen it up so that it means exactly what you want it to say, the way you want to say it.
Know your readership, i.e. who your novel is for. If you want to publish, it is as well to have a broad idea of how a publisher might market your book. And this means knowing what its readership will be. Now this may not sound very literary and you may think ‘I am not writing a commercial novel’. However, a publisher has to envisage a place for your book. ‘But it’s unique’, I hear you cry. So it may be. But is it historical, contemporary, romantic, does it have thriller elements, or something else? Perhaps it has another USP – nature memoir or fictional biography? At the very least, try to imagine the kind of person who will want to read your novel. Think about which other novels your potential readership will have enjoyed. Complete the sentence: ‘Readers of my novel will also enjoy…’
Much of the writing of a novel happens in the redrafting. If you remember this you’re less likely to give up on chapter three. When you think you’ve finished your novel, you’re going to read it through, and redraft it. It’s in the redrafting that you will get to know your characters more deeply and be able to adjust their responses. And you’ll be able to see the threads that you have woven and how they can be pulled through so everything makes sense at the end. You will then be drafting it again, and again, and yet again! If while starting out you remember this is a first draft, you will be less likely to throw it away in despair if it doesn’t all come together immediately.
Penny Hancock is a bestselling author of four psychological thrillers. See more from her at pennyhancock.com