I have to say it: Michael Ranson hits the nail on the head again on this one. Every writer, whether new or experienced, will need to read and reread this article many, many times. Please enjoy Part 2 of his series on the harsh truths (and reasons to hope) in regards to writing. Click here to read Part 1.
Hope and Hard Truths Part 2: the art of writing
In Part 1 of Hope and Hard Truths we talked about the need to approach marketing and publishing your book in a professional manner, and faced some hard truths that no amount of happy thoughts will change. In the second part of this feature I’ll discuss the art of writing and in the process give you some reasons to hope, and an excuse to bring out those happy thoughts, again. Yes, folks, it’s time for the fun part! The part where we get to make stuff up for a living! But don’t get the wrong idea. To be successful at the writing side requires every bit as much dedication and self-discipline as selling and marketing the finished product.
First things first. What are you going to write?
Write the book you want to read.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Many people approach writing a novel for publication by using the traditional supply and demand model of business enterprise: they ask themselves what the market wants and then figure out how to supply it. But to write a good book you need to reverse this thinking: you need to ask yourself what you’ve got, and then find the market that wants it. In brief, this means writing what you’re capable of writing and not trying to emulate someone else, or write within a genre that isn’t naturally your home. But more on this, later. First, let’s ask another apparently simple question:
What is a ‘good’ book?
A good book is a book that is finished. That’s the first and most important criterion. The world is littered with unfinished masterpieces that bring you to the verge of tears with their sheer brilliance right up until…
The second criterion of a good book is that it must tell a story well and leave its reader satisfied. This is is actually easier to achieve than you might imagine and is primarily achieved by writing the book you want to read, which we’ll discuss shortly.
The third criterion of a good book is a book which the author doesn’t hate.
But why would an author hate their own book?
Well, there are many reasons this can happen. They include the time it takes to finish a book and the impact it has on the author’s daily life. A book in progress can be a grievous burden to bear: it’s like having perpetual homework that is always late – you’ve never written enough, or you haven’t written at all today and now you have to write twice as much tomorrow, but you don’t know if the words will come. The people around you can’t understand why writing is hard. The muse has abandoned you or you’ve got writer’s block. You’ve lost the plot, you’ve got no new ideas, your characters are turning into blocks of wood, you’ve edited and re-edited the first three chapters ten times and you’re still not happy…
Stop right there.
You’ve done what?
You’ve edited it? But you haven’t even finished it, yet!
As the late Ray Bradbury once said, “You fail only if you stop writing” and there was much meaning encompassed in those few simple words. On one level it was an obvious warning not to let rejection stymie your talent: not to forsake writing simply for lack of immediate success. But on another level it was an exhortation to keep going, to keep slogging along that seemingly endless road towards the invisible goal of completing a story, one story at a time. Don’t let your book become one of those unfinished masterpieces I mentioned earlier. Get the first draft done and give yourself the gift of knowing that you can finish a long novel. After that, everything gets a little bit easier.
Accept that at some point you will hate it. It’s unavoidable. It’s almost an intrinsic part of the creative process. But that’s why you’ve got to finish the first draft at all costs. If you hate it halfway through you may never finish it. You’ll be another unfinished masterpiece that almost…
And if you do finish it, that could be even worse! A reader can always tell when an author wasn’t happy in their work. Don’t ask me how but readers seem to be telepathic this way. It might be the tone of the narrative, the style of the writing, the use of language or even the punctuation. One likely give-away is when all these things seem to change about halfway through the text, which is probably about when the author began to despair of ever finishing it.
Whatever the signs, a reader can always sense what’s in the mind of the author, whether the reader is explicity aware of it or not. Hate-filled authors do not write satisfying books. They certainly do not write good books.
So how do you learn to love your book, again?
One way is to structure your book according to one of several writing methods, otherwise known as writing using a formula. Some of you may throw up your hands in despair and cry ‘But I don’t want to be just another formulaic author! I want to be unique and creative!’ and so you should be. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of a learning opportunity: remember that formulaic methods, like cliches, exist because they work. The help create successful books. You can learn from that success, and still retain your unique style and author voice, without becoming just another write-by-numbers automaton.
However, that discussion is a little beyond the scope of this feature so if you want to learn more about how to use a formula without becoming a formulaic writer, please see the link at the bottom of the page.
Another good strategy for helping yourself towards completion is to write a short version of your book first. Take your idea and write it as a novella of 40 to 80 thousand words to be used as a ‘treatment’ which, in this context, is simply another word for a test or demonstration: a proof of concept. There are several advantages to this novella approach. First and foremost it gets you to that happy place of completion much sooner, and helps keep your moral high with the buzz of finishing something. But no less important is the opportunity to bug test your plot, your story, your characters and your writing style. In this sense the novella version is like the one-page synopsis discussed in Part 1, only while the synopsis is better for spotting 747s flying through your plot holes, the novella is more like a mosquito net that catches all those annoying little flaws which, individually, don’t amount to much but, collectively, can ruin your whole book.
Of course, if you’re happy with the novella you could always publish it and forget the longer version. Or you can take the novella and exploit its true value by learning from it, much as an actor learns how to perfect his performance in rehearsal. Then you’ll write a much better 120, 150 or 200 thousand word novel as a result.
Art is never finished, only abandoned.
– Leonardo da Vinci
There comes a point at which you must stop and move on. Even if you’ve kept up a good pace and finished the first draft, or tried the novella approach and written a far better full length work as a result… even then you will probably still feel unhappy with it as you leaf through the pages of your manuscript and imagine all the other things you could have done, instead.
You’re not the first to feel this way, and you won’t be the last. Consider these wise words:
If I wrote a poem I was happy with, I could finally stop writing poetry.
– Philip Larkin
Make it as good as you can, then stop and move on. If you’ve got any brilliant ideas left over when you’ve finished, save them for the next book and in so doing, remind yourself that there will be a next book. Writing is one of the few areas of life where you get as many shots at success as you want. Failed the first time? Write another and try again!
Right at the beginning of this article I said you should write the book you want to read.
But what does that mean?
The very best teachers never forget what it’s like to be a student. Similarly, the best authors never lose touch with their inner reader. They write the book that’s in them, that is the product of their own life experiences, education, dreams and philosophy. You can’t adopt the philosophy of another writer, especially one you’ve never met, and replicate their success. This way lies only bitterness and disappointment.
Put it this way: if your natural interest lies in 19th Century romance and, envious of Tom Clancy’s success, you try to ‘commercialise’ yourself by writing a Cold War spy thriller, you’re going to fail. Same goes for that Harry Potter rip-off you’ve been secretly comtemplating, or the scribbled outline of that True Blood homage you’ve been hiding under your pillow. If your thing really is spy thrillers, wizards and brooding supernatural catwalk models then good luck to you, and there is no reason you can’t be a success at it. You just need to make sure you find your own individual voice, and avoid consciously, or unconsciously, parroting the voices of others.
But what if spy thrillers ain’t your thing? What if you only consume these genres for entertainment but find that they don’t consume your daydreams? Don’t worry, stick to the 19th Century romance and don’t agonise over its commercial value. As the sales and marketing department from Part 1 proves, anything can sell. You will find your market, but only if you stay true to yourself.
If you want to learn more about how to use a formula without becoming a formulaic writer, please see How to Write a Good Book.
About Michael Ranson:
Michael Ranson has been described as everything from urban to snooty. When asked to describe himself he usually prefers to tell a story. He is, after all, a fiction writer and it can be a hard habit to break!
What is true is that he wields the red pens and brews the strong tea that fuels his new website, Ranson writes, where he indulges in his life-long love of word craft. He has a lot to say about how to get published and plans to follow his own advice later this year with the release of his first fantasy novel.