Great writing tips from author, Sarah Waters – although she talks about the rules of writing novels, most are equally true of poetry.
- Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. Which leads me to . . .
- Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. In fact . . .
- Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.
- Writing fiction is not “self-expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.
- Respect your characters, even the minor ones. In art, as in life, everyone is the hero of their own particular story; it’s worth thinking about what your minor characters’ stories are, even though they intersect only slightly with your protagonist’s. At the same time . . .
- Don’t overcrowd the narrative. Characters should be individualised, but functional – like figures in a painting. Think of Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked, in which a patiently suffering Jesus is closely surrounded by four threatening men. Each of the characters is unique, and yet each represents a type; and collectively they form a narrative that is all the more powerful for being so tightly and so economically constructed. On a similar theme . . .
- Don’t overwrite. Avoid the redundant phrases, the distracting adjectives, the unnecessary adverbs. Beginners, especially, seem to think that writing fiction needs a special kind of flowery prose, completely unlike any sort of language one might encounter in day-to-day life. This is a misapprehension about how the effects of fiction are produced, and can be dispelled by obeying Rule 1. To read some of the work of Colm Tóibín or Cormac McCarthy, for example, is to discover how a deliberately limited vocabulary can produce an astonishing emotional punch.
- Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.
- Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.
- Talent trumps all. If you’re a really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.
Sarah Waters’ writing tips originally appeared in The Guardian (2010), inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing in the New York Times (2001).