Writing Tips: 10 Things Beginner Writers Should Know
Don’t worry – I’m talking about my first novel, not my mental state!
It’s been quite an experience, and I’ve learned a lot of useful stuff along the way.
If you’re just getting started writing your novel, here are my top tips:
1. You can’t practise writing too much.
Becoming a good writer takes an enormous amount of time. I didn’t start to be happy with my own work until I’d written over 325,000 words.
Formal training in writing isn’t necessary, but after writing and reading hundreds of thousands of words, you’ll pick up things. So the best way to get good is simply to write as much as possible.
2. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Use the former often; work on the latter.
My greatest strengths as an author are action scenes and conveying characters’ emotions. My weaknesses are writing good prose and bogging the reader down with unnecessary details. By recognizing this, I know to tailor my stories around action and emotion. I also keep a careful eye out for poor prose and overly lengthy sections of my stories when I’m editing. After writing for a while, take time to do an honest appraisal of your own abilities.
3. Have a general outline, but be prepared to deviate from it.
Writing without a plan can help you develop your writing skills. But when it’s time to pen something you want published, it helps to have some idea of the story you want to tell. I find it’s helpful to break things down chapter by chapter before I start writing. It’s okay to have some blank spots; a couple of chapters where you’re not yet sure what will happen. But you probably need more than just a beginning, middle and end before you start.
Balance realism and keeping readers’ interest. My novel, Paranoia, is about a teenager whose parents are murdered. Obviously this teenager needed to be depressed and a dreary mood was appropriate. But I took it too far in my initial drafts. The atmosphere was so bleak that it made the book depressing to read, and the main character was so whiny and distraught that he was unlikeable.
So always keep in mind that your setting and characters have to hold the reader’s interest. Yes, it may be accurate that a victim of domestic abuse would cry whenever their husband leaves the house. Yes, a man wrongly convicted of a crime may just sink into complete depression in prison. But those don’t exactly make good stories unless you break the mood with other scenes.
4. Do your research!
Nothing screams more of amateurishness, nothing is more annoying than reading a book and finding ‘facts’ that just aren’t true. This doesn’t just apply to how time travel works or complex chemical reactions; research is necessary when you write about anything you don’t know about. For Paranoia, I had to spend hours looking up how police stations are laid out, how exactly revolvers fire, driving distances between locations, how assets are passed down after a parents’ passing, and even how you go about breaking down a door.
5. Know your characters inside and out.
Your stories will simply not work without strong characters. It’s a good idea to write a couple of paragraphs about each of your major characters before starting out. You need to know every one of your characters, no matter how minor.
One of the biggest issues I had when writing early drafts of Paranoia was that I didn’t have a clear understanding of each character’s motivations. Whenever one of them faced an obstacle or argued with another person, I had to make sure that I completely understood what each character was feeling and what they wanted to get out of this situation. If you don’t understand this, then you can’t accomplish anything with your scenes.
Knowing your characters really well helps to create strong scenes. You may have an idea of how you want to start and end a segment of your story, but don’t know how to connect these two points. If you have a solid understanding of your characters, you can simply place them in these situations, then let their reactions organically unfold and lead you through the scene.
6. Get inspired.
Listening to music when writing is a great idea to get the creative juices flowing; check out my post On Auditory Evocation for some ideas for specific songs. Aside from that, there will be times when you’ll question whether you have talent or really want to be a writer. This is when you watch, read, or listen to something that you look up to and want to emulate. Something makes you go, “I want to create something like that!”
This can also hold true if you need a blast of a specific emotion or genre. For an epic action scene, watch an exciting film. If you’re working on a comedy, watch something you find hilarious. If you need to get angry for a big scene… you get the idea.
Fanfiction’s a great place to start, as you can practice some aspects of writing while ignoring others. You won’t need to create original characters or (if set in the same locations as the show/movie/etc.) describe locations. This allows you to focus more on crafting dialogue and creating plots, for example. Writing fanfiction is a great “training ground” for becoming an author. It’s like a video game where you can dial up and down certain aspects of the difficulty. Character creation may be easy, but you can turn foreshadowing up to hard.
7. If you’re stuck, start writing in the middle of a scene.
This is an amazing writing exercise and can sometimes lead to a full-fledged story. Simply start writing in the middle of a crazy and dramatic situation. Maybe it’s a gun battle, maybe two characters just jumped out of a plane, or perhaps there’s a massive argument as someone’s adultery is discovered. It doesn’t matter. Just choose a crazy situation and try to work your way out of it. You’ll quickly learn how to write yourself out of any dilemma and get across situations and characters. You’ll also learn which types of writing you’re drawn to. I’d never written an action story before I decided to start a fic by having a character run from gunfire and dodge sniper rounds. I quickly realized I loved writing action scenes and now include them whenever I can.
8. Act scenes out, especially dialogue.
Reading dialogue aloud is easy and has enormous benefits. You may write a conversation that seems super intense and dramatic, but very often it isn’t how people actually talk. By saying it out loud, you can see if it sounds natural.
Avoid saying names all the time in dialogue. For example, if Jacob is asking Sarah what time it is, authors will often write, “Sarah, what time is it?” to remind readers who’s speaking. This is fine once in a while, but not every few lines; this isn’t how people talk. We rarely say the name of the person we’re speaking to, except to get their attention or to address a particular person in a group.
I act out all the scenes I’ve written down (mostly in the shower!) I’ll read all the lines, make all the movements, and just try to bring my words to life. This especially helps out with action scenes. Maybe while acting out a gun battle that I wrote I’ll instinctively throw my (imaginary) pistol aside and whip a (not really there) shotgun off of my back. I didn’t consider this when writing, but when I was actually in the scene it felt right.
So try it – you may come up with details you never considered while sitting at your desk.
9. Accept criticism.
A successful writer needs to do this. Even the greatest writers’ first drafts need tons of work. You need to be able to hear that your work is not perfect, that often it isn’t even good. If you aren’t willing to accept this and learn not just to tolerate but welcome criticism, you won’t make it as a writer.
Have several people look over your work, especially for important projects. We’re simply not capable of judging our own work objectively; we’ll think some things are awesome that no one else will. Get a wide variety of people, including a male and female perspective. It’s incredibly helpful.
10. Edit and proofread, again and again.
This is the tip no one wants to hear. We all want to believe that our first drafts are perfect, and who has the time to keep going over and over the same project to make it perfect?
But the simple fact is no, your first draft isn’t good enough to publish. You are going to find plenty of room for improvement; there will be spots where characters’ motivations aren’t clear, your setting is wrong, or maybe you just took the whole story in a bad direction.
Always try to improve the quality of your prose. Not every line of your story needs to tickle the tongue and be music to the ears, but you don’t want every line to be basic and ugly either. With everything else equal, the better your prose, the better your novel. Try to make as many of your lines as poetic and creative as possible. Why say, “The rain made Jacob wet,” when you can say, “Every inch of Jacob’s fabric was drenched by the hellish downpour.”
Another thing you can easily fix during editing is repetition. Keep a close eye out for repeating words in back-to-back sentences or even the same sentence. Use synonyms or different phrasing whenever possible. For example, don’t use these two sentences. “Jake marched out the front door into the rain. He swung open his car door and rushed inside to keep dry.” Instead use, “Jake marched out the front door into the rain. He rushed inside his car to keep dry.” Not only did we make it a little shorter, but we got rid of the repeating “door.”
Even more annoying than editing, but just as necessary, is proofreading. You need to do this many times; our brains are just incapable of picking up all our grammar mistakes, spelling errors, and words we plain forget to type.
Be prepared to trim a lot. Much of what you write in a first draft is unnecessary and slows the story down. My first draft of Paranoia was over 86,000 words. The final version is just over 69,000. That means I cut out nearly one-fifth of my book, and this made it better. The numbers will vary individually, but it’s incredibly rare to make a first draft longer. Be ready to slash a ton of pages from your novel.
I hope you found these tips helpful and interesting. Even though it’s a ton of hard work and requires a lot of practice, writing is a blast and I can’t imagine not doing it. Let me know if you have any questions about the subjects I raised and thanks for reading!
Ryan Fortier is a self-published author, aspiring screenwriter and veterinary student. His first novel, Paranoia, is available from Amazon.
This post is based on On Writing Well from Ryan’s blog, Writing Through Vet School – find more tips for writers there.