The Guardian has been publishing writers’ tips for fiction lately, and most of them are spot on. There’s some great advice there. Being a fan of making lists, here are a few things that I’ve said to people over the years when they have, for some inexplicable reason, solicited my advice.
1 Don’t try and be too clever with words. Keep it simple. Using fancy words that don’t come naturally to you doesn’t make you sound more like a writer; it makes you sound like a pompous arse.
2 Read other writers but don’t imitate them. An aspiring writer said to me once that they’d been ‘studying’ certain writers which made me let out a strange high-pitched strangled noise I’d never made before. Don’t study, just read – there is no template, no alchemy behind writing. Read for pleasure, absorb things: your subconscious will sort out your influences and use them to enhance your writing where necessary. Allow yourself to be influenced, don’t copy. If you force it, you’ll sound false.
3 Never, ever use the word ‘somewhat’ to qualify anything. It’s the last refuge of people trying to sound more intelligent than they actually are. Actually, no, it’s the first. If you ever use the word ‘somewhat’, I promise that I’ll be chasing you through the streets with a blunderbuss emptying volleys of grapeshot into your backside within minutes of finding out.
4 If you feel truly pleased with what you’ve written, worry. There should always be doubts. Big ones. I’ve written nine books, and not one of them have I sent off thinking ‘now that’s a winner’. They’ve all gone off with a feeling of nervous hand-wringing and a sense that I could have done much better. I forget who said it, but “books are never finished, they’re abandoned” is spot on: hang on to it as long as you can, and send it off reluctantly.
5 It’s an obvious one, but write what you believe in and believe in what you write. If you don’t have complete faith in what you’re doing, you won’t sound convincing and your reader won’t be convinced either.
6 Books may have many thousands of words but that doesn’t mean the writing can be flabby or self-indulgent. Stay concise and to the point. The freedom of the wordcount is no excuse for waffling. One example that springs to mind is a travel book I was once given and soon threw aside when the author included a lengthy chunk of text about arriving in a town and driving around trying to find an internet café to check his emails. He couldn’t find one. That was it. There was no wit, no spark, no point. It was irrelevant, dull, self-important and baffling. Treat your book with the same attention to relevance and conciseness as you would an 800 word newspaper piece or you’ll sound like a blowhard.
7 When you write have a select person or people you know whose opinions you respect in mind as your readership. Write for them. And yourself, of course, but if you’re writing for publication it’s important to remember that this is for someone else’s eyes, not just yours.
8 There will be days when you read something you’ve written and you’ll think it’s the worst thing ever committed to paper or computer. Don’t panic, and certainly don’t delete the lot. Go away, read it again the next day, it will probably look better. It’ll need work, but it’ll look better. Your mind can be a right bastard sometimes.
9 Ignore reviews. Seriously. Even good ones. Allow yourself to enjoy the good ones for a moment, just long enough to e-mail them to everyone you know, but then remember how the bad ones are all written by agenda-driven, ill-informed jabbernowls. Have the same opinion of the good ones.
10 Just keep writing as regularly as you can. When I start a new book after even a few weeks’ hiatus it’s astonishing how rusty I’ve become. It takes time to get the rhythm and flow back again. So keep writing and you won’t have that problem.
11 Talking of rhythm, remember how important it is in writing. It’s not just about finding the right words, it’s making them scan like a poem or piece of music. Rhythm is vital. Especially if you’re trying to write stuff that’s funny. People talk about ‘comic timing’ – all that is is rhythm. Wodehouse was a master at it.
12 Read PG Wodehouse.