Lisa Jewell’s top tips for new writers

The author of Invisible Girl and The Family Upstairs shares her advice for aspiring writers.

Lisa Jewell's top tips for new writers

Everyone thinks they’ve got a book inside them.

I sat next to a mechanical engineer on a plane last month who was the most boring man I’ve ever met. When he found out I was a writer he said, 'Oh yes – I’ve always wanted to write a book. I’ve had so many interesting experiences travelling the world with my job.’ I’m pretty sure his experiences were actually of no interest to anyone, anywhere, but I’m also absolutely certain that he is never, ever going to sit down and start writing it.

This might sound daft, but starting really is the most important thing. Well – one of the two most important things – finishing is the other. If you can start and finish a book then you’re already a million miles ahead of all those people who talk about wanting to write a book.

One of the points I make later in my tips is that writing a book is not easy. It truly isn’t. I thought it would be when I started writing, I thought it would be a doddle and I was very, very wrong. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to bear this in my mind when you start.

So – if you’re prepared to start and finish a book, even in the knowledge that it’s going to be a total nightmare, read on …

Read a lot

Read stuff that’s similar to what you’d like to write and then read stuff that’s more literary, too. While you’re reading, analyse what it is that you like and don’t like about the book. Work out how the writer moves the story along, gets you into the heads of their characters, describes feelings and places. Don’t let the words wash over you – treat it like studying.

Write about what you know

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Unless you’re very keen on research and are willing to learn other subjects in great depth, stick to your own experiences and feelings – you’ll sound more convincing and sincere.

Have your own voice

Don’t try to be the next Nick Hornby or the new Martin Amis. Just be yourself, and if people like the sound of your voice and what your voice is saying, then they’ll like your book. Agents and publishers are always looking for something ‘different’, a fresh viewpoint and a new voice, not just re-hashed versions of stuff that’s gone before.

Do a creative writing course

You don’t have to do this – most writers don’t. But I did one (one evening a week – three terms – adult ed. college) and it really helped me. It taught me to get into the habit of writing regularly, it gave me the confidence to have other people read what I’d written and accept constructive criticism (very important – criticism is the only way you’ll learn) and it was a good way of discovering whether or not I could actually write well enough to attempt a novel.

Decide on a genre

Do you want to write a thriller? A romance? A drama? With a book like mine, it was more important to concentrate on characters, as they were what led the book. The storyline came from them. However, with a thriller or a drama or a crime novel, you’ll have to do much more forward-planning – map the whole novel out before you start.

Write the ending first

This is what a lot of writers do. I don’t, personally, but it might work for you.

Do a first draft

Again, this isn’t something I do – but most other writers do. It’s like laying down the skeleton and then going back afterwards to put the meat on it. Start with a synopsis and take it from there.

Don’t be afraid to self-edit

My creative writer teacher called it ‘killing your babies’. You might have a cute sentence that you really like, or a character who you’re particularly fond of, but you have to be objective enough to see when something isn’t working and just scrap it. Every time I write a book, I run two documents concurrently – the manuscript and another doc that I call ‘scrap’ and every time I cut something out of the MS I paste it straight into ‘scrap’. ‘Scrap’ invariably ends up being a bigger document than the MS! Just because you’ve written something, it isn’t set in stone. You need to be flexible, even to the extent of cutting out an entire character if necessary. The MS should be a fluid thing, that evolves and changes all the time. Don’t become too attached to things.

Be disciplined

Even if you can only spare a few hours a week, make sure that you sit at your computer for as long as you’ve said you will. You’ll find that you spend a lot of time staring into space, playing computer games, checking your email and making phone calls. But as long as you’re there at your computer, you’ll write when it comes to you.

Keep a notebook

Carry a book around with you, because, without wishing to sound too poncey, inspiration does tend to strike when you’re least expecting it and by the time you get back to your computer, you’ll have forgotten it.

Don’t give up

Writing a book is not easy. It sometimes looks like it is when you’re reading an ‘easy read’ book like mine. It was actually reading High Fidelity that inspired me to write a novel – Nick Hornby made it look like a piece of piss! I soon realised that it’s incredibly hard. It’s frustrating. You can spend a whole day writing and then just delete it all at the end of the day because you know it’s wrong. I deleted 100 pages of my second novel while I was writing it – three months work – that hurt!

You can get stuck for days on end without a clue how to move to the next section – you know what you want to happen next but have no idea how to get there. It’s a bit like being lost on a journey, really. But the thing to remember is that all this is perfectly normal, and even though it feels like you’ll never finish, actually, YOU WILL, and that’s the key. Finishing is the key. That’s what most people who want to write a novel never do. And just the very act of putting the last full stop on the last sentence puts you leagues ahead of everybody else, even if you’re not the greatest writer in the world.

Give it to trusted friends to read

I did this, and it helped no end. Other writers say they’d rather eat their own leg than let someone see a ‘work in progress’. It’s up to you!

Now - presentation

Agents are totally anal about it and most people just don’t bother getting it right. The wrong presentation, basically, puts an agent in a negative frame of mind before they’ve even started reading. Below is the advice that my agent sent me, after I sent her the first three chapters:

Use double spacing on one side of the paper only.

Left hand margin should be one and a half inches, right hand three-quarters of an inch.

Do not justify the right-handed margin, ie. you must have a ragged edge. (Justified margins cause unnatural spaces between words. This is a cause of eye strain).

Use a typeface that most resembles a type-written font ie. Courier. Font should be at least 12pt, if not 13pt.

Indent paragraphs. Do not leave a space between paragraphs unless it is to show a time break.

Punctuation should be within quotes, thus:

'I love you, John,' she said. NOT

'I love you, John', she said.

Always use a comma before a name in dialogue – thus:

'Has the doctor seen her, Fanny?' NOT

'Has the doctor seen her Fanny?'

Learn the difference between ‘its’ (possessive) and ‘it’s’ (it is).

Number each page consecutively, do not start again at each chapter or part. (It is very important to number pages).

Do not put your name, title, lines, etc. on each page, just the page number and the text.

Start each chapter on a new page.

Do not bind your pages, or use staples. Hold together with paper clips or rubber bands, or in a folder.

Once you’ve got your immaculately presented, completed manuscript, go out and buy a book called the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. This is an industry bible and contains comprehensive listings of every agent in the UK and US. Don’t send your work direct to publishers (unless you know someone there) as they don’t even have the time to read them these days.

There is a bit under each agent which tells you what sort of work they handle – be careful to choose only agents who handle the sort of work you’re sending them, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time. Send them the first three chapters and a nice friendly covering letter, telling them a bit about yourself and what inspired you to write. Don’t do a hard sell or try and tell the agent that you’re going to be a bestseller or the next John Grisham. This goes down very badly. If your work is good then they are skilled enough to know this within a few pages. If you’re attractive, it wouldn’t do any harm to send a photo as well. (But just one small one – don’t overdo it!)

The most important thing, however, is to enclose return postage. If you don’t then you’ll never see your work again and you won’t get any feedback.

For a more in-depth view of the publishing world and what you should be aware of before attempting to crack it, I’ve just read the best ever book about writing and being published. It’s written by an ex-editor and now agent and it’s essential reading. The downer is that it’s only available in the US and only in hardback, so it’s a bit pricey, but if you can afford it I really would recommend that you get yourself a copy. It’s called The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice to Writers and it’s published by Riverhead Books (an imprint of Penguin Putnam).

There you go. What are you waiting for? Get writing!

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