Five things I wish I’d known before applying for WriteNow

As the deadline approaches for Penguin's writing talent scheme, WriteNow alumni Benjamin Wilson shares some tips to help you over the finish line.

Benjamin Wilson
Benjamin Wilson
Benjamin Wilson. Image copyright Harry Lawlor.

Write Now gave me the confidence and determination to keep writing my novel. Through the scheme I've met incredible writers, given readings at great events, and managed to get representation from a literary agent through The Good Agency. But the thing that changed my life was the encouragement to keep writing and to keep developing as an author.

I've loved seeing the friends I've met in the scheme go on to publishing deals. Every time I hold one of their books in my hand I'm reminded how many of us were sure that we'd never be selected for the final round. Entering my submission was the first step in a process that changed my vague dreams of being a writer into a real, central part of my life. If you're going to submit something, or even if you’re just thinking about it, here are some things I wish I'd known before I'd applied.

Stop waiting for your writing to be good enough

If you're worried your work isn't as good as the novels you read… that's actually a really good sign. The whole purpose of a mentorship scheme is to improve. The editors aren't looking for a finished novel. They are looking for potential.

The journey between a first draft and a finished book is long and weird and surprising. It's not unusual to find out halfway through that you were never writing the book you thought you were. So don't hold back because your work doesn't feel good enough yet. It isn't, but that's the exact reason why you should submit it.

Be delicious

You've only got 1,000 words. So which to pick? You can't tell the whole story, so what are you going to tell?

As far as possible, in life and in writing submissions, the best choice is to be delicious. Find the juicy bit in your story, or the spicy bit, the bit that will make your reader desperate to read more. There's something in your story that's unique and totally tantalising. Find it, get excited about it, and then work on getting your readers excited about it.

You aren't the first writer on earth

We've been doing this language thing for a while now. Long enough for some people to get very good at it. Often, when I'm struggling to make a scene shine, I forget that. I just sit and stew in helplessness.

But there is so much good, insightful guidance about fiction writing. If you can't work out how to make your stories do the things you want them to do, why not check what more experienced writers suggest?

I've recently learned a lot from Donald Maass' The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and I often return to Steven King's On Writing and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones. I'm excited to read Nikesh Shukla's upcoming Your Story Matters when it's released.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. People have been thinking about story making since the beginning of language. There are so many great resources out there, and they will make your job as a writer much, much easier.

Set aside time to do it wrong

Writing time doesn't magically appear, sadly. Usually we've got to shuffle our schedules around to make writing a priority, which is hard when you aren't being paid for it yet. I get it.

But if you can, try and find enough time to write your submission several times over. Play with it. Write it seriously, then bizarrely. Try different settings, different character reactions. Maybe write a version with no dialogue, or a version that's all dialogue. Add a horse. Some of it will work and some of it will absolutely fail.  But eventually you'll have several versions of the first draft that you can pillage for beautiful lines and effective structures. You'll have worked out exactly what's exciting about your scene and you'll have given yourself options about how to communicate it.

Clever is OK, sincere is better

Writing is scary. Sometimes I look at a finished scene and the preemptive embarrassment I feel is so sharp I want to pour petrol on my writing desk. I imagine cool people, much cooler than me, reading it and pointing out all the cliches, all the earnest little failures that reveal my mediocrity. When people talk about the horror of the blank page, I think they are often talking about the fear of embarrassing themselves.

One strategy to protect yourself from this feeling is to write cleverly. We've been flooded by stories like that for a while; meta, sarcastic writing that can't stop winking at the audience. The characters in the first draft of my novel couldn't stop talking about themselves in the third person. I was so worried I'd write a cliche that instead I wrote a 50,000 word apology. It was cerebral. It was obvious I'd read some books. But it was also a tedious slog. I reread that draft now and all I can see is how timid I was. 

It takes courage to be naked on the page. But when I think of the books that have moved me, they've got a type of sincerity. It's good to engage the brain, but it's not a substitute for reaching the gut. If you care deeply about your characters, care deeply about your story, and are brave enough to express that care cleanly on the page — without dressing it in irony, or showy references or, God forbid, pointed self awareness — then your readers will recognise it.

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